The Dry God is Not Going to Help Us

The God of curved space, the dryGod, is not going to help us, but the sonwhose blood spatteredthe hem of his mother’s robe.

"Looking at Stars," Jane Kenyon

The question of God's relationship to evil and suffering is popular again. It has been the main topic of my own research for the better part of the last five years. Along the way I have put more and more of this work into prose, and the following is a brief selection from what has proven, personally, to be the most important academic work I've tackled so far. These are only some introductory, preliminary reflections developed more fully in material that precedes follows this selection, and I hope to include more of this work from time to time. It's tone is unusually casual and light for the kind of content W+S will typically include, but the subject matter is, as they say, anything but.

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I invite us to reflect on Kenyon's words and, instead of deflecting horrors in order ostensibly to defend God, to shudder at horrors together, and then in our shuddering to ask why it is that we tremble. Instead of minimizing the overwhelming and sobering force of the many examples of horrendous evils in the world, I affirm their horror. In fact, I join Bart Ehrman, and all who share his views, in the rage that rises from one’s core when confronted with horrendous evil. But instead of seeing these horrors as too dark for a God of light, I suggest the reverse, that in fact such horrors, when seen for what they are, are far darker and more terrifying than we dare imagine, and that only a God who knows the darkness can help us. Instead of sidestepping them, then, I ask that we keep our place in front of them, that we clench our teeth in the face of them, and that we ask why it is that we shudder, and what that might say about us, and about the horrors themselves. As we do so, I invite us to revisit the Christian conviction that the meaning and resolution of these horrors, indeed of all things, are to be found in their relation to the Jesus of history. I invite us to walk together in the world as we know it, as it is described and interpreted for us in literature, film, music, and in our experiences, but especially as it is described and interpreted in the Bible.

At this point I may already have lost you, or at least nearly, for as soon as I mention the name of Jesus a rush of words and images impose themselves upon the journey I am asking us to take. Let me then help clarify things somewhat. If the Christianity one has in mind is the stuff of plastic smiles and heartwarming platitudes, if the evils it addresses are those of a lost kitten, a broken-down car, a job relocation, then there is indeed no answer for truly horrendous evils. When we think of what’s wrong with the world and these categories come to mind, we are in no position to speak to the terrors of Rwanda. But then I suggest we are not really talking about biblical Christianity in the first place but of popular distortions which confuse the goodness of God with the promise of a comfortable, modern life. Allow me to put it differently. If Noah’s great Flood is the stuff of smiling animals on a day cruise streamed across the baby’s nursery wall rather than the cataclysmic prefiguring of terrible, swallowing, ultimate divine judgment, then it is not only horrendous evil but the Bible too that is foreign to us. If Abraham is a gentle grandfather with a flowing, welcoming beard; if Moses is a rebel with a virtuous zest for relieving slaves from oppression with water tricks; if the fish that swallows Jonah is but the biblical prelude to Monstro the whale who swallows Geppetto in Disney’s Pinocchio; if Jesus himself is a kindhearted do-gooder who longs, with unfortunate frustration, to make us all happy, then Christians are in no better position than anyone else to dare to speak meaningfully of Auschwitz. The dry God is not going to help us.

I know this is a popular Bible and a popular Christianity, and I know it helps a lot of people sleep at night, but you can tell already that this is not the Bible and Christianity I have in view. And perhaps I should say something now, from the very start, about this biblical Christianity which I invite you to know. Unlike rehearsals of the biblical story that are designed to intrigue, to please, or to humor us, I suggest that the closer we get to that Story the more we encounter what horrifies us, and only in that horror do we find what truly delivers us.

In her work on depression and melancholia, Black Sun, French linguist and theorist Julia Kristeva recounts the experience of those who first saw Holbein the Younger’s famous painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. Its disturbing portrait of the Savior left an impression on Dostoyevsky which is mirrored in his novel, The Idiot. Prince Myshkin sees a reproduction of it at Rogozhin’s house and the thought occurs suddenly to him, “At that picture! Why, some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture!” The reason comes a little later from a character named Ippolit. In a description of the painting, Ippolit speaks of the image, a body-length view of the dead Christ seen from the side. He is fresh from the cross, his corpse not yet showing the signs of rigor mortis, his face and limbs showing still, as a result, something of the agony of his last hours. For centuries the crucified Lord had been depicted in ways that romanticized his pain, insisting on preserving, says Ippolit, “a beauty… even in his moments of greatest agony.” But not Holbein, not this painting. Here there is “no trace of beauty.” This man was not spared the worst kinds of pain and suffering. So terrible is the sight of the dead Jesus, so horrifying is the image of his face and hands and feet, that Ippolit must wonder about the faith of his early followers:

But, strange to say, as one looks at the body of this tortured man, one cannot help asking oneself the peculiar, arresting question: if such a corpse (and it must have been just like that) was seen by all His disciples, by His future chief apostles, by the women who followed Him and stood by the cross, by all who believed in Him and worshipped Him, then how could they possibly have believed, confronted with such a sight, that this martyr would rise again? Here one cannot help being struck by the idea that if death is so horrible and if the laws of nature are so powerful, then how can they be overcome? (108-9)

Ippolit’s voiced wonder resonates because he puts on the tongues and in the minds of Christ’s disciples the very words and thoughts we have in the face of horrendous evil. The symbiotic back and forth and back again of our witnessing or experiencing such evil and the insuppressible otherness of it - they give rise to the deepest questions we can’t bear to utter, questions asked more with blank stares and open mouths rather than with words and sentences. And so, as Kristeva observes, the painting invites its viewers into that anguish, not because we feel it so much as because we know it, because we know we belong to the very same world in which those same questions are forced out from within us.

Speaking of Holbein’s lonely Christ, she writes,

Christ’s dereliction is here at its worst: forsaken by the Father he is apart from all of us. Unless Holbein, whose mind, pungent as it was, does not appear to have lead him across the threshold of atheism, wanted to include us, humans, foreigners, spectators that we are, forthrightly in this crucial moment of Christ’s life. With no intermediary, suggestion, or indoctrination, whether pictorial or theological, other than our ability to imagine death, we are led to collapse in the horror of the caesura constituted by death or to dream of an invisible beyond. (113)

In the spirit of Kenyon's poem, it is only such a Jesus as this one, one who disconcerts the comfortable in the horror of his suffering and death that can possibly speak to us.

The effect of Holbein’s painting reminds me of another, similar theme in Chaim Potok’s masterful novel, My Name is Asher Lev.  In Asher Lev, Potok brings a young, precocious artist from humble, traditional Jewish simplicity through a painful process of growth by epiphany and revelation. Like Dickens’ David Copperfield, his is the story of maturity in perceiving the world, an attentive life discontented with the pedantic and mundane. But as the world becomes clearer and clearer to young Asher so does its bitterness.

Near the end of the story, with only the thinnest strands now tying him to the Jewish religious tradition of his youth, he paints the painting of his life, his magum opus. And into that canvas, into the darks and lights and the reds and blacks he pours out a lifetime of suffering given and received. “I painted swiftly in a strange nerveless frenzy of energy,” he says. “For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you. For the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats.” He moves, then, from the terrors of his own life to the transcendent questions they summon from his depths.

For the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For dreams of honor, for nights of waiting, for memories of death, for the love I have for you, for all the things I remember, and for all the things I should remember but have forgotten, for all these I created this painting – an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.

For the Christian who confesses that the Scriptures of Israel bear witness to the Christ of the Gospel, there is irony in Asher Lev’s decision to paint a crucifixion because he thought he could find no such image of anguish in his own tradition. The irony, of course, is that the crucifixion itself is climactic horror precisely because of the meaning it derives from its relationship to so many words and events from that Jewish tradition Lev knew so well.

More to come.