I have always been fascinated by the Book of Job. It’s a messy book, and a subversive book. The biggest take-away I’d always gotten from it was that I had the ability to use Job’s comforters as an illustration and example of how not to comfort who is suffering (IE, with theological platitudes that tend to serve more to comfort the worldview of the comforter than the person actually the suffering.)
I’ve experienced this first hand, as I wrote about earlier concerning my perspectives on my wife’s cancer.
A few weeks ago, a horrible car accident took the life of one the young Sister Missionaries serving in our ward, and sent the other into the hospital with severe head trauma. As I’m writing my thoughts now, we’re in the wake of the horrible Charleston murders. Suffering and tragedy are very much on my mind.
It was in the midst of all this that I sat down to read Michael Austin’s beautiful exploration of the Book of Job, Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem.
If you’re looking for a book to lay out for you in simple language the One True Meaning of the Book of Job, all the while unlocking for all time the Divinely Appointed Reason Bad Things Happen To Good People, you might come away disappointed – but only if you’re unwilling to budge on the idea of there being One True Divine Reason.
What Austin does, in my opinion, is even better – much like David Bokovoy did in the previous volume in Kofford’s Studies in Scripture Series (the excellent Authoring The Old Testament: Genesis – Deuteronomy), Austin guides the reader on a stunning scriptural study that introduces and approaches paradigm-shifting possibilities concerning key aspects of the very nature of scripture, revelation, and literature in a relatable way that, far from leaving a newly disoriented traditional believer in the dust, also offers sincere, practical, and faithful responses and reflections.
And by ‘responses’, I don’t mean he presents ways we can ignore what we just learned, or make it comfortably fit with old ways of thinking, or make it, well, comfortable. I mean that Austin illustrated ways to practically apply Job in ways that expand our own religious perspectives and behaviors.
Austin shows us how, by willing to approach the text in ways that may initially make us uncomfortable, we can find new profound questions and insights that make the text far more relevant and useful to us and our lived religion (and those we claim to serve with our religion) than a cursory or traditional reading of the text might present. It may make the reader come away more useful to the suffering.
So what is the meaning of the Book of Job?
“The Book of Job is a difficult text,” writes Austin. “Its multiple voices each present us with a piece of the truth. But they never quite go together into a single, unified message.”
This insight alone – which is easily applicable to the entirety of the scriptural canon – can help the reader to see a consistent flaw in a traditional approach to scripture: the assumption that The Good Guys Are Correct About Everything They Affirm, And The Bad Guys Are Always Wrong, And This Being So Is The Only Way Scripture Would Have Any Value.
Austin shows how he has approached this in regards to his exploration of Job: “Astute readers will have already noticed that my own interpretations of Job in this book are not all compatible with each other [. . . ] Sometimes, I am on Job’s side and sometimes I am on God’s side – and, in a few places, I have good things to say about both the Comforters and the Devil. Even if I wanted to be completely consistent about these things, I could not, for Job is a poem about (among so many other things) the impossibility of finding the truth in a single perspective.”
This is a powerful, potentially paradigm-shifting insight in and of itself if one is not accustomed to approaching and studying scripture with this perspective. Scriptures aren’t books of answers – they are prompts to get us asking the right questions that will lead to inspiration, revelation, and repentance. But this broad idea is only one of many key insights offered by the book.
Going back to the first question I posed, Austin’s book not only proposes, but calls for actual compassion for our fellow humans, and not to let our perceptions of The Doctrines of Orthodox Religion get in the way of our foundational covenant commitment of “mourning with those who mourn, and comforting those who stand in need of comfort”.
As Austin points out, “The more that Job presses his claim to human compassion, the more abstract [his ‘comforters’] arguments become until, in the end, Job ceases to be a human being who needs comfort and becomes simply a theological problem that needs a solution.”
“God can take care of Himself;”, Austin later asserts. “our responsibility is to take care of each other.”
Austin’s words and explorations of this book hope to shatter a usually uncontested belief that God would rather us take the time to defend Him in the place of serving and loving His children. This book is filled with powerful, life-saving insights such as these, resulting from a deep and thoughtful encounter with the Book of Job, that should be pinned on every church bulletin board or placard in the land.
This continues on into one of the most potentially life-changing insights in the book: “To meet our obligations to our fellow human beings, we need not believe that God is lacking in either power or goodness. We just need to understand that He does not require our assistance in dealing with challenges to His authority. We do not have to protect God from criticisms, complaints, and petitions. He is not some first-time godling out on a test drive. He can take criticism. He can handle complaints. And He has no need tor when human beings ask Him to do things differently. Too many people – often from positions of ecclesiastical authority – spend their time trying to make sure that GOd’s feelings do not get hurt. This is how we become the Comforters when we shold be listening – really listening with out hearts – to the suffering Job.”
There’s a lot more to Austin’s book that I’ve brought up here – as if these selections alone shouldn’t send you scrambling to get your own copy. It’s not big in page count, but it’s packed in wide-ranging thoughtful content.
As a bonus, Austin’s prose is so delightful that you are conflicted between wanting to fly through the pages as quick as you can to soak up the goodness of everything at once – and wanting to stop and ponder after each paragraph to let the ramifications of the proposed thoughts and presented facts sink in.
This book is educational, entertaining, uncomfortable, and inspiring. A quadruple threat if ever I’ve seen one. Pick it up today! Highly recommended.