Part 3 of my review of The Return of the Chaos Monsters by Gregory Mobley
Mobley presses his case for divine dependence on human assistance further in his next chapter, about the Psalms, which he entitles, “God Needs Us.” He says, “Humans possess some measure of love-energy drawn from . . . the gracious endowment created in the world-making big bang . . . that contraction of the Infinite that gave space for the plenitude of finites. When we ‘bless’ the Lord, we release our vital powers back to their source” (p. 107). Or, stated more simply, “Praise releases the love-energy inside us that belongs to God. That is the backstory of the Psalms.” This praise, Mobley suggests, is “food” for God, just as animal sacrifices, according to the way “many . . . biblical passages could be read,” were once “sustenance for the Lord” (p. 102).
In support of this argument, Mobley cites texts from the Psalms where “the speaker threatens the Deity with loss of worship” (p. 97) if a petition for deliverance is not granted. For example, in Psalm 6, “In Death, there is no mention of you. In Sheol who praises you?” Presumably God cannot live without the “food” of praise and will be motivated to act.
But this is the kind of misunderstanding that occurs when one reads a collection of poems as if they were a story. (“There is a story in the Psalms,” Mobley argues: laments predominate in the earlier part of the collection as it is now arranged, and “praise songs” dominate more towards the end, so that it is “a journey . . . from lament to praise,” p. 99). I would argue that the psalmist is not so much saying, as in Mobley’s summary, “if you rescue me, then I will praise you” (p. 105)—a future narrative sketched out—as “when you rescue me, I will acknowledge your deliverance publicly.” The flow of worship is being described.
The vow of praise within which these supposed threats occur is actually a standard liturgical element within the psalm of supplication or lament genre, along with things like a cry for help, description of troubles, statement of trust, and petition. It has a counterpart element in psalms of thanksgiving, in the similarly conventional places where the psalmist recalls an earlier cry for help and states that he is now paying the vow he made on that occasion. For example, in Psalm 66: “I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you—vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble.” The very kind of statement about potential “loss of worship” that Mobley terms “rhetorically manipulative” is found within such a recollection in Psalm 30:
To you, Lord, I called;
to the Lord I cried for mercy:
“What is gained if I am silenced,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it proclaim your faithfulness?
Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me;
Lord, be my help.”
It would actually tactless, not to mention pointless, to recall and repeat these words if they had originally been used to threaten God to get Him to grant a request, on an occasion that is supposed to be devoted to thanking God for doing this. But within the context of the flow of worship captured in the poetry of the Psalms, it’s clear why it is appropriate to recall the words: This recollection brings glory to God by acknowledging that He was the one who delivered, in response to a cry to Him for help.
Mobley next considers the wisdom books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, suggesting that they offer “glimpses of the divine design for chaos management” (p. 110). He believes he detects a progression in their insights. Proverbs, he says, offers “terse parallel sayings,” each of which “fits snugly . . . into a single small square on the graph paper of the blueprint” (p. 115). Ecclesiastes, for its part, also presents “the blueprint with lots of its squares filled in,” but it warns additionally that while “the squares are there, we lack the perspective to see the patterns they form” (p. 117). “We can experience . . . fleeting puffs of insight about and engagement with the Real, but we can neither possess nor control them” (p. 118).
Now I appreciate Mobley’s translation of hebel, perhaps the most key term in Ecclesiastes, as “fleeting” rather than “meaningless” or “vanity.” But I would argue that what the book actually says is “fleeting” is not our insight into life, but the things we typically think will make our lives worthwhile, such as riches and status. I believe the book is actually teaching us positively to invest in what really does last—relationships, and work that is meaningful and enjoyable while we are doing it—rather than discouraging us negatively from thinking we can know how we should live. But that is what Mobley believes the book is doing. He says that the “brilliantly ambivalent affirmation” of Ecclesiastes is, “There is a plan, but good luck, pal. We cannot know it.”
Not surprisingly, when he gets to the book of Job, Mobley is most interested in the figure of Leviathan, which (as noted earlier) he considers to be a chaos monster, even though Yahweh says specifically in his second speech that both Behemoth and Leviathan are creatures that He has “made” (likely correcting Job’s belief that he can appeal to Leviathan to undo part of creation, the day of his birth). I would argue that Yahweh uses the strength and power of His creature Leviathan to help Job realize what a small part of creation he is himself, and so Yahweh stresses that Leviathan is completely untamable:
“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook
or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose
or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many pleas to you?
Will he speak to you soft words?
Will he make a covenant with you
to take him for your servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird,
or will you put him on a leash for your girls?”
Mobley, however, takes one of these statements in a different way, as if it meant, “Will Leviathan make a covenant with you, as it has made with me?” Then he argues that according to this reading, “In effect, God says, ‘I have a covenant with chaos. Chaos is part of the plan. . . . In order for reality to function . . . there has to be space for the random, chaotic, and wild’” (p. 124). This is a theme Mobley has struck earlier in the book: “Chaos cannot be erased because to do so would eliminate change, novelty, drama, or conflict. No sand, no pearl” (p. 19).
I’ll discuss in my final post where this embrace of chaos, which we were originally encouraged to see as God’s primordial enemy, ultimately takes Mobley.