What do you know about the Mormon Job? Would you like to know more?

Over on the blog Peculiar People, Joe Spencer has taken Michael Austin’s recent book Re-Reading Job to task for promising, and then not providing, a “Mormon Job.” Instead, as he notes, Michael Austin draws from the reception history and secular investigation of Job to provide a helpful overview of this very difficult work, with some devotional content. Austin does spend quite a bit of time critiquing the Sunday School manual’s approach (read the first two chapters and the last, with a couple of other verses thrown in), deconstructing the most common Mormon approach, but he doesn’t offer a Mormon approach to replace it. Or does he?

It is obvious in reading the book that Austin is a Mormon. He cites Mormon scriptures and other authoritative texts. He discusses common Mormon readings. He gives his own reception history as a Mormon reading Job. And, as a Mormon, he offers an interpretive lens that questions the reliability of “the law of the harvest,” suggesting instead that Job is intended to promote personal compassion and action toward the down-trodden. Clearly Austin offers a Mormon approach; it makes one curious as to why Spencer doesn’t recognize it as such.

Part of the problem has to do with the precedents for these arguments. Correlated Mormon discourse on Job draws on the most common Christian reading of Job (a morality play that demonstrates that God makes everything a-okay in the end). In seeing Job as an argument against simple morality plays and an argument for social justice, Austin is echoing common progressive and academic readings. Spencer’s issue seems to be that both approaches are ultimately derivative of concepts outside of Mormonism. To buttress his point, Spencer draws on notions of the Deuteronomistic History and Wisdom Literature, both literary theories drawn up, originally, outside of Mormonism (by other religions and secularists, no less). Herein lies the crux of the problem: there is no Mormonism, without derivation.

As a friend recently pointed out, God, in the Book of Mormon, claims to speak to his children according to their language and understanding. That means necessarily that he will communicate to us via derived material. As Job was drawn from earlier folk tales, so Nephi used the stories of Moses and prophecies of Isaiah to communicate with his descendants. The Brethren, this weekend, will, no doubt, spend a healthy amount of time discussing the works of their ancestors (spiritual or actual) as well as drawing on scripture, pop culture, literary devices, and “the poet.” Our culture is an inescapable lens through which we view everything, including personal revelation and scripture. For a Mormon, a Mormon approach is unavoidable.

Perhaps what Spencer is lamenting is the impoverished Mormon approach to scripture in its entirety, one that only allows the average member to either support a stultifying status quo or to rage against it. Is it possible say something new in Mormonism or not? In theory, access to revelation should result in something being revealed, opened up to us in a manner not heretofore seen. Austin’s work isn’t that, but it really doesn’t have to be. Austin’s work is a study guide; Spencer is looking for prophecy.

Rather than Austin’s fine book, what Spencer is crying out for is a truly Mormon hermeneutic, a manner of interpretation that is unique to us. Spencer suggests that it is to be found in the study of covenant, an idea that he argues features prominently in both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament. But the concept of covenant is also undermined frequently in both works. Almost all Old Testament prophets and the Deuteronomistic History argue for Israel being faithless in covenant and Yahweh going beyond his obligations to the remnant of Israel who survive his wrath. In Jeremiah, Yahweh even breaks covenant entirely, creating a new covenant with, presumably, a new people (Christians took note). In the Book of Mormon, covenant means many things, but it doesn’t mean safety from harm or material prosperity. Being cut off from the Lord does not, apparently, result in destruction and being the covenant people seemingly does. A covenant wherein God promises to destroy you should you screw up and to preserve the descendants of those who will destroy you doesn’t seem like much of a covenant.

I don’t know what Job might have to say about covenants outside of some notion of God keeping promises. Job is explicitly not an Israelite, so there would be no ancient Hebrew notion of covenant between him and Yahweh. And there is none in the text that we do not bring ourselves. Of course, likening all scripture to oneself is the most Mormon of approaches, but I fail to see how Austin (or anyone) fails on that account.

Spencer is correct that a Mormon hermeneutic would be helpful, but its absence in Austin’s book does not diminish it nor does Spencer do all that much to suggest how one should go about finding it. Ultimately, we may need Mormonism to develop Rambams and Kierkegaards of its own. In the meantime, we seem cursed to play out our little vanities. They aren’t much, but they almost certainly aren’t meaningless, either.

Comments

  1. A Mormon hermeneutic has a nice sound, but I wonder. Would it be helpful, or simply more isolating? Interesting post, John.

  2. Thank you for this response to Spencer’s response. Your take is quite accurate in my view.

  3. And here I was, hoping someone was making a Mormon version of “The Italian Job”.

    Good post, anyway.

  4. Excellent post — and I completely agree with you on all points.

    I would note, however, that Spencer says that, overall, he loved Austin’s book and found it to be a valuable contribution to Mormons who are seeking understanding, and this was a quibble which, I thought, arose because of Austin’s own claim at the beginning of the book. You are, without a doubt, correct, that Austin does provide a Mormon Job to us — but as was mentioned recently in a parallel discussion about this, he does so largely by removing inherited Protestant fundamentalisms that have become canon in Mormon interpretations of Job (complete with taking the first two chapters and the last chapter — the “frame tale” — as the whole story to the extent of being completely ignorant that about 30 other chapters in the book consist of Job’s very strongly worded complaints and accusations against God, and his protestations of innocence and therefore unjust suffering, fist-shaking bordering on blasphemy that utterly shocks his friends and elicits their lectures to him that, essentially, he shouldn’t talk that way to God or think that he is so innocent).

  5. Wonderful overview. I thought Spencer and Austin’s exchange on Facebook was particularly enlightening. They ought to copy it over to the blog so people can see it. Civil, interesting, clarifying. It became clear that Austin’s project was different than what Spencer understood it to be based on a brief paragraph in the book’s introduction.

    I think we already have a “Mormon Job” and it is actually a Job that Austin is asking us to reconsider. And some of his book (especially dealing with the idea of receiving blessings according to righteousness) does theological and not merely reception work. To that extent, like John C. says, he’s offering “a” Mormon Job, he being a Mormon reading Job, but also making use of past readings of Job and especially the Job text itself, allowing the scripture to overturn previous assumptions if necessary. The Mormon Job Austin counters is the most of us hear about in the Sunday school lesson on Job (one lesson on such an incredible book is a travesty!) That particular Job is mapped onto the LDS plan of salvation. Elements of the text which don’t fit into it are ignored or not even seen. He’s the nice guy who encounters trials in his mortal life, shows patience and learns about his Redeemer, then gets rewarded at the end by enduring. Austin argues this Job isn’t true enough to the scriptural text and invites Latter-day Saints to reconsider, encouraging readers to see the book of Job as a single and particular book of a certain genre. This seems to counter Joe Spencer’s desire to bring a Mormon hermenuetic to bear on the text because the text would become more secondary to the hermeneutic than vice versa, it seems to me.

    Austin, of course, is working against the LDS status quo in some ways, and for that reason I really liked John C.’s remark: “Perhaps what Spencer is lamenting is the impoverished Mormon approach to scripture in its entirety, one that only allows the average member to either support a stultifying status quo or to rage against it.” John’s analysis is very good, that “Austin’s work is a study guide; Spencer is looking for prophecy.” A tidy way to juxtapose the approaches!

    PS- I think rather than a Mormon Job, Mormons have taken on the role of Elihu in the way we try to re-interpret the story without any response from Job himself. I want to say more about that sometime, but don’t have time right now.

  6. Michael Austin’s book convinced me of how extremely important the Book of Job is, and not for any of the reasons that it is used as a prooftext in Mormon Sunday School classes. Our Mormon interpretation of Job, borrowed as it is from Protestant fundamentalisms, is truly and completely impoverished. I suspected as much from my own previous encounters with Job (i.e. poking around in the book and noticing Job’s fist-shaking at God, something completely unacknowledged in Mormon discussions of Job), but was very grateful to see such a granular analysis of why this is the case in Austin’s book.

    The only solution is to give this book to as many Mormon family, friends, and acquaintances as you can as Birthday and Christmas gifts!

  7. “Being cut off from the Lord does not, apparently, result in destruction and being the covenant people seemingly does”

    Amos 3:2 is relevant here. “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth. Therefore, I will punish you for all your sins.”

  8. Austin’s book has been very helpful to me. I think for a long time, I have understood that Job was a literary work, but hadn’t truly understood all of the underlying context that Austin brings out. I, too, had always been fascinated with Job’s shaking his fist at God and saying, “I didn’t deserve this!” Rereading Job does a good job of helping us to question the superficial reading of Job we have been exposed to in correlated materials As my wife puts it, the framework story we get taught about Job (Job suffers, job endures patiently, Job is doubly rewarded in the end with replacement family) is offensive on many levels, but especially the idea that new children will replace the family that Job already lost, or that the Satan and God play games with mortals as pawns, like the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Spencer admits he’s being grumpy, but if this leads to a more general discussion of Job that we have preciously encountered, that’s a good thing.

  9. Another word about a “Mormon Job.” Mike’s book reemphasized to me something I’d seen in Mark Larrimore’s biography of the book of Job: The fact that we can get so much more out of the book by considering ourselves as the comforters of Job, trying on those roles, rather than merely putting our selves in Job’s shoes.

  10. Can I request another post on “the Mormon Gob”? In what ways is he different from the secular (Will Arnett) Gob? I would like to know more.

  11. MikeInWeHo says:

    When I read the title I thought this about an upcoming Mormon bank heist movie, or perhaps something about how students at BYU-I are interpreting the Law of Chastity these days.

  12. Dang straight, Ben. Being God’s chosen people is fraught with peril, quite a bit of it from God himself.

  13. Mike,
    I’m very, very hesitant to consider what “Mormon Job” might become a euphemism for. Perhaps it involves Jell-O?

  14. I went strait to the Banana Stand.

  15. I believe it’s GOB.

  16. Abu Casey says:

    “Mormons have taken on the role of Elihu in the way we try to re-interpret the story without any response from Job himself.” Yes. This is a great idea; I’m eager to hear more but I’ll mull it over.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Ben S. when I read that Amos passage recently for GD my eyes got bit, and I thought maybe being the covenant people isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

  18. I think that, if we were to have a Mormon hermeneutic, it would forever have to acknowledge its tentative nature. People joke that all of Biblical history can turn on a potsherd; imagine what an open canon and a notion of progressive revelation does to theology. Perhaps it would be better to speak of potential Mormon hermeneutics to account for the inevitable variety we’ll encounter.

  19. Drat. I knew I shouldn’t have posted that piece at Peculiar People when I’m far, far too busy to keep on anything anyone wants to say in response to it. I assumed it’d get less attention.

    I have time only for a few points of clarification at the moment, but I’ll offer them:

    (1) I think Austin’s book is fantastic. I’m unfairly using him (and I point out in the post that I’m being unfair!) to raise questions about Mormon readings of not-uniquely-Mormon scripture more generally. I think *every* effort at de-fundamentalist-izing our usual interpretations of biblical texts is worthwhile. At the same time, as a theological interpreter of scripture, I find myself always wishing that the *next* step were taken as well, which would be to propose an inventive hermeneutic with an ostensibly Mormon theological fingerprint. Austin’s opening pages suggested to the me (or, at least, I wrong read them as suggesting) that he was going to take both steps in the book. That he didn’t made me want to reflect on why the best Latter-day Saint readers of scripture hesitate after that first step. But let me be clear: I couldn’t be happier that Austin’s book takes that first step, unapologetically and convincingly and with a communicative force I only dream about.

    (2) It’s entirely fair to point out that I didn’t do much *in the Peculiar People post* to suggest what a Mormon hermeneutic looks like. But it’s worth nothing that I *have* written two books on the subject, as well as a handful of articles. (That includes, incidentally, an entirely irresponsible theological reading of a passage from Job, coupled with methodological reflections, that’ll appear in a volume to be published by Kofford Books next year.) In both of the books I’ve written that deal with hermeneutic methodology, moreover, I use that methodology to work extensively on scriptural texts both biblical and uniquely Mormon to clarify what I see covenant doing in scripture. I don’t at all have in mind a simplistic “those in the covenant get blessed” theology, but something of immense historical complexity. How do we think about the Hebrew (and, more generally, ancient near eastern) remnant theology, about how that remnant theology was especially developed by Isaiah in the wake of Amos’s prophecy, about how Paul reworked that remnant theology in the gentile mission of early Christianity, about how different threads running through the Book of Mormon work those several remnant theologies over in conflicting but related ways, and about how those same remnant theologies form the unmistakable background of the earliest program of stewardship and consecration laid out in both the edited and unedited revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants? To answer these questions is turning out to be my life’s work when I’m not doing my day job (and even sometimes when I’m doing my day job).

    (3) I brought up covenant in the post simply because I think there are some problems—both historical-critical and Mormon theological, but primarily the former—with reading Job as an attack on the Deuteronomistic theology rather than the Wisdom theology. I don’t think nationalism or exclusivism is an issue in Job, and the Wisdom tradition pushed a good deal harder than the Deuteronomists did for a “law-of-the-harvest” kind of theology. I think it’s also important to note that the Deuteronomists would join Job and Austin in attacking today’s widespread mistreatment of the impoverished. It isn’t the religious orthodoxy of ancient Israel that’s under attack in Job nearly so much as emergent international “wisdom,” something like the ancient reigning ideology that as often as not usurped the place of religious orthodoxy (just as it does today rather consistently). And maybe that suggests a covenant-theological way to approach Job? Not to read it looking for ways to bend its passages to make them speak directly to questions concerning the covenant, but rather to read it as an attempt at warding off certain ancient trends that could compromise what was good and right in the Deuteronomists’ theology? In the meanwhile, I think Austin’s exactly right that we should *also* condemn certain elements of the Deuteronomists’ theology, but I want to keep what was good in their thinking at the same time—as, I think, Isaiah (or rather, the several Isaiahs) did best.

    Okay, that got really long, and took me about twenty minutes longer than I meant it to. I’ll be running late all evening! In the meanwhile (and especially because I don’t know how soon I can get back to this), you have my thanks for bothering with my post at all, and for producing such a thoughtful and productive response to it!

  20. Mormon Interpreter just posted this (http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/job-an-lds-reading). It’s a reading of Job as a re-enactment of the temple ceremony, which strikes me as pretty Mormon. That said, I tend to think stuff like this is forcing modern LDS temple practice into an ancient text where it doesn’t really fit or belong.

  21. I really liked Austin’s book, though he brought in and seemed to support several conflicting viewpoints, so it definitely isn’t a typical study guide. I agree with joespencer that Austin’s emphasis on Job attacking the Deuteronomisitc tradition seemed to be a stretch — when I was studying the text, Job definitely seems to be a questioning of the Wisdom tradition. Ecclesiastes is a similar questioning of the Wisdom tradition, though it attacks it from a less personal angle. I really appreciated Austin’s emphasis in considering the central poem as a separate, and likely later, addition to the Job story frame. Like he pointed out, the poem itself is an ancient interpretation and critique of the Job story. I don’t personally view the book of Job quite as cynically as Austin seems to, but I definitely appreciate his scholarship and approach.