Shuck and Jive

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Be Not Afraid of the Dark--A Sermon

Be Not Afraid of the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 28, 2012
All Saints

Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Job 38:16-17

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a television show in the 90s that my kids watched.    It was a kids’ show on the Nickelodeon channel. The set up for the show was a group of teenagers, “the midnight society” telling scary stories around a fire at night.    Each of the characters told different stories and the stories reflected their personalities.    The message in that is that each of us has our unique dark side.     We are all struggle with and in the dark in our own way.   I think another message of the show was that you gain courage to face the dark when you share your stories with others.

The dark is a fearsome place.   You don’t know what might jump out at you in the dark.    As a child I remember that scary moment between turning off the light in the bedroom and running for the bed to get undercover as soon as possible.   Apparently, I was safe in the bed from whatever dark creatures lurked about in my room.    As long as you get undercover, you are OK.

Last week we explored the metaphor of silence.  This week darkness.   Both silence and darkness point toward the spiritual path of via negativa.    We tend to think darkness is a bad thing.    Even the Gospel of John that we read at Christmas sees darkness as something that wants to get you and take you over.  The promise is this:   

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

True enough.  But darkness is also a path.   For those acquainted with the night, they know, like Robert Frost, that this acquaintance is "neither wrong nor right."    There is something to be learned in the dark.   Poets, the strong ones, the ones we read, have dabbled in the dark.    I think it takes courage to be acquainted with the night and to spend time in darkness. 

In the darkness we keep the things that we don’t want everyone to know.    That is anyone to know, including ourselves.  The darkness hides our vulnerability.    Jung called this aspect of ourselves the shadow side or the dark side.    We prefer to keep that side hidden.  We create elaborate masks to wear in order to show the world that we are people of the light, happy and together and above average.   

The via negativa invites us to explore the dark places.   The truth is that if you don’t find what is in the dark, what is in the dark will eventually find you.    One of my favorite sayings of Jesus is from the Gospel of Thomas, which is itself a gospel that had been hidden in the darkness, literally in clay pots for 1700 years.   In this hidden, secret gospel we find this from Jesus:

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not bring it forth, what you do not have within you will kill you."

Every hero must go into the dark.  The great myths of the hero’s quest to slay dragons, find the holy grail, battle Voldemort, rescue the ring, face crucifixion and so on are about entering the dark and discovering the courage to take on what you find.    

The via negativa is not about defeating what is in the dark.  It could be that, but it is also about embracing what is in the dark.    In the dark is a treasure.    That treasure is an aspect of our own self.    The path invites us to find that and bring it into the light where it can be embraced and admired by all.

This is the sense of the passage in the Gospel of John.   The light shines in the darkness not to obliterate the darkness but so it can bring to light what has been hidden there.     When it is hidden we are overwhelmed, saddened, and dis-eased.     When brought to the light it is becomes a source of strength, joy, and healing.    That is the point of the path.  

So God asks Job:

Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?

The story of Job is the textbook for the via negativa.    

There is a lot to say about Job, that I am not going to say today.   It is enough to know that the character “God” does not come off well.   He and his drinking buddy, Satan, have a spitting contest about who is tougher and Job ends up being the object of this wager.   God lets Satan torture Job to prove that Job will be loyal to God no matter how he suffers.   

Job is not in on this little game.  Neither of course are Job’s friends.    But we are.  Job rejects all of his friends’ theories as to why this might be happening to him.   Job is right even though he doesn’t know why he is right.    The reason Job suffers is because “God” behaves pathologically.   

We are not supposed to say that because we are pious.    We have been taught that the Bible is God’s Word and that God is good.  When we read the Bible we are told that no matter how barbaric God appears God must be right.    The price we pay for piety is that we put halos around bad texts and endorse harmful ethics.   

Once you get over that notion that the character “God’ in the Bible is always good, in fact, far from it, then you can appreciate the story of Job.  

God never comes clean to Job.     He never tells him the truth.  He never says,

“Hey Job, buddy.  The reason you were suffering is because, well Satan and I had a little bet about you.  I hope you aren’t sore.  And hey, you helped me win.  You were loyal to the end!  What do you say, still friends?”   

God says none of that.  Nor does God apologize for his ruthless behavior.  Instead God conjures up an impressive hurricane and speaks to Job from a position of power.  He goes on for several chapters about how tough he is.   He can drag around Leviathan with a fishhook.  He made the heavens and the mountains.   He tells Job in effect:

What have you done, little man?   How dare you question me!  

That’s God’s answer.  Might makes right.    In that speech from the whirlwind, God says to Job:

Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?

Those are rhetorical questions to which Job must only answer, No.  No he has not physically entered the place below the flat earth where the water comes up.  Nor has he entered physically the gates to the underworld.   

But, of course,  we know that Job truly has seen the gates of death, the gates of deep darkness.  He has walked the recesses of the deep.   He has done so in the most real way possible.  He has suffered.  He lost everything and he has not given up in his quest to find meaning.   He has not given in to simplistic answers that are not true even as they might comfort.  

These primitive notions of God that are still prevalent today were inadequate to help the author of Job make sense of life.  Job is the story of what happens when one’s religion is too small for life.     Job represents the true hero.    In addition to refusing the easy answers of orthodoxy that his friends thrust on him, he faces the foundation of meaning itself.   He faces God, or the best understanding of God that he can imagine.     He finds God wanting.   

I am not sure if the author of the story of Job knew what he was doing.   His story of Job seems to me to be a deconstruction of monotheism.    God may be all good or all powerful but he can’t be both.    In Job’s story, he comes across as only powerful and not good.   

This is the translation of that pivotal passage in chapter 42 in which Job supposedly repents.    According to the excellent book, God: A Biography by Jack Miles, that is a mistranslation.   It is garbled Hebrew that translators misused to make Job the bad guy.   According to piety, God can’t be wrong, so Job must repent.  This is the NRSV translation:

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.’

That is the pious interpretation.    But that is inconsistent.  We all know that Job has nothing for which to repent.   God is the one who needs to repent.    This translation from Jack Miles is, I think, more accurate.  These are Job’s final words to God after God delivers his blustery speech:

Then Job answered the Lord:
You know you can do anything.
Nothing can stop you.
You ask, “Who is this ignorant muddler?”
Well, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me.
“You listen, and I’ll talk, “ you say,
“I’ll question you, and you tell me.”
Word of you had reached my ears,
But now that my eyes have seen you,
I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.

The story of Job is the textbook for the via negativa.

The author of Job is showing that the God they had inherited is all power and no love.  All power and no goodness.   It took a courageous author to create a courageous character to expose this idea of God as inadequate for meaning.   That opened the way for a fuller sense of God to develop. 

Job is a model of a spiritual hero.   His is a model for today, for the searcher, who is not satisfied with the pious explanations that hold no water, and who will search out in the dark places for a more fulfilling answer.

Job is a hero who is not afraid of the dark.


  1. Thanks for such an insightful look at Job as an example of the via negativa. Peace!

  2. Thanks for a different interpretation of Job. As I'm sure you know better than I do, Job is often assumed to be a Christ figure -- at least according to the way the Revised Common Lectionary puts the readings together. Your interpretation makes way more sense. And proves for me once again that ancient writing that can be reclaimed for today is what true scripture really is.