Friday, February 4, 2022
Your assignment: Write a brief book report from a biblical and Christian perspective about the autobiographical book Night, by Elie Wiesel, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.
Hello Professor, if you are still living, I hope this note finds you well. Although over thrity years have passed since you gave us the assignment to write a book report on Night, I thought I should perhaps submit a complete revision of it, since back then I had neither the breadth of historical knowledge nor the depth of biblical learning to do an adequate job of it. Moreover, like some other readers have commented (in Amazon’s review section), I agree that Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account is important enough to be revisited occasionally. One time through is simply not enough. And thirty years was too long of an interim.
To start this new, hopefully improved report, may I give you my visceral reaction to Night? It left me utterly horrified. At times, I had to force myself to keep reading, due to the sheer awfulness of what Wiesel had to endure. As an autobiographical account, this is much, much more than a mere book. Frankly, at times I could not bear, nor did I want to countenance Wiesel’s story. However, I knew I must. Something compelled me to keep reading, keep listening, perhaps because it really, actually happened. Paradoxically, Wiesel’s account is at once repulsive and absorbing. I managed to re-read the entire book in less than a day.
Professor, one of the perplexing things I want to mention is that exactly the same sort of awful mass atrocity happened a just few years after I was first assigned to read the book. If Wiesel wrote Night in an effort to prevent yet another genocide… well, I wish I could say that he succeeded, but not so. In 1994, another almost unthinkable ethnic genocide occurred in the African nation of Rwanda. Perhaps if enough Rwandan college students had been assigned to read Night in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the genocide there would never have happened. Who knows? Perhaps the idealistic efforts of educators like yourself will someday make a dent. Perhaps you and yours and me and mine can help prevent human beings from repeating these sort of horrors. Perhaps, Professor. But I wonder if educational efforts are adequate to the task of transforming the moral flaws in human nature.
Please allow me to continue waxing philosophical. Funerals are sad affairs, which we attend if we must. But emotionally, we can only handle so many funerals. For me, this book was like binging on a whole series of funerals. Do we not find it intolerable — to the point of impossible — to consider the kind of horror, inhumanity, and terror depicted in Night? After a while, I do. Most people, I suspect, really do find it nigh-to-impossible to contemplate something this dark and bleak. That is why stories like these are not popular reading material. That is why we often need to be constrained to listen to bleak and dark accounts like these.
Yet the possibility of finding meaning makes such accounts compelling. Most of us dearly want our lives to actually matter, somehow. Most of us don’t want to believe the nihilist line. We don’t want to believe that “[life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” to quote Shakespeare. Speaking for such meaning-seekers, I will say that we want to make sense of such experiences — especially when they are dark and bleak. To think that Wiesel actually went through all these manifold horrors! “Hell on earth” was a phrase that came to mind. And if not hell on earth, I propose it safe to say that he lived through something proximate to it.
Theologically, what if it was? What if his experience was hell on earth, or something proximate? What if that was the point of it all? I mean, how can we make sense theologically of what Wiesel experienced? In the face of such horror, consider our interpretive options, Professor. What are they, exactly? Doesn’t the reflexive reaction of “he went through hell on earth” force us to begin thinking theologically about the Holocaust?
This is where the “Where was God?” question necessarily must be addressed. To say that Wiesel was God-conscious through all the horrors simply demonstrates that I read the book (twice now, actually). “Where is God? Where is He?” This was the question one of Wiesel’s fellow prisoners asked when they were forced to watch the hangings of two men and a boy. And notably, Wiesel ends up losing his faith — not in God, per se, but in the goodness of God. “I was the accuser, God the accused,” says Wiesel.
So maybe that is another interpretive option: These kinds of horrors happen because God is simply not as good as He is cracked up to be. My guess is that a lot of people will conclude just that, if and when they reflect on those who “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote another famous line from Shakespeare.
But where would that leave us? If we conclude that maybe God exists, but is somehow less worthy than we have heard and hoped, what then? What do we do with that?
Our two interpretive options thus far leave us without much hope. On one hand, we can opt for a nihilistic explanation: Life has no overarching meaning. On the other hand, we can opt for a lesser-God option: If God exists, you cannot and should not count on Him.
Are there any other options? Are there any additional hands?
Someone might suggest that the best we can do is make our own meaning in life. As far as I can tell, that is not substantially different than the nihilistic option. It’s just puts the most optimistic spin possible on the nihilistic option. Okay, we can try to make meaning of our lives. But how long will such meaning last? And to whom will it matter?
If a good, eternal God actually exists, He can ensure that all the misery and horrors of our lives will matter, and will be vindicated. Aside from such a God, meaning in life cannot be guaranteed. And justice certainly cannot be guaranteed.
Therefore, I am compelled by hope to hold on to God. I do not want to give up on the good God option, in spite of all the horrors and the injustices faced by Elie Wiesel and the other victims of genuine “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” And whereas Wiesel wanted to accuse God of injustice, I want to exonerate God somehow. And I think Scripture shows us exactly how to exonerate God, because it gives God’s perspective on these issues.
But it will be tricky task, because this is a zero-sum proposition. Wiesel is right about one thing: We do have to take sides. In the face of horrors and atrocities like Auschwitz, we have to either accuse God or excuse God. As a Christian, I feel compelled to excuse, or rather defend, God. Moreover, in Scripture God defends Himself against just such accusations — quite often, actually. If you want to read a particularly pertinent selection from Scripture, start with the Book of Isaiah chapters 8, 9, and 10, which, in context, is a passage initially about the Assyrian invasion of ancient Israel, but seems to speak beyond its immediate context to another time, even the time that Elie Wiesel himself lived through.
Professor, for the sake of brevity, I am going to pause here. I hope to come back to this and speak more about the pertinent passage in Isaiah, as well as other biblical passages.