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Book of Job at the Movies – Adam’s Apples

Posted by NT Wrong on October 25, 2008

I recently watched Adam’s Apples (Danish: Adams Aebler) on DVD.

It annoyed and provoked me — and mainly because of its overly tidy and artificially well resolved ending. In fact, I found the tidy resolution even more annoying and provocative than if the ending had been unresolved. But I strongly suspect, without being entirely sure, that this was its intended effect.

The film begins with a neo-Nazi skinhead arriving at the rural church of Pastor Ivan, in order to complete his community service. Pastor Ivan also looks after Saudi Arabian service-station robber Kazim, obese alcoholic sexually deviant former tennis pro Bro, and Steen, a woman pregnant with a deformed child. Pastor Ivan’s methods are highly unconventional. The neo-Nazi skinhead, whose name is Adam, is asked what he would like to do during his stay. Sarcastically, he replies that he would like to bake an apple pie. Unexpectedly for him, this becomes his assigned task and central to the overall plot of the film.

It gradually unfolds that, despite his insanely cheerful and positive demeanor, and almost pathological tendency to only see the good in life, Ivan is afflicted with a great number of tragic and awful maladies and afflictions — including personal illness, the death or incapacity of his most loved ones, being a victim of sexual abuse in his childhood, and even plagues of Hitchcock-like if not biblical proportions. Ivan also receives brutal and violent physical and mental abuse at the hands of (and boots of) Adam, which compounds the problems he is apparently suppressing.

The film proceeds in a deadpan absurdist style which contrasts with Ivan’s apparent insanity and the other characters’ volitility and violence. Yet at the same time, the film poses some very dark and disturbing questions: is it the Devil who is afflicting Ivan or is it God himself? is faith merely wilful blindness and near-psychosis? can people really change? and, most pressingly, is suffering and pain an inevitability which is unable to be overcome in life?

These questions remain uncertain and unanswered for most of the length of the film, before receiving a fairly glib and tidy resolution at the end of the film. This was annoying to me at first reflection, and from a survey of the film’s various reviews, it has been viewed as a weakness of the film. That is, having painted a twisted and desperate picture of life’s vicissitudes, in the end the film glosses over these realistic complexities of life for an easy (and quite unrealistic) resolution.

But the film would be merely annoying and unsatisfying if it weren’t for its subtle intertextuality with the Book of Job. I say ‘subtle’ — but there is the fact that every time the bells are rung at the small county church, the walls shake, Adam’s framed picture of Adolf Hitler falls from the wall, and the bible which Ivan gave to Adam falls off the dresser onto the floor, opening each time at the Book of Job. And then there’s the plot of the film…

But what is perhaps subtle about the intertextual reference is the glib ending. With the Book of Job in mind, the unsatisfyingly resolved ending is not only untrue to life, but it mimics the Book of Job’s own glib and unsatisfying ending. As in Job, this doesn’t allow us to say ‘ah — everything’s alright in the end’. To the contrary, the very glibness causes us to continue to grapple with the questions which have never been properly addressed throughout the story. Like Hitchcock’s Birds, which it references, everything is resolved yet nothing is resolved. The unusual consequence of this intertextual reading — with Job, and with Hitchcock — is that it causes me to focus on the questions rather than on the answers. It is as though the answers are too easily delivered, and therefore must be distrusted.

I admit I first saw this as an unintended consequence. The disjuncture between the unresolvable suffering of life and its unrealistic resolution still caused me to question the unrealistic resolution, but I now wonder whether this effect is intended. In its easy yet unrealistic explanation of life, the film manages to create a deeper and more realistic sense of nihilism than if it had merely delivered an unresolved plot. And even if the director hadn’t intended such an interpretation, reading the film with the Book of Job as intertext makes it something darker than a straightforward narrative of redemption.

But the parallel to the plot ‘resolution’ in the Book of Job is too close to be coincidental. Watching Adam’s Apple as an intertext with the Book of Job makes me conclude that this ‘unintended consequence’ is quite intended. That is, the very unrealistic resolution of the film, with its own Joban theophany and reversal of fortunes, makes it likely that the film’s neat and tidy resolution is an ironic questioning of the unresolved suffering of ‘real’ life. The lack of realism at the end of Adam’s Apples, rather than the mystery and complexity of its middle, is the most potent means by which it conveys the mystery and complexity of evil.

Posted in Films, Writings | Comments Off on Book of Job at the Movies – Adam’s Apples

New Reviews in The Review of Biblical Literature – June 24, 2008

Posted by NT Wrong on June 24, 2008

There’s some interesting reviews in the latest Review of Biblical Literature:

Gregory W. Dawes, Introduction to the Bible, New Collegeville Bible Commentary (2007)

Do you ever get asked, by a general non-specialist reader of the Bible, for an introduction to the Bible that you would recommend to them? Faced with a choice of thrusting a lengthy JJ Collins Intro on them, or the like (which would be too long, and will drown their enthusiasm), or some shorter work (which they will read, but which you cringe about), the question can be a problem. But now Gregory Dawes’ 80-page introduction to the Bible provides a robust and thoroughly readable book that will stimulate beginners while not shirking the deeper issues involved. This book is perfect for its target audience! From the book’s own blurb: “To rescue Bible readers and students from turning their initial enthusiasm into boredom, Gregory Dawes gives us this Introduction to the Bible, the indispensable prologue to the entire series of the New Collegeville Bible Commentary. Dividing the contents into two parts, the author first describes how the Old and New Testaments came to be put together, and then explores how their stories have been interpreted over the centuries.”

Maria Gorea, Job: ses précurseurs et ses épigones ou comment faire du nouveau avec de l’ancien

Gorea explores the complex relationship between other ancient Near Eastern traditions about the just sufferer and the book of Job. Crenshaw likes it very much, considering it does a fine job of setting out the issues, engaging mainly with the primary texts rather than the secondary literature: “For me, this book was a pleasure to read. Every student of the biblical Job should keep it close at hand, for it beautifully traces a compelling philosophical theme through three millennia.”

Cheng, Jack and Marian Feldman, editors, Ancient Near Eastern Art in Context: Studies in Honor of Irene J. Winter by Her Students. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East, 26 (2007)

Contains 21 essays from 20 authors, in honour of Irene Winter.
– Cheng and Feldman provide 3 introductory chapters
– I Ziffer on crowns from Nahal Mishmar
– Ö Harmansah on orthostats in MB, LB, IA
– S Reed on the depiction of enemies in Assyrian art, esp Ashurbanipal’s relief
– A Shaffer on the ideology of Assyrian royal monuments at the periphery
– T Ornan on the increasingly godlike imagery for Sennacherib
– E Denel on how IA Charchemesh reliefs reinforced the status of rulers
– T Tanyeri-Erdemir on the relation between Uraritian temple architecture and royal ideology
– J Aker on hierarchical portrayal of workers in Ashurbanipal’s lion hunt relief
– M Feldman on the Mesopotamian roots of Darius I’s ‘heroizing’ style
– M Atac on Akkadian ‘divine radiance’ (mellamu), with parallels from Greece
– C Suter on how to detect high priestesses in Mesopotamia
– T Sharlach on how to identify an archive of texts as belonging to a woman
– J Assante on Middle Assyrian pornographic depictions of foreigners
– A Cohen on barley in Mesopotamia
– A Winitzer on melilot (Deut 23.26) as “eating one’s fill”, not the usual “grain of wheat”
– J Cheng on objects (vases, etc) which depict themselves
– A Gansell on bridal adornments in ancient Mesopotamia and modern Syria
– B Studevent-Hickman on the 90-degree rotation of the cuneiform script

Maeir considers, all up, their quality is such that they provide a fitting tribute to Winter.

Posted in Archaeology, Books, Justice, The Bible, Writings | Comments Off on New Reviews in The Review of Biblical Literature – June 24, 2008

Žižek, Divine Violence, and The Book of Job

Posted by NT Wrong on June 6, 2008

In Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (London: Profile Books, 2008), Slavoj Žižek’s engages in a series of discussions on violence. Of particular interest is his engagement with the concept of “divine violence” and the book of Job.

Žižek makes a central distinction throughout his book between the highly visible individual instances of “subjective” violence and the symbolic and systemic forms of “objective violence”:

“At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts” (p. 1).

In addition to visible, subjective violence are the other invisible forms that violence takes:

    (2) symbolic violence, the result of the imposition of a universe of meaning by language; and

    (3) systemic violence, “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems” (p. 1).

For Žižek, subjective and objective forms of violence cannot be viewed from the same angle or standpoint, but require a sort of parallax view – a view from two quite incommensurable standpoints. While subjective violence appears as a disruption of the ‘normal’, peaceful state of things, objective violence “is precisely the violence inherent to this ‘normal’ state of things”. But if we fail to take this invisible objective violence of the system into account, we cannot make sense of what otherwise would appear as “irrational” explosions of subjective violence.

Žižek demonstrates that any understanding of subjective violence is inherently political by adducing some horrific examples (that fail to sufficiently horrify, due to one’s political standpoint). As one example, Žižek observes the lack of humanitarian uproar at Time Magazine‘s documentation of the death of 4 million people in the Congo. This contrasts with the considerable humanitarian uproar at the plight of Muslim women. And again:

“The death of a West Bank Palestinian child, not to mention an Israeli or an American, is mediatically worth thousands of times more than the death of a nameless Congolese” (p. 3).

Žižek notes that there is something “inherently mystifying about the confrontation with violence”, the horror of the event overpowering our thinking, making cold analysis of violence somehow complicit in the violence itself – aiding and abetting after the fact. Adorno famously wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. But Žižek would reverse Adorno’s formulation:

“Realistic prose fails, where the poetic evocation of the unbearable atmosphere of a camp succeeds … poetry is always, by definition, ‘about’ something that cannot be addressed directly, only alluded to” (p. 4).

Žižek’s final chapter addresses the subject of “divine violence”. On the one hand, Žižek believes that divine violence reveals the breaking point of objective violence. The phenomenon of “divine justice” consists of “brutal intrusions of justice beyond law” (p. 151). So in Walter Benjamin’s description of Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, while “we perceive a chain of events”, Benjamin observes that the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” For Žižek, divine violence is precisely the wild intervention of this angel to stop the systemic violence which the piling wreckage of the past represents – a wreckage which is invisible to us mortals participating in the midst of the game:

“And what if divine violence is the wild intervention of this angel? Seeing the pile of debris which grows skyward, this wreckage of injustices, from time to time he strikes back to restore the balance, to enact a revenge for the destructive impact of ‘progress’. Couldn’t the entire history of humanity be seen as a growing normalisation of injustice, entailing the nameless and faceless suffering of millions? Somewhere, in the sphere of the ‘divine’, perhaps these injustices are not forgotten. They are accumulated, the wrongs are registered, the tension grows more and more unbearable, till divine violence explodes in a retaliatory destructive rage” (p. 152).

Yet, this sudden reversal of the wreckage is entirely meaningless, ungrounded. It serves no ‘underlying justice’; it restores no hidden equilibrium. All that the occurrence of divine justice signals is the inevitable injustice of a world which is “out of joint” (p. 169). It is merely an outburst, and furthermore “there is no big Other guaranteeing its divine nature”.

The other form of divine violence is divine caprice. This caprice is typified by the God of Job:

“Opposite such a violent enforcement of justice stands the figure of divine violence as unjust, as an explosion of divine caprice whose exemplary case is, of course, that of Job. After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities. When God finally appears, he affirms Job’s position against the theological defenders of the faith” (p. 152).

While God does defend Job against his friends who want to apply their systematic theology to Job, there is a complexity to God’s response which Žižek does not adequately exploit. For while God condemns Job’s friends for their false proclamations about the ‘meaning’ of Job’s suffering (the suffering is meaningless, and so the friends blaspheme God by attributing the divine with meaning-making), God also faults Job for enquiring whether there is any fault in God. The book of Job denies that any mortal has the capacity to engage with God, on his level. The protest tradition elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures is undermined in the book of Job. The book of Job denies the ability of a righteous Abraham or a righteous Moses (Genesis 18, Numbers 14) to bargain with God as would an advocate in the divine court. God has become completely transcendent of humanity in the book of Job. The protest of a righteous man has been reduced to “Why?” and the divine reply has been reduced to “Because!” Anything more which is said by either man or God would deny the utter freedom (arbitrariness) of divine justice that the book of Job wishes to defend. Unlike the God of “divine violence” who puts a stop to the invisible piling wreckage of the system of law, the God of “divine caprice” can point to anything in the world as being in accordance with the purposes of God. The example of God’s capricious purpose in the book of Job is of course a wager that Job will curse him when his family, property and body are destroyed. The caprice lies in God’s use of a particular injustice (against Job, his family) in the service of a universal idea of God’s justice. Such a God can only be the exemplar of the unjust totalitarian system itself, not the irruption of justice into the system of violence.

Žižek’s comments are on the mark concerning Job’s own (despairing, ignorant) poetic speeches, but not concerning the (masterful, all-knowing) poetry of God’s own speeches. Both allude to something that cannot be uttered (Job 9.14-15; 40.4-5), but only God’s speech claims that somewhere, in the divine sphere, meaning can be uttered (by God, and only for God). The speech of God is a false sublime, and faux poetry, wherein God’s theophanic appeal to ‘the indescribable’ employs the universal as an instrument to defend the specific injustice of the event which is represented by the divine wager.

So while Žižek’s comments about resistance to meaning-making are certainly correct in respect of Job’s own speeches, the book of Job also provides the highest defence of meaning-making. While Job himself concludes from all appearances that injustice reigns, the God of Job attempts to defend a justice that goes beyond any appearance humankind can behold. But the reality is in the appearances:

“This resistance to meaning is crucial when we are confronting potential or actual catastrophes, from AIDS and ecological disaster to the Holocaust: they refuse ‘deeper meaning’. This legacy of Job prevents us from taking refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony … Is there a whole which can teleologically justify and thus redeem or sublate an event such as the Holocaust? Christ’s death on the cross surely means one should unreservedly drop the notion of God as a transcendent caretaker who guarantees the happy outcome of our acts, i.e., who enforces historical teleology. Christ’s death on the cross is in itself the death of this protecting God. It is a repetition of Job’s stance: it refuses any ‘deeper meaning’ that might cover up the brutal reality of historical catastrophes” (p. 153).

The meaninglessness can be contrasted with the reaction of right-wing Christians Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the 9/11 bombings. These right-wing Christians viewed the events of 9/11 as a sign that “God had lifted his protection from the United States because of the sinful lives of Americans. They blamed hedonist materialism, liberalism and rampant sexuality, and claimed that America had got what it deserved” (p. 155).

“The fact that the very same condemnation of liberal America voiced by the Muslim Other also came from the heart of l’Amérique profonde should give us pause for reflection” (p. 155).

The Hollywood productions released for the fifth anniversary of 9/11, United 93 and World Trade Center, also attempt the same quest for meaning where there is none. They “want to read the 9/11 catastrophe as a blessing in disguise, as a divine intervention which has served to waken America from its moral slumber and to bring out the best in its people.”

WTC ends with the offscreen words which spell out its message: terrible events, like the destruction of the Twin Towers, bring out the worst AND the best in people – courage, solidarity, sacrifice for the community. People are shown able to do things they never imagined” (p. 155).

The book of Job denies that there can be any umpire between a human and God, any intermediary able to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the human and divine. It denies that there can be any Christ – both man and God. The book of Job is the quintessentially anti-Christian work of the Old Testament. Against the Christian claim, it asserts the transcendent, apophatic reality of God, a God who does not have reasons to act for humankind, who does not oppose chaos, but instead includes the forces of chaos within himself. While the climax to the book of Job insinuates that this transcendence hides some secret purpose-for-humankind as part of creation, does not such a God exclude the possibility of meaning, of some definable ultimate principle of justice?

“When people imagine all kinds of deeper meanings … what really frightens them is that they will lose their transcendent God. This is the God who guarantees the meaning of the universe, the God who is a hidden master pulling all strings” (pp. 156-157).

Žižek, developing a point made by G. K. Chesterton, offers the Incarnation as the death of the concept of a transcendent God who hides cosmic meaning within himself. But the book of Job had already put an end to cosmic meaning, by heightening God’s very transcendence. The God of Job entertains only one horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma, freedom. And so God becomes pure arbitrariness, pure caprice, and so complete and radical absence of meaning and justice.

Posted in Books, Justice, Writings | Comments Off on Žižek, Divine Violence, and The Book of Job

New Reviews in The Review of Biblical Literature – June 5, 2008

Posted by NT Wrong on June 5, 2008

There’s some interesting reviews in the latest Review of Biblical Literature:

Carleen R. Mandolfo, Daughter Zion Talks Back to the Prophets: A Dialogic Theology of the Book of Lamentations (2007)

Uses Buber, Bakhtin, feminist, postcolonial theories to address Lamentations. Who says Theory is dead? The blurb says that the book “offers a new theological reading of the book of Lamentations by putting the female voice of chapters 1–2 into dialogue with the divine voice of prophetic texts in which God represents the people Israel as his wife and indicts them/her for being unfaithful to him. In Lamentations 1–2 we hear the “wife” talk back, and from her words we get an entirely different picture of the conflict showcased through this marriage metaphor.”

Rivka Ulmer and Lieve M. Teugels, editors,
Midrash and Context: Proceedings of the 2004 and 2005 SBL Consultation on Midrash

You get seven papers for your bucks here, by Jason Kalmon, Matthew Kraus, Joshua L. Moss, Annette Yoshika Reed, Elke Tönges, W. David Nelson, Rivka Ulmer. A number of the papers draw comparisons between Rabbinic and Patristic exegesis. There’s one on orality and one on magic.

Klaus-Peter Adam, Saul und David in der judäischen Geschichtsschreibung: Studien zu 1 Samuel 16-2 Samuel 5 (2007)

The author thinks that the traditions in Samuel were not written before the seventh century, and continued to be written and developed until the Hellenistic era. The reviewer, Walter Dietrich, is dismayed at such a verdict. Dietrich thinks it must be some of that postmodernist gobbledegook. According to Dietrich, Adam must have missed “the obvious possibility that the figure of Saul is anchored in the genuine northern Israelite tradition”. Adam shows how events in Samuel were written so as to anticipate the traditions in the book of Kings. It’s all a bit speculative for Dietrich’s taste. Adam’s literary analysis is rather lost on a reviewer who probably would have preferred to see endless divisions of individual verses into speculative stages of redaction and even more speculative historical reconstructions based on those speculative stages of redaction. Adam’s book looks most worthwhile.

Ellens, J. Harold, editor,
The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

J. Harold Ellens and friends (including Jack Miles and Walter Wink) provide a series of pieces dealing with the violence in the Bible and other Abrahamic religions.

Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom Literature: A Theological History (2007)

Leo Perdue presents an overview of the history of wisdom as a theological category by examining texts from the Hebrew Bible.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Books, Historical Books, Historiography, Justice, Prophets, Writings | Comments Off on New Reviews in The Review of Biblical Literature – June 5, 2008

God’s Satanic Sanction of Injustice

Posted by NT Wrong on May 26, 2008

In the book of Job, God teamed up with Satan to deliberately bring evil to Job, his family and possessions.

The partnership worked surprisingly well. One might even say that it was a raging success. The defence of divine justice was taken to a whole new level. Does God do evil? No — we just can’t understand his mysterious ways. The more satanic the actions of God, the greater the mystery of His Transcendence. Brilliant.

And the God-Satan Accord provided a blueprint for God’s future involvement with the world (at least according to the Enochic and Christian accounts). After the success of the wager over Job, God and Satan entered into a long-term partnership. God has never looked back. And Satan’s importance in the cosmos was elevated to such an extent, that it was only right that he be given an upper-case ‘S’. So ‘the satan’ became Satan, Lord of Evil, Prince of Darkness. All this might seem like a slightly difficult move for a non-dualistic God to effect. Yet, despite the risk of some angel or mokiach protesting ‘what a facade!’, God has been inseparably (and somewhat unequally) yoked to Satan from this time forth.

Now, the Divine-Satanic Accord was originally only intended to last for a few generations. But, sure enough, 70 years soon becomes 490 years; a ‘generation’ soon becomes an aeon… I don’t blame God. Being able to blame evil on Satan is a great idea, even if it necessitates that we conveniently ‘forget’ about the obvious weakness (er … the whole shallow facade thing).

But God may have overplayed his hand with the Holocaust.

Yehuda Bauer thinks so:

“For me, the existence of God after the Holocaust is impossible from a moral point of view. It makes belief in God a vast problem, quantitatively and qualitatively. One and a half million children – of the Chosen People – under the age of thirteen were murdered! This is not a question of free choice because the children didn’t have any free choice. It is the Nazis who had the free choice, not the children. So if there is a God that in one way or another controls the destiny of the world – even if that God retires and does not wish to do it, he can and he knows; otherwise he’s not a God. He’s responsible for the murder – no way out. No answer, human or divine, is satisfactory for the murder of one and a half million children – and if there is an answer from high above, then it is the answer of Satan, and rather than believe in Satan, I will not believe.”
Being a Secular/Humanistic Jew in Israel

Rebecca Lesses doesn’t think belief in God is “impossible”, but she agrees that God (if he really was in partnership with Satan over the Holocaust) has become a Satanic God.

“I don’t come to the same conclusion that Bauer does – that it is impossible to believe in God after the Holocaust – but I agree with him that if one believes that God permitted the Holocaust to occur, that one believes in a Satanic God.”
McCain repudiates Hagee – when will Jewish leaders follow?

I think it’s time to call “facade!!” on God.

Posted in Justice, Writings | 17 Comments »

New Reviews in the Review of Biblical Literature – May 21, 2008

Posted by NT Wrong on May 21, 2008

There’s some interesting reviews in the latest Review of Biblical Literature:

John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (2007)

Apparently there’s this guy in England called N. T. Wright who thinks that eveybody has got Paul wrong. For Wright, Paul is better understood as a first-century anti-apartheid demonstrator than as a purveyor of new religious doctrines. He just wanted everybody to get along, black and white, Jew and Gentile. But John Piper disagrees, and spends a whole book preaching the Gospel according to Luther.

Piper’s book is available for free here. So it beats me why you’d want to buy it.

John J. Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (2007)

John J. Collins’ Introduction to the Hebrew Bible is given the Reader’s Digest treatment in this 324-page abridged version. It could be handy for planning a short introductory course to the Hebrew Bible.

Sharon, Diane M. and Kathryn F. Kravitz, editors, Bringing the Hidden to Light: The Process of Interpretation: Studies in Honor of Stephen A. Geller (2007)

Mark Brettler’s piece in this collection looks interesting: ‘The Poet as Historian: The Plague Tradition in Psalm 105’. Apparently Brettler concludes that the poet drew on J and P before their combination. In another piece, F. M. Cross reads Jonah as a parody on religious self-righteousness. And Edward L. Greenstein has a look at the types of knowledge in the book of Job.

Othmar Keel, Die Geschichte Jerusalems und die Entstehung des Monotheismus (2007)

Keel gives an overview of the central elements and processes which shaped biblical monotheism.

Posted in Books, Historiography, Paul, The Bible, Writings, Yahweh | Comments Off on New Reviews in the Review of Biblical Literature – May 21, 2008