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This time of trauma

04 September 2020

THIS week’s main feature, an extract from The Bible and Mental Health, asks readers to pay closer attention to those who composed their scriptures. The Bible’s authors have received plenty of attention in academic circles, where, for example, guessing the number of Isaiahs has become a bit of a party game. But the liturgical use of short extracts and the constant tug of literalism have discouraged many ordinary readers from pursuing the modest amount of study needed to place the books of the Bible in the context of their authorship. Although occasionally challenged, the established view is that much of the Old Testament was written in the post-exilic period, when Jewish identity was under the greatest strain. There is more certainty about the New Testament, which stems from the period when the Early Church was suffering the trauma of persecution.

In another chapter of the book, Isabelle Hamley untangles the Book of Job, hard to date but widely thought to be post-exilic. She separates the idiomatic strands of conventional wisdom, which expects justice to prevail and norms to be upheld, and protest wisdom, which wrestles with the realisation that the world does not always work according to the norms. So, for Job, conventional wisdom does not account for his experience. “Protest on its own, however,” Hamley writes, “leaves the world a random, disorienting and overwhelming place.” In Job, the darker Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, there is resolution, but it often answers a different question from the one asked by the author.

The campaigns of Extinction Rebellion have a strong element of protest wisdom. This is why they are seldom understood by the authorities, more used to handling — and neutralising — more conventional protests. Traffic disruption and flamboyant acts of low-level vandalism seem pointless. But, despite the element of playfulness, Extinction Rebellion’s actions are rooted in desperation. The threat to this planet is, indeed, overwhelming; so responding with disorientating, random acts of protest is seen as the only way to draw others into the magnitude of the problem.

On Tuesday, Janie Mitchell, a folk singer who composes songs about the vanishing flora of Shropshire, was interviewed on the BBC. In describing her art — “I want to live a happy life, but I want to live truly. I can’t paint over what is actually a disaster” — she expressed the trauma that increasing numbers, particularly among the young, are experiencing because of climate change. Protest can alleviate the effects of this trauma, but only if it is received with understanding from those who are powerful enough to make a difference. Failing that, a sense of solidarity with others can help. This poses an urgent question to the Church. Will it stand around, like Job’s friends? Or will it join today’s Jobs in their cry of lament for this planet’s future, which, paradoxically, brings them nearer to God?

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