Book Note: Bryan Van Norden’s “Taking Back Philosophy”

Bryan Van Norden, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (New York: CUP, 2017) (Amazon; Bookshop)

While this book wasn’t completely what I expected it was excellent nonetheless and I think I prefer what it is in actuality to what I imagined it would be. When I bought it, I was under the impression that the entire book would be a defense of the basic thesis: a thesis Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield put forth first in a May 11th, 2016 entry to “The Stone column of the New York Times blog” titled “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is” (p. xxiii). Van Norden and Garfield argued that philosophy departments should “rename themselves ‘departments of Anglo-European philosophy'” if they weren’t willing to expand their departments to include the study of philosophy from non-“western” perspectives (p. xxiii). As you can imagine, this provocative claim provoked many responses and those responses led to Van Norden writing Taking Back Philosophy.

The first couple chapters of the book are what I expected and I found them entirely convincing. In chapter 1, “A Manifesto for Multicultural Philosophy” he “names names” and “brings the receipts” as the kids say, showing how the assumption that philosophy is only a “western” thing is ethnocentric and structurally racist, even when unintended. He makes the case that if philosophy is to survive and not kill itself off, it needs to adapt to and embrace a diversifying and pluralistic world. But this isn’t just an attempt to be PC or cosmopolitan: it’s because Van Norden is right in that Indian and Chinese thought, to name two branches, are deeply philosophical! For example, I’ve been (slowly) reading Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and as I encounter his monism I keep thinking, “Didn’t India reach these conclusions centuries, millennia prior to Spinoza?!” Now, they framed it differently but that doesn’t make it less philosophical.

Now, I’m prone to agree with Van Norden. As far back as the early 2010’s when I read Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, I’ve been convinced that Jewish and Christian sacred texts can be read as rational, philosophical works just as easily as the Pre-Socratics or Plato. I teach them with an eye to their philosophical claims. For example, in past versions of my class “The Hebrew Scriptures” (when I covered a lot more ground pre-pandemic), I would juxtapose the political philosophy and ethical paradigms of the Book of Daniel over against the Book of Esther. I’m supervising independent research by a student right now who is investigating these matters and soon we’ll discuss topics like trauma in the Book of Lamentations and theodicy in the Book of Job. (For a great discussion on how this can work, listen to Dru Johnson’s interview with Van Norden on Johnson’s podcast.)

Chapter 2, “Traditions in Dialogue” was another chapter I expected. In this part of the book, Van Norden does what I imagined he’d do throughout: he juxtaposes Chinese philosophy (his expertise) with “western” counterparts (e.g. the metaphysics of Descartes and Nāgasena; the political philosophy of Hobbes and Kongzi and Mengzi). Anyone with an open mind should recognize not only that China has had philosophy (unless we assume some oddly misplaced concreteness that claims “philosophy” because of its etymological roots in Greek must be “European” or “western” only) but that Chinese philosophy stands its ground quite well!

Chapter 3, “Trump’s Philosophers” looks at the move by personalities like Donald J. Trump and Xi Jinping to build “walls” (metaphorical and literal) that divide. In a sense, this chapter serves as a mirror for those who want to keep philosophy ethnocentric and “western”. Van Norten doesn’t fall into the trap of denegrating “western” philosophy, culture, and traditions but instead advocates something like a “more is more” approach: let’s celebrate the thought that has come from places like Germany, France, England, and the United States but in doing so let’s not close ourselves off to what we can learn from China, India, Japan or from broader groupings like African and Indigenous forms of philosophy.

In chapter 4, “Welders and Philosophers,” Van Norten challenges people like Marco Rubio who use rhetoric that (being generous here) may intend to dignify the working class (“We need more welders and less philosophers.”) at the expense of the academic “elites” but instead is disparaging toward both the welder who could and should want to read philosophy, the philosophy major who can actually do quite well for themselves with their humanities degree, and all citizens of a democracy who have the right to be informed and develop their thinking as members of society. This chapter defends the value of the humanities and the usefulness of a college education. My only complaint is that while showing how an undergraduate degree can raise someone’s earning power, Van Norten doesn’t deal with higher ed’s cost inflation that essentially saddles college graduates with a “tax” (student loan repayment) for getting that education.

Finally, in chapter 5, “The Way of Confucius and Socrates,” Van Norten reminds us of why philosophy is valuable, for everyone. His definition of philosophy is similar to the one I’ve shared with my students and members of our school’s “Philosophy Club” (p. 151): “philosophy is a dialogue about problems that we agree are important, but don’t agree about the method of solving, where ‘importance’ ultimately gets its sense from the question of the way one should live.” The target isn’t just Rubio or others like Ted Cruz, who while allowing themselves to receive a liberal arts education speak to others as if its a waste of their time, but also to members of the cult of scientism, like Neil deGrasse Tyson or the late Stephen Hawking, who think that philosophy is outdated just because certain branches of the sciences have developed a method that helps them solve or begin to solve important questions. Van Norten reminds readers that prior to a field’s emergence, it must be created by philosophy. Once a field has a generally shared methodology, it “grows up” and can go out on its own as “astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics,” to name a few examples (p. 143). Hawking and deGrasse Tyson wouldn’t have their fields of study if it weren’t for the “natural philosophers” who preceded them!

The broader defense of philosophy wasn’t what I expected when I bought to book but it didn’t detract from the book at all. It made it better. It reminded philosophers that what they’re doing is important but that it philosophy can be improved by expanding the conversation to include the many voices that are often ignored.


Book Note: Slavoj Žižek’s “Heaven In Disorder”

Slavoj Žižek, Heaven in Disorder (New York: OR Books, 2021). (Amazon; OR Books)

I’ve started reading Žižek. But I started at the end with (what I believe is) his most recent book: Heaven in Disorder. According to a friend who is familiar with Žižek, this is one of his most readable and easy-to-understand books, so I think I made a good decision!

Mostly, it’s a collection of very short essays. Often, his essays are blog post size: three-four pages. There are a few longer essays but even those are less than twenty pages long.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is what ties together this collection. Žižek has a lot to say about American presidential politics as well, seeing that several essays reflect on the end of the previous administration and the election of Joe Biden.

As to the name of the book: Žižek talks about how “One of Mao Zedong’s best-known sayings is: ‘There is a great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.'” I don’t know if this refers to the Chinese view of the “mandate of heaven,” but that’s secondary to how Žižek uses it. He comments (p. 1), “Mao speaks about disorder under heaven, wherein ‘heaven’, or the big Other in whatever form—the inexorable logic of historical processes, the laws of social development—still exists and discreetly regulates social chaos. Today we should talk about heaven itself as being in disorder.” For Žižek this means that even the symbolic universes that held countries and cultures together are divided. The turmoil isn’t just “on the ground,” if you will but in the fact that “heaven is divided into two spheres” in a way that is similar to the Cold War, except that there’s one major difference (p. 2). He says, “The divisions of heaven today appear increasingly drawn within each particular country. In the United States, for instance, there is an ideological and political civil war between the alt-Right and the liberal-democratic establishment, while in the United Kingdom there are similarly deep divisions, as were recently expressed in the opposition between Brexiteers and anti-Brexiteers…Spaces for common ground are ever diminishing, mirroring the ongoing enclosure of physical public space, and this is happening at a time when multiple intersecting crises mean that global solidarity and international cooperation are more needed than ever.” (p. 2) In other words, the pandemic demanded global unity but even within nations, there’s no unity: “heaven” is torn in two.

It’s a great collection. It’s thought-provoking as always and easy to read, as my friend noted, and as I’m recognizing as I’ve dived into The Sublime Object of Ideology, which takes a lot more work!

Book Note: Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”

Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower (reprint. 2019; New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993). (Amazon; Bookshop)

[There may be minor spoilers in this post but nothing that’ll give away the essence of the narrative in either The Parable of Sower or The Parable of the Talents.]

As I read Octavia Butler’s prophetic, sci-fi dystopia, The Parable of the Sower, I found myself encountering a variety of emotions. I was unnerved because it seemed like Butler was almost a seer. I was hopeful because even in the midst of desperate situations, her characters show how humanity can survive and find new meaning. I was challenged because the hope she offers isn’t one of divine intervention but instead one where we are our hope, for better or for worse. I was intrigued and provoked because my religious studies-obsessed brain had the opportunity to ponder the emerging religion of the main character: Earthseed.

The narrative of Sower begins in 2024. It centers on a seventeen-year-old named Lauren Oya Olamina who lives with her family in a walled neighborhood compound while the world outside—her world being near Los Angeles, CA—has collapsed. Climate change has brought drought to California that makes it nearly uninhabitable. As we learn in the first part of the sequel, something known as “the Pox” has pushed the United States to the brink of collapse with the various states closing their borders to one another. We even learn that Olamina’s father, a history professor, and Baptist preacher, sometimes teaches using his computer and sometimes has to go to campus—which sounds a lot like Zoom-hybrid teaching to me! This is taking place in the midst of an economy that’s collapsed, in part, into debt-slavery where people are owned by corporations. When you shift over to The Parable of the Talents, written in 1998, there’s a candidate for the presidency who has the slogan “make America great again” and he’s connected to violent Christian Nationalists. It’s a little too close to our actual timeline (though Talents begins in 2032).

In response to the apparent collapse of civilization, Olamina beings to create a new religion called “Earthseed”. It’s as if process theology, Black American Christianity, and Buddhist and Daoist ideas were thrown into a blender and served in the context of environmental collapse and the legitimate question of whether humans need to consider space exploration for a home other than earth. There’s a lot going on there but it’s beautiful and challenging, and thought-provoking.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot, so I’ll end with two comments:

  1. As I learned from the CrashCourse video discussing the book (don’t judge me, CrashCourse is legit!), SciFi can be divided three ways: (A) What-If?; (B) If-Only; (C) If-This-Goes-On. Sower is definitely (C). Sower warns us that if certain elements of our society don’t change, there will be trouble. You can tell Butler lived in California but her foresight is unnerving. I lived in California in the 1990s and 2000s as well and only briefly began to think about climate change after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. (Which one of my more conservative colleagues has cited as evidence that global change isn’t worth the panick, so not sure whether to blame Al Gore or just the role of our current forms of partisianship for creating that talking point!) Of course, to my defense, I was a pre-teen when Sower was published…but still, I don’t remember many adults taking climate change as seriously as Butler did and Butler, while slightly ahead of schedule, seems to have been more in tune with the consequences of climate change than many of her contemporaries realized three decades ago.
  2. I’m obviously very open to synchristic religion. In fact, anyone who claims to be orthodox this or orthodox that will get a skeptical eye from me because I’m sure that any form of religion you practice has been mixed with something that your religious ancestors would have considered necessarily “other” (which is why binaries like “Jewish-Hellenistic” or “Christian-Pagan” seem to be massive oversimplifications in my mind). While I’m not saying that “EarthSeed” should be a real thing —since I’m, in fact, quite skeptical that space exploration won’t be anything other than what we’re seeing now with Bezos, Musk, and other billionaires playing with their space toys while the rest of us have to deal with the real problems and limitations of our planet—I do think that Christianity can borrow from Daoist, Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikhi, et al., thought and it would make Christianity healthier and more adaptable to the world in which we live. So, there may be something to Tamisha A. Tyler’s article “Lauren Oya Olamina: Theologian of Our Time” that’s worth our consideration if we want our religion(s) to evolve in the twenty-first century.

Book Note: Danté Stewart’s “Shoutin’ in the Fire”

Danté Stewart, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle (New York: Convergent, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Danté Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle is a beautiful and troubling book. It’s beautiful because it’s a testimony to Black-strength, Black-resilience, and Black-pride. It’s troubling because I’m a white reader who was confronted with the meaning of whiteness. But the synthesis of this beauty and this trouble is that it’s essential if you want to hear a contemporary voice speak aloud about what it means to be Black and Christian and American (p. 6).

The title comes from the story in the Book of Daniel where the three Hebrews are thrown in the fiery furnace by the order of the King of Babylon. The title is unpacked through chapter-after-chapter of testimony as to how the Black Church is a witness to this spirit—the spirit of fidelity in the midst of a life-and-death trial. This book is written with the recent murders of Black Americans from Treyvon Martin to George Floyd being always present but also with white silence, especially white, Christian American silence, blaring in our ears.

I was raised as a Oneness Pentecostal who left that tradition for the broader, more mainstream white Evangelical Church. Stewart was raised as an Apostolic Pentecostal who left his tradition for the broader, more mainstream white Evangelical Church. Eventually, Stewart leaves white Evangelicalism and in the process is able to rediscover some of the life-giving treasures of his Apostolic Pentecostal roots. I have left Evangelicalism as well but I couldn’t look back to my Oneness Pentecostal roots with the same fondness. It was easy for me to see that the major difference is that Stewart’s Apostolic Pentecostal community was held together by more than its doctrine but also by the shared experience of being Black Americans, a shared experience I didn’t have with my fellow white Oneness Pentecostals. In other words, my white Oneness Pentecostalism didn’t contribute to my struggle for freedom or the for the recognition of my humanity like Stewart’s Apostolic Pentecostalism did for him. As I read, I could see that Stewart had experienced something in his formative years that I couldn’t and that while our Christianities shared creedal similarities, that’s where the parallels mostly end (though running, shouting, tongue-taking, etc., are shared experiences).

White Evangelicalism didn’t try to rip my identity from me. But white Evangelicalism did try to rip Stewart’s identity from him. And his departure from white Evangelicalism was when he realized he had a role to play in the struggle for Black-liberation in this country. That’s when he was empowered to read Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, et al. And that’s when Stewart was given words that informed his voice as a writer. When you read this book, you’ll be glad that Stewart found his way out of white Evangelicalism because we need his voice: it’s prophetic, it’s poetic, it’s powerful.

The two chapters that will live in my brain forever are “Rage.” and “Back Roads.” It’s in “Rage.” that Stewart explains how he recognized the power and life-giving strength of Black-rage against white supremacy and its impact. But this is also the chapter where he talks about his journies in white Evangelicalism, how he wanted to be accepted in those circles, how he found himself being numbed to the Black experience in this country, and how he escaped.

Stewart writes of how he initially responded to a question asked across social media, “What radicalized you?” with the tweet “JESUS & JAMES BALDWIN” but how he then came to realized that as important as Jesus and James Baldwin were to him, “It wasn’t Jesus or James Baldwin who radicalized me. It was white people. Apathetic white people.” (pp. 78-79) Stewart tells stories about how his Evangelical Church tried the whole “racial reconciliation” approach, which for those in the know, is often code in many Evangelical Churches for “Black Christians are welcome to join our white Church and embrace our traditions, music, hermeneutics, etc., as long as you don’t make us feel bad about the state of race relations in this country”. But as Black people were murdered by the police, Stewart realized he was not in a place that seemed to care. Their approach to racial reconciliation was to do a small group study around a book written by John Piper (p. 80). Yes, John Piper.

As I read this, I remembered my time in white Evangelicalism. While my experience was nothing like Stewart’s because I’m white, I can say that his criticism of white Evangelicalism’s approach to racial reconciliation is every bit as problematic as that chapter describes, and their sense that their theology is normalized “theology,” traditional “theology,” even orthodox “theology,” rather than a specifically situated expression of white theology is what makes it all so very troubling.

It was “Back Roads.” that made me stop several times to digest Stewart’s words. I want to share three extended quotes from that chapter, then I’ll shut up, step aside, and encourage you to buy and read this book:

“Any conception of God, Baldwin wrote, must deal honestly with the ways Black people are unloved in American society and in the American church and give us all something that helps us to work for a world in which all bodies experience what God desires.”

Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 111

This reminds me of the words spoken by Irving Greenberg, who wrote in Cloud of Smoke; Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity After the Holocaust (p. 506), that, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” Likewise, no Christian theology can be done in America that isn’t credible in the presence of Black Americans who have seen white American Christians hide behind their theology while continuing their acts of oppression. (As James Cone taught us as Adam Clark recently reminded us.)

“If the white folk I worshipped and went to school with and had dinner with had the imagination to see C.S. Lewis’ Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as Jesus, then I knew there should have been no problem when Black folk said Jesus was Black and Jesus loved Black people and Jesus wanted to see Black people free. Just as they found meaning in the symbol of Aslan’s representation of love, I found meaning in the symbol of Jesus’ solidarity with Blackness. But, sadly, I found out that many could see the symbol of divine goodness and love in an animal before they could ever see the symbol of divine goodness and love in Blackness.

Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 115

These words remind me of the embarrassing and shameful response I heard from many white Americans to the statement, “Black Lives Matter”. Many of the same people who could listen to the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those persecuted,” and recognize that Jesus was being derogatory toward the rest of humanity but instead was highlighting the special value of those often overlooked and trampled on by society, somehow couldn’t stand the idea that Black Americans were saying, like Jesus, “In a country that says we don’t matter, we declare we matter.” Instead, many white Americans just reinforced the point by trying to silence Black voices.

“I saw why they insisted on saying Jesus was Black. Of course they were not talking about his skin color, though he definitely wasn’t white; they were talking about his experience, about his solidarity with the oppressed, about his universal love, about his commitment to God’s just future, about his healing of wounds, and his good news that Black life does not end in this moment but will forever be beautiful, worthy, and loved. They knew Jesus knew what it meant to live in an occupied territory, knew what it meant to be from an oppressed people, and in a place that does not care about your religion—at least not the way they practice it—but does care to remind you of its idea about your place in society. The threat you pose to their lies. They knew Jesus knew what it was like for people who looked like him to care more about being in proximity to power, and he knew that those in power did not care about people that looked like him.”

Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 117

When I first read James Cone critique of whiteness, I was taken back; I was upset. I didn’t get it. I thought he was talking about me, the individual. This meant I needed to hear what he was saying because I was identifying with whiteness—not pigmentation but the cultural perks and privileges that come with being recognized as “white” in America. If I wanted to follow in the ways of Jesus, I’d have to abandon my pride in my privilege, in my whiteness, like the “rich young ruler” was asked to abandon his pride in his privilege, in his wealth. When I read the last quote from Stewart, I was reminded of this ongoing challenge for white Christians like myself that want to do better. We must recognize that if we’re going to learn to be Christians, we must learn from the people with whom Jesus would surround himself, with whom he’d identify, with whom he’d be in solidarity.

Go read Shoutin’ in the Fire.

Book Note: James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (reprt. 2012; Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). (Amazon; Bookshop)

I didn’t intend to finish this book during the weekend when we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Actually, I started reading it a few months ago and I thought I’d finish it during the winter break but as I’m prone to do, I got distracted when a new wave of books arrived in my mailbox. But I made my way back to it and now I’ve read it.

I think one of the things white Americans need to know is this: MLK isn’t the only Black American voice with which we should be familiar. Also, the parts of MLK’s legacy with which most of us are familiar are often sanitized for us. But if we really care to hear the voice of our Black neighbor, we need to read more of King’s corpus, and we need to hear voices other than those of King.

Whenever I read a book by a Black author I’m hesitant to say much because (1) it can come across as virtue signaling and (2) it places me back in the central role as a speaker rather than a listener. So, I’ll say little. Instead, I’ll say: go read this book if you want to hear the thoughts of one of America’s legendary and insightful Black authors. What I will say is more of a sharing; a sharing of a few of the statements that really hit me between the eyes:

  1. In the “Preface to the 1984 Edition,” Baldwin writes of white Americans that when our legends are attacked, “as is happening now—all over the globe which has never been and never will be White—my countrymen become childishly vindictive and unutterably dangerous.” (p. xxii). If we’ve seen anything over the past half-decade, it’s this. Threatened by pluralism, white Americans have become scary. Baldwin reminds us a paragraph later: “The people who think of themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant.”
  2. An important experience I had while reading this book is recognizing how many Black Americans feel white Americans see them but also hearing how many Black Americans feel about white America. (Note: I’m torn between capitalizing “White” since in a sense, to keep it lower-case seems to universalize whiteness when whites are just one demographic among many in the United States while simultaneously sensing that one of the things white supremacy has done to white people is prevent us from actually creating a constructive culture of which we can be proud because much of our identity-making has been a project that attempt to lift ourselves up at the expense of people of color, making me wonder is the lower-case, denoting a lack of unified culture built around any real solidarity, is more appropriate. I don’t know.) Baldwin speaks of himself as a “kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa.” (p. 6 from “Autobiographical Notes”) He comments that much of what is celebrating in this country, “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the strong of Paris, the cathedral at Chartes, and to the Empire State Building” are “not really my creations; they did not contain my history”. (pp. 6-7) Baldwin observes that to be Black in America means that one must “hide from himself as the price of his public progress”. (p. 9) And as he writes in “Many Thousands Gone,” for the Black American, “the past was taken from him whether he would or no,” (p. 30) as he is “adopts the vestures of his adopted land” (p. 30).
  3. People like me need to realize that our whiteness—not pigmentation but the cultural weight of whiteness that we white people have created—can become threatening even if that’s not our intent because so many people who look like us have used their whiteness to dehumanize our Black neighbor. In the essay, “Notes on a Native Son,” Baldwin remembers a time when he basically zoned out when he was refused service by a white female waitress and that this dehumanizing act “made me colder and more murderous than ever” (p. 98) Even as the woman fearfully and hesitantly enforced segregation, her feelings about her participation in this act were secondary to what the act was doing to Baldwin. Baldwin didn’t do anything he ended up regretting but what he felt arise in him scared him. On several other occassions, he comments on these feelings. For example, in “Stranger in the Village,” he says, “…since white men represent in the black man’s world so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naïveté, or else to make it cost him dear.” In the next sentence (p. 170), he states, “The black man insists, by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white mean cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being.”
  4. Baldwin’s comments in his “Autobiographical Notes” (p. 9), “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This was made evident in narrative form in his essays on his time in Paris, where for all the perks of experiencing French culture, he still felt away from home. Many white Americans have the attitude that “if you don’t like it, leave,” which is silly, at best. True love doesn’t mean lying to yourself or cheerleading everything that something or someone you love does. You can love a child or a parent and rebuke them. In fact, you must if you truly love them. We white Americans need to learn that the anger we hear from some Black voices is often more disappointment than anything. Black Americans love this country as much as white Americans do, maybe more when you look at how many white Americans would happily cast aside democracy in order to establish a ethno-state or a theocracy.

I said too much. Read the book.

Book Note: Edward L. Greenstein’s “Job: A New Translation”

Edward L. Greenstein, Job: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

The Book of Job is my favorite book in the Bible, I think. Sometimes it’s the Book of Ecclesiastes. Sometimes, I’m captured by the narratives of the Book of Genesis. Sometimes the Gospels of Mark or Luke are were I’m at. But usually, it’s the Book of Job…unless it’s the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Edward L. Greenstein, a professor emeritus in Bible at Bar-Ilan University, completed a new translation of Job a couple years ago. Finally, I got around to reading it. It’s excellent.

Greenstein has spent a lifetime thinking about the Book of Job—a notoriously difficult book for even experts in ancient Hebrew to translate. His wealth of knowledge with regards to ancient Semitic languages allows him to see Job with new eyes: eyes that noticed loan words from other languages or concepts from Babylonian or Egyptian literature that may make more sense than the received Masoretic Text (or even the ancient versions like the Greek translation of Job). So, what you’re getting isn’t just a fresh translation, like we might receive from Robert Alter, but a fresh translation combined with a lot of textual criticism.

Greenstein’s translation is annotated with footnotes so that the scholar can follow along with his thinking. The rest of us who aren’t in that league can enjoy a fresh interpretation of the text.

The “key” reinterpretation of the Book of Job is found in how Greenstein renders two verses: 42:5-6. So you can get a sense of the difference, here’s the NRSV’s rendering next to Greenstein’s:

NRSV: I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Greenstein: “As a hearing by the ear I have heard you, And now my eye has seen you. That is why I am fed up; I take pity on ‘dust and ashes’.”

As you may have deduced if you’re familiar with Job: this is Job’s response to the deity’s monologue in chapters 38-41. In the NRSV, Job is overcome and admits defeat, even repentance. But according to Greenstein, Job doesn’t accept divine bullying as a legitimate response to his lawsuit against the deity. Instead, he recognizes the deity to be the very tyrant he feared he’d be and dismisses god’s lecture. Obviously, this puts a completely different spin on how we read the book.

Greenstein gives an in-depth explanation for how he got to this translation on p. xix-xxi of the Introduction, so I won’t duplicate that here. If you’re interested, find a copy. But also, if you’re interested in this topic, you may just want to purchase a copy. It’s worth adding to your library!

Book Note: Bruce Chilton’s “The Herods”

Bruce Chilton, The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)

If you’ve ever read Tom Hollands’ histories/historical fiction (e.g. Rubicon; Persian Fire), or Anthony Everitt’s (e.g. Cicero; Augustus), you’ll have a sense of what to expect from Bruce Chilton’s new book The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession. You trust their scholarship, and you know they take their methodologies seriously, but when you read their books they’re more like a novel. I may be forgetting but I can’t remember when Holland or Everitt stop to try and prove their interpretations (it’s been a while since I’ve read those books though, so maybe I’m mistaken). Instead, the reader can search endnotes if they’d like to know how a decision was made to tell the story the way it was told.

So, with this stated upfront, The Herods is a wonderful book. It’s extremely readable. It introduces you to major figures at a pace where you can remember who’s who, which can be notoriously difficult with the family tree of Herod the Great. If you can read this book without obsessing too much over whether he trusts his primary ancient source, Josephus, too much, then it’s worth your time. But be aware that Chilton will get creative in his interpretation, like when he presents Jesus’ “temple-cleansing” as less an individual act (which is how I’ve always read the Gospels) and more a mob act of which Jesus was part, which included several hundred followers, and involved Barabbas:

“Jesus’ incursion into the temple was bold, prophetic, and necessarily violent because the outer court of the temple was vast, amounting to some twenty acres, and clearing it of merchants devoted to trade, their animals, and their associated equipment required several hundred sympathetic, able-bodied, and motivated followers. One of them, Barabbas, even killed someone during the melee (according to Mark 15:7).”

p. 168

I’m not saying that this is an impossible interpretation of the gospels, but it would be a contested one, for sure. And that’s the nature of this type of history. A decision is made to tell the story “as it happened,” even when we’re not sure about this or that, because the genre, and the necessity of readability, demands this sort of oversimplified presentation.

I recommend the book for anyone interested in Second Temple Judaism, Jesus of Nazareth, incipient Christianity, and related subjects.

Book Note: Elie Wiesel’s “The Trial of God”

Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod) (New York: Shocken, 1979). (Amazon; Bookshop)

A few years ago, I watched a television play that had been shown on PBS titled “God on Trial”. It’s based on an experience that Elie Wiesel had in Auschwitz. He writes in his 1979 book The Trial of God, under the header “The Scene,” that the genesis of his book was “a strange trial. Three rabbis—all erudite and pious men—decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. I remember: I was there, and I felt like crying. But there nobody cried.” It was Wiesel’s experience that provided the setting for the PBS special but the book itself isn’t about Auschwitz. Instead, Wiesel sets his play “in a lost village…1649, after a pogrom”.

In the Forward by Robert McAfee Brown (p. vii), he recounts the following about Wiesel’s response to the aforementioned trial in Auschwitz:

“For years Wiesel lived with the tension of dilemma of that memory, pondering how to communicate its despairing solemnity. Nothing ‘worked.’ It did not work as a novel, it did not work as a play, it did not work as a cantana. Each successive manuscript ended up in a desk drawer. (Wiesel admits to having a large desk drawer.) Finally, he took the event out of the present, resitutated it in the past, just after the widespread Chmielnicki pogroms in the years of 1648-1649, and turned it into a Purimschpiel (a play to be enacted on the feast of Purim), although one written in the style of a ‘tragic farce’.”

p. vii

In a sense, this play is about what Wiesel experienced in Auschwitz but it’s communicated through one of the many other horrific experiences of the Jews in Europe. The characters include three traveling minstrels named Mendel, Avremel, and Yankel; an innkeeper named Berish; Berish’s daughter, Hanna; a servant who works at the inn named Maria; an unnamed Russian Orthodox priest; and at the end a strange man named “Sam”.

It’s a play, so I won’t dive into the details. That could ruin the joy of it. I will say it’s an important book to read. (In fact, a student of mine is doing a research class with me, and he’ll be reading this book.) What I will say, is that the setting is brilliant, being connected to the events of Purim when the Jews celebrate the story of the Book of Esther wherein a Jewish queen of Persia (Esther) helped save her people from genocide. The traveling minstrels hoped to put on a performance for pay only to discover that the Jewish community where they found themselves had been decimated. When they should be celebrating the deliverance of the Jews by celebrating Purim, an eery cloud of dispair descends.

As the play progresses over the course of an evening in an inn where the minstrels find themselves, a trial (like the one remembered by Wiesel) takes place in response to the threat of more antisemitic violence that has been rumored to be about to take place that very evening. And here’s what really stood out to me—and here there’ll be a spoiler, so turn back now if you’d like—the problem is that the trial can’t go forward because no one is available to be god’s defense attorney. That is until a man named “Sam” arrives. Sam, like Job’s friends, gives a rich, theologically “sound” defense of god’s justice, placing the blame for violence against the Jews anywhere but on the deity. And here’s the brilliant part (and the spoiler): “Sam” is actually Satan. The best theologian to defend god is Satan himself.

I’ve been re-reading the Book of Job this week, and I think Wiesel’s decision to cast Satan as god’s defender in his play is brilliant. As you’re aware, Job’s friends are rebuked by god at the end, even as their arguments sound a lot like parts of the Jewish Wisdom tradition and Deuteronomist theology in the Tanakh. But theological apologetics, while trying to defend god, can be sinister. For Wiesel, like the author of the Book of Job, the most wicked thing one can do (my apologies to some Calvinists here) is defend divine justice in the face of human suffering. For Wiesel, the one who would master such an approach to addressing human suffering is none other than the devil himself.

Book Note: David Janzen’s “Trauma and the Failure of History”

David Janzen, Trauma and the Failure of History: Kings, Lamentations, and the Destructions of Jerusalem (Semeia 94; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

If much of the Jewish Tanakh/Christian Old Testament can be understood as apologetic for the god of Judah after the events of the Babylonian Exile, then what catches my attention are the voices of dissent. For example, the Book of Proverbs with its emphasis on wisdom can be interpreted rigidly, almost mathematically, to read that those who do well in life must be the ones who lived by the guidance of divine wisdom while those who struggle must be the fools. Then comes along the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes and overthrows that whole ideology by pointing out that it’s too simple/simplistic.

The Deuteronomistic impulse is to justify the divinity while blaming the humans for what happened during the Exile; it’s to warn how the people shouldn’t behave if they want to avoid a repeat. That impulse is found in the Book of Kings where the blame for the Exile sits on the shoulders of the people—and as Janzen observes, specifically the people, not the royalty of the House of David. But the Book of Lamentations, which sometimes tries to fall in line and echo the rationale found in the Kings, but often simply can’t, is evidence of a dissenting voice.

In Trauma and the Failure of History, Janzen presents “history” as a narrative about past events that attempts to explain them and provide a true presentation and interpretation. The Book of Kings is such a work. It narrates past events leading to the Exile as a way of explaining “how did we get here”.

But trauma can’t make simple sense of what’s been experienced. There’s no metanarrative that comforts. Trauma doesn’t explain the past because in a sense the past is present, the effects linger. For Janzen, this is what we find in the Book of Lamentations. This texts fails to explain what happened to Jerusalem because it simply grieves what happened to Jerusalem.

I highly recommend this book, especially for those who are interested in the internal conversation found in the Hebrew Bible around topics related to theodicy. It reminds me a little of a couple other books I’ve mentioned on this blog:

Publication Notice: Visions and Violence in the Pseudepigrapha

While I may have been a third wheel whose most important contribution was being a gofer-editor, I’m happy to announce a volume that Bloomsbury is publishing titled Visions and Violence in the Pseudepigrapha. It was edited by Craig A. Evans, Paul T. Sloan, and yours truly. If it’s any good, they get the credit. I was happy just to be included so that I could learn a bit about editing and the publication process.