Academic approaches to scripture sometimes arouse suspicion in LDS circles, especially when they include the Higher Criticism (“Moses didn’t write the five books of Moses?”) or reading the Bible as literature (“So you think this is a work of fiction?”). People using or advocating these approaches often draw charges of privileging the intellectual ways of the world over the pure spiritual truth of God, of trusting in the arm of flesh, or of kowtowing to secular disbelief in the interest of seeming more acceptable.
Indeed, these charges may seem to have merit when someone says, as Michael Austin does in his new book, that Job 19:25—”I know that my redeemer liveth”—not only has nothing to do with Jesus, but indeed expresses a somewhat unchristian sentiment. This little conundrum, however, is precisely why Austin’s book is so important, for the verse in question offers at best a fairly shallow affirmation of Christ. What if, Austin asks, the scriptures have a more profound testimony to offer? What if we miss that testimony when we content ourselves with relatively hollow prooftexts?
Here’s the thing: if academic approaches have a reputation for destroying faith, then the current LDS Sunday School approach leaves much to be desired in building it. Perhaps the most effective guarantee of a frustrating Gospel Doctrine experience is to read the assigned chapters in a good study Bible—and if you really want to go crazy, read the chapters the assignment omits. Somewhat bizarrely, this state of affairs subtly discourages preparing for Sunday School, thereby perpetuating the mediocre lessons through which too many of us sit. (For the record: I know that good Gospel Doctrine classes exist, where good teachers and good students engage in edifying discussion of the scriptures. I’m less interested in complaining about bad classes than I am in making good ones more common.)
Case in point: the lesson on Job (which I’ll be trying to teach in a few weeks). The manual focuses almost exclusively on the frame narrative, in which God and Satan make a bet, Satan takes everything from Job, Job remains patient and faithful, and God blesses Job for his faithfulness. From this middle chapters it draws a few verses that it reads as affirming the frame narrative, plus the familiar passage about Job’s redeemer.
As Austin points out, however, this approach has major problems. The big one is that it effectively ignores the poem sandwiched within the frame narrative (i.e., most of the book of Job). The bigger one is that the poem actively and intentionally contradicts the frame narrative, by undermining the whole causal relationship between obedience and reward that it (and the Gospel Doctrine manual) insist is the point of the story. So, curiously, by blessing Job at the end God shows that Satan is right (or rather, ha-satan, an adversarial figure in the divine court, not yet morphed into the demonic figure of later Christianity): in the long run, there’s no evidence to suggest that Job obeys God for any other reason than an expectation of reward. Thus, all one has to do to completely mess up the Sunday School approach to Job is to actually read Job:
Reading Job this way [i.e., the Sunday School way] requires us to dismiss the poetic tension between the frame and the poem—to pass over the clear fissures between the two sections and see Job as a single, continuous narrative. More disturbingly, it requires us to reject the entirety of the Job poet’s accomplishment. If the only difference between Deuteronomy and Job concerns the amount of time that it takes the rewards and punishments to kick in, then the poet has offered only a tiny, and ultimately inconsequential critique of his culture’s views. Unless we are willing to see the Job poem as a radical challenge to the orthodoxy of the Job frame—along with most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible—then we can spare ourselves the considerable time and attention required to read it. More than anything else, the Job poet wants us to know that the frame tale gets its own moral wrong. By not only restoring, but doubling, Job’s material wealth, the frame ends up embracing exactly the theological narrative it should be rejecting. The Job poem is the valiant attempt of a great poet—perhaps the greatest of the ancient world—to set the story straight. (92)
Crucially, though, Austin is after something much more significant than punching holes in simplistic lesson manuals (which, come to think of it, is about as sporting as pulling the wings off flies). What he wants to show us—and this is why the book deserves a wide readership—is that really reading scripture, rather than being a recipe for frustration in Sunday School, can actually provide the basis for a more robust, grown-up faith.
Austin’s book is exemplary in this respect. With patience (Job-like?), good humor, and great clarity, Austin walks his readers through what really reading scripture looks like. After introductory chapters detailing his own history with Job and explaining how and why the book merits a literary approach, Austin moves methodically through each of the book’s sections: the frame narrative, the symposium involving Job and his comforters, the interpolated materials near the book’s end, and God’s concluding response. These chapters model the sort of reading Austin advocates, their goal being merely to understand what is happening in the text on a basic level.
These chapters set up the real gems of the book, which come in the final four chapters. In these, Austin shows what kinds of religious work can be done once one has actually read the text closely and carefully. These chapters show how the poem critiques the religious orthodoxy of the Hebrew Scriptures (or, more precisely, their Deuteronomist strain), how it anticipates Christianity, how it speaks to the problem of evil in a post-Auschwitz world, and how it fits into the genre of Wisdom Literature. By structuring his book this way, Austin is following a tried and true pattern of scriptural exegesis, both Jewish and Christian: start with the plain literal meaning (which sounds easy, but isn’t, really) before moving on to spiritual meanings. This approach is tried and true because the spiritual meanings derived according to it are thereby obliged to account for the complexity of the text, with the result that they are (or ought to be) more robust than flimsy prooftexts.
As one example (you’ll have to read the book for others), Austin argues that the famous “Redeemer” passage in chapter 19 isn’t about Jesus at all, 1500 years of interpretive tradition notwithstanding. Rather, as a cursory reading of chapter 19, plus a better translation (Austin uses the NJPS Tanakh) reveals, it’s about Job calling on a kinsman (like Ruth does Boaz) to vindicate him against God, who Job believes has punished him unjustly. The bit about seeing God in the flesh indicates Job’s desire to sort God himself. Instead of affirming the resurrection, Job is inviting God to take their disagreement outside.
The pesky failure of the book’s central Christian prooftext to actually prove anything Christian does not, however, mean that the book, under this new regime of reading, loses any relation to the Christian message. Quite the contrary, Austin says, arguing that Job may be the most profoundly Christian book in the Hebrew scriptures. Its pointedly non-Jewish cast of characters anticipates Christian universalism. Its critique of Deuteronomistic legalism anticipates the Sermon on the Mount. Its sarcastic takedown of contemporary religious orthodoxy (evidenced in the Comforters’ decision to defend God rather than console their friend) points to an other-centered ethic of love like the one in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. These are the faith-building fruits that better reading of the scriptures has to offer, and I hope that Austin’s book will open many LDS eyes to the great, all-too-often unrealized potential in our standard works (especially the Hebrew Scriptures).
My only criticisms of the book have to do with minor editorial matters. The book has enough copy-editing errors (perhaps one every 15-20 pages) to suggest the need for one more good, careful read-through. Also, the discussion of Levinas on pp. 128-29 seems undocumented in the footnotes and bibliography. On the basis of personal experience, I suspect that the initial footnote disappeared in the process of revision, leaving a quiet trail of “ibid.” in its wake. These matters should not, however, deter anyone from buying this book, which, if it gets the extensive readership it deserves, promises to enrich and enliven LDS discussions of scripture. Whatever its reliance on academic information and methods, it could hardly be more accessibly and clearly written. Bravo to Michael Austin for what I hope will prove to be an influential book.