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Interview: Author Mark Larrimore, 'Book of Job' published Princeton University

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How I do like the way Mark Larrimore has begun his work, “The Book of Job: A Biography.” There is a chill to the start. Here are the first sentences of his book, part of a series by Princeton University Press:

The book of Job tells of a wealthy and virtuous man in an unfamiliar land in the East. His virtue is so great that God points him out to hassatan—literally the satan. “the adversary.” a sort of prosecuting attorney in the divine court, who, whether by temperament or profession, is skeptical regarding the possibility of genuine human piety.

There in the introduction to this interesting work that is part of the very complete and large series of titles, “Lives of Great Religious Books,” we find quickly a sense of foreboding. The series is described by Princeton University Press this way, in case you didn’know:”Lives of Great Religious Books is a series of short volumes that recount the complex and fascinating histories of important religious texts from around the world. Written for general readers by leading authors and experts, these books examine the historical origins of texts from the great religious traditions, and trace how their reception, interpretation, and influence have changed--often radically--over time. As these stories of translation, adaptation, appropriation, and inspiration dramatically remind us, all great religious books are living things whose careers in the world can take the most unexpected turns.”

Let us give ear to author Mark Larimore’s own recitation on the radio to a longish interview with Tom Ashbrook who says of Job in his introduction to the talk:

The Book of Job is a brutal corner of the Bible. A good man, Job, thrown arbitrarily, suddenly, into a life of absolute agony. Stripped of his wealth. His children killed. Plagued and hounded and showered with misery. His only consolation is sounds like none: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” Deal with it. The Book of Job is so harsh. It’s about unrelieved injustice and the suffering of innocent humans. About grief and rage and the human condition. And maybe about wisdom that goes right beyond the Bible. Up next On Point: The Book of Job, and life right now.

– Tom Ashbrook

The broadcast is here and this is its title:

The ‘Book of Job’ In the Modern Age

The Book of Job and the trials of Job. Hard and endless. We’ll ask what the hard old Bible story has to say now.

http://onpoint.wbur.org/2013/10/10/book-of-job

A man with a PhD from Princeton who teaches at the innovative or some would say liberal and even small, special New York City University with the excellent reputation The New School, Mark Larrimore is consistently rated by students a superior teacher and a very interesting one. Called by editor of Princeton University Press a very talented up and coming writer, the promising and talented Mark Larrimore is a good talker who is a pleasure to engage in a conversation and a man who has what used to be called “good vibes” with lots of energy and good sense, too. That is judging by his intelligent and educated conversation that holds ones interest: he is to put it more briefly, engaging.

This short statement from his University profile says much of the character of his course material, and this is a quote: “The study of religion and liberal education are indispensable to each other because religion is so often illiberal and liberals so often anti-religious.” To reach the Professor by email, write him larrimom@newschool.edu .

Since 2002, Mark Larrimore has been teaching Religious Studies at Eugene Lang College. In this interview conducted by WNSR’s James Lowenthal for 25@25, Larrimore discusses his discipline and its relation to the Lang community, and the various changes he has seen during his time at Lang.

Here is that radio interview:

Feature Broadcast on May 9, 2011

Feature: 25@25: WNSR Interviews Mark Larrimore

Mark Larrimore is a man who as writer of the work on Job thinks. This excerpt gives evidence of his efforts to find meaning and even some ongoing effort at working out the difficulties of the Book of Job…it’s kind of ongoing effect on readers through centuries of different readers and times:

Keeping company with Job, as friend or interpreter, is a worthy activity. Only the one who sees no challenge in Job or the questions his book is thought to raise should be dismissed. Recognizing that Job’s questions are not only “unfinished” in the book of job but “unfinishable”, we may conclude only that our obligation is to keep the retelling going in all its difficulty. This means learning to listen to every part of the text, and perhaps also to every serious past attempt to enter the argument—joining the long line of interventions that began with Elihu. Showing how or why this might be done has been the intention of this book.

An interview with the author Mark Larrimore was held with questions sent in writing and answers given in writing to Religion Writer Peter Menkin.

INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR MARK LARRIMORE WITH PETER MENKIN

Mark Larrimore, author of “The Book of Job: A Biography” (The words of the whirlwind} and a professor of religious studies at The New School. The book is also found here: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10075.html .

  1. During the three years you worked on “The Book of Job: A Biography,” did you find the creation and research a kind of meditation? If so, tell us something of your meditation. Yes, this is a broad question, and to narrow it down: In what way did you find Job a Christian statement in your meditation, if at all?

Let me take that as two questions. Was it a kind of meditation? Yes, absolutely. I understand Job to be very significantly about our inability to understand the suffering of others, and even to acknowledge what profound questions it poses for our own religious views. The book is about interpretation and its failures. For me it’s a meditation on the experience of others, on our duty not to forget others in our own meditations. As I make clear in the introduction to my book, I do not come to the Book of Job out of world-wrenching suffering of my own. The Book of Job demands of me that I admit this. To the extent that it argues that extreme pain and anguish give a privileged understanding of things, an insight not attainable in any other way, I shouldn't be interpreting it. But then my book isn’t my take on Job but an effort to provide resources for anyone’s effort to make sense of this book and the momentous questions it names, introducing interpretations and uses which are far deeper than any I could come up with.

Was mine a Christian meditation? Not so much. In part that’s because I attempted the perhaps impossible task of discussing the Book of Job as not clearly Jewish, or Christian, or humanistic – but also not free-standing, self-contained and self-interpreting. If we don’t ignore parts of it (as many readings do), the BoJ is troubling and difficult enough that it pretty much forces us to seek help wherever we think that can be found. It’s not a coincidence that Gregory the Great’s Morals in Job wound up drawing on pretty much the whole rest of the Christian scriptures. But this will be different for people of different faith backgrounds. I obviously drew on materials from Jewish as well as Christian traditions, as well as the essentially humanistic textual, historical and literary scholarship on which not only secular but many contemporary religious interpretations build.

  1. As both writer and scholar, let us turn to the exercise of writer as participant in this larger series, Lives of Great Religious Books. Was your work part of a discussion with others or mainly a matter as a writer of solitary activity? Here the question is narrowed to the activity of the writing of “The Book of Job: A Biography,” or of its research and the reading of the Bible itself.

My book stems from a seminar I teach on interpretations of the Book of Job. I was pleased to be asked to contribute to the LGRB series, and also pleased at the discretion the editor gave us to define the project in our own way. In my college every course, no matter how specific its subject matter, also has to be an introduction to its discipline, so my “Reading Job” course was also an introduction to religious studies, to religious studies ways of reading. I think that’s reflected in the book – I hope so. I might add also that the course is a seminar, where mine is only one voice among others. I may have been wrestling with this text longer than the others in the discussion, and certainly have read more books about it, but that didn’t prevent my students from surprising and enlightening me on many, many occasions.

When it came to writing the book I didn’t seek out many new conversation partners but that didn’t make it a solitary activity. I wrote it alone – indeed, many of my colleagues had no idea I was working on it! – but the colloquium of the seminar continued in my head as I was writing. I regret profoundly not having got my acknowledgments to the press in time for inclusion in my book. I would have included the names of all my students.

  1. Does Job engage you in a personal way, and how so did the book you wrote and the Book of Job itself especially finds you as a human being?

I want to say one would have to be inhuman not to be engaged by this story—except that, as I show in the book, many people turned away, condemning Job for his pride; some, more recently, condemn him for his “capitulation” at the end. Perhaps that’s human, too. And of course it’s precisely what the Book of Job predicts. I tried not to judge Job but to listen to him. That’s not always easy, as the fate of his friends shows. Indeed I recognized myself in the friends as much as in him, and am almost as critical of those who write off the friends without listening to them as to those who omit the parts of Job’s speeches they don’t want to deal with. I want to coopt Santayana here and say that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the friends are doomed to repeat them.

I also think it’s a great hubristic temptation to take God’s side and speak for him – the one thing everyone agrees the Book of Job warns against! I don’t do it in the book but I can say here that I find something very powerful in the divine speeches. Some forms of theological thinking and feeling are rendered obsolete by the vastness of outer and inner space discovered to us by science, but not this.

  1. Does God act out of character in smiting Job, or is it solely the work of Satan?

It’s certainly not just the work of the satan: Satan hadn’t happened yet. But even in the later tradition which reads hassatan as Satan, the larger question is the same. If God’s in control, then the sources of human affliction are operating with divine permission. What’s particularly troubling about Job is that the usual arguments for divine permission aren’t made. It may be, as later interpreters say, that the affliction was for Job’s own good, but he’s never told that (except by Elihu, and God never says so). Instead, it seems like God is passing the time in heaven by inviting the prosecuting attorney of the heavenly court (hassatan) to test his favorite pet. Hassatan is just doing his job. It is God who acts out of character here. Or we might have to say that the Book of Job shows that our understandings of God’s character are inadequate. I don’t mention King Lear in the book but that’s a very Joban play. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport” is a very Joban thought.

  1. In the conception and execution of this book was this work you did one of the scholar or of the teacher?

Perhaps because I teach at a seminar college, it’s a little difficult for me to distinguish these. I don’t lecture but try to structure spaces of reading and discussion where students learn how to keep learning, how to become a teacher, how to become a scholar. I want my students, and the readers of my book, to learn how to do what I’m doing – how to read, how to have the confidence to form interpretations and the humility to challenge them, how to trace the sources of a work, the drama of a debate, the history of an idea, the uses of a story.

I might add that, when it comes to the Book of Job, I feel myself as much student as scholar. I am not a Hebraist or Biblical scholar – I came at this material from the other end, working my way backward from modern philosophy and religious life to its sources. I would not have been able to write my book without leaning very heavily on the work of scholars like Carol Newsom, David Clines, James Kugel, Bruce Zuckerman, Robert Eisen, Lawrence Besserman, Susan Schreiner... In this connection I suppose I’m teaching that you don’t need to be a scholar of the Hebrew Bible to be able to engage and explore it. Most of the interpreters I discuss in my book weren’t Hebraists either.

  1. Talk to us about the reader in your mind when you wrote the book?

I didn’t really know who my readers might be. This was my first time writing something which might reach beyond the halls of academe. It was a little hard fixing an image of the educated lay reader I was trying to be of service to. So sometimes I was thinking of my friends and students, sometimes of readers of other books in the Lives of Great Religious Books series, sometimes of my parents! I had had the pleasure of leading a four-session discussion group on the Book of Job at my church (the Church of the Holy Apostles), so I imagined study groups as another possible readership – though these discussions made me feel very much the bookish academic! Only very late in the process, as a friend who’s studying at Union Theological Seminary was working through the text with me, did it occur to me that it might also be of use in seminaries.

  1. In your book you stress that the Book of Job is read differently by people from different faith traditions, or from none, and appropriately so. What are some distinctly Christian ways of reading it, and do you think they can be of value for other readers?

It makes sense for people to read a sacred text in the context of the whole canon of scripture – especially for a text as full of puzzles and paradoxes as Job. It’s distinctive of this modern chapter in the history of the Book of Job that people think they should read it on its own, out of any context.

The traditional Christian reading is allegorical: Job is a “type” for Christ. Like all Old Testament texts, it’s a riddle which can’t be solved without the key of the New Testament. But although typology is intellectually and historically very interesting, I’m not sure anyone really knows how to think that way anymore. The folks at Oberammergau tried to bring it back in their most recent Passion Play, juxtaposing a scene of Job’s quarrel with his friends with the mocking of Christ, but I suspect most viewers just saw it as a parallel.

The much-celebrated “patience of Job” is Christian, too – the phrase comes not from the Old Testament but from the New Testament Epistle of James. I dare say it’s the dominant understanding of the story among Christians: God pushes nobody farther than s/he can go, God has God’s own reasons for striking human beings with afflictions but if we abide patiently we will be amply rewarded. Job’s suffering here isn’t a parallel to Christ’s but to our own. In my book I try to suggest that if Job defines what patience is – all of the Book of Job, not just the first two chapters! – then we may need a more robust understanding of what patience means. That more robust understanding, largely forgotten among Christians today, is deeper and richer than mere servile, masochistic silence. Job’s world has fallen apart. He feels abandoned, indeed persecuted by God - and he says so.

Job’s recantation, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes,” has been an important part of Christian understandings of Job, too, but there are good textual reasons to question this translation. It is not that Job - the most virtuous human being - is a despicable sinner, but that, compared to the infinite power and majesty of God, the merely created is as nothing. But one shouldn’t stop there, for in the Book of Job the infinitely powerful and majestic One knows and is proud of this nothing, and even speaks to him.

Many of these ways of understanding Job could be shared by non-Christians. I’ve had wonderful discussions about these topics with a Hindu friend, for instance. It was also in conversation with her that I realized just how astonishing is the Christian belief that God subjected Godself to Job’s human experiences of anguish and abandonment out of love for the world.

  1. It’s been a pleasure to make your acquaintance through these questions. Have we missed anything important? If so, please talk to us about what we’ve missed now.

Thank you for the wonderfully thoughtful questions. One of the great satisfactions of this project is the quality of conversations it has generated, from each of which I learn a little bit more about the Book of Job and its continuing power to help us wrestle with the most important questions.

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