Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Of human bondage

Theater spilled into the Job course today. I'd given students Robert Frost's wise and wicked "A Masque of Reason" (1945), a short play for Job, Mrs. Job, God and Satan long after the end of the Book of Job (the "forty-third chapter"). Sensing that the students might be low energy (a paper was due today, which can produce a mix of sullenness and unpreparedness) I decided we'd perform it, or at least read it aloud. To add drama, I had a theologically-minded colleague whose voice has a certain godlike timbre hide just outside the door, so when a student speaking Job's lines asked God if He remembered him, expecting me to speak for God (as I'd said I would), this response came instead from outside the room:

I’ve had you on my mind a thousand years
To thank you some day for the way you helped me
Establish once for all the principle
There’s no connection man can reason out
Between his just deserts and what he gets.
Virtue may fail and wickedness succeed.
T’was a great demonstration we put on.
I should have spoken sooner had I found
The word I wanted. You would have supposed
One who in the beginning WAS the Word
Would be in a position to command it.
I have to wait for words like anyone.
Too long I’ve owed you this apology
For the apparently unmeaning sorrow
You were afflicted with in those old days.
But it was of the essence of the trial
You shouldn’t understand it at the time.
It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning.
And it came out all right. I have no doubt
You realize by now the part you played
To stultify the Deuteronomist
And change the tenor of religious thought.
My thanks are to you for releasing me
From moral bondage to the human race.
The only free will there at first was man’s,
Who could do good or evil as he chose.
I had no choice but I must follow him
With forfeits and rewards he understood–
Unless I liked to suffer loss of worship.
I had to prosper good and punish evil.
You changed all that. You set me free to reign.
You are the Emancipator of your God,
And as such I promote you to a Saint.

We had a ball! Frost really wants to be read aloud (I hope you just did), such a master of the cadences of ordinary speech is he. And the "Masque" is full of wit, high and low... There's serious theology in it, however wryly presented, and also a serious engagement with the Job story as a story: it ends with Mrs. Job pulling out her Kodak and posing God, Job and a pale Satan for a picture - which also explains why she's not in the picture.

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