Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Best Laid Plans of Real and Mythical People

I have loved stories from earliest childhood and I still do.  In fact, there's a small chance I may love them even more today than I did as a child.  While stories may not have the laser precision and focus of mathematics and science, they are nevertheless powerful tools for making sense of the world we live in.  The best thing about about a good story is that it can always surprise you by teaching you something new, something you never noticed before.

I had a moment like that regarding a story I really didn't like, the story of Job.  I'm sure anyone who has read the entire Bible would back me up on this, the book of Job is an absolute chore to read through!  There is a good reason most readings of Job only involve the first and last couple of chapters, sandwiched in between those you have about 40 of the toughest, driest, least appetizing chapters in the entire Bible.  I never appreciated chewing through those!  But it wasn't just the prose that was hard to swallow either, the book of Job also happens to be one of the most unpleasant stories in the entire Old Testament - and that is no mean feat!

So last week I got the opportunity to re-evaluate my opinion on the story of Job.  Someone asked the question "Is God a dick?" and I mentioned that the book of Job certainly makes Him look like one.  I don't mean it sort of makes God seem kind of dickish, I mean that the story of Job makes God look like a massive dick:

1) First off, God decides to destroy the life of a really good man to settle a childish bet that the devil kind of tricks Him into making.  First off, why would an all knowing God need to "test" someone?  Secondly, why should God care what the devil thinks?  Thirdly, to destroy someone in order to test their loyalty is something you would expect only from a complete psychopath! Can you imagine if a human parent decided to abandon their family for a year just to test if their kids loved them unconditionally? Or if a husband decided to act like an abusive alcoholic to prove to his co-workers that his wife really loves him no matter what? That’s a serious dick move!

2) After destroying Job’s life, God finally shows up and acts like an even bigger dick, basically acting like school principal dressing down a first grader for asking the wrong question.  I mean the worst kind of drunk on power school principal. He just uses His power and position to cower Job into silence basically. Instead of just offering some kind of comfort or explanation God instead taunts Job for having the audacity to even ask why this happened to him.

3) Then, after making Job feel like a total worm for even daring to question Him, God then goes on to threaten his friends – the ones who spent the entire book defending God’s honour by assuring Job that God is good and just and would never act out of petty spite.

Then there is the alleged “happy ending”. That is not a happy ending! Job lost ALL HIS CHILDREN! Children are not coffee mugs! You can’t just replace one if you broke one!  The fact that they were killed for such a trivial, bullshit reason just makes it worse.

However after getting all that off my chest, I realised that as terrible as the story may seem, there is actually something more there.  Stories, especially old stories, are what people used to make sense of the world.  Job may be the oldest book in the Bible so this is a very old story.  So what is it trying to tell me, really?  That God is a dick?  That might makes right?  Perhaps.  But this story also teaches a deeper truth:  that life is unfair and cruel, often because we are at the mercy of those more powerful than us and their whims. I think that’s kind of a timeless message.

Take for instance all the people who lost their homes, pensions and life savings in the recent economic downturn.  Just like Job, these people did nothing wrong.  Quite the opposite, they did all the right things!  They didn't waste their money, they didn't invest it in some get rich quick scam, they didn't give it to some fly by night operation.  No, they did what you are supposed to do, they took it to the best and brightest people in the financial sector.  The stable ones.  The safe ones.  The smart ones.  And they lost everything.  You know, kind of like Job.

I think that for the first time, I'm starting to appreciate Job.  His story is our story.  We live our lives the best we can, trying everything we know to ensure that nothing goes wrong and yet at the whim of the powerful, everything can go wrong for us.  And there is nothing we can do to stop it.  That is why you shouldn't trust anyone trying to sell you a magic charm that wards off bad fortune.  We have no control, all they are selling you is an illusion.  Positive thinking does nothing, neither does rebuking the devil, visualizing and speaking, naming and claiming or simply just following all the rules and being a good person.  You have no control.  With the stroke of a pen, someone higher up in the food chain than you can take it all away from you.  All you really can control is how you respond to it.

Does that sound depressing?  It does, doesn't it?  But it doesn't have to be.  I don't think the lesson here is that you shouldn't be good or that you shouldn't try to do what is right.  Rather I think the lesson is that you shouldn't be naive enough to think that being good buys you a get out of hardship card.  Trouble comes to all mankind.  When it does, who do you think is harder hit?  The one who realised that bad things are inevitable and prepared as well they could or the one who sent a donation to a televangelist and thought that would make them impervious to problems?

I love stories.  Even when they are kind of sobering.

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