The title song for the 1960s film “Alfie,” starring Michael Caine, had the opening line: “What’s it all about, Alfie?” Of course, this is an age-old question, and also a profound one, because whoever and wherever we are, this question keeps popping up.
Some hundred years or so ago, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton, made the case that the Book of Job in the Old Testament was one of the greatest works of literature ever penned. He made the point, first, that all great literature was allegorical in that it espoused some definite view of the cosmos. We read, for example, the “Iliad” because we understand that life is a battle, and here preeminently we find life as a battle. Or perhaps even more compellingly, we study the “Odyssey” because life is a journey and here we find the ultimate journey. Indeed, so successful is Homer’s “Odyssey” that we routinely refer to difficult undertakings or journeys as odysseys.
If that is the case, then what is the allegory that the Book of Job purports to expound? And the answer is perhaps the most incredible one of all: that life is a riddle, an enigma, a mystery beyond anything that human beings can comprehend or even imagine. In other words, it attempts to answer the question, or a variant thereof, “What’s it all about?” And it does so in a way that is truly stupendous!
Ignored by All but the Wisest
It is curiously easy to forget all about the Book of Job. One reason for that might be that it’s tucked away somewhere in the middle of the Old Testament (in Christian terminology) and the human mind tends to remember the first and the last things, but not the ones in the middle. (To prove that to yourself, answer these two questions: Who was the first man on the moon? And who the third?)
Furthermore, it is in the Old Testament, and on the scale of importance to Christians, it doesn’t compare with the Gospels and the central persona of the New Testament, Jesus Christ. Then, thirdly, it’s not just Christians who might overlook it: The Jews themselves might see the Book of Job as not having the same authority as their Torah and subsequent historical writings, for clearly it doesn’t.
So here’s a really interesting thing: On the one hand, the Jewish scriptures are loaded with historical specificity—the names, the genealogies, the dates, the almost uninventible details that litter the pages of the Old Testament (and the New as well)—and on the other, they have fabulous, symbolic and mythological stories that populate the early Genesis and one or two other books (such as Jonah).
The story of Adam and Eve, for example: When did that happen, where is Eden, and so on? Two biblical scholars, W. Oesterley and T. Robinson in “The New Bible Commentary Revised” put it this way: “There are few poems in all literature whose date and historical background are of less importance than they are in the book of Job. … It is a universal poem, and that is one of the features which give it its value and interest for us today.”
Thus, it is that Job falls through the cracks: It seems like an early Genesis story and, at the same time, like something from the Book of Joshua as well. In other words, it is historical in some senses but almost entirely mythical in others. Small wonder, then, that it doesn’t receive the attention it is due. Sometimes hybrids are difficult for people to get.
Of course, there is a simple explanation as to why it is more difficult to understand than most of the other books: It is primarily a poem; it is poetry (as Oesterley and Robinson note). Poetry is ambiguous; poetry is more difficult than prose. And yes, the Psalms are poetry, but they are mainly short, heartfelt lyrics whose central thrust is much easier to understand. Hence readers love them and quote them. But Job?
As I said, Job is an epic poem, not some short lyric, and we must understand that this means that Job is an epic on a scale comparable to Homer’s works. Yet Homer’s works are not found within a honeycomb of other works. Thus, Job, sadly, gets lost. Despite its placement, Luther thought that Job was “magnificent and sublime as no other book of scripture,” and Tennyson remarked that it was “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times.”
Rebels Without a Cause
What, then, makes the Book of Job so profound and, while we are in the middle of a pandemic, so relevant for our lives today? I cannot cover all the incredible beauties of this poem in the space of this short article, so I must concentrate on one key thing to draw to your attention.
Ever since the counterculture revolution beginning in the West in the 1950s and ’60s, there has been a questioning of culture, of authority, and even reality itself.
And alongside this notion of “questioning” goes the idea of gritty realism: a focus on the less romantic, the less beautiful, the uglier sides of life. We see this in literature, music, theater, and the arts; it’s virtually a badge of honor to be unconventional, unpleasant, explicit, offensive, and I could go on.
The proponents of this revolution (unconventional people) fearlessly face reality as it is and describe (embrace even) it in all its ugliness, and then so bravely face it down. Then they give themselves moral brownie points for their virtue (a primary virtue being “open-minded,” although mostly the actual “virtue” is virtue signaling—promoting their own egos.)
The rebels without causes have prevailed and pervade our culture. That is what is so astonishing. This attitude has been allowed to gain cultural ascendancy so that, paradoxically, being unconventional is now entirely conventional—indeed, somewhat tiring and boring.
Where this “open-mindedness” (every perspective is entitled to respect) and being unconventional ends up, predictably, is in secularism, for what is more conventional than a belief in God? Therefore, we have the denial of the spiritual in human life, a belief instead in materialism and, most bluntly, atheism. And there is a huge commercial market driving this lack of moral foundation to ever new heights of human degradation.
Even With Just Cause
So what has Job to do with all this? Well, Job is quintessentially the character who endures the very worst of all the tragedies life can offer: the loss of all possessions, of wife and children, and the suffering from a dreadful disease afflicting his very skin, as well as enduring false comfort from questionable friends in his hour of need. Here is the man—ecce homo!—who really has seen the horrors of life and suffering, who has every reason to be a rebel. His wife, before she dies, even urges him to curse God and be done with it, and yet Job comes out of this not an atheist but a much greater man because his faith is even stronger.
How can this be? The disillusionment and despair of Job are real enough, and they are portrayed in the most agonizing and personal detail. At one point, he even wishes not to have been born and for the day of his birth to be forever lost. But underpinning this is an unquenchable desire for truth, an unwavering sense that some wrong has been done him, and that if only the Creator of all would appear, then there would an explanation for all this … this what? This mess, this stuff, this relentless suffering.
And Job won’t be argued out of this primary position he takes: He has not done wrong, he does not deserve to suffer, and if God would but appear, then an explanation would be forthcoming.
At this point, the sublime happens, for God does appear out of the whirlwind. But the genius of it is that he doesn’t answer Job’s questions at all. If you want conventional answers to the problem of suffering and the existence of evil (God, incidentally, having allowed Satan to have his way with Job), then this is not the place for it.
Instead, God asks his own questions. In a relentless barrage of breathtaking poetry, God demands that Job answer. Theologically speaking, this is exactly right, for God can never be questioned or summoned to account for himself.
More importantly still, as the poetry of God sinks into the very being of Job (and remember that poetry speaks to reason, emotion, and imagination all in one go), Job repents of even asking his questions. Now, literally or in his mind’s eye, he sees God and begins to feel the astonishing works of God for what they are.
Job’s comforters were small comfort. As theologian E.S.P. Heavenor commented, also in “The New Bible Commentary Revised”: “The word of man is unable to penetrate the darkness of Job’s mind; the Word of God brings abiding light.” The light that it brings through submission to God is faith and courage. It is a submission to reality.
The great spiritual traditions, therefore, are not conventional, middle-class cop-outs that ignore reality. They are, on the contrary, fiery encounters with reality, or The Reality, which have a transformative power.
Surely, today, in the time of the COVID-19 plague, faith and courage are exactly what we need; what we don’t need is the counterculture’s false heroics. Job, then, can be our comfort.
James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won the first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.