This is my Body: Deconstruction, Eucharist, and Community

I’ve been meaning to post this here for some time! This is the revised version of the paper that Keegan Osinski and I presented at AAR last November. The paper explores Derridean ideas at play in the liturgy at St. Lydia’s and at ikonnyc.

Audio from the panel is available at Homebrewed Christianity:

This is my Body: Deconstruction, Eucharist, and Community

Presented by Joel Avery and Keegan Osinski

“Caputo and Derrida in Actual Churches:
Exploring the Influence of (a stream of) Postmodern Thought on Christian Practices”

Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion
Saturday November 23, 2013

The way Derrida speaks of language and text begs to be explored in terms of the sign and symbol of sacrament in liturgy. Though not identifying as a Christian, Derrida plays with ideas of interacting and repeating word and gesture and the temporality and inherent repetition of text that echo profoundly in church sanctuaries as congregations partake in the sacrament of Eucharist. In this paper we will explore Derridean notions of the Eucharist, vis-à-vis John Caputo, and show at length how they are at work at St. Lydia’s, an ELCA-affiliated dinner church, and how they play out differently in the work of ikonNYC. First we will talk about the act of liturgical repetition, followed by the deconstructive notion of Real Presence, then the rupturing power of a ruptured liturgy, and finally the way community can flourish in the challenges of difference.


As Derrida returned to Plato’s writings throughout his life, looking for moments of aporia in each new reading, so too Christians, returning time and again to the Eucharist, open themselves to the possibility of encountering the body of Christ in the presence of the stranger in each gathering. The repetition of liturgy, week in and week out, which may seem like rote and empty ritual, is in fact the mechanism that allows the event to take place. It is the return every morning to find that, yet again, manna has appeared and is ready to be gathered—just enough for each person’s need, leaving open what may become in the future. Manna’s very name is a question—“What is this?”—and cannot be hoarded or contained. It is the daily bread of questions, of uncertainties, of possibilities (Chauvet 1995).

The liturgy is the path we travel together, unsure where it will take us, though it is the same path we have taken for years. Faithfully returning, we take the chance of meeting a stranger on this familiar way—a stranger who could be the Other, the Christ, or even the Self. Stranger still, these three could all be one. Caputo says that “by virtue of repetition, the individual is able to press forward, not toward sheer novelty which is wholly discontinuous with the past but into the being which he himself is. By repetition the individual becomes himself, circling back on the being which he has been all along” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 12). We can take this to mean that by the repetition of Eucharist, the individual becomes him- or herself, a member of the body of Christ—the being which, as a child of God, he or she has been all along, and indeed is still becoming every day and in each gathering. It is the same journey—the same liturgy—that has been engaged by Christians for centuries, and so retains a link to the past while perpetually becoming new into the future.

On the path of liturgy, we face the uncertainty that marks any journey, even familiar ones. And we must be open to possible detours or obstacles we meet along the way, or else never leave home at all. The text of the liturgy, “as a ‘work,’ unfolds before the reader as a possibility” (Chauvet 1995, 68). And it is the repeated return to the possibility of permutation that allows the Eucharist to do its deconstructive work.


St. Lydia’s, a dinner church in Brooklyn, is one place where the possibilities of the path of liturgy are being explored.

Lydians gather to set a table and prepare a meal. Celebration of the Eucharist runs through the entire gathering: the preparation of the food, the breaking of bread to open the meal, the time shared in conversation over dinner, the reading of scripture and the sharing of a sermon, communal responses to the scripture and sermon, offering of prayers, reading of poetry, the sharing of the cup, and the clean-up that closes the time together. All aspects of the gathering are understood as the unfolding of the Eucharist.

The repetition of preparation, celebration, and conclusion (with an invitation to return) occurs in a context that shifts with each gathering. We never know who we will share table with, or where the conversation will go. Although we may know the path, we don’t know who we will encounter there, and how these encounters may alter what we think we know about the path itself. As Caputo observes, “Even to repeat “exactly the same thing” is to repeat it in a new context which gives it new sense” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 142).

In some ways, there is a comfortable predictability to dinner at St. Lydia’s, yet this is a path without guardrails. To share this meal is to become open to the known and unknown Other, the possibility of encountering someone new at the table (or in ourselves), the possibility of encountering something difficult, something that may change what we think we know and who we think we are, to be open to the ever-present possibility of encountering the presence of something real.


When people come to the table, they create space for the possibility of something deeper than historical recollection to occur in this meal.

Liturgy creates a rupture in the everyday where we are faced with the presence of the absence of God and are invited to recognize that we may fill this space as the body of Christ. The trick is to abide in the absence willingly, because the absence is where truth may be found.

Referring to the disciples who greet Jesus as a stranger on the Road to Emmaus and their meal with him in which he is revealed, Louis-Marie Chauvet points out that “their eyes are opened to an emptiness—‘he vanished from their sight’—but an emptiness full of presence” (Chauvet 1995, 170). The moment these disciples truly see and experience that it is Jesus who is present is the moment he vanishes. This negative theophany returns in the eucharistic liturgy, where the presence of Jesus is experienced in the broken bread, in the poured out cup, in the gaps that appear to make space for the possibility of the event.

Chauvet calls the liturgy a “powerful pedagogy where we learn to consent to the presence of the absence of God, who obliges us to give him a body in the world, thereby giving the sacraments their plenitude in the ‘liturgy of neighbor’” (Chauvet 1995, 265). It is in the participation in Eucharist where we may meet the actual, living, risen Christ—in and as the bodies of those gathered with us. In the absence of the presence of a first-century prophet or a transcendent ontological being , there is actually space for God among us, between us, in our bodies, as our bodies, as we partake in the bread that is Christ’s body. Christ’s being is contingent on the communion of his human brothers and sisters, which may bring his true humanity into being.

Christ’s resurrection cannot be separated from the witness of his people, meaning that when Christians gather and receive the elements in the liturgy of the sacrament, they respond to the call of the event of the resurrection of Jesus among them. His body may become alive in their bodies; their bodies becoming as one body—his body. The repeated and shared language of liturgy enacts the somatic efficacy of the elements. “To theologically affirm sacramental grace is to affirm, in faith, that the risen Christ continues to take flesh in the world and in history and that God continues to come into human corporality” (Chauvet 1995, 490).


Early in the service at St. Lydia’s, we light candles and carry them with us as we gather around the tables where we will share a meal that evening. As we stand in a circle, the presider chants the words of institution. At this moment, all attention is focused on the presider, who holds the bread as she reminds us of the one who is absent, the one in whose name we have gathered. Just as at Emmaus, as soon as this name is invoked and this memory evoked, the bread is broken and passed away from the presider to the congregants with the words, “This is my body.” In this manner, the broken bread is circulated from person to person. The focus now is no longer on the presider, or the absence in the middle of the circle in which we stand, but on those who compose the circle and who share the bread.

Each person wears a nametag and so is spoken to by name: “Keegan, this is my body.” Each in turn addresses their neighbor by name as they turn to share the bread. This movement disrupts the notion of the Eucharist as otherworldly and locates it in the reality of the space between two people as they give and receive the bread.  

More than just leaving the door open for the Other to walk through, to call our neighbor by name is to engage them more directly than simply allowing for their presence. Using the person’s name recognizes their substantial, particular materiality, pulling the liturgy out of abstraction and into the particular bodies of the people who enact it, with all their dis/abilities, imperfections, limitations, flaws, and fragmentations.

The conspicuousness of the nametag and the brief pause as one glances at the name written there are reminders that though we call each other by name, we still remain strange to each other in some way. Though this may be a more direct engagement, there is still a significant unknown (and to some degree unknowable) aspect of the neighbor. In these gaps of knowledge between each other (and ourselves) is where there is possibility for surprise.

So even in the Realization of the Presence of the absent Christ in the presence of the neighbor, there yet remains an absence, a “to come,” the nondeconstructable Real Presence that breaks in and breaks down and breaks open anything that would contain the event harbored in the Eucharist.


The most effective way to expose the underlying deconstruction that occurs within the Eucharist—that is, the breaking open of our insular lives in order to receive the trace of Christ’s real presence among us—is to break down the text of the liturgy itself. Challenging and altering norms of the liturgy enables us to dissect and explore the insides of the ritual to see what is real in the sharing of the sacrament. Freedom to manipulate the signs and creatively rethink traditional practices encourages play in the way participants interact with the liturgy. Like a piece of art in a gallery, the Table can be returned to indefinitely, by fresh eyes each time, to be interpreted and experienced anew, and indeed the artist can learn more about her piece from its viewers than perhaps she ever intended.

As Caputo says, “It is not when signs have been put to work that their usefulness is established for Derrida but when they have been put into play” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 138). A fixed mediation (i.e. unmovable orthodox sacrament) hinders the “play” of the sign/symbol, and therefore obscures its meaning and its efficacy. Steven Shakespeare explains that “Derrida seems to embrace the dissolution of all structuralist ambitions toward certainty. Instead, he turns to the ‘play’ of the chance and the inventive, the open-ended and mobile metaphors that frustrate our systematic desires for totalizing knowledge” (Shakespeare 2009, 49-50). When we play with our rituals, we allow the sacraments we experience within them to play as well, and therefore allow their call to be heard.

This opportunity—indeed this necessity—to let go of the certainty of established norms in order to engage with the play of potentialities can be frightening, uncomfortable, or seem downright wrong. Chauvet asks, “Can we consent to leave the solid, reassuring ground of our represented foundation and the stable, fixed point in order to let ourselves go toward this demanding letting-be in which we find ourselves out of our depth?” (Chauvet 1995, 51). And the answer, if we are to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ among us, in us, and as us, must be Yes.


In many ways, St. Lydia’s is all about play. Play is where children learn how to be in the world, and how to explore new worlds. Play is where the impossible, the not yet, and the to-come cast their shadows.

Dinner at St. Lydia’s is a playful encounter between traditions of liturgy and traditions of dinner, with neither tradition escaping unaltered. Inasmuch as liturgy at St. Lydia’s relocates liturgy in a different setting, and makes room for new events within that setting by allowing for surprises in conversation and shared reflections, it disrupts and opens up traditional liturgy while engaging that same tradition. 

The impossible is a boundary. Play teaches us to transgress boundaries. To pretend, to act “as if”. Play brings new possibilities to light, as well as newly possible impossibilities. Play takes the boundary, the impossible, as its toy, pushing it, throwing it, taking it to pieces, building with it, smashing it, setting it on fire. The impossible, like a toy, can’t be taken seriously, can’t be treated as sacred. The impossible, like a toy, opens up when played with. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is only when it is forgotten that it becomes real.

Each encounter with liturgy at St. Lydia’s is an invitation to play. Play with the recipe. Play with the music. Engage in playful conversation. Play with the scripture. Listen to the wordplay in the poetry shared. Pray in response to this play.

The entirety of an evening at St. Lydia’s, from preparing and sharing a meal to helping in clean up, is play. Play at being the kind of people and community we are called to be, called by the insistence of the Eucharist to manifest a Real Presence. Called to bring into existence what the Eucharist insists on. Called to be a community that is already and not yet.


In deconstructing the liturgy of Eucharist to allow it to exercise its own deconstruction, we witness the formation of a community-without-community—a  broken gathering of broken people. Caputo says that “deconstruction is hospitality, which means the welcoming of the other” (Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 1997, 109-110). By breaking open the patterns of the everyday and its ingrained societal hierarchies and barriers, we make space for welcoming the Other, and being welcomed ourselves. In the Eucharist we who are many partake in the becoming of one body, for we share in the one bread, broken—for us and by us—because “only if there is something that ruptures our communion can we really communicate” (Shakespeare 2009, 104).

Rupture permits unity. This unity is not homogenized or unfaceted, but a unity in which the difference of each individual is preserved. The Other remains an Other even as we together become Christ’s one body, because Eucharist as deconstruction is a repeated “Let the Other come!” which constantly reminds us that we are strangers who come together. Rather than a Hegelian unity-in-difference, Eucharist displays what could be called a Derridean difference-in-unity. In the unity of the deconstructed Table that harbors the deconstructing call of the undeconstructable Real Presence, we maintain and celebrate our differences—true hospitality allows for and encourages difference. And this is difficult hospitality, a pushing past the limits of a superficial welcome. It is the madness of the excess of the unrepayable gift, and it is, as Derrida says, the impossible. Hospitality never “exists,” it is always becoming. But we can catch glimpses of it in our becoming the body of Christ at the Table (Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 1997).

Even in the unity of the Church, “disharmonious voices” flourish with the permission of the “violence” of deconstruction. Without deconstruction, as Steven Shakespeare says, “the dream of perfect peace is also a nightmare in which every disharmonious voice is suppressed” (Shakespeare 2009, 92). The disharmony of the community-without-community of the Eucharist is demonstrated at Pentecost, the “anti-Babel,” when each person hears his or her own language—not all the same one (Chauvet 1995, 522). When our differences are deconstructed by the elements at the Table, we can embrace them not as accidents that keep us apart, but as differences that allow us to be gathered together repeatedly into a unified community of differences. A community-without-community. A “we who cannot say we,” but can say “Oui, oui” to the stranger, to the event.


In a city known for its simultaneous embrace of diversity (in the abstract) and indifference to the other (in actuality), St. Lydia’s exists as a place of rupture that permits unity.

Deconstruction is hospitality, and St. Lydia’s is predicated on radical hospitality. Not the “hospitality” of a host welcoming invited guests, but the more difficult hospitality of a genuinely open door and open table. Once we have come together with the stranger, our various backgrounds don’t determine the roles we play. Cooking and cleaning need to be done and all are welcome and needed to get the work done. Or at least one hopes for this kind of hospitality and equality. In practice, our habits of inhospitality and domination are hard to break. This is one more reason we return again and again to this work together.

The reality of difference-in-unity is that different circles may practice the deconstruction of liturgy in different ways. ikonNYC, another group meeting in Brooklyn, offered an approach to breaking the daily pattern of inhospitality that was different than St. Lydia’s. For the past year, ikonNYC met monthly to create a space where certainties were given enough air to breathe (and rust), where beliefs were exposed (and allowed to rot) and where participants were encouraged to set fire to what they held sacred, sifting the ashes together to see what remained, what was lost, and what was transformed.

At ikonNYC, this transformative work was done in a space of identity-suspension. Identity-suspension differs from the work of Eucharist discussed above. In Eucharist, we gather in a space of difference-in-unity. At ikonNYC, we found it necessary to embrace unity-in-difference as a precondition to embracing difference-in-unity. Temporary suspension allowed for radical hospitality: as beliefs and identities were set aside, all who came to ikonNYC found themselves together as “outsiders”, the “trash of the world”, with no “inside” to enter or guard. This was a “we who could not say we.” Suspending the identities that set us apart in difference and embracing unity as the trash of the world allowed us to resume our lives and return to our identities, but holding them loosely, achieving a difference-in-unity enriched by our experience of unity-in-difference.

As with St. Lydia’s, Eucharist was the focus of ikonNYC. And in Eucharist difference-in-unity was celebrated. The real event unfolded after each month’s liturgical event was presented, as people were invited to gather for Eucharist: this was a time for conversation over food and drink, a time to share reactions to and experiences of the liturgy. In this communion, people transitioned from the space of identity-suspension and unity-in-difference, to a space of difference-in-unity. Here, they began to establish the ways in which their experience that night connected with their experience of difference in their lives. In the same way that calling our neighbor by name at St. Lydia’s makes liturgy real, this was the moment when the liturgy was pulled out of abstraction and into the particular bodies of the people who experienced it.


As we return time and again to the Table, repetition of Eucharist brings us back to an ancient and well-worn path, where we may encounter the deconstructing Real Presence in the strangeness of the Other. Eucharist produces a rupture in routine, and provides a space of radical hospitality in which a community of difference-in-unity may begin to emerge. This work is never complete, never arrives at its goal, is always open to what is “to come.” Take and eat.


Caputo, John D., ed. Deconstruction in a Nutshell. New York, New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.

—. Radical Hermeneutics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.

—. What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.

Chauvet, Louis Marie. Symbol and Sacrament. Translated by Madeleine E. Beaumont Patrick Madigan. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1995.

Shakespeare, Steven. Derrida and Theology. London: T&T Clark, 2009.

An Important Failure: Simone Weil, Suffering, and the Obscenity of Explanation


Mark Tansey “Discarding the Frame”

Writing in the New Yorker a couple years ago, Aleksandar Hemon offered a harrowing account of the loss of his nine-month-old daughter, Isabel, to a vicious form of cancer. Hemon describes the  “unimaginable and incomprehensible” place of abandonment that he and his wife found themselves in, alienated from the rest of the world as if they were occupants of an aquarium – visible, yet “living and breathing in entirely different environments” than those around them. Compounding their pain was the “vacuous, hackneyed language,” and “that supreme platitude: God,” which others offered as ways of finding meaning. Hemon and his wife held to each other and rejected these efforts, while unable themselves to “construct a story that would help [them] comprehend what was happening.”

the despicable religious fallacy that suffering is ennobling

At first blush, the hard, almost stoic vision of God and redemptive suffering that Simone Weil offers would seem to be almost obscene in light of the suffering Hemon describes. After all, Hemon explicitly rejects as “despicable religious fallacy” the notion that “suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation.”

My reading of Weil suggests that by rejecting God and all accounts that try and bring meaning to the suffering Hemon endures and bears witness to, Hemon clears out all the imaginary constructions that would fill the void, as Weil calls it. The religious expressions Hemon is offered (including those that come in secular garb), are what Weil calls the “imaginary divinity,” which has been “given to man so that he may strip himself of it like Christ did of his real divinity.” For Weil, Hemon’s rejection of consolation is precisely the act that creates the space for true faith. The atheism he expresses rids his heart of an idolotrous divinty that exists to meet his desires: the survival of his child, or the availability of meaning in the face of her suffering and death.

when Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none

For Weil, “to pray is like a death,” and perhaps the reverse is also true for her: death is like prayer. Hemon puts to death all consolation for his pain. He puts to death that part of his own Self that would seek cure. He doesn’t reject a specific religious account, he rejects all accounts, categorically. In this, Hemon is like the God that Job encounters in the whirlwind. When Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none. God, the One we look to as we seek meaning in the world, refuses to play the role. God refuses to be an idol. Job responds to God’s refusal with silence, much as Hemon and his wife respond to their friends’ claims that “words fail” by keeping secret the fact that words in fact do not fail, that Hemon’s suffering can be described in excruciating detail.

Christ, too, encounters God’s silence, which Weil describes as God’s absence. Yet unlike Job and Hemon, who keep the secret, Christ on the cross cries out, naming God’s absence, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ’s atheism is in an existential register – God has abandoned him to die – and yet Christ addresses this God as God, as if God could hear his cry. Christ prays to God, and for him, as for Weil, “to pray is like a death.”

redemptive suffering produces the absence of God

What, then, of Weil’s notion of redemptive suffering? Is this the blasphemous notion that Hemon is rejecting? For Weil, “Redemptive suffering … produces the absence of God, … [it] is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.” It would seem that Hemon has seen only an abundance of evil, what he calls “a dark universe of pain.” And yet in that pain, he finds himself closer to his wife than he has ever been to anyone, and he is consumed by “Isabel’s present, torturous but still beautiful life.”

Hemon could reject the idea that Isabel’s broken body could sustain a beautiful life. He could allow his sorrow to make him as blind as fear has made his chattering friends. Yet it is perhaps because he has rejected consolation and faced God’s absence that he is able to encounter the life that struggles before him.

Weil claims that “He who has not God within himself cannot feel his absence,” and Hemon seems to feel God’s absence. After Isabel dies, Hemon feels her absence. For Weil, “the presence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforward it is his way of appearing.” For Hemon, “her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”

in that ventrical wilderness, he loves

Hemon’s rejection of comprehension leaves his heart stripped bare, and in that ventrical wilderness, he loves. He loves his wife, he loves his daughters, he loves those who fail in their efforts to comfort him. Hemon’s willingness to confront catastrophe is the same strength that allows him to affirm his three-year-old’s blossoming life.

It is not clear whether Hemon rejects every explanation because each fails in the face of reality, or if he rejects comprehension as such. To bear witness to suffering may entail rejecting adequate explanations, as they diminish the suffering. It is important, then to note the failures of our gods, but perhaps it is more important that our gods fail.

The Broken God

This is the first sermon I’ve shared at St Lydia’s.
It is based on Psalm 22 and Matthew 27.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t know of a Psalm with a more striking opener.

If that’s where we’re starting,
where do we go from here?
Where is there to go?

Well, the Psalmist turns directly to the past:

“Our ancestors put their trust in you, they trusted, and you rescued them.”

The Psalmist turns to look at God at work
with other people at another time.

When he turns back to the present in verse 6,
he doesn’t see people being saved by God,
he sees himself and those who scorn him,
mocking him and telling him to

“Trust in the LORD
let the LORD deliver;
let God rescue him
if God so delights in him”

Next, the Psalmist recalls when God was present to him,
in the past, at his birth, and in his youth.

But now?

Now he is surrounded,
“poured out like water”,
and says that
God “has laid him in the dust of death.”

He pleads for God to deliver him, to save and rescue him,
but God is nowhere to be found.

After visiting the past,
and pleading with God to save him in the present,
the Psalmist looks to the future:

“I will declare your name to my people,
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you”

Is he bargaining?

Is he telling God that he will praise God if God will save him?
If God will show his might and rescue him?

Or is he more noble than that?

Perhaps he is proclaiming that he will praise God,
because he “trusts in the LORD, who will deliver”

But these are the words of those who scorn him!

He seems to be adopting their logic.

So, what is going on here?

My relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

The first lines of this Psalm are Christ’s
last words in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

I think this is amazing, really.
Jesus quotes poetry on the cross.
And the line he chooses
is the darkest line of the Psalm.

He doesn’t soften the blow the way the Psalmist seems to,
the Psalmist who looks desperately to the past and to the future,
apparently unable to face the absence of God in the present.

But I should be careful here.

The experience the Psalmist and Christ are describing is subtle.
They aren’t actually talking about the the absence of the experience of God,
they are talking about the experience of the absence of God.

What’s the difference?

If they had no experience of God, they would be talking about the absence of the experience of God.
No God, no experience.

But they are talking to God about God’s absence!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This names an experience of the absence of God,
which entails a sense of loss
and is experienced as abandonment.

We can’t be abandoned by someone that was never with us.

So on one level, Jesus is addressing God,
by talking about God’s absence.
That’s a rich paradox, and I want to come back to that in a minute.

But first I want to look at the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus quotes Psalm 22 because for me,
my relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

In Matthew and Mark, the Gospel writers describe the scene of Christ crucified.
Like the Psalmist, Christ is subject to scorn.
Some standing near the cross say

“He saved others
(the past)
He cannot save himself
(the present)”

“Let Him come down, and we will believe in Him”

Sound familiar?

To my ear, this sounds both
like those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself!

Those who mock Christ,
those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself
all seem committed to what St Paul calls “signs and wonders”.

They want to see God act in might and in power,
otherwise, they either end up mocking or losing heart.

So what does Christ on the cross do?

He hears this mocking challenge,
he cries out again,
and he dies.

But then the Gospel writers bring in a new voice.
Standing at the foot of the cross is a centurion,
a Roman guard, who, after Christ dies,
exclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God”

This may be an even more disturbing line than

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Truly THIS was the Son of God”???

At least in the Psalmist’s cry we have a notion of a powerful yet absent God.
The centurion, by contrast, claims to see God present –
in a weak, suffering, and dying human.

As I’ve been wrestling with these texts,
I’ve been reminded of GK Chesterton’s observation that,
“God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

I am drawn to Psalm 22 and the account of the crucifixion, because I identify with Christ’s cry of abandonment by God.

I guess you could say I’ve pretty much become an atheist at this point, too.

I don’t see the God of Power the Psalmist seems to long for,
and which the onlookers at the cross pledge to believe in
if that God shows up,
and shows off.

As a friend of mine likes to say,
I’m at least a functional atheist when it comes to that God.

As far as my experience goes,
it doesn’t seem like that God exists.

But I hear something that I recognize in the centurion’s cry.

After he watches Jesus suffer,
cry out to the God who has forsaken him,
and die,
it is THEN that the centurion says,

“Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

It is not after the Resurrection,
it’s not after a show of power,
it’s not after Jesus climbs down from the cross
and kicks ass for the Lord.

No, the centurion sees God in this crushed, broken, and suffering human,
in weakness and in doubt, in death and in defeat.

Is God there?

Does God exist?

To ex-ist means to stand out.

This doesn’t seem to me to be a God that ex-ists,
who stands out,
who makes a big show,
who has a mighty presence.

What the centurion sees
seems to be a God
who in-sists,
who per-sists,
who re-sists.

A God who in-sists
on living and dying with the suffering,
who per-sists
despite being crushed,
and who re-sists
calls for shows of brutal power.

This sounds like a God who, to quote the Psalmist,

“does not despise nor abhor
the poor in their poverty,
neither is the LORD’s face
hidden from them;
but when they cry out,
the LORD hears them.”

This seems to be a God who is with those who cry out to God,
a God who takes up their cry,
takes on their suffering,
even their suffering of separation from God.

A God who loses God.

If we are looking for a God of might and power,
we may not find that God to be present,
but if we look to those who suffer,
and hear their insistent,
persistent cries of
we may hear, too,
God’s voice
mingled with theirs.

In my life, I don’t see God, I don’t feel God.
As far as I can tell,
the God of power, signs and wonders
has forsaken us.

What I do see is the the body of Christ.

I see love amidst brokenness, suffering, and despair,
as we share the cup and the bread of our lives.

The Psalmist says

“I will declare your name to my people;
in the midst of the assembly
I will praise you.”

What I can say is

I declare this name, Christ, to you, my friends,
the body of Christ.
And I praise this broken God.


(The) Blaspheming God: 
Deconstructing the Shibboleths of Belief, a Radical Theology Exegesis of Job 42:1-6

Mark Tansey, Doubting Thomas, 1985

Mark Tansey, Doubting Thomas, 1985

Then Job answered the Lord: 

‘I know that you can do all things,

   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 

“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 

“Hear, and I will speak;

   I will question you, and you declare to me.” 

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.’ (Job 42:1-6)

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.’ (Job 2:3)


The Book of Job is composed of a wisdom dialogue bracketed by a folk tale that introduces and concludes the book. The folk tale tells of a wager between Satan and God: is Job only righteous because he has received God’s blessing? God allows Satan to kill Job’s children and take his possessions, and destroy his health, barring Satan only from taking Job’s life. The wisdom dialogue then breaks in and relates the conversation Job has with his three friends. After they argue for a few rounds, God breaks into the argument and calls Job into direct dialogue. Job’s final response to God is quoted above. The dialogues end after Job’s dialogue with God, and the folk tale returns to conclude the story, affirming Job’s righteousness, condemning his friends, and restoring to Job health, wealth, and family.

The Book of Job is full of theological problems, which has contributed to its lasting appeal. In this exegesis I focus on the question of “the last word”: what are we to make of this story, what are we to make of God’s declarations from the whirlwind, and what are we to make of Job’s final response in Job 42:1-6? Who has the last word, and what is the last word? To work through this, I first look at how others have tried to make sense of this passage. I then follow Carol Newsom in using the Bakhtinian notions of monologic and dialogic to critique these attempts, and finally offer my own “last word”, requiring a return to a “first word”, found in Job 2:3.

Pious Lies?

With others, John Collins has argued that the central question in Job is that of “why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper”. For Collins, and many others, the main concern is that of justice – God’s justice. Job’s complaints are clearly understood as protests of innocence of wrongdoing, an innocence to which both the narrator (2) and God (3) attest. The main concern in this framework is how to make sense of Job’s suffering in light of God’s justice.

“[Job’s] honesty, however, is not tantamount to wisdom. He has to live with the fact that the universe does not revolve around humanity, let alone around Job. The justice of God, if that be the proper term, cannot be measured by human standards.” (1)

While Collins does not offer a thorough account of how Job’s suffering comports with God’s justice apart from indicating that God’s justice is not focussed on human suffering, Kathryn Schifferdecker lays out an argument based on her understanding of creation in Out of the Whirlwind. She claims that,

“Job’s own world has descended into turmoil or chaos, and he attempts to inflict that chaos on creation itself; first by cursing creation, then by ascribing chaotic tendencies to God. Job’s challenge to God’s order cannot go unanswered. In the divine speeches, the creation is, as it were, re-created. More accurately, God reaffirms the order already established in creation from the beginning, an order Job had tried to negate.” (4)

Schifferdecker frames the question of justice in terms of chaos and order, and insists that despite Job’s experience of chaos, the universe remains a place of order, and that this is the point YHWH  makes in the rebuttal from the whirlwind. The “last word” for Schifferdecker is that the cosmos is not ultimately chaotic, despite her acknowledgment of Job’s personal experience of chaos. So although Job’s world has fallen apart, he should not be misled into believing that the world does not hold together, that God’s creation is not whole.

The notion that an overall order is maintained is challenged by God’s statement in Job 2:3, an admission that God has brought suffering on Job “for no reason.”  Yet Job is not initially aware that his suffering is “for no reason” – thus his insistence that his suffering be explained. Yet right at the beginning of the story, God lets the cat out of the bag, and the reader knows that what Job seeks is not to be found. What are we to make of this disturbing knowledge? Adele Berlin addresses this concern:

“The reader is given knowledge which [Job] does not have – the knowledge that God is testing [him]. Obviously, it would not be a valid test if Job knew about it. The question is: why is the reader told from the outset. The answer is that this allows him [sic] to perceive the events differently from the way that Job does. For Job, the question is: what does God want of me and why is he doing this to me? For the reader, the question is: will Job pass the test? Our knowledge that it is a test lets us accept actions on the part of God that are contrary to our picture of him [sic]. Without this knowledge we would be puzzled and/ or incensed, much as Job is; with this knowledge we accept God’s actions, knowing that he [sic] does not really intend for them to be carried out.” (5)

For Berlin, being “let in” on God’s dirty little secret is what allows us to accept God’s abuse of Job. The knowledge that God is testing Job allows us to accept the injustice of Job’s suffering. There is a reason, after all: to prove that Job will be righteous “for no reason,” he has to suffer “for no reason.”  As James Crenshaw notes:
“God reminded the Adversary that Job has held securely to his integrity, “although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” This allusion to the absence of any reason for destroying Job’s “hedge” recalls the Adversary’s initial question, “Does Job fear God for nought [that is, without cause]?” and amounts to a triumphant shout.” (6)

Apparently, if we follow Berlin, the knowledge of what God is up to allows us to set aside our obvious concerns about God’s allowance of Job’s unmerited suffering. I cannot make sense of Berlin’s claim that God “does not really intend for them to be carried out.” In the narrative, Job’s suffering is linked directly to God’s releasing Satan to do his worst. God does intend Job’s suffering, quite explicitly. Being let in on the secret does not relieve us of the problems this presents.

Throughout his encounter with his friends, Job has pleaded his innocence. When God responds as the voice in the whirlwind, no mention is made of Job’s actions: he is neither condemned nor vindicated. Instead, Job is confronted with the “seemingly magnificent irrelevance of much of the content of the divine speeches,” (7) as God demonstrates his might and challenges Job to respond in kind (although God does not respond to Job in kind).

And yet, after this massive display that consistently ignores Job’s pleas, Job responds in 42:1-6  with claims of ignorance and acts of repentance. Crenshaw asks,
“Earlier, he had spoken things which he did not fully understand, for which Job despises himself and repents in dust and ashes. No reading of this final speech by Job removes the perplexing features nor explains why he feels obliged to repent over incomplete knowledge. Where has Job’s integrity gone?” (8)

Also complicating our understanding of the close of the story is the restoration of Job’s health, wealth, and family following this act of repentance. As Martin Pope notes, “the Epilogue upholds the discredited doctrine of exact retribution.”(9)

These “explanations” seem wanting: framing the concerns of Job in terms of justice has led to Schifferdecker’s claim that there is (non-obvious) order despite (obvious) chaos, and that our concern should be with the former rather than the latter. Whereas Schifferdecker seems to ignore the plain claim that God has acted without reason, Berlin takes this acknowledgement as reassuring, yet she does not make clear how our knowledge of God’s secret sheds light on Job’s actual suffering in ignorance. And Crenshaw seems to join the friends in turning on Job and accusing him of abandoning his integrity!

What are we to make of these approaches? The key, I believe, is to turn to Collins’ other insight:  “[Job’s] near-blasphemous candor is preferred to the piety of those who would lie for God.”(10)  And yet even near-blasphemy may not be nearly enough.

Job the Blasphemer?

Job is affirmed time and again as a righteous man who tells the truth. Throughout his dialogue with his friends, he expresses his outrage at his unmerited suffering. He bears no false witness against God – God has indeed allowed Job’s suffering to happen apart from any act of Job’s. In fact, it is precisely Job’s righteousness that has made him a target – in a sense, it is his righteousness that has caused his suffering. He has earned his punishment by living a righteous life.

It is Job’s righteous, honest protest that moves God to speak. As Catherine Keller writes,

“It is to Job’s angry uncertainty rather than to the pious shibboleths of his counselors, that YHWH responds. For all his wounded rage, Job is honored with the single largest divine speech in the Bible. … The drama of Job stages a shocking theological honesty: here is a truthfulness deconstructing the shibboleths of belief.” (11)

Job has held steadfast to his search for the truth, whereas his friends have lied, as Collins observes, to protect their (beliefs about) God. This is crucial: God responds not to Job’s questions themselves, but to Job’s honesty, to his willingness to interrogate his (beliefs about) God.

In responding from the whirlwind, God reveals that although he is pursuing the truth, Job has accepted a framework that is at odds with the truth. Job has been right to ask questions, but he has been demanding answers of the wrong person.

“The whirling wisdom takes no responsibility for the ills that befell Job. … Job presumes belief in a heavenly Sovereignty using the catastrophes of history and nature to punish the wicked. The divine mystery revealed in the whirlwind, in other words, seems to have nothing to do with [Job’s] anthropomorphic and anthropocentric projections. … [T]he divine voice claims responsibility for the broad sweep of the universe … but not for any specific events in the lives of people.” (12)

Job and his friends share the same theological framework: this frame remains unquestioned by Job.  God’s disruptive/disjunctive response rejects this framework. Seeking a “God’s-eye” perspective will not do. If Job is to grow in wisdom, it will not come in the form of divine revelation.

To understand the shift in framework, it is helpful to employ Bakhtin’s notions of monologic and dialogic, which Carol Newsom has applied to the Joban narrative. (13)

Monologic approaches truth as a unified system, and treats an author as the “ultimate voice” who determines the “message” of a story. (14) Monologic takes the form of propositional truth. Monologic assumes that truth is straight-forward and can be mastered/understood by the individual in a finalized form.

In contrast, dialogic truth emerges “at the point of intersection of several unmerged voices”, in conversation – a conversation that can’t be “summed up” into a monologue. Dialogic truth is embodied, personal, and “persons, not propositions, are the participants”. Dialogic truth has unity, but it is the “unity not of a system but of an event”: it is unfinalizable. “In a dialogic text, the author gives up control – and the author’s voice is just one voice, not the ‘real’ voice. And in a dialogical story, the most difficult task is the (unfinalizable) ending!” (15) Dialogic speaks of that about which we can say nothing (final), and yet about which we must (finally) speak.

Newsom quotes Bakhtin:

“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth.” (16)

So the Book of Job presents us with the form, if not the content, of truth. Dialogue is how truth that is uncontainable by the individual must be pursued. In dialogue, new possibilities emerge, assumptions are revealed and challenged, and truth can begin to emerge between individuals.

Yet Newsom is emphatic that dialogue is not to be confused with dialectic, because dialectic (and here she seems to be thinking in Hegelian terms) arrives at synthesis, an essentially monological resolution. I agree with this concern, although I believe Job can be faithfully read from a Left Hegelian perspective where the antagonism between thesis and antithesis is named and left unresolved – there is no Aufhebung of the fundamental antagonism. The crisis remains subject of conversation, subject of dialogue. A Left Hegelian reading comports well with Newsom’s claim that “wisdom dialogue … privileges argument over resolution.”(17) In many ways, the beginning coincides with the end, “the dialogue begins … with the bitter complaint of a righteous sufferer.” (18)  This is to say that the conversation begins and ends with truth. As Adorno notes, “The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth,” (19) and we find this affirmed throughout the dialogues of Job.

This affirmation comes first at the opening of Job’s dialogue with his friends. Whereas Job responds to the loss of his children and wealth with pious acceptance, and responds to his bodily afflictions in the same manner, he does not piously accept his friends’ “wisdom.” If Job were to follow the pattern, then “we [would] expect Job to make a third remarkable word of unconditional acceptance in response to friends.” (20) But he does not. Instead, Job enters into dialogue.

In this light, Job’s sustained complaint is the twist – the third resignation is absent, at least until God speaks – and even then we must ask if this is proper resignation. (And one is tempted to ask: is there not a (missing) third encounter with Satan? If in the first two encounters, Satan asks whether Job will maintain his righteousness in the absence of wealth and health, might this third encounter have Satan ask whether Job will maintain his righteousness in the absence of meaning?)

What is essential here is the move into dialogue. Newsom observes that the monologic folk tale is interrupted by the wisdom dialogue, and yet the monological folk tale returns at the end. Does monologic, then, have “the last word”? Newsom argues against this reading, because the structure of the book itself puts the two modes (monological folk tale and dialogical wisdom) into dialogue. (21) And yet there is irony in the fact that the monological folk tale is the source of meaninglessness – the fundamental antagonism- it is the folk tale that reveals God’s (lack of) motive. (22) Newsom claims that this rupture between the tale and the dialogue “produces a character who has made a decisive break with a previous worldview and a previous identity within that worldview.” (23)

Is this really the case? Is Job not still very much within the original worldview, albeit in a mode of protest? It would appear that Job’s honesty has yet to draw him into the blasphemy necessary to fully confront his situation and take responsibility in the face of it. Despite his dialogical question-asking, Job has not gone far enough – he has not followed his wife’s wise advice to  hold fast to his integrity, curse God, and die. (24) And so God must blaspheme on Job’s behalf.

(The) Blaspheming God

Newsom is vexed that with the arrival of God in the dialogue, the divine “last word” will destroy any vestige of dialogic, bringing the entire book to a monological conclusion. She notes that through the wisdom dialogue, there is a “movement from dialogic to monologic as the voices are progressively shown to be inadequate.” (25)  This move is finished in in Job 42:1-6, which Newsom reads as Job’s capitulation.

“The reader is thus apparently encouraged to embrace the vision of the divine speeches with their non-anthropocentric representation of the world in which the chaotic, although contained within the reliable structures of creation, is nevertheless an irreducible element in existence.” (26)

Further, she points out that, although God “officially condemns Job’s friends, they “are vindicated – Job bows to God and is restored.” (27) Has the divine voice destroyed dialogue? Newsom’s solution is to suggest that the double-ending – Job’s alleged capitulation in 42:1-6 and the folk tale epilogue – produce tensions (are the friends vindicated? etc.) such that this ending is “gesturing toward closure while signaling that the issues raised are far from settled.”(28)

While I share Newsom’s concern that the divine voice not collapse dialogue, I do not find the contradictions in the close of the story sufficient to keep dialogue alive. It seems too easy to describe these concerns as “too wonderful for me,” and drop them.  While Newsom seeks to avoid the monological approaches, the “pious lies” discussed in the first section above, her argument here is not convincing.

There is an old Jewish tale that is helpful here:

“Two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah, an argument that has gone on for over twenty years. In the parable God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what it really means. However, right at this moment they respond by saying, ‘What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them.’ “(29)

I believe that what we see happening in Job is parallel to this tale. In the tale, the rabbis rejection of God’s offered wisdom strikes one as blasphemous. Yet if we understand truth as dialogical, their blasphemy is seen as deeply faithful. In Job’s dialogue with his friends, blasphemy is judiciously avoided, and God’s goodness is appealed to in order to make sense of Job’s experience. In the Book of Job, it is God who must make the blasphemous claims in order to show Job the blasphemy of Job’s fidelity. It takes an outrageous rejection of the entire (actually blasphemous) framework Job and his friends share to shake Job loose of his misunderstanding. Keller writes,

“How does the creator’s delight in the complexity of the nonhuman creation answer the question of unjust human suffering? Certainly not in … a reassuring sense … So to Job’s impassioned challenge of God’s goodness the answer is: [Leviathan], the monster of chaos!” (30)

There is no divinely ordained and maintained order that will account for Job’s experience. Job is right to be in dialogue with his friends, but wrong to expect God to provide him with meaning. It is in Job’s honest recognition of this that he comes to repentance – his repentance is not a compromise, but an admission that he has “uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Job held a blasphemous understanding of God, and it took God’s total rejection of Job’s questions to reveal this to Job. In response, Job repents of his sin of faithfulness – realizing now he had been repeating the shibboleths of belief right along with his friends, even though he thought he was in dispute with them.

Now we return to “the first word”. Contra the claims of Collins and others that the problem the book addresses is that of the suffering righteous and the prospering wicked, this problem is merely the question that draws Job into confrontation with God. God’s response puts Job in confrontation with himself, and his own understanding. The narrator reinforces this in Job 1 by declaring Job’s innocence and the causelessness of God’s act. We know from the start there will be no monological truth coming from God. Job’s “last word” acknowledges there will be no “last word” from God. The end of this dialogue does not end dialogue. As the history of the reading of the Book of Job attests, this is where the conversation really gets started, and truth begins to emerge among those in the conversation.

It is now that Job has encountered God, that he can embrace the folk tale’s “last word” in the midst of his life. God restores Job, not because of Job’s merit, but because it is in the midst of Job’s life that he can continue to live in the event of the “last word”.

“[E]ven for one as hurt as Job, new life can take place, … because he has refused to suppress piously the turbulent truth of his own experience, but has grieved and raged and confronted the meaning of life. Ex profundis”. (31)


1 John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2004), p 505

2 Job 1:1

3 Job 1:8, 2:3

4 Kathryn Schifferdecker, Out of the Whirlwind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 67-8

5 Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield, The Almond Press, 1983), p 54

6 Crenshaw, 102

7 Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Bible, Job (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), LXXXI

8 James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, an Introduction (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p 108

9 Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Bible, Job (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), LXXXI

10 John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2004) p 517

11 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 39.

12 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 75.

13 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 87-108

14 Ibid, 97

15 Ibid, 98

16 Ibid, 99

17 Ibid, 102

18 Ibid, 102

19 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1990), p 17-18

20 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 103

21 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 104

22 Of course, it can be argued that God’s motive is to win a wager and demonstrate Job’s righteousness to Satan, although this remains an empty and therefore meaningless motive.

23 Ibid.

24 Job 2:9. Newsom makes the connection between Job’s integrity and cursing God (and therefore revealing the wisdom of Job’s wife) in The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, Westminster John Know Press, 1998)

25 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 105

26 Ibid, 106

27 Ibid, 107

28 Ibid, 107

29 Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, Paraclete Press, 2006)

30 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 76.

31 Ibid.