Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Book of Job in community

An invitation to give a talk in Monmouth College, in western Illinois, has not just given an excuse for a Chicagoful Spring break, but a chance to break new ground on Job. My talk was entitled "The Book of Job in Community: Theater, Liturgy, Care" and every bit as ambitious and wide-ranging as that promises. The thesis: the Book of Job isn't just about individual experience, but does its work for and through communities. You've heard versions of this as it unfolds (and it unfolds still, I don't think I've got the argument "down" yet), but this was the first time I could bring it all together. I explored Job and community in four settings: on the page (Blake's Illustrations), on the stage (local productions of Archibald MacLeish's "J. B."), in a monastery (Matins of the Office of the Dead), and in response to disasters today (Outside the Wire's first Job reading in Moline).

The larger interpretive point, I suppose, was that new dimensions of Job are revealed when you think about staging it. Who's on stage at each point? Who's hearing what's being said? And for whom, then, is each speech intended? Blake's great for that, since he not only has Job's wife smilingly at his side throughout - showing up as a directorial decision her exclusion from traditional tellings - but makes clear that the friends were there throughout the divine speeches. Interestingly - something I only really appreciated when preparing my powerpoint for this talk - they seem sometimes to be addressed, others not so clearly.
Especially interesting is "The Vision of Christ," where they are hidden behind, or perhaps sheltered, by Job, who will soon be conducting a sacrifice for their rehabilitation. They look over their shoulders in wonder, terror, amazement? Like the image of the friends I chose for my book cover, each seems to be experiencing something a little different. In Blake's Illustrations, Job is never alone, and never alone with God. And where are we in these images?

This was a fun way of disrupting the image of Job as entirely alone, stripped to almost nothing, confronting the great All. I made the point in another way with this striking image of Job reduced almost to a geometrical abstraction. It happens to be the inside cover of the first edition of MacLeish's "J.B." - and so not really very appropriate as in MacLeish's play, hapless Job is never alone on the stage, though he thinks he is. I didn't have time to talk about the particularities of MacLeish's play, focusing instead on the fact that it has been and continues to be performed in many community, college and high school theaters (including Torrey Pines High School, where I met Job through this play). I pasted together images I found online from recent productions and invited the audience to consider what it would be like to watch or perform a version of Job in a community setting like this, where performers and audience may know each other intimately.

The next illustration - included in part because my friend and host H is using my book in her class, and they just finished chapter 3 - was the "community theater" of the ancient and medieval Matins of the Office of the Dead. Using a lovely website of medieval Books of Hours, I played out my understanding of the way the nine speeches from Job are woven into the liturgy, in a sort of dialogue with the community Response. (This wasn't the setting for discussing how the Psalms fit in, that this wasn't really Job's voice but everyman's, and Christ's, too.) I suggested that the Response of "I believe that my redeemer lives..." accompanies and assists the departed soul's Joban journey from grief and the wish not to have been to the discovery "I know that my redeemer lives." This would be a good story even without what happens next - for "I know that my redeemer lives" (19:25) comes in the eighth of nine readings, and in the ninth and final one Job is back in the hopelessness of chapter 10.
I invited the audience to join me in reading the English version of this painful final speech in a 1538 prayer book I'd found at the Morgan Library, but it was just me. (You know of the text, small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand; the photo is the one we got for the book.) What deep wisdom here - even the most virtuous person's faith and sense of self melt in the crucible of mortality. But how much more grounds for solidarity. "The real power of this liturgical setting becomes clear only on repetition," I said, "and repetition is what liturgy is all about." I invited them to consider this liturgy as a performance of mutual intercession of the living and the dead across time.

Heavy stuff! Happily the final illustration was the video about "Outside the Wire" doing their first reading of the Book of Job in Joplin, Missouri, on the first anniversary of the tornado which destroyed most of the town and killed 161 people. Live streaming was a bit of an issue (the college president, who was in the audience, quipped "Job's friends waited seven years for him to speak, we can wait a few minutes") so I spoke about the Sandy-related readings I'd attended as it loaded rather than after, which worked out fine. We watched the first half, enough to get Paul Giamatti's searing reading of Job's despair. I knew it would speak to this audience as tornadoes have wreaked havoc in these parts recently, too, and the first question was from someone whose mother lived in one of the affected towns. He appreciated how spending time with Job allowed the communities visited by Outside the Wire to acknowledge losses and griefs which otherwise were pushed aside by a frenzy of rebuilding, a celebration of newly reforged community spirit and generosity which seemed almost not to want to confront the enormity and finality of loss. It was a good discussion with tough and important questions. (I should have taken notes!) 

Afterwards the president, a chemist, told me he thought it was good the way the best scientists' talks are. Where humanists tended in his experience to write their talks out, attentive to the importance of finding exactly the right words for things, scientists were more likely to throw a graph or data set up on the overhead and try to make sense of it live with an audience. That sort of matches what I was trying to do. Still trying to make sense of all this, but excited at all the new data I'm finding and the new perspectives it's opening up!

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