Thursday, August 16, 2007

A study in depression

I'm curious how many of my readers are familiar with the Latin word, verisimilitude. It is a technical term used primarily in literary criticism, but I encountered it in my theology studies. Here's a good definition:
The sense that what one reads is "real," or at least realistic and believable. For instance, the reader possesses a sense of verisimilitude when reading a story in which a character cuts his finger, and the finger bleeds. If the character's cut finger had produced sparks of fire rather than blood, the story would not possess verisimilitude. Note that even fantasy novels and science fiction stories that discuss impossible events can have verisimilitude if the reader is able to read them with suspended disbelief.
Note the phrase, "the reader possesses a sense of verisimilitude …". The term tells us something about the text, to be sure, but it isn't a characteristic we can define objectively. It's fundamentally about the reader:  his or her subjective response while reading the text.

The word verisimilitude came to mind yesterday as I was reading this text:
Elijah went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers." And he lay down and slept. (1 Kings 19:4-5a)1
I find this story about Elijah startling and deeply moving. I don't have any deep theological or psychological insight to share with you. I just wanted to say, here's a text that has verisimilitude.

Years ago, I received some training before I began to work at a crisis support centre, answering telephone calls from people in distress. The trainer was a clergyman, and he drew our attention to this passage as a textbook example of depression.

Elijah has reached the end of his rope. He can't cope any longer. He wants nothing more than to die. He sleeps.

The story is especially remarkable if you read it in context. It comes immediately after Elijah's triumph on Mount Carmel, where he had proven that Baal is a false god and the prophets of Baal were false prophets. It was the high point of Elijah's career; but immediately afterward, he was plunged into a state of depression.

The sequence is true to human psychology. Whenever you have a peak experience, you can expect to feel a letdown afterward. But the word "letdown" is hardly adequate in Elijah's case!

To be fair, I should point out that there was one intervening event. Queen Jezebel had threatened to murder Elijah:
[King] Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow." Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life. (1 Kings 19:1-3a)
Elijah was also suffering from the burden of carrying too much responsibility. He lived in an era when Israel had broken faith with God. He was the point man in God's campaign to bring Israel to repentance.
And Elijah came near to all the people and said, "How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)
This is a heavy burden to bear. The religion of Israel mattered profoundly to Elijah. He felt that its very survival rested on his shoulders, and his alone.
Elijah came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He said, "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away." (1 Kings 19:9-10)
So Elijah's depression has three2 identifiable causes:  (1) the inevitable letdown after his triumph on Mount Carmel; (2) Jezebel's threat on his life; and (3) the onerous burden of responsibility he carried.

"It is enough," he says, with profound understatement. "Please — just let me die."

Sceptics deride the Bible for its fantastic stories, and I understand that point of view. Elijah is associated with a series of outstanding miracles. It is as if earthly limitations don't apply to him:  rather like Jesus walking on water.

Even if faith says that the stories are historical, it's still difficult to relate to a superhuman hero.

It's worth noting that the Bible also has this other side. In most cases — Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and Jeremiah come to mind — the veil is lifted at least occasionally, and we see the frail, human side of the Bible's heroes.

It is then that the Bible seems truest to us:  it is then that the reader experiences this subjective response, verisimilitude.

(Cross-posted on Outside the Box.)

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1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2Four, if we include physical exhaustion:  "And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, 'Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you'" (1 Kings 19:7). This, after Elijah had run a great distance to escape Jezebel's wrath.


Knotwurth Mentioning said...

Excellent post. Also like to point out that that's the fascinating thing about the Gospels, too. Like many of the other Biblical Greats you list, you get a very deep understanding of Jesus as a man, as well as his supernatural side. Scenes like the death of Lazarus and his prayers prior to the crucifixion connect the reader to Christ in an incredibly personal way... often I think the greatest trial Jesus was forced to face was his own humanity.

Jewish Atheist said...

I agree -- the strength of the Bible is in the human stories. At least in the Pentateuch, which is what I'm most familiar with, the people involved are not just people but archetypes, too. Genesis is fascinating as mythology. Honestly, I don't see much literary use for the other four books.

dan said...

Interesting that you choose to follow-up your reflections on David and Bathsheba with this reflection on Elijah. In fact, I believe that, just as the Bathsheba episode marks the negative turning point in the life of David (as I mentioned in my comment to you then), so also I think that this episode represents the negative turning point in the life of Elijah. Just as David never recovers from his act of adultery and the death of his son, so also Elijah never recovers from the "depression" that overwhelms him at this point. What does God say to Elijah in the desert? Essentially this: "What the heck are you doing here, Elijah? You best suck it up and realise that you're not alone. Besides, there's work for you to be doing out there, so get back there and get on it."

But Elijah never recovers. You see, God gives Elijah three tasks: (1) anoint Hazael as king over Aram; (2) anoint Jehu as king over Israel; and (3) anoint Elisha to suceed him as prophet (1 Ki 19.15-18). But what does Elijah actually do? He goes out and anoints Elisha, passes the buck to him, and throws in the towel so that Elisha is the one who accomplishes the first two tasks God gave to Elijah (cf. 2 Ki 8.7-14; 9.1-6).

Indeed, I would like to suggest that all the significant OT characters have somewhat ambiguous endings -- David, the great king, never recovers from the Bathsheba episode; Elijah, the great prophet, never recovers from the episode that you mention here; Moses, the great law-giver, is barred from entering the holy land; and even Abraham, the great patriarch, ends his life with a rather ambiguous marriage to Keturah, after the death of Sarah, which results in, among other things, the birth of Midian (cf. Gen 25). There is, I think, a ghost of failure lingering around the legacies of all of these heroes.

It is for this reason that I find the character of Jesus to be especially interesting. It appears as though Jesus, the great messiah, is headed towards a similarly ambiguous ending. Rather than ushering in the new age of peace and justice, Jesus dies on a cross crying, "my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?" The ghost of failure seems ready to overwhelm his legacy as well... but then we get to the resurrection, and that, well, that changes everything. It is finally in the resurrection of Jesus that the ghost of failure and the ambiguity haunting all the "great" biblical characters is dispelled. Furthermore (and, IMHO, this is truly marvelous) according to Paul, the ambiguity of our legacies, and even our failures, are now reworked in light of the seeming failure of the crucified Christ (cf. Ro 8; 2 Cor 4).

Grace and peace.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'm not sure why you put "depression" in quotation marks. Are you suggesting it was something other than depression?

I certainly agree that the Old Testament heroes generally finished off their lives in some degree of failure. I hadn't heard that observation juxtaposed with Jesus' resurrection before (i.e., as an event that breaks the pattern of lives ending badly). It's an interesting way of looking at the texts.

And of course you're right, our failures are likewise set right by God's grace in Christ.

But I think you're too hard on Elijah; and I'm not sure you're interpreting the text correctly, with respect to God's words to Elijah.

I would hesitate to pass a negative judgement on Elijah, because "Elijah was a man with a nature like ours" (James 5:17a). James uses our shared humanity to suggest that we can do mighty works through prayer, just as Elijah did. But I suggest it also works the other way, too: we might find ourselves overwhelmed by the magnitude of our responsibilities, just as Elijah did. In fact, it happens all the time, and the Church doesn't want to go around "shooting our wounded".

As for God's words to Elijah, the text emphasizes that God was extraordinarily gentle with him. The Lord was not in the mighty wind, nor was he in the earthquake. Those displays manifested YHWH's great power to execute his will; but YHWH did not come to Elijah in judgement. Instead, the Lord manifested himself to Elijah in "the sound of a low whisper".

He asks Elijah a question. Is it meant as a challenge? It could be read that way. But Elijah responds by pouring out his soul, and maybe that is all that God expected of him. Maybe this is the maternal voice of God, a nurturing voice, addressing a hurting child: "Why are you hiding under the covers?" Again I emphasize that the words were spoken in tones of great gentleness. And the child felt safe to pour out his pain and misery.

God then gives Elijah a task to carry out. Work is therapeutic. Depressed people tend to do what Elijah was doing: secluding themselves to such an extent that life just stops. It's therapeutic if they are given a manageable goal to start them living again, if they can find the will to act on it.

And I guess Elijah failed to do so. He passed on his prophetic mantle to Elisha, but that's as far as he got. He never fully recovered from the emotional impact of this series of events. He was a spent force.

As for the mention of the 7,000 who hadn't bowed the knee to Baal — I don't see that as a rebuke, either. It is mentioned very indirectly. To paraphrase YHWH, "I'm going to pass judgement on Israel and purge the nation. But a remnant will survive — 7,000 faithful ones who have not bowed the knee to Baal."

It is a word of encouragement ("You're not as alone as you think you are"), but a very indirect one. It's hardly a rebuke, in my opinion.

dan said...


A few follow-up comments.

(1) It is not my intention to "pass a negative judgment on Elijah" or on any today who are overwhelmed by depression or any other sort of woundedness. In fact, I think that being overwhelmed and burning-out is, perhaps, an inevitable result for those who have "ministries" and insights like Elijah today.

I often use the example of when the Hebrews rejected Moses' leadership after he killed the Egyptian to describe what I think would be the fate of the "prophets" today (cf. Ex 2.11-15). Ultimately, it was the rejection Moses experienced from the people of God (who were not yet ready to be liberated) that drove Moses into the wilderness for forty years (although, to be fair, Moses was not yet ready to be a liberator). Similarly, I feel that churches in Canada, by and large, are content to remain in their various forms of bondage (to the accumulation of wealth, to success, and so on and so forth) and will, inevitable, drive those like Moses or Elijah into the "wilderness" that we tend to call "burn-out."

Consequently, my concern in the prior comment was to try and show how the text itself is engaged in a (veiled?) criticism of Elijah. For the record, I am not alone in thinking this -- the commentaries I have read on Ki, and the OT profs with whom I have studied, have led me to this line of thinking.

(2) As for your alternate reading of what occurs in 1 Ki 19, well, that view also has popular and scholarly support. I may have overstated my case (especially in my paraphrase of God's words to Elijah!) but I did so in order to stress the genuine possibility of a different reading, and in order to highlight the essential ambiguity of what is going on. I'm fine with holding up both interpretations as possibilities, as I think that there is some truth in both.

(3) Finally, I put the word "depression" in quotations marks for a few reasons. First of all, I did so because speaking of "depression" in the case of Elijah is importing a very foreign concept into the text. I'm not necessarily saying that Elijah was struggling with "something other than depression," I'm just pointing out that Elijah would never have called what he was experiencing "depression." Of course, we import foreign concepts into the text all the time, both in our scholarly/technical readings and in our pastoral readings, but it is worth remembering that we do this.

However, my primary reason for putting the word "depression" in quotations is because I harbour some suspicion about the way in which a therapeutic paradigm, with its language and concepts, has come to dominate much of pastoral ministry (and pastoral exegetical preaching). Let me be clear: it is not you, nor is it your post, that makes me suspicious, it is the word itself ("depression"), and the paradigm that it carries along with it, that causes me to put it into quotations.

As always, I enjoy the dialogue. Your words leave me feeling simultaneously challenged, rebutted, and embraced, and that suggests to me that you've got a rare gift for this sort of thing.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Hi, Dan:
Thanks for clarifying your thoughts. I'm glad you don't find my style off-putting. I worry that sometimes I'm too critical and combative. I get swept up in the flow of my own rhetoric and I'm more abrasive than I need (or intend) to be.

One of my goals at Emerging From Babel is to provide some constructive exposition of the Bible without constantly grinding away at critical axes. Not in every post, but this post is an example of the sort of thing I have in mind.

Indeed, I don't have much of a critical perspective (yet) on the Old Testament books. I don't think I've ever opened a commentary on 1 Kings, except maybe a one-volume commentary on the whole Bible. What you read here was entirely my own interpretation of the text. You make me curious about the critical scholarly perspective on 1 Kings 19.

I take your point about depression and the healthcare industry — for that is what it has become. I'm aware that there are multinational corporations out there multiplying diagnoses in order to market new therapies: not necessarily out of a sincere desire to help people (certainly not exclusively that) but with an eye to maximizing profits.

The author of 1 Kings wouldn't have said, "Elijah was depressed." On the other hand, he doesn't offer any explicit analysis of Elijah's condition, which puts the reader in the role of figuring out what was going on.

Here's the thing: whenever I write on the subject of depression, I write in the awareness that a depressed person might read the post. That's why I steered away from your critical perspective on Elijah.

One of my sisters once told me that every time she suffered the smallest setback, she had the immediate thought, "I wish I were dead." And she meant it literally. Her whole life was a struggle against depression. So when I read Elijah's words, "Now, O Lord, take away my life" — I approach the text from an intensely personal angle.

I think it's an unforced reading of the text to label Elijah's condition depression. (That's essentially the point MaryP was making in her comment on my other blog.)

I'm also aware that a burnt-out pastor might stumble across this post. I know you're sensitive to human frailty, so you'll have no problem with me approaching the text from that perspective: as a study in human frailty.