12/6/2020 THE BOOK OF JOB PROJECT Theater of War
“There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” (Job 1:1 KLV)
Thus begins the Bible’s Book of Job, perhaps the text that first led me to question the Bible in particular and religion in general.
You (probably) all know the story – The devil manipulates God into smiting “his most loyal servant” with all manner of ills and horrors. Job’s friends counsel that because good men do not suffer, his sin must be heinous. Job patiently insists on his innocence until God Himself comes pontificating out of a whirlwind reminding Job that God is God and Job is nothing so who is he to question God? After repenting, Job has everything restored. Well, new children to replace those God murdered.
I know many of you will object to my (admittedly) secular reading of the book, but truth to tell, it is how I saw it from the first time I read it. One irony rarely discussed is that Job spends all this time wondering why he has been afflicted. And God more or less shuts him up by saying his reasons are beyond the scope of mere mortals. Yet the book very clearly shows us why – God is manipulated by the devil and his final screed sounds (to the non-worshipping ear) like classic rationalization (“Am I wrong because you’re right?”).
The Book of Job shows us a petty and gleefully cruel God, one I could never worship or honor or even respect.
To its credit, Job does show us the fallacy of the “Good Men Never Suffer, Bad Men Never Prosper” paradigm that anyone with eyes (and a mind) can see is not true. Religiously speaking, it is a comfort that His judgment will assure that fallacy is true in the afterlife, but, here in our mortal coil, evil sometimes prospers and good sometimes perishes.
It’s part of my own mindset that the choice to do good, to conduct ourselves with empathy and honesty in spite of others “getting away with it” is what makes us better, is what informs my faith in mankind itself.
Ask yourself a simple question: who is the “better” person – the one who chooses good so he can get into heaven, or the one who chooses good no matter what happens afterwards? Or better yet, don’t answer, because that would be blatantly judgmental.
All this is a soap-boxy build-up to The Book of Job Project, a reading produced by Knox County Ohio’s Theater of War (directed by Bryan Doerries) as a starting point for discussion about the topics I brought up above. Featuring the star power of Bill Murray as Job and others you may recognize (David Strathairn, Kathryn Erbe, Frankie Faison, Nyasha Hatendi), and a new translation by Stephen Mitchell. The post-show discussion centered on how Job applies to 2020, to the pandemic, and to the civil divide affecting us today, focusing a lot of talk on Knox County itself (*).
As part of that discussion, we heard from more than a few front line workers, epidemiologists, nurses and doctors, as well as from various religious traditions – Islam, Judaism, Evangelical Christianity – (though I was unable to add my Atheist’s-Two-Cents due to the sheer number of participants). All seemed to agree with the premise that the “Good Men Won’t Suffer” is a fallacy, but all also seemed to have faith in the “It Gets Better Because of God” outcome, which (of course) I find equally fallacious.
Although it must be added at this point, that I do have a healthy respect for the strength faith can give adherents, for the hope it gives those who are suffering, and for the courage it gives those in dire straits. One of the respondents in the discussion was an Atlanta-based woman who suffered grievous loss – husband and child – yet remains hopeful for her life and her future because of her faith. I can only bow my head at that optimism, that strength. But faith can be a double-edged sword – it is not something that can be “argued” into or out of, it’s something you either have or you don’t. I just wish it didn’t come with so many emotional blinders.
But, back to the reading. I have to confess to really enjoying Bill Murray’s performance as Job. Yes, he spent far too much time focused on his script rather than on the camera, but he sounded completely natural, as if he were speaking calmly and logically. He was also not afraid to show some of his (should-be-trademarked) snark and humor, such us wryly saying “Thank you so much for your company” to his “friends” who have just accused him and his dead children of the most outrageous evil. And, most impressive, he displayed enough pride – is it not pride pure and simple that keeps him insisting he is blameless? – that his recantation at the end is actually logical, and not a “Thank you I’m a Worm” (**) capitulation.
I also liked David Strathairn’s performances as messenger and comforter. His is an actor I’ve always respected since he appeared on The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd so many decades ago. Here, he brings skill and purpose to his characters, bringing them to life.
I’m not as enamored of the translation, euphemizing Satan by calling him “Avenging Angel” (or some such) and eliminating Job’s wife and the “fourth comforter” Elihu. But it does give a clear and elegant reading to the book and is compelling and enrapturing.
Theater of War is an organization working out of Knox County’s Kenyon College, and they produce many projects of classical readings used as starting-off points for pointed discussions on contemporary themes. Sunday’s discussion, in fact, was filled with stories about good people suffering and dying during COVID, while others openly flaunting common-sense guidelines and emerging unscathed.
I will be following their schedule and hope to keep you informed of future events.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #TheaterOfWar #BookOfJobProject)
* Knox County OH is a small county – its largest city, Mt. Vernon has a population below 20,000 -- and is a Republican stronghold. It is the home of Kenyon College, which lists Paul Newman, Allison Janney, Bill Watterson, E.L. Doctorow, and Rutherford B. Hayes among its alumni.
** I can’t talk about Job without also discussing Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., from which this line is taken. It is one of my all-time favorite plays, putting a modern (well, 1950’s) spin on Job and being a truly elegant appeal to being human. (At the conclusion, J.B. says about God, “He does not love. He Is,” to which his wife responds, “But we do! There’s the wonder of it.”) The play also has one of the best responses to the “Voice from the Whirlwind” --
[Job’s] suppurating flesh – his children –
Let’s not talk about his children –
Everything he ever had!
And all he asks is answers of the universe:
All he asks is reasons why –
Why? Why? And God replies to him:
God comes whirling in the wind replying –
What? That God knows more than he does.
That God’s more powerful than he!—
Throwing the whole creation at him!
Throwing the Glory and the Power!
What’s the Power to a broken man
Trampled beneath it like a toad already?
What’s the Glory to a skin that stinks?
Indeed! I was fortunate enough to play Nickles (the Satan role) in a college production when I was far too young. I’m chomping at the bit to do it again now that I’m the (semi sorta) right age. But I suppose this is a play no one wants to do, so all I can do is sit on my ash heap and ponder the mysteries of the universe.