Sunday, September 5, 2010

Prosperity Theology and the Book of Job

The book of Job begins and ends like a fairytale, but the middle reads more like philosophy, with endless disquisitions on the moral and ethical principles which have guided Job in the past and should guide him in the future. Because the "story" of Job differs so drastically in style from the philosophical substance of Job, biblical scholars have long thought of the first and forty-second chapters of Job as a "frame tale"--a literary excuse for telling the story (or, in this case, having the philosophical discussion) that you wanted to tell. For example, the pilgrimage in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a frame tale, whose main purpose is to enable to author to narrate the many unconnected stories that the pilgrims tell each other on their road to Canterbury. The notion of God conversing with Satan is so far-fetched, scholars have argued, that it obviously can't literally be true, or even theoretically "true" in the patronizing sense that the author of the book of Job believed what is obviously, to our modern, "enlightened" sensibilities, false.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have no stake in the question of whether or not God actually talked with Satan regarding Job, but latter-day scripture helps us to better understand the doctrinal purpose that this introduction fulfills. In the book of Moses, we learn, regarding the council in heaven, that Satan offered to "redeem all mankind" by eliminating individual agency, so "that one soul shall not be lost" (4:1). This understanding of Satanic intent is a key aid to interpreting the exchange between God and Satan in Job. Satan asks, "Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face" (1:9-11). In effect, Satan accuses God of removing Job's agency, his ability to freely choose whether to curse or bless God, by providing Job with temporal prosperity in return for his obedience. There is irony here, as Satan accuses God of doing that which he has already proposed to do--but this exchange also makes the story of Job into a theological defense of individual agency.

From this perspective, the point of Job's story is that God would permit almost any atrocity, including the personal buffetings of his most wayward child, Satan, rather than interfere with the agency of men. Job's agency--his ability and willingness to bless God despite his innumerable woes--is the entire point of the book. He cannot be coerced, either by God's blessings or Satan's buffetings. This explains--at least to me--the conversation between Satan and God. But what about the other half of this frame tale? The fairy-tale ending for Job, in which he receives twice his previous wealth as "the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning" (42:12) is more than a little hard to believe. And what's the point, doctrinally speaking? That the righteous will always prosper in temporal affairs? Surely not.

My favorite commentary on Job, and especially on this question, is actually a poem written by my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Anne Bradstreet:

Verses Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10, 1666

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow neer I did not look,
I waken'd was with thundring nois
And Piteous shreiks of dreadfull voice.
That fearfull sound of fire and fire, 5
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spye,
And to my God my heart did cry
To strengthen me in my Distresse
And not to leave me succourlesse. 10
Then coming out beheld a space,
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And, when I could no longer look,
I blest his Name that gave and took,
That layd my goods now in the dust: 15
Yea so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own: it was not mine;
Far be it that I should repine.
He might of All justly bereft,
But yet sufficient for us left. 20
When by the Ruines oft I past,
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast,
And here and there the places spye
Where oft I sate, and long did lye.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest; 25
There lay that store I counted best:
My pleasant things in ashes lye,
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sitt,
Nor at thy Table eat a bitt. 30
No pleasant tale shall 'ere be told,
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lye; 35
Adieu, Adeiu; All's vanity.
Then streight I gin my heart to chide,
And didst thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust? 40
Raise up thy thoughts above the skye
That dunghill mists away may flie.
Thou hast an house on high erect
Fram'd by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished, 45
Stands permanent tho' this bee fled.
It's purchased, and paid for too
By him who hath enough to doe.
A Prise so vast as is unknown,
Yet, by his Gift, is made thine own. 50
Ther's wealth enough, I need no more;
Farewell my Pelf, farewell my Store.
The world no longer let me Love,
My hope and Treasure lyes Above.

Bradstreet invokes Job as a key to understanding her own loss in line 14, where she paraphrases Job's faithful statement that "the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (1:21). From that point forward, her poem loosely parallels Job's own story. First, she considers her loss--the loss of a trunk, a chest, and other worldly goods. This loss eventually causes her to question her faith. Line 34 mourns that no more weddings will be celebrated in the family home, but it also suggests that Bradstreet is wondering whether the Bridegroom will indeed come, or whether religion, like all of the other pursuits listed by Solomon in Ecclesiastes, is "all vanity." But Bradstreet, like Job, finds consolation in the resurrection; in answer to Job's declaration that "after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (19:26), Bradstreet declares that her "hope and Treasure" also "lyes above," not in "mouldring dust" and the "arm of flesh."

But my favorite aspect of Bradstreet's poem, by far, is the way in which she reflects on her own earthly losses with Job in mind. Despite her awareness that Job received a double portion following his temporal losses, Bradstreet does not look for similar blessings. She understands the faulty logic behind prosperity theology (previous comments regarding the Sabbath notwithstanding), understands that such a course would, in effect diminish individual agency. Instead, she looks for a mansion in heaven analogous to the one she lost on earth, making Job's inheritance spiritual, not temporal. Job may, in fact, have received double his temporal wealth--but Bradstreet knows that in this Job cannot be an example. We can't always receive temporal blessings for being righteous--or else there would be no difference between God's plan of salvation and Satan's plan of coercion.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jarom's Secret for Temporal Success

In each of the three classes that I'm teaching this semester, I've offered the same advice: Keep the Sabbath Day holy by, among other things not working (in this cause studying) on Sundays. As a carrot, I've held out the (previously mentioned) promise of the late President James E. Faust--that you can do more and higher quality work by laboring in six days than you can in seven. And then, a few days before class started, I discovered this remarkable passage in the little-read book of Jarom.

Jarom informs us that the Nephites of his day were wicked: "Behold, it is expedient that much should be done among this people, because of the hardness of their hearts, and the deafness of their ears, and the blindness of their minds, and the stiffness of their necks; nevertheless, God is exceedingly merciful unto them, and has not as yet swept them off from the face of the land" (3). These Nephites clearly are not righteous, and yet Jarom informs us that they "had waxed strong in the land" (5), which is to say that they had prospered temporally; they "became exceedingly rich in gold, and in silver, and in precious things, and in fine workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel" (8).

Why did they prosper when they were so proud and hard-hearted? Because "[t]hey observed to keep the law of Moses and the sabbath day holy unto the Lord" (5), and the Lord has promised those who keep the Sabbath Day holy that he "will cause [them] to ride upon the high places of the earth" (Isaiah 58:14). Even though they were not broken hearted and, apparently, not truly invested in keeping the commandments, they were blessed for their obedience and prospered temporally.

So if you want to prosper temporally, keep the Sabbath Day holy. Hopefully that's not your only, or even primary reason for doing so--but it sure is a nice side benefit.