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Joseph: A story of resilience, by Meg Warner

by
12 February 2021

Anthony Phillips reads timely reflections on the relevance of Joseph

MY HISTORY teacher at school had a favourite saying: “Time is of the essence.” That could not be more true of Warner’s study of Joseph seen through the lens of trauma and resilience. It was during the editing stage that the Brexit decision was taken, and, before it was published, the coronavirus struck. Never was there a better time to write on the necessity of resilience, “not something you’re born with”, but “something you can learn and develop”.

To make her case, the author uses the story of Joseph whom she pictures as a far more complex character then generally envisaged. What engages her is the trauma that he suffers and how he deals with it, and into which she bravely weaves her personal story, not afraid to spell out her own vulnerability. Throughout, Warner recognises that the Joseph narrative should be understood on two levels, as a family story and as national history. So, in examining resilience, she not considers its relevance not only to individuals, but, importantly, to nations, too.

Rather than take the Genesis account at face value, Warner, with considerable forensic skill, consistently reads between the lines of the narrative with some unexpected results. Throughout, her great concern is with resilience, which is not just a matter of “bouncing back” as if nothing much had happened. Following on from an earlier study by James and Evelyn Whitehead, Warner accepts that what is required are three elements, each of which she examines in detail. First, there is reframing, that is, after trauma, reconstructing one’s identity, “telling the story of one’s life in a new way”. For Warner, Joseph reframes himself as an Egyptian.

Second, there is recruiting and gathering resources to help face the trauma. It is not weakness to ask for help. Joseph proves himself masterful in charming those in authority as he moves from slavery to governing Egypt. But, as Warner points out, his “bizarre” dealings with his brothers are much more ambiguous. Here, she considers whether manipulative behaviour can be labelled resilient and concludes “that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that something of which we disapprove may be labelled resilient, at least in the short term”.

The third factor is resolve, which leads Warner to raise the question whether the ends justify the means. Once more, she finds ambiguity in the Joseph narrative, arguing that, while Joseph saves Egypt, he subsequently enslaves the Egyptians. She goes on to discuss group trauma, noting that it can be passed on to subsequent generations. Further, a nation focusing on victimhood is not healthy. She admits, however, that when survival is at stake, anything may be justified, but not when it is simply a matter of thriving.

Resilience can be both used and abused. It is necessary to master it, but one should be aware of the dangers of its shadow side. Sadly, the conclusion that I draw from this deeply pastoral study is that ambiguity is a fact of life.
 

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

 

Joseph: A story of resilience
Meg Warner
SPCK £12.99
(978-0-281-08108-0)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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