Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Making a "we"?

Another adventurous lecture for "Performing the Problem of Suffering" went well today (I think). Having promised the class that I would make it as engaging and interactive as I could, I've been pulling out a lot of stops. Today had special challenges. One was picking up the thread after a two-week break and maintaining momentum four weeks into the semester; it doesn't help that we had a charismatic guest speaker last week who screened some powerful videos. Another challenge was talking about issues of ideology and privilege -one of the readings I assigned, David Clines' "Why Is There a Book of Job, and What Does It Do To You If You Read it?", alleged that the Book of Job looks to be a work for a wealthy and leisured public that can afford to be left unsatisfied by its conclusion, as well as a work that accepts and even reinforces vast social inequality: it transmutes the issues of wealth, power, and class into issues of human innocence and the divine governance of the universe. (in The Book of Job, ed. W. A. M. Beuken [Leuven UP, 1994], 4, 10) I assigned it because I think it's important, but how to talk about it as a white male professor with job security, and in 2016?

I got through it with what my old friend Hannah calls "fancy footwork."



Introduction: We'll review a little, then get to new stuff, but first...

Prelude: Discussion of a beautiful, heartbreaking piece in the recent Times, "Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me," by a young historian of prosperity religion who has just learned she has stage 4 cancer. Framing it let me talk about the American culture which thinks people's attitude shapes their good or bad fortune, but the main point was this scene:

This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character. […] 
It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason. 
“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said. 
“Pardon?” she said, startled. 
“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has. 
My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

Bowler doesn't mention Job but we're in Job territory here.

Review 1: Called up key slides from the discussion of the problem of suffering two weeks ago, then...

New ideas: ...introduced two new issues "for your toolkits" in a slide designed to look like a continuation of the earlier discussion. The first was Weber's idea that there's not just "theodicy of suffering" but also "theodicy of good fortune," which I traced back to Marx's understanding of religion as "the general theory of this world … its general basis of consolation and justification" - which got us to the advertised theme for the class, ideology. The second issue was distinguishing first-, second- and third-personal claims about suffering and its meaning. And what about the plural: can there be a we including sufferers and witnesses, etc.?

Review 2: Reviewed what Bryan Doerries had told us, reframed as building a we. I talked a little about my experience seeing the two readings of Job his company did on the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, in Red Hook and Long Beach, and the expert way his questions channeled discussion and opened up the possibility of a we.

Activity: At the half-hour mark I figured we needed a change of pace, so I told the class about a very nerdy drinking game I'd learned about: find a set of powerpoint slides you don't know online, and try to give a coherent-sounding talk about them, as someone else advances them; if you can't think of something to say, you have to drink. I didn't have any drink for them, I said, and the slide show in question was one whose story they knew, but I challenged them, in pairs, to keep talking through the 22 slides of the story of Job I'd found on a Christian website (and whose swarthy hero was on my title slide). This turned out to be great fun, a quiz and reward for having actually read the Book of Job last week, and left the room buzzing with happy energy.

Images: What about that sort of tropical looking Job, though? It didn't come from the Tropics but from the UK... what were they up to, beyond representing Job as not one of them (as the protagonist of the biblical book isn't a Hebrew)? Instead of discuss it I offered a whirlwind tour of other artistic representations of Job through the ages, a dozen in all, including a New Yorker cartoon and a drawing by one of my students from last time I taught about Job. It was just enough to pique people's interest, I think, and for me to pose the question: how might the character of Job (protagonist, and Book) be represented in an image?

Short lecture: Then the hard stuff: an introduction to liberation theology (our other reading today was Elsa Tamez' remarkable "Letter to Brother Job"), which let me recapitulate the ideology business, and tell them why we'll be reading Gustavo Gutierrez' On Job. If privileged folks' theology sanctifies the unjust status quo, we need to learn to listen to the Bible as interpreted by the oppressed. Tamez, the Mexican Methodist liberation theologian who edited the Bible of the Oppressed, enjoins Job's prattling friends to learn to listen to the suffering. (In the essay, which we went through in the discussion section after class, Tamez asks Job to be silent, too, so we can hear the silence of God which alone allows us - in protesting and responding to injustice - to become freely and fully human.)

Finale: I pointed out that our other author, Clines, too, was a Christian - his belief that every word is revealed is part of the reason he approaches the text so fearlessly. Then I reminded the class of the place in the assigned essay where he indicates that he was inspired to write the piece because, after years of studying Job, he'd had the text cracked open for him by a student at a black seminary he was lecturing at: Why should I be interested in the story of this rich man? the student had said, He has nothing to do with me. (19) Before that, it hadn't even occurred to Clines that the Book of Job takes wealth (and poverty) for granted. His own best readings seemed ideological.

"I should stop here," I said.

And, to everyone's surprise (since we still had 15 minutes of scheduled class time), I did. I sat down. Stunned silence. Uncomfortable but not entirely unpleasant. Everyone was alert, attentive. Eventually a few students spoke. Had I made a we

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