Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament

Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament

Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament

Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament


At a time when the chasm between academic scholarship and theological reflection seems to be widening, both the academic guild and the church share in common an uncertainty over how to study and appropriate the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. On the one hand, mainline denominations have for the most part avoided the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes in their preaching and educational curriculum. Biblical scholars, on the other hand, have labored hard to identify the theological significance and thematic center of the wisdom literature, but without much consensus. In Character in Crisis, William P. Brown helps to break the impasse by demonstrating that the aim of the Bible's wisdom literature is the formation of moral character - both for individuals and for the community. Brown traces the theme of moral identity and conduct throughout the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, with a concluding reflection on the Epistle of James in the New Testament, and explores a range of issuesthat includes literary characterization, moral discourse, worldview, and the theology of the ancient sages. He examines the ways in which central characters such as God, wisdom, and human beings are profiled in the wisdom books and shows how their characterizations impart ethical meaning to the reading community, both ancient and modern.


In American society renewed interest in the value of character has recently galvanized public and political discussion. Phrases such as “character education” and “politics of virtue” are quickly entering the household of vernacular discourse. Former drug czar and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett’s best-seller The Book of Virtues has sold over a million copies, and plans are underway for a sequel as well as a myriad of textbooks. Politicians and social analysts who focus on ethical character and how the government can play an instrumental role are now called “virtuecrats.” However the issues of virtue and character become defined and caricatured in public discourse, they address growing fears about the general direction society seems to be taking: the predominance of self-interest in corporate and private spheres, the violent fragmentation of American society, and the destructive effects of institutions on the character of young people.

To add to the list, many have noted the vast and fertile fields of multiculturalism, which have been a source of pride and enrichment in American society, fast becoming desolate wastelands due to the withering effects of “culture wars.” Public discourse, with its ideal of providing an arena of free exchange and learning, has become a veritable battlefield dominated by the rhetoric of divisiveness and victimization. Columnist Lance Morrow echoes many a social critic when he makes the following diagnosis:

1. See James Q. Wilson, On Character; idem, the Moral Sense; William J. Bennett, ed., The Book of Virtues.

2. See Howard Fineman, “The Virtuecrats.”

3. William A. Galston, “Introduction: the Revival of the Virtues,” 2.

4. See James D. Hunter, Culture Wars; idem, Before the Shooting Begins.

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