Q&A with Re-reading Job author Michael Austin June 14 2014
Q: So, why Job?
A: Job was my first experience teaching the Bible in a literature class. I have read and taught all of the scriptures in a Church setting, and, as a graduate student writing a dissertation, I encountered portions of the Old Testament as a scholar. But when I took a job teaching World Literature at a state college in West Virginia, I taught Job every semester for twelve years in a course that included Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton. And this was an introductory course for non-majors, so I had to find ways to make Job both understandable and relevant.
What I discovered while teaching this course was that my experiences with the Book of Job as a Latter-day Saint—in seminary, in Gospel Doctrine, and in my Old Testament class at BYU—had not only failed to prepare me to discuss the book in a literary setting; they had actually gotten in my way of understanding the text. This has not been my typical experience. When I studied the Bible as a graduate student, I found that my religious education had generally given me an advantage over my peers. I had a good understanding of the general narrative arcs of the Old and New Testaments, which was an excellent starting place for the type of specialized knowledge that one tries to acquire while writing a dissertation.
But Job was different. The things that I learned in a Church context were not merely oversimplified and biased towards the LDS perspective. They were flat out wrong, and I really couldn’t teach Job well until I unlearned them. So I spent more reading, re-reading, and reading about Job than I spent with anything else I taught during my first few years as a literature professor. In the process, I fell in love with the magnificent poem that constitutes most of the book. It is something that I have wanted to write about for a long time.
Q: You devote a lot of the early part of the book to talking about how people misread Job. Could explain a little bit more about that? How do most people—and especially most Latter-day Saints—read the Book of Job, and what is the problem with the ways they read it?
A: In the first place, we think that Job is patient, that he never gets mad at God, and that he bears his many trials with perfect equanimity. None of this is true.
The most important thing we have to understand about the Book of Job is that it is two completely different versions of the same story. In the first version, which is fairly simplistic and in prose, Job does indeed suffer great trials without complaining. This was probably a Persian folk tale that the Jews were introduced to when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and they became citizens of the Persian Empire. But this is only the first two chapters and the last little bit of the last Chapter of the Book.
The rest of the book is a long, complicated poem that uses the same characters from the folktale but casts them in a very different light. The Job of the poem complains all the time. He accuses God of both injustice and incompetence. And his friends, the Comforters (who sit silently for seven days in the Prologue) become his tormentors. They insist that he must be a great sinner because, otherwise, he would not have been punished by God. The poem becomes a great meditation on friendship, compassion, religious orthodoxy, and the nature of divine (as compared to human) justice. It is an absolutely indispensable work of literature on all of these topics.
But here’s the thing: the poem is not just a continuation of the folk tale. It is, and was always intended to be, an ironic commentary by somebody who recognized that the tale taught the wrong things. In the original version of the story, Job is rewarded in the end for suffering so patiently. He gets new children and twice as much stuff and lives happily ever after. But that’s wrong! That teaches us that God really is an ATM machine that gives us money and happiness if we push the right buttons. The poet understood this very well, and he wrote one of the greatest poems ever written and stuck it in the middle of the folk tale as if to say, “guys, the universe is a lot more complicated than your old story makes it out to be.”
Q: You are pretty direct in saying that the Book of Job is a fictional text—that we should not read it as the story of a man who actually lived and interacted with God in the ways portrayed in the text. That’s not what most people hear in Gospel Doctrine. How do you think that Latter-day Saints will react to this assertion?
A: The most important point that I want to make in the book is that God can inspire people to write poetry as easily as He can inspire people to write history. There is a lot of resistance to this idea in all parts of the Christian world. A lot of people believe that every part of the Bible has to be historically true or it can’t be true at all. As somebody who has devoted his entire adult life to the study of imaginative literature, I find this idea remarkably strange. Documentary history as we understand it is only a few hundred years old. Poetry is a human universal found in every culture we have ever studied. Why in the world would we think that God couldn’t inspire somebody to write a poem?
To me, and to a lot of other people in the world, poetry and fiction are true in ways that documentary history can never be true. History can only tell us what happened. Poetry can tell us so much more if we know how to read it. And this does not mean that other parts of the Bible are not historically true. It just means that we should read historical scriptures historically and poetic scriptures poetically.
The Book of Job does not present itself to us as a historical artifact. A lot of things in the story work against such an understanding. It begins with the Hebrew equivalent of “once upon a time,” for example. It goes out of the way to avoid situating itself in a time or a place. And it has God and Satan acting in ways that flatly contradict the ways that they act in all of the other scriptures we are familiar with. As history, it is deeply problematic.
As literature, though, it is not. Instead of asking the question, “why would God kill all of a man’s children in order to win a bet with Satan,” which is a horrible question to try to answer, we can ask, “why would somebody write a story about God killing all of a man’s children in order to win a bet with Satan?” This is a terrifically interesting question, and it is one that we can answer without tying ourselves up in theological knots trying to defend the indefensible.
Let me be very clear, though, that I am not saying that Job is not “true.” I believe that it is a true work of scripture, written under the inspiration of God for the benefit of all who read it. And there is no doubt in my mind that all of these things can apply to poem or to any other work of imaginative literature. The trick is to learn how to read poems as poems.
Q: You use the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation of the Bible as your source for Job, and you make a point of saying that you did not consider using the King James Version. Why is this, given that you are writing for an audience whose primary experience with the Bible comes through the King James Version of the Bible?
A: This was a hard decision for me, but it was not a hard call. I am usually a huge supporter of the King James Bible. Not only is it the Bible I grew up with as a Latter-day Saint. It is the Bible I have always used in my scholarship. My professional training is in the British literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and, during this time, the King James Version of the Bible was the culture’s most important single document.
The King James Bible is a remarkable work of literature in its own right. It is good for many, many things. But understanding Job is not one of them. It’s not just that the archaic language makes it difficult for modern readers to understand (which it does). I could work with that. But the KJV does not make any distinction between prose and poetry. It prints every word of the Bible as prose text, and it elevates the diction of every sentence to the level of great poetry. But Job is a text that moves between simplistic prose and great poetry in ways that readers are supposed to notice. These shifts in genre and registrar are part of how the text means things.
I did not know what version of the Bible I would use when I started this project. I actually wrote the first five chapters using the Revised English Bible (REB), but that version becomes very problematic in the last chapters, during God’s final speech to Job from the whirlwind. In the end, the Jewish Publication Society had the best mix of good scholarship and good English poetry for the book that I wanted to write.
Q: What about other books of the Standard Works that are primarily poetic or narrative? How do different genres of scripture lead to different strategies for reading or understanding them?
A: The Hebrew Bible, or the Tanakh, divides its readings into three different sections: the Torah, or the first five books of Moses; the Nevi’im, or the books of prophecy; and the Ketuvim, or the writings. Most of the books in the last category present themselves to readers as literature, either as poems (Job, Song of Solomon, Lamentations), tales (Ruth, Esther), or collections of epigrams (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes). These are all literary genres of the Ancient Near East, and the texts present themselves to us precisely as literature to be interpreted rather than as history to be absorbed. As a teacher of literature, I think this is wonderful.
The idea that a work of scripture can be true as literature—that God can inspire poets and storytellers as well as historians and prophets—opens up a lot of ways to read these scriptures that simply aren’t available to us when we read them in other ways. And all we have to do, really, is read the scriptures the way that they ask to be read
Q: Who are some of the writers and commentators whose views of Job influenced your own? Who would you say are your influences?
A: The amount of commentary on any book of the Bible is enormous, and the amount on Job is especially enormous. All any casual reader can ever do is graze a bit. That said, my understanding of Job—and much of the rest of the Bible—has been shaped by two amazing scholars who are also literary critics: Robert Alter and Northrup Frye. Alter’s recent translation of Job was especially helpful, as was his earlier book, The Art of Biblical Poetry. I spent a lot of time with Marvin Pope’s Anchor Bible commentary on Job, trying to make sure that I understood every verse. And, for different parts of the book, I consulted some of the generally recognized heavy hitters of biblical scholarship: Brevard Childs on the canonical shape of the text, Martin Noth on the Deuteronomistic history, Gerhard von Rad on Wisdom literature. But I did not make a comprehensive study of these works.
Two more recent books were very helpful. Carol Newsom’s The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations shaped the way I understood the Wisdom Dialogue (chapters 3-27) that constitutes the largest part of Job; and Mark Larrimore’s The Book of Job: A Biography was an invaluable reference for the history of the book as a book.
But my greatest inspiration came from the writers who have struggled to make their own poetry out of the Book of Job. Some of the greatest works of literature in the Western canon come out of Job: Goethe’s Faust, Voltaire’s Candide, Kafka’s The Trial—these are all Job stories. And the 20th century used Job all over the place to try to make sense of the world: Archibald McLeish’s J.B, Robert Frost’s A Masque of Reason, Muriel Spark’s The Comforters, Neil Simon’s God’s Favorite, Eli Weisel’s The Trial of God. It’s Job, everywhere you look.
I am a literary critic, rather than a philosopher or a theologian or a Hebrew textual scholar, so I suppose it is natural that I found my greatest inspiration of studying Job as great literature by studying other great literature based on Job.
Q: What’s next? Any plans for a sequel?
A: I feel like there is more that I want to say on the literary content of the Old Testament, but I am not sure yet what shape it will take. I have thought of perhaps writing a book that takes 10 or 15 representative Psalms and subjects them to the intense close reading that people usually reserve for Keats or Eliot. I have also thought of a book about satire in the Bible, including both the Old and the New Testaments. There is a lot to say about the way that Biblical writers used satire and irony to get their points across.
For now, though, I am focusing my attention on another project that I am tentatively calling “The Mormon Diaspora at Midcentury,” which focuses on the novels of Vardis Fisher, Maurine Whipple, Virginia Sorensen, Paul Baily, and a few other mid-20th century writers and asks the question, “when in history does it become possible for someone to be a ‘Mormon writer’ without accepting Mormonism as a religion?” It is a fascinating question for which I do not yet know the answer.
Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World's Greatest Poem will be available in paperback and e-book on July 7th. You can preorder it here.
Hardcover release date and price is forthcoming.
Michael Austin received his BA and MA in English from Brigham Young University and his Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author or editor of seven books and more than 50 articles, book chapters, and reviews. His books include New Testaments, a study of biblical typology in the 17th and 18th centuries; That’s Not What They Meant!, an analysis of the debates of America’s Founding Fathers; and Useful Fictions, an exploration of the connections between cognitive psychology and literature that was named a CHOICE outstanding academic title for 2011. His composition textbook, Reading the World: Ideas that Matter, is used in more than 200 colleges and universities worldwide, and he has also written widely about Mormonism in literature, including articles on Angels in America, Big Love, The Book of Mormon: A Musical, contemporary mystery fiction, and the works of Terry Tempest Williams, Judith Freeman, and Vardis Fisher. He is currently the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, where he lives with his wife, Karen, and his children, Porter and Clarissa.