14 June 2008

Ur-Story (Divertissement)

I want to take a slight, though relevant detour from this Ur-story theme post series. I want to respond to the latest review/essay by James Wood in this week's The New Yorker while it is still current. Beyond silently screaming "How could you?" (review a non-fiction book in the annual "Fiction" issue—ask Michael Orthofer and Levi Asher and Scott Esposito), I felt Wood's essay touched on some issues I've been raising here.

His essay, "Holiday in Hellmouth", ostensibly a review of Barth D. Ehrman's new book, God's Problem, is more of a personal essay, almost a testimony as to how Wood himself came to reject religion because of its inability to deal with the problem of evil ("thinking about theodicy still has the power to change lives. I know this, because it was how I began to separate myself from the somewhat austere Christian environment I grew up in") and a discussion of some of the problems he's having now with the issue ("Why does God not now establish paradise on earth...And what is the purpose of these eighty or so years we spend on earth not having the tears wiped away from our faces?"). It seems that whenever the world needs the intervention of a benevolent deity to alleviate its suffering—tsunami, volcanoes, cyclones, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, concentration camps, genocide, the atrocities of war, etc.—the deity takes a vacation from answering prayers, and that's sufficient reason to disbelieve.
"If he no longer believes, of course, suffering should not be theological 'problem.' But the rebel is stuck, as Dostoyevsky knew well, in an aggrieved nostalgia for belief. For the believer, theodicy is merely 'the problem of evil'; for the rebel, theodicy is also ' the problem of theodicy,' and protest, even rage, is the loudest tone."
Wood claims he reached the same point as that put forth in Ehrman's book when he was a kid totting up the pluses and minuses of belief in a deity and uses Ehrman's review as a platform to assert his own particular opinion.

Before he gets into the substance of the book putatively under review, Wood patronizes the "rough power" of Ehrman's "bawls [of] horror and hatred" and "full-throated anger" as nostalgic and adolescent: "I can hear it like a boy's breaking voice..." Then he chides Ehrman for failing to "connect[] Bibilical passages with the larger philosophical or literary traditions" in a book which bears the subtitle: "How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer." Ehrman did not set out to do Patristics or philosophy or, heaven forfend, literary criticism (practical or otherwise).

About two-thirds of the way through the piece, Wood finally gets down to the business of telling us what Ehrman's book does accomplish: "He separates three large strands in the Biblical writings: the idea that suffering is a punishment for sinful behavior; the idea that suffering is either ultimately redemptive or some kind of test of virtue; and the idea that God will finally vanquish evil and establish his kingdom of peace and harmony." Fair enough, and you can see where our own interpretive post intersects with and diverges from Wood's review (and even Ehrman's view).

Wood spends, by my count, five paragraphs explicating the themes of Ehrman's book (insufficient, after his patronizing introit, to induce me to investigate the book any further), then jumps back to his own point of view on the subject, riffing on some of our old favorites: Marilynne Robinson and Dostoyevksy. When Wood concludes...
"But one could also say, more skeptically, that Christianity needs the concept of Heaven simply to make sense of all the world's suffering—that, theologically speaking, Heaven is 'exactly what will be required.' In the end, Heaven, it seems, is the only tenable response to the problem of evil."
... it seems obvious it is Wood's point of view on display, not Ehrman's. But, what's more, it's not at all clear how this relates to the Ehrman book and his views at all: Is it a summation? A criticism? Relevant?

We've said our peace about heaven and the ascension thereto. And we've shown what, at root, one has to believe if one is to call himself a Christian. Wood seems to agree with us that the problem of free will presupposes an impossible ontological continuity of the individual (and that's one of the many reasons we really enjoy his eloquent, engaging essays and reviews), but our postings are on a silly, little personal blog. Wood thrusts his view in the face of a discrete, scholarly look at the Bible's treatment of a perennial subject, demeaning the reviewee as well as his book because he had different ambitions for his project than Wood would have preferred and because he didn't hold the same views as Wood does now (one must assume because Ehrman's own views aren't sufficiently clarified) and because he failed to address Wood's own personal issues. It's not clear Wood learned anything from Ehrman's book other than perhaps a few grudging, scholarly Biblical factual details (nor is it clear that we could if we read the book), and, plainly, the Biblical point of view doesn't faze him a bit. We eagerly await Wood's Leibnizian tome on the topic.

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