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«religions Article Possessions and Identity: Job’s Problems and Ours Abigail Pelham Independent Researcher, 1415 Albany Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108, ...»

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Possessions and Identity: Job’s Problems and Ours

Abigail Pelham

Independent Researcher, 1415 Albany Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA; abigaillpelham@hotmail.com

Academic Editors: Katharine J. Dell and Arthur J. Keefer

Received: 1 May 2016; Accepted: 15 June 2016; Published: 22 June 2016

Abstract: Recent research undertaken in the fields of anthropology and consumer behavior indicates

that possessions play an important role in the construction of identity. While it is tempting to view both the connection between possessions and identity and the problems this engenders as a recent phenomenon, the Book of Job also recognizes this connection and is cognizant of its problematic nature. While Job does not offer answers to our contemporary dilemmas of possession, the book highlights the nuances of the problem as they existed in its own time and place, with all characters offering different perspectives on how the connection should be understood and how one ought to live in consequence of this understanding.

Keywords: Job; possessions; identity; self; consumer behavior; retributive justice; wisdom

1. Possessions and the Self, and the Problem of “Peak Stuff” Is it true that we are what we own? If so, how ought we to live? These are the questions I want to ask the Book of Job in this essay. They are important questions because we find ourselves, in the Western industrialized world, in possession of what Ikea’s head of sustainability recently described as “peak stuff” [1], that is to say, a quantity of “stuff” that no longer benefits us, but that threatens both the health of the environment and our own mental and emotional health. The environmental impact of having “hit peak stuff” is perhaps the most pressing problem, but a spate of recent self-help books also point to the negative mental and emotional impact of possessing too many things. James Wallman writes, “[I]nstead of feeling enriched by the things we own, [we feel] stifled by them. [...] Overwhelmed, and suffocating from stuff, we [suffer] from [an] anxiety that I call ‘Stuffocation’” ([2], p. xiv). Similarly, April Lane Benson points out that “[w]hat we consume can end up consuming us” ([3], p. 5). Bestselling decluttering expert, Francine Jay, insists, “Contrary to what marketers would have you believe, you are not what you own. You are you, and things are things; no physical or mathematical alchemy can alter these boundaries” ([4], p. 13).

The role of advertising in the uptick in acquisition is widely stressed. Annie Leonard, in her The Story of Stuff, quotes marketing consultant Victor Lebow, who, in a 1955 article, wrote, “Our enormously productive economy demands [...] that we seek [...] our ego satisfactions, in consumption” ([5], p. 160).

Yet, the link perceived between possession of objects and personal identity predates the post-WWII advertising push. In 1890, William James observed, “[A] man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children [...], [his] yacht and bank account” [6]. Anthropologist Daniel Miller insists that “non-industrial societies are just as much material cultures as we are” ([7], p. 4), and warns, “The idea that stuff somehow drains away our humanity [...] is really an attempt to retain a rather simplistic and false view of pure and prior unsullied humanity” ([7], p. 5). In the 1980s, consumer behavior researcher Russell Belk drew on James’s 1890 observations to coin the term “extended self” to refer to the “sum total” that comprises a person’s self, writing, “A key to understanding what possessions mean is recognizing that, knowingly or unknowingly, [...] we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves. [...] That we are what we have is perhaps the most basic [...] fact of consumer behavior” ([8], p. 139). Belk contrasted the “extended Religions 2016, 7, 78; doi:10.3390/rel7060078 www.mdpi.com/journal/religions Religions 2016, 7, 78 2 of 9 self” with the “core self,” understood as an identity that preexists acquisition of possessions. Yet, as has been pointed out by another researcher, Aaron Ahuvia, the term “core self” may be misleading, given that it “can give rise to the idea that the core self is [a self that actually exists] prior to, and [is] ontologically distinct from, the extended self” ([9], p. 180), an idea that Belk did not mean to allege and that is the opposite of what research has shown. Rather, for Belk and others, the “extended self” is the real self, and a preexistent “core self” does not exist as a more authentic version of who a person is. Sociologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton use different language to make a similar point about the reality of the extended self over against the unreality of the core self, writing, “There are no ‘people’ in the abstract, people are what they attend to, what they cherish and use” ([10], p. 16). Miller further insists, “Yes, really, it is usually through the medium of things that we actually make people” ([7], p. 136). This, though, is problematic in our culture, given the problems inherent in our possession of “peak stuff.” How can what research shows to be true—that people’s identities are created by their possessions—be reconciled with the problems that seem to be inherent in possessing too much? How ought we to live faced with the contradiction that, though we are what we have, what we have may well be our undoing? Can the Book of Job help us answer these questions?

2. A Road Map to Complexity Before engaging with the Book of Job on this topic, I must note that Job is a notoriously ambiguous text, offering more questions than answers. Carol Newsom has identified it as a “polyphonic text,” a concept pioneered by Mikhail Bakhtin, meaning that the book does not proclaim a unified truth but, rather, presents questions “addressed [...] by a plurality of unmerged consciousnesses engaging one another in open-ended dialogue” ([11], p. 24). Even God’s voice, Newsom insists, is not authoritative.

Similarly, David Clines points out that neither the book nor its author offer “a resolution of [any of] the logical conflicts they create; there is no way of stating their ‘position’ other than that they have no position” ([12], p. 253). This may mean that we are not intended to read it as the kind of book that tells a coherent, conclusive story. Alternatively, perhaps, we are intended to try to read it that way and to experience our failure as indicative of the impossibility of finding conclusive answers to the problems it engages. If the book were the only road map we had to find our way in the world, we would find ourselves lost. Yet the book does purport to be a road map of sorts, not through the complexity of the world in which we live, but to the complexity that characterizes the world. Refusing to provide answers, the book highlights the complexity of the topics with which it engages and, in so doing, forces us, as readers, to engage with this complexity, too. It does not solve problems; it problematizes them for us.

How then should we engage with this book? Clines writes, “The book’s effect [...] can only be to engage the reader in the conversation it engenders” ([12], p. 253); that is to say, it does not offer answers, but poses questions with which we are invited to engage, in our own way, from our own perspective.

In a similar vein, the book might be described as “a space for thinking in” ([13], p. 17). To think in this space, though, requires two paradoxical types of engagement. On the one hand, in order to come up with any kind of potential answer to the questions with which the book is concerned, the reader must, in fact, engage with a simplified version of the text, paying attention to what one strand of the book says, while ignoring those other strands that work to contradict—or even deconstruct—the isolated strand. For the most part, this is how I will read the book in this essay. This is a valid way of engaging with the book, because it allows certain perspectives to be highlighted that might otherwise be lost in the churning iterations of the book’s “unfinalizable” ([11], p. 29) conversation. At the same time, the book’s overall complexity requires that we be on the look out not only for answers, but for the nuances of the problems it engages, so that we emerge from our encounter not with a solution, but with an understanding of the complexity of the problem, which is, after all, a kind of answer, and I will gesture toward this second kind of reading as well.

Religions 2016, 7, 78 3 of 9

3. Possessions and Identity: What Job Has and Who He Is The Book of Job clearly engages with the question of the relation between possessions and identity, and, despite the different perspectives advanced by the characters, it seems arguable that all of them believe that possessions play a role in the creation of identity. Where characters differ is in their sense of how problematic this is. Reading the book as affirming a link between possessions and identity, as I will below, however, goes against how the book is usually read. James Crenshaw describes the theme of the book as being “the possibility of disinterested righteousness,” a possibility that must be confirmed, for “[a]t stake is the very survival of religious faith” ([14], p. 749). That is to say, Job must show that he serves God “for nothing” [15], for, if he does not, then “religious faith” will be shown to be unable to survive in situations where “reward” is not forthcoming. I do not think, however, that the book is so sanguine about “the possibility of disinterested righteousness” ([16], p. 112). The book’s perceived preoccupation with the question of retributive justice is based on understanding Satan’s [17] opening question to God, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (1:9b) as meaning, “Does Job not serve God because he knows that, by doing so, he reaps reward?” It is possible to understand this question differently, though, in terms having to do with the relation between the “extended” and “core” self.

I will discuss this interpretation of Satan’s question in the next section.

Here, I want to claim that we are primed to understand Satan’s question as having to do with the way in which identity is created by possessions by the narrator’s opening description of Job.

The narrator begins by describing Job as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1b), but rather than following this with a description of the ways in which Job has demonstrated his righteousness, the narrator instead provides a list of Job’s possessions—a multitude of children, servants, and livestock—that, because they are described as making Job “the greatest of all the people of the East” (1:3b), can be seen as parts of Job’s self, existing to contribute to his identity instead of possessing identities in their own right. How do we know Job is righteous? Not by what he does, but by what he has, given that what he has is what makes him who he is. Greatness—literally “bigness”—and righteousness go hand in hand. Job has been created as a righteous man by his possession of material wealth, instead of the other way round ([18], pp. 793–94). The narrator tells us this when he describes Job’s righteousness as embedded in his possession of great wealth. It is not that Job has a righteous “core” and has, in consequence, done righteous acts that have earned him the title.

If it were, surely the narrator would say so. Surely, instead of describing Job’s possessions, he would describe Job’s activities. It is not Job’s actions that show him to be righteous, but his possessions. It is his “extended self” that allows us to see him as a righteous man.

4. Satan’s Question As noted above, it is usually understood that when Satan asks God, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” he is asking whether it is not true that Job serves God because of the benefits he incurs by doing so, instead of because it is simply right to do so. When interpreted this way, it is assumed that Satan is gesturing toward a higher kind of righteousness—that engaged in “for nothing”—and asserting that Job does not really possess this authentic kind of righteousness, but only a corrupt kind.

I want to suggest, however, that what Satan is challenging is not the authenticity of Job’s righteousness, but God’s claim that Job is unique in the world. “There is no one like [...] [Job] on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8), God says. God, in his boasting, seems to believe that Job has sprung, fully righteous, from nowhere, like a miraculous flower blooming in the desert. Satan’s assertion is that Job is no miraculous flower grown from barren ground, but an expensive hothouse bloom that has been cultivated by God to be what he is, after which God has affected surprise at what he sees. “Have you ever seen such a splendid thing?” God asks, his face expressing baffled pleasure. “Of course I haven’t!” Satan replies. “But his existence is no mystery, and you ought to know it. No one is like him, because no one has what he has!” Satan’s question, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” is a question about Job’s “core self” as opposed to his “extended self,” but Satan is not asserting that only if Job’s “core” is righteous is he authentically Religions 2016, 7, 78 4 of 9 righteous. Rather, Satan is asserting that Job’s identity as a righteous man has been constituted through his secure possession of material wealth, just as it is for everyone. “Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land” (1:10). It is significant that Satan does not say, “Is Job not righteous so that you will provide him with security and with wealth?” which would support the traditional “disinterested-righteousness-as-authentic-righteousness” interpretation, but, instead, “Is Job not righteous because you have provided him with security and wealth?” which indicates that Satan is claiming that God has provided Job with the possessions necessary to constitute him as a righteous man.

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