Seeing the Sufferer

Jobby Daniel BerriganSheet & Ward. 256p $24.95

Daniel Berrigan, well-known poet and activist, has picked up yet another one of the biblical books and has turned his socially sensitive, creative eye onto its message. As he did in his volumes on the books of Daniel and Jeremiah, he creatively engages the text instead of analyzing it, and he allows the text to engage him. In other words, the story of Job throws light on contemporary situations, breaking them open to new and revelatory possibilities. At the same time, Berrigan’s own profound insights into life and suffering open the story of Job in innovative ways. He is less interested in past meanings of the book than in present challenges that it might pose. His interpretive approach is an excellent example of what scholars refer to as reading in place. This is a method that takes seriously the social location and interests of the reader.

Berrigan is very clear and honest about his interests, indeed passions. He is committed to the plight of the innocent sufferer. What gives his writing its cutting edge is his identification of the Jobs of today and the socio-political circumstances that account for their suffering.

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Although Berrigan moves through the Book of Job section by section, his reflections are laid out on the page in a form that resembles poetic composition rather than a prosaic commentary format. This form itself invites the reader to pause with each thought in order to allow it to sink into one’s own consciousness. Berrigan’s literary stature is evident on every page of this book. His imagery is both dynamic and gentle, consoling and challenging; it cuts through old stereotypes, and it springs anew with fresh ideas. He deftly weaves in allusions to writers as diverse as Dante, the Brothers Grimm, Joseph Conrad, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton. His prose is no less polished than his poetry. He uses the English language as an artist uses oils, painting pictures with words on the easel of the reader’s imagination. His awareness of the plight of those who suffer in today’s world is no less broad, encompassing concern for Central America as well as Baghdad. It includes people like Ben Salmon, Franz Jägerstätter, Archbishop Romero, the murder victims in El Salvador and the disappeared who have perished in camps or gulags around the world. Just as the biblical Job represents Everysufferer, so, according to Berrigan, every sufferer is Job.

Berrigan appeals to other biblical material in order to enlarge the meaning of the text he is considering. Passages from various psalms, references to certain prophets, and allusions to characters in the New Testamentparticularly Jesusall wind their way through his meditations on the message in the Book of Job. Two features in particular enhance these meditations: the art work of Robert McGovern and Berrigan’s own poetry. The former is striking! Each piece is not only true to the meaning of the biblical material under consideration; it also captures Berrigan’s own understanding of it. His poetry is truly poignant, inviting us into the soul of the poet, be that the author of Joban poetry or Berrigan himself.

Suffering is not glorified in these reflections, though the integrity of the one suffering is. In a way that enlightens rather than accuses, Berrigan leads the readers to a recognition of their own responsibility, not necessarily for the suffering in the world but certainly for the ones who suffer. We may see them as victims, at times helpless to do anything to remedy their own situations. The empathy toward Job that is aroused in these reflections is quickly transported into our own world, where it is directed toward the victims found there. This empathy is then encouraged to mature into responsible social consciousness.

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