Good morning! Elihu continues his arguments against Job today in chapters 35-37. His arguments are not significantly new, but intensifications of what Job has already heard from his friends. Elihu cautions against self-righteousness, praises God even when the divine ways are baffling, and declares that God’s mastery of the universe rewards allegiance and awe rather than searching questions.
I trust you can make out for yourself the finer nuances of Elihu’s points in these three chapters, so I want to discuss a related theme, starting today and finishing tomorrow with the last five chapters of Job. One way of thinking about faith that has been exceedingly helpful to me in the five years since I’ve heard comes from the progressive Christian evangelical Brian McLaren. In a lecture on preaching I heard in 2011, McLaren laid out a framework that (if not imposed too rigidly) can help us understand Job and his friends in the Bible, as well as where we encounter such people in our own lives. According to McLaren, there are at least four different stages of belief that people may be in over the course of their lives. The stages do not necessarily progress in a hierarchy of worse to better, but they describe something of a trajectory that people tend to follow. I believe that Job and his friends are in these stages, while God is calling Job to further movement along the trajectory.
McLaren calls the starting point of most faith a “Stage of Simplicity”. This worldview is one of dualisms: either/or, black/white, us/them, right/wrong, all/nothing, for/against. Authority figures are held in very high esteem, because they are the ones who define the terms and declare “in” or “out”. God is the Ultimate Authority Figure or the Ultimate Friend. God likes “us” and calls followers to join in a cosmic battle against “them”, however defined according to culture. We see this in Job and his friends’ language about “the righteous” and “the wicked”, treating people as exclusively in one camp or the other. Job suffers at the hands of those who find themselves in this stage because he dares to question the Ultimate Authority Figure, directly challenging God.
People move to what McLaren calls a “Stage of Complexity” when the categories of “good” and “bad” refuse to remain neat and tidy. When a beloved child turns out to be gay, for example, the world of dualisms is challenged to accept that there may be more than one “right” way to go through life. Those who start to grapple with the complexity of life then go searching for a pragmatic plan of action. There are different ways to live, and authorities take on the role of coaches with plans that lead to success. Job’s friends try to inhabit the role of coach when they tell him to persevere through hardship, that those who are righteous will be vindicated in the end, and that when sin is confessed God will relent from punishment. Even when the friends see that the righteous are not automatically rewarded and the wicked immediately punished, they try to persuade Job that though the path is more circuitous than at first thought, those who “follow the plan” will be rewarded.
Yet Job is no longer at home either in Simplicity or Complexity—he’s fully in the “Stage of Perplexity”. This third stage emerges when we follow all the steps through the swamp of complexity and still lose the job, end in divorce, or lose everything we treasure (in Job’s case). He’s tried to live his “best life now” and did everything right, yet the bottom has dropped out of his life. Perplexity needs people who can acknowledge the breakdown in simpler forms of truth. Unless they are honest about what they don’t know, authorities are controllers trying to impose easy but false answers on the naïve. Job embodies this stage of spirituality throughout the book. His experience of God considers the earlier forms of God as a mythic authority that he’s outgrown. Job, like others in this stage, looks behind the curtain and starts to wonder if God is completely unknowable (at best) or a made up illusion (at worst).
We could discuss much more about the strengths and weaknesses of these stages, but I encourage you to read all about it in McLaren’s book “Naked Spirituality.” For our purposes, we’ve seen the stages of Simplicity, Complexity and Perplexity among Job and his friends. When God finally replies to Job tomorrow, it sounds to me like God urging Job on to a fourth stage: Harmony. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Job 38-42. Thanks for reading!