Character in Crisis

Book Review

Character in Crisis by William Brown

Considering the wisdom literature contained in the Bible, especially the three main books, Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, one may not easily see it in the same context as Brown sees it. But going through his book, one will discover that truly, character is in crisis.

Brown highlights that the body of literature holds a unique if not troubling position within the biblical canon. The wisdom literature can neither be said to belong to narrative nor to law. And in addition, according to Brown, neither Jews nor Christians can feel very much at home with the literature because it lacks a “readily identifiable theological center.” Approaches to the study of biblical wisdom have varied from theocentric to anthropocentric in character. However, whether the focus is creation theology or reflexion of the “human pragmatic quest to secure wholeness and prosperity, both approaches highlight two essential sides of biblical wisdom and from a discursive point they denote complementary frames of reference.

If it is taken into account that the knowledge of God cannot be divorced from human knowledge of the self, then one can say that wisdom begins and ends with the self. For example in the book of Proverbs, knowledge of God and creation is framed in human discourse and observation. It opens with parental discourse on proper conduct and attitude (Prov. 1:8) and ends in paying homage to the “woman of excellence” (Prov. 31:10-31).

Ecclesiastes shows the speaker (Qoheleth) recounting his personal confession of failure experience whereas from Job’s piercing cries of anguish to his final confession before God, one can see the activation of the language of self as a discerning moral agent in the world filled with choices, ambiguity threat and grace.

Before exploring the connection between biblical wisdom and character, Brown tries to asses the meaning of character in literary and moral discourse by analysing descriptive character, prescriptive or moral character, literary and moral character, narrative character and then character and wisdom literature.

Descriptively, Brown says “character refers to a paradigm or distinctive cluster of personal traits, a trait being relatively stable or abiding personal quality.” He says further that a person can be described by his or her character which is reflected in the tendency to act, feel, and think in certain definable ways.

In biblical wisdom, Brown sees both literary and moral character as being tightly interwoven. He gives an example of a flat character by definition that can assume either good or bad virtues. He further says that though biblical wisdom is not narrative by nature, it must be acknowledged that the body of literature is not without its narratival dimensions. He gives the example of the book of Proverbs being more eminently more than a collection of terse proverbs and instructions because it bears the structure of a “meta narrative” that exhibits an overall development that finds resolution only in the book’s final chapter.

FORMATION OF CHARACTER-PROVERBS

The book of Proverbs as clearly indentified by Brown is a book of virtues, primarily written for young people. Whereas the bulk of the book contains proverbs somewhat haphazardly arranged, the first nine chapters contain relatively lengthy organised sections of sustained thoughts or instructions imparted from parent to a youth. On the whole, chapters 1-9 along with chapter 31, provide a unifying focus for the book, a focus established by the voices of various characters and the values they impart.

Proverbs 1:1-7 introduce the purpose of the book as a whole. It is not unusual to see this portion of the book used in sermon to mark the beginning of the Christian school year in Christian Institutions. The passage starts with the introduction of King Solomon’s proverbs and ends with the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of knowledge. What can be more appropriate for beginning a Christian school period?

In analysing this passage, Brown states that effective instruction can best be regarded as a class of instrumental virtues that are essentially pragmatic, fashioned and refined from well tested experience and conduct.

Righteousness and justice which are frequently paired in prophetic and psalmic literature, carry a distinctively moral as well as communal connotation particularly in the context of governance. Equity basically means “straight” or “even” and is closely bound up with justice and judicious speech.

Prudence, Brown says finds its opposite in those vices that are embodied by the “simple”. The prudent person heeds admonition, is cautious and does not believe everything like the simple do. Paired with prudence is “discretion” and they are both synonymous. Like prudence, discretion can also turn sour in certain context by different connotation. Skill can simply be colloquially translated as “learning the rope” or otherwise it can denote the art of solving problems and meeting challenges.

Brown’s analyses of chapters 1-9 gives the cluster of virtues that is found in the father’s instruction. The virtue of wisdom assumes the first position and other intellectual virtues such as knowledge, insight and understanding follow. The instrumental virtue of good sense or resourcefulness that ensure success acts as an effective shield for those who walk with integrity as well as guards the paths of justice. At the centre of all these are the communal values of righteousness, justice and equity.

In chapter 8, wisdom, depicted as a female, turns her discourse from speech to character. She lives with prudence, discovers knowledge and walks along the path of righteousness. The language used actually seems more appropriate to the recipient of wisdom rather than wisdom herself. Wisdom’s very concrete self description does not end with profiling of normative character but she rises to the cosmic realm by placing herself at the very beginning of God’s creative act (vv 22-23). She is created by Yahweh and brought forth from birth before the rest of earthly creation. Though wisdom’s joy is primordial, humans can partake of it. For she says “Happy are those who keep my ways……Happy is the one who listens to me” (8:32b, 34a).

In summary, the list of moral, instrumental and intellectual values contained in the book of Proverbs is meant in essence to address the life of the community as well as the individual reader.  

THE DEFORMATION OF CHARACTER-JOB

A highlight of the book of Job brought to light by William Brown is that “Job’s journey begins in effect where the book of Proverbs ends”. This he explains by saying that the silent son of Proverbs has successfully secured his life within the community as head of successful and secure household (Prov. 31:10-31). Job is described as blameless, upright and one who fears God and avoids evil (Job 1:1). Each of these integrally related traits together form a comprehensive description of Job’s character. Though never really described as a wise man, Job is a success story in the business of wisdom.

According to Yahweh’s assessment of Job, he is singled out for his incomparable status among humans. In response to this assessment, the satan comes up with a test to evaluate Job’s alleged integrity. The satan asks such questions as “does Job fear God for nothing?” Has God not made life easy and pleasant for Job to behave in an ethically credible manner? If the satan is right, then Job’s character is nothing but a sham. These and other questions that could mean deformation of Job’s character are asked and the satan by some of these questions has brought Yahweh into the picture by recognising correctly that Job’s character is necessarily intertwined with Yahweh’s character.

By enduring a progressively worsening series of disasters, perpetrated by the satan with Yahweh’s permission, Job succeeded in “holding fast to his integrity”. Chapter 1, verse 22 says “in all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong doing.” In the prologue between Yahweh and the satan, Yahweh initiates the conversation by boasting of his servant Job and handing him and all he has over to the satan with a proviso that must not be violated. Yahweh accepts the satan’s challenge not out of jealousy but out of the confidence He has in Job.

In the course of his unending suffering, Job’s wife comes up with her proffered solution, that Job should course God and die. Maintaining his integrity, Job rebukes his wife and unconditionally accepts his fate. He would rather course his own life than course God.

Job’s three friends then show up, supposedly to console and comfort him. First being silent with him for many days and then when they spoke, they tried to admonish Job that his predicament was a result of his wrong doing. Job stood his ground defending his integrity in order to convince them of the veracity of his newfound wisdom.

After all his sufferings, advices from his wife and friends, and the epilogue with God, Job, contrary to his expectations is restored. The book of Job is essentially about Job and it is crucial to keep in mind that all other issues commonly associated with the book, including theocricy and nature of God are secondary. Job is a character in transition.

CHARACTER RECONSTRUCTED-ECCLESIASTES

 According to Brown, Ecclesiastes models a different type of character, one that deconstructs the center of traditional wisdom from within rather than from the outside as in the case of Job. The bulk of the book consists of a person who like Job shares his personal discoveries and bares his soul, but without dialogic partners. The teacher (Qoheleth) revels in a confession of failure as he recounts his pursuit to understand the world and himself through wisdom.

The teacher undermines the traditional ethos of wisdom in a number of ways, from exalting the values of youth to depreciating the cosmos. To him, a youth can be wise even of royal material. On the other hand, he effectively undercuts all possible accumulated inherited knowledge and progress by saying that all social and cosmological structures are locked in a static, self-contained movement without direction and progress. Qoheleth gives an impression that the efficacy of the family traditional reputation for guaranteeing security, well being and order, the hallmarks of wisdom is shattered. Concerning wisdom, he sees her as vulnerable (9:12-16), inaccessible (7:23-24), as both a method and a goal and perhaps even as a fickle woman (7:26-29)

Summing up the monotony of this world, Qoheleth says “All is vanity (hebel; 1:26) and “There is nothing new under the sun” (v 9b). Hebel can be further translated to mean the phenomenon of vapour or mist which he often pairs up with “chasing after the wind”.

According to Brown, Qoheleth’s reconstruction of character is achieved by a dynamic movement in perspective similar to that of Job. Job’s character is refashioned by external dramatics of plot, dialogue and divine confrontation while Qoheleth has no God to point out creation’s majestic vitality. Rather, by sheer intellectual force, he steps back and observes life and cosmos in their meaningless self-contained whole and returns in resignation.

In conclusion, Qoheleth like Job places enough weight on his own experience to upset many of the truths’ balance of inherited tradition, but beyond Job, he has turned his own experience into a method that is rooted in his autobiographical style. The book of Ecclesiastes is at the root a confession of disillusionment about life in general and the frustration of work in particular. The three books are held in common by character. From the character of the silent son taking instructions from his elders, to the anomalous character of Job that requires a reconstruction of the traditional norms and finally to Qoheleth’s journeys from self to non-self, a search ostensibly for wisdom that unavoidably leads to the negation of meaningful existence.   

 

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