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The Devil MAY Care: The Comedy of Job

“We must learn that to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith but superstition.” Martin Luther King Jr.
In college I read the Voyage of the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes, in which an intrepid group of ancient Greek heroes goes on a voyage to recapture a stolen golden fleece. Our professor approached this work with reverence and touted the novel as being one of the first “psychological” novels in the Western canon. What he failed to see was that the novel is funny. The novel was a sort of Dr. Strangelove of the Hellenistic Era, a parody of the values Homer had lauded. The implication was that many heroic stories are frauds perpetrated by writers who are skillful at taking mediocre wealthy and powerful people and building them up into larger-than-life allegorical figures.

Apollonius wrote the story of the Argonauts as if he were not aware that literature is supposed to “elevate” human experience, as if, in his naiveté, he believed the job of a writer is to do just the opposite – to show the “great heroes” as the lousy people they really were. Jason, the leader, is an empty-headed pretty-boy, chosen for his great journey only because he loses a shoe. (The local superstition is that a guy who loses a shoe will set off on a great quest – he becomes the guy.) He wins over Medea only because he has had some experience seducing women and Medea is young, inexperienced and gullible. At one point in the story the Argonauts lose Heracles because he frantically jumps ship to run after his (boy) lover with whom he has had an argument. Heracles misses the adventure, abandoning the quest for the boy he lusts after.

To approach this story with a straight, solemn face is to accord a little too much gravitas to something just because it is written in ancient Greek and is not overtly labeled a comedy for a posterity of humorless, Ivy-educated profs. Despite the reverence accorded to the book of Job, I am convinced that it, too, is, in essence, a work of comedy. Just as the Voyage of the Argonauts makes fun of the Hellenistic Age by showing it perfectly, so the writer of Job also makes fun of his own age by showing it perfectly in the characters of Job’s friends and their bizarre expectations of God. The author is satirizing various types of ‘wisdom’ literature, such as the book of Proverbs, where, for instance, the question of why we should be good or moral is addressed and one of the big answers is that God rewards the good person and punishes the wicked. This motif runs through the book of Proverbs like a mantra. The good are exulted, the evil are struck low. This seems, in fact, to be a deeply ingrained default belief in the human mind. The book of Job satirizes this. If your life is good, God loves you; if your life sucks, what did you do? In the book of Job, however, exactly the opposite happens (as it does in real life). The book of Job sarcastically asks, “OK, now what? What’s Plan B now that I know there’s no deal between God and me correlating my goodness and my success?”

The writer is primarily making fun of people’s goofy expectations of God, or, our sometimes self-centered, childish, unquestioned views of God. We often play with our expectations of God to make them fit our needs, and the author of the book of Job satirizes this the way Apollonius satirizes heroic grandeur. We get a version of stark realism in opposition to a pleasing and false conception. If we suffer unjustly, we do not abandon the notion that God is just, we come up with excuses for God. We simply cannot let go of the belief that God will always intercede or that God will always help the just and punish the wicked in the most palpable manner. Even if our prayers would seem to have gone unanswered, we must, on some psychological level, salvage the belief that God will be there next time – we surely must have done something wrong. Ironically, we rely on a belief rooted in magic and superstition – if your friend goes into battle knowing his rituals and prayers have made him impervious to bullets, and he gets shot anyway, well, he must not have been pure enough or he did the ritual wrong. We seem to adopt this attitude most of the time when God does not meet our expectations.

The story of Job shows us that our wishful thinking is not the case and that if we are to engage “evil” effectively as progressive Christians, or even live meaningfully in the world, we must first imagine what a just God’s expectations of, and trust in, us would involve and what expectations we should have about God. If you were being persecuted unjustly, what would you expect of God?  Do you believe that a person who suffers has done something to offend or isolate him/herself from God? Do you believe that God “allows” suffering in the world? What is God’s responsibility to the world? Do you believe that God is meeting God’s responsibilities? Given the fact that WE have created evil in the world, what should God do?

Job, the thought-experiment, initially seems to humorously propose this question: What if the most righteous of humanity, who has always prospered and has never met adversity, were NOT favored by God after all and all of wisdom literature is baloney. Indeed, at the beginning of the story God seems to know of Job, points to him proudly, but has never really done anything for the guy. Job has, basically, been lucky. God’s been lounging around or doing other stuff, but, fortunately, at least Job winds up ok and Satan, bless his heart, sees all of this. What if Job were to suddenly experience extreme and unwarranted tribulation and started to think, “WTH, first God does nothing, then I get slammed for all my efforts.” What if, essentially, all of his good works resulted in evil for him instead of good, in clear opposition to the teachings of wisdom literature? If you’ve got a God who just kind of hangs out taking credit for luck, why shouldn’t evil befall Job? Satan gets it. In the initial garden and in the desert with Jesus, Satan seems to be a type of “trickster” figure who advises people to get to the right objective through the wrong means. Here it is as if the trickster has finally gotten something right. In this comedy, God is now the trickster who has failed to give humanity the right way to get the right thing.

This is utterly counter-intuitive to us, it turns our expectations topsy-turvy like any good satire. We do not believe in luck, we believe in providence. There are lousy, selfish, stupid, cruel people all around us, and it would be nice to know of a divine counter-balance. We wonder, what is the point of a God who doesn’t help or punish? We have this need, why will God not fill it? We would naturally expect that God will also be as outraged as we are by what we perceive to be evil and injustice and respond the same way. Satan asserts that our belief that our actions will necessarily entail rewards or punishments is so strong that to reverse it will be to irrevocably alter Job’s life of righteousness. Satan argues that without rewards following goodness and punishments following evil, our moral lives will collapse.

Satan may have been implying that we are morally hollow beings and we do good for the rewards we expect to receive and will abandon that type of life should we not be rewarded, maybe because he has read the wisdom literature. Implicit, then, is the question of what is the impetus to do or be good if wisdom literature is baloney, and beyond this, should we be able to do or be good even under the most extreme hardship? Of course, John Locke came along to address all of this much later; we usually avoid harming others because we suffer when we see others suffer and working toward a better society alleviates suffering. We are at our heart’s core suffering averse and this drives so much of our action. But we think that if God removes his gaze from us, all hell will break loose.

The book of Job may also be humorously pointing to what may be the most difficult part of a person’s ethical development – how we deal with rotten, lousy people and situations without acting like rotten, lousy people (and doesn’t it just suck that most rotten, lousy people don’t even know how rotten and lousy they are and when you tell them they just stare at you blankly?). Satan, in fact, points to a kind of moral paradox at the heart of this comedy – we need these lousy folks and experiences to truly rise. But our goal is often to create a society without rotten, lousy people. If we change all the rotten, lousy people into considerate people, we might merely get a society of gray, bland, inoffensive consumers, folks I like to jokingly call Secular Consumerists.

Furthermore, in our quest to create a world devoid of lousy people, we worship the god of deterrence and it is easy to strike back, and we are often considered blameless if we do so. In fact, in our society, you’re virtually mocked if you do not strike back at a person who harms you. Do we, however, really analyze what we are doing or why we do it? Or have we fallen into a sort of moral rut and act in ways that have been previously established without even thinking? When confronted with a problematic person, do we resort to the fixed action pattern of retribution and punishment instead of more creative problem solving?

Jesus established quite a high ideal for us to live up to. Are the conventional, non-progressive Christian Churches challenging us to live up to this standard or worship the god of deterrence? Shouldn’t we, as progressive Christians, be trying continuously to rise and to continuously send out the message that we must all rise? Should we not be examining, recognizing and questioning each emotional response we feel? Perhaps being progressive Christians means recognizing that the Church is integrated too deeply into society and also promotes negative dominant culture values. Christianity took off in Rome because it promoted counter-cultural values. People loved this. They loved being challenged and rising to the challenge.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about ‘cheap’ grace and ‘expensive’ grace in his book The Cost of Discipleship. Would the Job thought experiment seem to indicate that there is a ‘cheap’ versus an ‘expensive’ morality? Would this concept of cheap and expensive morality mean we need a certain amount of adversity, or a certain amount of challenge, to really develop a moral being or presence in the world? If so, how can these experiences be provided when one of the goals of our society is to sequester oneself away from difficult and challenging aspects of our social life or to beat it down with force? Is the ‘perfect’ society one in which all moral temptations have been removed? Or will this merely produce hollow, unchallenged ‘cheap’ human beings? This is the comedy of Job. This may be a paradox in the field of ethics: the harder we work to remove or avoid evil, the “cheaper” our morality becomes. It’s as if all moral action is geared to remove threats and harm but once such a harmless and threatless place is created, moral stagnation might occur. Job starts as the product of luck and a moral utopia and ends after accepting the challenge of facing the harmful, revealing an underlying absurdity of human ethics.

Of course, the famous Navajo story comes to mind. Two young people go to kill four demons – the demons of cold, hunger, old age and poverty. Yet each demon convinces the heroes to let it live. Cold indicates that without it there would be no snow on mountain tops and therefore no running water, hunger states that without it people would not know when to eat, old age points out that it provides wisdom and kindness and poverty points out that if everyone were wealthy, everyone would be selfish, greedy and idle.

In lieu of accepting the necessity for lousy people, we rely on the god of deterrence to try to clean things up for us. It is a one stop answer to everything and it begs these important questions: If I am a “good” person, am I a “lucky” person in that I grew up with parents who fostered goodness in me and I grew up in a neighborhood where I was not adversely influenced? Am I a “bad” person because I grew up in an area of violence and fear and where I may not have been cared for adequately? Can we bring our moral development under our control? How? Also, what responsibility do we have to those from circumstances that do not foster moral behavior? Is it right for us to allow evil to continually develop and only respond to it through punishment? Job asks all of this in this ancient satire. Are we good if we allow evil to continually develop in our own society while we live safely? We pursue our own excellence while watching others fall.

Retribution is probably as much a fixed-action-pattern in the human psyche as reciprocation is, but nobody wants to view punishment in this manner. We do not examine why or how we are acting; we do not even ask whether it is it always necessary to strike back. We have not reached stage four of the levels of competency in this matter. But, another wrinkle occurs when asking whether it is always right to return evil with mercy. When might it not be right to return evil with mercy? Can punishment be redemptive after all? The comedy of Job seems to assert that we can not even establish any hard and fast rules about all of this. We need to always keep thinking the way Dizzy Gillespie said a good jazz performer must. Don’t just read the notes from the sheet, always be ready to add stuff.

The character of Satan pokes fun at what most people (and, in this case, God) consider to be righteous. Satan is clearly mocking cheap morality. Maybe the events of the book of Job were learning experiences for God as well. I think it is, in fact, pretty funny to think of God suddenly realizing that the concept of righteousness can be expanded. At this point does God discover his capacity for providence? Does God discover the mess he is in with some folks creating evil one day and others demanding deliverance from evil the next? Maybe the experiences of Job alter and stretch God’s expectations of humanity as much as our expectations of God become altered in this story.

However, to his credit, Job definitely has resisted temptation. That is something to hang your hat on. It is more than Oscar Wilde, admittedly, was able to do. We live in a society where people do not learn to say no and become irritated when you expect them to. Folks do not say “no” to junk food, sugary drinks, television, irresponsible internet usage, their tempers, their greed, malice…basically what does anyone say “no” to these days? Everything is right that one feels like doing. So kudos to Job, but perhaps Job needs to learn the next step in righteousness; figuratively, he needs to move from Westchester to the Bronx. Very few people would choose to move from Westchester to the Bronx, so he is compelled to.

So now Job must learn that God’s justice is not like human justice. God’s justice does not extend to making everything easy, comfortable or perfect. God may not be shooting for Utopia. God has no intention of creating an ideal situation for a people to become lazy and self-satisfied. We are interested in creating that ‘ideal’ situation. It’s called the Upper West Side. God likes expensive morality.  God likes the Bronx.

Our justice is premised on retribution or restitution (revenge or receiving money); we want to act as if the evil or harmful deed never occurred and we do everything possible to try to make everything seem as it was before the unwanted action. If a product explodes and scars me, I sue the product’s company and the jury gives me money to have the scar repaired and a little extra to make up for the pain and suffering I endured. At the end of it all I should be able to forget that this whole incident ever occurred. God’s justice, however, is based on ensuring that anyone who can will develop into someone capable of leading a meaningful life. In our justice, the victim is made to feel better through retribution or restitution, but in God’s justice, the ‘victim,’ perhaps, learns something and grows in depth and compassion to others.

The temptations of Jesus in the desert are funny too, because when Satan was tempting Jesus, he may have felt that he was trying to help Jesus, helping Jesus find short-cuts to a new life. Satan is saying here to God: “Wait a minute, you forgot something.’ In this comedy could Satan actually be interested in humanity’s moral growth? Sometimes he gets it right as a trickster and sometimes he gets it wrong? Is this meant to be an aspect of the comedy? This is interesting because during a substantial part of the story Job does seem to be implying that God is not acting like the benevolent being God is supposed to act like. And if this is true, then what exactly IS God? Are we being challenged to differentiate between what we psychologically need God to be and what God is?

“Job is very discerning; he KNOWS that God has deliberately allowed him to suffer adversity even though he did not ‘deserve it.’ There is now quite a discrepancy between Job’s expectations of God and what he is perceiving as either God’s callousness or God’s active harm of an innocent person. The rest of the book becomes Job’s indictment of God for doing such a thing to an innocent person and the (comic) responses of his peers to such an accusation.

Job is a seeker after knowledge and wisdom just as much as Faust was. Job is one who learns through experience. Through his experience he begins to realize that his previous conceptions were not accurate. Job is, as the story relates, one who had once been so esteemed that he gave counsel to those who were aggrieved. Now he is on the other end of the stick. And, physically and experientially, Job has moved forward but his deeply rooted conceptions, his expert counsel to the aggrieved, are holding him back. This process becomes one of Job overcoming his own faulty counsel…of Job learning through experience that what we are predisposed to believe, or what we want to believe (in our state of cheap morality), is not necessarily the truth. Job’s explanations catch up to his experience.

The rest of the book, prior to the conclusion where God and Job engage in a discourse, involves dialogues between Job and companions who rush to his side ostensibly to cheer him up. Th humor is in the fact that Job is now subjected to his own ‘wisdom’; the wisdom based upon his prosperity, the wisdom that God is good and will not allow the just to suffer. Perhaps by becoming perfectly righteous, Job has fulfilled all the criteria of that stage and is ready to move on. Indeed, during the big chunk of the book of Job that constitutes the arguments brought against him by his “comforters”, Job knows he is righteous, he knows that he is continually bombarded with explanations for his adversity that are wrong. Job’s ordeal, therefore, enters into another stage: an absurd and comic transitional phase – he not only has lost every person he loved and all of his property, he is sitting on a  dung heap covered with sores, but he now must also endure false explanations and accusations as to why he is suffering. Indeed, the skin disease may symbolically represent this transitional phase.

Each of the explanations is meant to console, but only exacerbates Job more and convinces him more fully of his innocence and the injustice of his situation. Perhaps this represents an inner battle. The friends could well represent aspects of Job’s self. Job is, after all, listening to his own advice which he had heretofore spewed out to others.

Bildad begins the onslaught by stating that God simply will not refrain from upholding the innocent and punishing the guilty. How can anyone expect otherwise? This is common sense. He goes further by insinuating that Job’s children were not entirely innocent and this is why they were annihilated. The realization that God may not be the upholder of the righteous or punisher of the guilty that we would like is so terrifying to Bildad that he builds a case against the very victims of the calamity. Zophar picks up the thread and reprimands Job for not admitting to some kind of guilt.  Job must search his soul and find exactly what he did wrong if the situation is to be rectified. Zophar goes so far as to say that an admission of guilt will re-instate Job’s prosperity, this would only be fitting for a God of justice and mercy. Eliphaz then states that it is common knowledge that God punishes the wicked even though Job points out case after case where the wicked thrive and prosper in the world. Here, he is beginning, through his adversity, to see that he has, himself, been wrong. It took an intensity of experience to shatter this belief and it took real courage to withstand the arguments.

Indeed, embracing any one of these arguments would have left him no better than before.  It is interesting to think about what it took for him to virtually renounce all desire for consolation in order to stare the truth in the face. Job may be one of the greatest seekers of knowledge and wisdom in all of western literature, even though he never moved from the spot where he was sitting. God brought the experience to him, even though, in this comedy, it is Satan who acts under God’s aegis. The lesson seems to be that Providence finds those who are ready and brings transformational experiences to them. God may not be the slacker we sometimes think God to be. Job’s conviction is so great that God, himself, appears, maybe because God hates redundancy and gets as bored as we do with the comforters.

He appears as Elihu tries to begin the cycle of argumentation all over again.  Indeed, this may be another comic element. How much patience is Job supposed to demonstrate? He has withstood the LENGTHY arguments of his three comforters and the arguments will begin again. For the reader, as well as Job, God mercifully intercedes. Among Elihu’s tirades, however, is to be found, I believe, the most overt articulation of a theme for this book. Elihu reprimands Job for believing that, “…it profits one nothing to delight in God…” Sorry, we seem to have a not-for-profit God, Elihu.

Many who have written about the Book of Job have stated that God humbles Job with examples of his power. Job is, however, blown away by the scope and majesty of God and by his divorce from God. There is a level of reality that has clearly not been open to Job, and Job intuits it for the first time. That level of reality is now face to face with Job. It is a level of reality that seems to overwhelm Job’s capacity to understand. Yet, what does this have to do with the fact that Job has been unjustly persecuted?

God speaks of two creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan. “Only its maker can approach it with a sword,” he says of Behemoth. “Who can stand before it? Who can confront it and be safe? …under the whole heaven who?” he says of Leviathan. Job then states, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear…but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job is now is in the direct presence of and having a direct experience with God. Job has been making accusations galore, and we expected God to provide an explanation for Job’s suffering and much more.  God does not give Job an answer, instead God reveals himself completely to Job. Job has gone from performing rituals to standing face to face with God and it changes him…”I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job has fulfilled the process…the paradigm changes…his concepts catch up to his experiences…he directly experiences God.

But here’s another wrinkle. Here’s what I think really might make Job a comedy. All in all, at the end of the day, perhaps he really did have all of this coming to him (I hesitate to say this since the murder of his kids always seemed to be an excessive aspect of the story to me). His suffering was directly related to the fact that he was so good – so superficially ‘righteous’ that he invited the next stage; there was nowhere else to go but up. Unfortunately, going up means going low for a while.

According to Bonhoeffer, the ONLY way that God can help us is through God’s apparent “weakness”. It is almost as if our belief that there is a God who is good is a hindrance to our own actions in the world. We can be pacified by our belief or activated by the truth and God’s trust that we are up to the struggle necessary to ensure justice and goodness on earth. The only statement that even approximates a direct answer to Job’s questions and indictments is a question from God that warrants some examination: “Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” That is followed by this quote from God: “Look on all who are proud and bring them low; tread down the wicked where they stand. Hide them all in the dust together; bind their faces in the world below. Then I will also acknowledge to you that your OWN RIGHT HAND can give you victory.” Perhaps the funniest theological paradox might be that one is only fully capable of doing God’s work after one abandons God’s help.

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