Monday, September 30, 2013

Mark Larrimore's "The Book of 'Job': A Biography"

Mark Larrimore directs the Religious Studies Program at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. He is the editor of The Problem of Evil: A Reader and the coeditor of The German Invention of Race.

Larrimore applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Book of "Job": A Biography, and reported the following:
My book passes the test! Page 99 comes in a discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of the Book of Job, one of many places where I use a particular interpreter’s take to make a more general point. (The whole book is an argument against the supposed obsolescence of premodern ways of reading.) The point here is that since pain is real and has real effects, many premodern thinkers thought Job’s wildest words weren’t really his: It was the pain speaking. Aquinas – surprise! – endorses his suicidal wish not to be: “being and living in misery in a situation of this kind is to be renounced.” Job’s complaints are central to modern claims that he was commendably impatient and even impious, but Aquinas hears something else: even in pain, Job avoided cursing God. To premodern readers, Job was an example not of docile piety but of just how impassioned, even desperate, the words of a faithful person could be in the face of pain, loss and injustice. As Abraham teaches us what faith is, so Job – in his angy speeches as much as in his silences – defines patience.

Page 99 is representative also in drawing in earlier interpretations (the Babylonian Talmud, Gregory the Great) and engaging modern readings. My book is part of a series of “Lives of Great Religious Texts” which tries to make old interpretations relevant for contemporary debates without losing the sense of the pastness of the past. I’ve tried to bring together Jewish and Christian readings, as well as modern secular ones, without pretending they form a single story. Jews and Christians read the Book of Job differently, and should. The idea that anyone can or ought to read it on its own, without reference to the tradition-specific body of scripture and commentary in which they encounter it, is a distinctively modern idea – one I try to name and whose emergence I try to narrate.

Page 99 even discloses one of the main sources of my own way of reading readings. The phrase pain is real and has real effects alludes to William James’ conclusion, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, that “God is real because he has real effects.” My understanding of the history of religion is profoundly shaped by James’ pragmatist idea, earlier in that book, that “The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another.”
Learn more about  The Book of "Job": A Biography at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue