Michael Austin’s Re-Reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem is a terrific book; smart, thoughtful, funny. I honestly didn’t think a literary scholar’s close reading of the (boring) Book of Job would be so compulsively readable. I didn’t think it would be the kind of book I would find myself unable to put down at two o’clock in the morning. Honestly, I thought reading it would be kind of a chore; that I would trudge my way through it dutifully, seeking a nugget of enlightenment in the mucky stream of turgid prose. Instead, I got all caught up in it.
This isn’t a hard book to recommend – go, now, buy it, read it. But the task of recommending it requires that I acknowledge some barriers at least some of my friends are likely to put up. First of all, Austin is openly LDS, and gives Job an LDS reading. For some of you, that’s a problem. You’re likely thinking, “crap, an apologetic reading of Job. Pass.” But it’s not. It’s not, like, a correlated reading of the text; nothing like that at all. This is Job from the perspective of a very smart, very well read, first-rate literary scholar, who also happens to be LDS, and whose initial personal history with the text (which he acknowledges), was that of an LDS kid struggling to read a boring book he didn’t understand.
It’s also possible, of course, that some of you might buy the book hoping for a correlated reading of the text, hoping, in fact, for something authoritative and definitive and McConkey-ish. You won’t find that here either. This is a literary scholar reading a poem, reading it as a poem. An inspired poem, to be sure, but a poem nonetheless, a work of fiction, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a work of fiction. Austin doesn’t know, for example, if Job actually existed. He doesn’t care; he doesn’t think that’s a significant issue with the text. He wants to engage with the text as it stands, and he wants us to engage with it along with him. And what I’m trying to convince you is that you should, go on the journey the text demands of us.
The fact is, most people (most Mormons, but also most Christians) share a particular reading of Job built largely on the frame story found in Job‘s first two chapters, and final chapter. Job was a wealthy man, who is tested by God (or by Satan, with God’s permission), is remarkably patient despite his afflictions, and is eventually rewarded by God with even better stuff than he had when the whole thing started.
I don’t want to give too much away, but what Austin wants to persuade you is that the frame story, the suffering patient Job rewarded story is the Disney version. And that all the middle chapters are the meat of the poem, and a profound and powerful deconstruction of the frame story. The body of the poem is entirely different from the frame story, different in approach, in style, in language and in intent. And that’s a good thing.
Because the case Satan makes in the frame story is particularly insidious. If God rewards good actions and punishes bad ones, if that’s all that’s going on, then nobody is actually good. We’re lab rats in a Pavlovian experiment based on a sophisticated reward/punishment binary. Is Job good? If he’s only good because he expects to be rewarded for being good, and expects as well to be punished if he isn’t good, then his supposed goodness is entirely illusionary.
Job’s friends insist that he must have sinned, for why else has he suffered such dreadful misfortune? But he knows perfectly well that he hasn’t sinned and that the bad things that have happened to him are entirely arbitrary. And he isn’t remotely patient about it. He’s furious, and repeatedly and powerfully curses God for allowing him to suffer so. Job’s suffering is inexplicable, and one of the purposes of the poem is to suggest that inexplicable suffering is part of mortality. We need to get our heads around that reality.
I don’t want to go on and on. Suffice it to say that Austin writes in a clear, fresh, clean, readable prose blessedly lacking in theoretical jargon or supererogatory turgidity. That I’ve spent more time thinking about this book than any other I’ve read for awhile, and that it made me re-read Job.
I just have one tiny quibble. I don’t think Job‘s a poem; I think it’s a play. That opening scene is theologically weird, but it’s dramaturgically sound; neat way to frame a tale. And most of it’s in dialogue. I have no idea what Job’s performance history might be, if it had one, but it would certainly work as a play, and many of the best literary works that it’s inspired are plays.
But that’s also not a crucial point. This is a great book. Buy it. Read it. Now.