The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

"Too Great For Words," part 2

(part 1)

The same evening that Bildad receives the news of Job’s cursed misfortune, he sits down in his study. He shuts the door and pulls out some stationary embossed with his initials. A handwritten letter will communicate his affection and empathy for Job. He finds a nice pen and taps it against his lips. He leans back in his chair, looks out the window, and tries to imagine his friend’s face, the lines in it. Bildad tries to imagine the kind of sorrow he himself might experience at such a tragic series of events. He sits staring out the window for some time, lost in thought, even getting choked up thinking of Job and his effusive wife. He wipes his eyes.

Finally full of anger and heartache and sadness, he begins to write. He scraps the first draft and starts again. Not that Job will know that this is the second draft. Not that Job will know how Bildad has been weeping and meditating, even praying, for the past half hour. No, he sets his pen to the stationary. That is the beginning of Bildad’s affection as far as Job knows. Unless Bildad describes his own tears, his eyes will be dry to Job.

Between sentences Bildad pauses to collect his thoughts, now darting out in many directions. Not that Job will see the time that elapses between the period and the capital letter. Not that Job’s wife, as she reads the letter aloud to her husband, will pause and let silence well up between the paragraphs. No, the words and sentences will barrel on until the end with only letter-spaces obliterating the minutes that pass among them.

Bildad has written a lot of letters, feels he’s pretty adroit in executing them anymore. This one has a bit of an arc, as it should, from beginning to end. He feels his words are encouraging enough, but also tinged with a sense of grief. They are also eloquent. After all, compassion in bound up in beautiful language. Only beauty in words can suggest gravity in meaning.

But there’s a hesitation. Bildad wonders if any words can really speak into Job’s crisis. He wonders if Job can even receive such words as Bildad intends them. He has no chance inflect his words with a tone of voice—a different sort of meaning. He only has vague words to draw out and a lumbering language to shape. He wishes he could speak these words to Job face-to-face, and gauge his reaction so that he might modify them as he goes—to temper or exaggerate, to pause or rush on. But he cannot be present. He cannot even be silent. The letter prods him on. He must write and use words. Silence only looks like indifference. He must respond, so he signs the letter, and sends it first thing the following morning.

***

Zophar, for his part, sees the need to respond quickly to Job’s turn of fate. He too grieves the day he receives the news. His thoughts, throughout his busy day, continually return to his friend Job. Zophar’s compassion is immediate, and he feels the need to communicate that immediacy. Time is of the essence. Job will appreciate immediate contact, Zophar thinks to himself. It will communicate value and priority.

Zophar picks up his phone and taps out a message with his thumbs. “Job. Just heard. Thinking about you. Am so sad. Anything I can do?” Like Bildad did, Zophar pauses between each phrase. Zophar rereads it and edits a little bit. He’s not totally satisfied with it, but he wants Job to know immediately that he is thinking of him. He hits ‘Send.’

No response.

Zophar wonders then. Perhaps Job’s cell phone was in the fire too. Or, if not, maybe it’s not on. Or if it is, maybe it’s on silent. Or maybe Job did get the text but doesn’t want to respond. What could Job say, after all? Can any 160 characters encapsulate Job’s grief? Zophar wonders to himself. What would I say if I were him? Nothing, probably. I’d feel no need to respond. I’d receive without obligation.

So Zophar continues periodically to text Job with some encouragement or just to say he’s thinking about Job, praying for Job. He hears nothing back. That small bit of uncertainty makes Zophar anxious, but he shakes his head. What to do now? Call up Job and make sure he’s getting text messages? If he hasn’t gotten any of them, then the first thing Job would be receiving from Zophar isn’t compassion but a pragmatic meta-conversation about communication. It’s all mangled. Zophar feels handicapped, not empowered.

For Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, their technologies are blatantly limited and frustrating. Each friend wants to express to Job an empathy that only presence and silence can do effectively, precisely, and inefficiently. Instead each is forced into using words, pressing against the limits of language—its eloquence and its evocative power—to try and transmit the unutterable meaning of presence. Each was trying to put presence into words. Something presence was never meant to become.

But there is still another friend yet to come. Elihu will exceed all three in his technological acumen. He will surpass his predecessors with the most personal communications technology yet. Skype.

(In Part Three: Eliphaz skypes Job. And conclusion.)