Tuesday, October 13, 2009

If I go forward, he is not there

Has anyone noticed Job in the Sunday liturgy? Everyone using the Revised Common Lectionary is now half-way through a four-Sunday sprint through the Book of Job, a book nobody I know can recall having appeared in this context before. (I'm trying to find out who gave Job this unprecedented prominence, if it is indeed unprecedented, and why.) This past Sunday's reading was really the nadir:

Then Job answered:
"Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
O that I knew where I might find him
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.

"If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
"God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!" (23:1-9, 16-17)

This isn't from Job's opening speech, where he curses the day he was born, but much farther along, most of the way through the cycles of speeches by his friends with Job's increasingly agitated responses. In the opening speech, he hasn't really tried to find God, but by now he has called out to him, pleaded and fumed and pressed charges, but found nothing. They're chilling words, even - especially - heard in church.

Come Sunday, Job will hear from God after all, speaking from the whirlwind (38:1-7 [34-41 optional]). And the Sunday after that, Job will respond and all will be restored (42:1-6, 10-17). It's really a remarkably apt digest of the story. (It began with 1:1, 2:1-10.) The friends and Job's protests are out, but it's far superior to the version of the Global Recording Network, capturing the terrifying mysteries of the book.

By an odd coincidence, I'm also halfway through a four-session exploration of the Book of Job I'm facilitating at my church. It was arranged last month (they've been after me to do one of these adult ed courses for years and I finally relented), nobody imagining that as we went forward, Job would be there with us in the Sunday liturgy. Along with an exhibition of Blake's illustrations to Job at the Morgan and the Coen Brothers' new movie, "A Serious Man," it feels particularly timely. Not that the economic crisis doesn't add timeliness too - or that Job's cries ever really go out of season.

Presenting material I've encountered in an academic context to a non-academic audience is a useful challenge for me. Presenting it in a church-related setting is yet another, and newer. (Not everyone there is a parishioner; several Soup Kitchen guests have come, and at least one angeheiratet member of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun.) It's making for some amazing discussion! I'm learning lots! Job is for these people an old friend, but most haven't read the Book of Job in a long time, if ever. The points I make till I'm weary in academic settings about how people live the Bible not in the solitude of reading but in liturgy and religious story-telling, etc., etc., are intuitive here. Job is very important to most of the people who've come, and it's enlightening and often humbling to hear about how and why.

I'll describe where we've gone in more detail some other time, but I'll give you the overview. The four sessions, called Patient Job, Impatient Job, Rich Job and Poor Job, try to raise different kinds of questions to the text and its meaning to us. The first session was about hearing Job (building on James 5:11's "you have heard of the patience of Job"), and I asked people to tell their neighbors the story of Job (giving them the Global Recording Network text and pictures as a crib sheet if needed) and then tell the group if they'd heard of that Job before. After some discussion of the way a multiplicity of tellings can, in some cases, deepen rather than blurring a story, we went through parts of the Burial Office, the main place where Christians will, from the 2nd century CE on, have heard Job. (We've heard it at two recent memorial services.) I think this angle got people thinking in a different way, and made a virtue of the fact that nobody had, at that point, read any Job in a very long time. The text floats in a sea of oral traditions, interpretations and liturgy.

Today was about reading, about the actual text of the Book of Job, and we looked over its rather ragged structure, dwelling especially on the question of how (or if) the frame story and the "poem of Job" fit together. Once I passed out the Revised Common Lectionary readings so we had a manageable shared text, though, discussion gravitated quickly to what God said to Job and what Job heard. Did God repair a relationship or decisively rupture it? What have the young lions, the ravens or even the morning stars which sing together to do with anything - was God changing the subject or giving a bigger picture? Was Job cowed or comforted? What did he mean when he recanted - if indeed he recanted? We certainly haven't exhausted these questions (as if one could!), but I think we're in a good place, ready to take on the retributionist theology Job seems to complicate but never quite rejects - the topic for next week's discussion.

I'm having so much fun I hope I can try this in other settings, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We haven't been doing Job at St. Luke's, but I checked the RCL and apparently it is optional with alternate choices -- so last Sunday we did Amos instead. I wonder what the thinking was behind the decision (hopefully something other than 'Job is depressing!'