The Power of Fables: The Good Place and Job for Ordinary Time

The Power of Fables: The Good Place and Job for Ordinary Time October 13, 2018

Photo credit: NBC/Netflix

They told me to read the Bible literally. They said that there were no stories in the Bible, only facts. They told me to read the Bible as journalism and science. They told me anything but journalism and science was liberalism, and that if Jonah didn’t literally get swallowed by a whale, than Jesus wasn’t literally raised from the dead. The Bible must be taken seriously, and the only type of serious writing, writing that matters, is factual reports of factual events.

Well, that kind of Bible and that kind of religion would not hold my attention for very long, because I am a story person.

I love stories. I used to write stories as a kid, first in handmade, handbound books made of wallpaper samples that my mother, fascinated with early childhood education, pasted together. Then in high school, I wrote stories in password-protected Word documents because by that time, I was hugely embarrassed about how much I loved winding out characters and dramas and dragons and heartbreaks.

I washed dishes and dreamed stories. I lay in bed and whispered dialogue out loud.

I don’t write fiction now. But I still love stories.

As I’m writing, The Good Place is on in the background. I’m re-watching season 2 even though I “know what happens,” because watching the story unfold never gets old. These characters are so funny, and so wise, and so gently spun.

Let me be slightly evangelical about The Good Place for a minute, because it is just that good. It’s a show about heaven (The Good Place), which is full of frozen yogurt stands and excellent people – except Kristen Bell’s character, Eleanor, who apparently got into The Good Place by mistake. Desperate to stay, she enlists the help of a moral philosophy professor from The Good Place, Chidi, to teach her “how to be good” with chalkboards and Aristotle. The show just started its third season, and no matter what twists and turns the story takes, it keeps asking us its central question –

Why are we good?

Why should we be good?

Once we decide we want to be good, how do we have the courage to keep trying even when we don’t get a reward?

Do we need each other to be good? Can we be good alone? 

Are people only good because of a Divine Reward at the end of all things?

Are we only good because being nice is the only way to get what we want?

Michael Schur, the show creator, could have asked these questions in a thousand ways. He liberally quotes from all disciplines – philosophy, psychology, sociology – but what Michael Schur wants to do, first and foremost, is to tell a story. Not because a story is a second rate philosophical venture or because he wasn’t “smart enough” to be a psychologist and not because he couldn’t find another way to ask big questions about what it means to be moral – but because a story is exactly what he wanted to do, and because it was the best way to communicate what he wanted to say.

Welcome to the Book of Job.

***

The Book of Job, which the lectionary has us smack dab in the middle of for the next few weeks, can be a stressful book if you take it literally. Satan comes to God and asks to test Job, and God says sure, burning down everything in Job’s life to prove a point. This concept is horrifying. What kind of a kingdom of heaven is God running, where anyone can just barge in and make bargains with the Almighty? What kind of God does evil to good people to see how good they are? What kind of bullshirt story is this?!? Who let this into the Bible?

Someone who was fascinated by stories.

The Book of Job is the oldest book in the Bible by years and years – the prose portion of Job is likely an ancient folk tale, used to try to understand suffering, and, yes, the nature of goodness. The Book of Job is the ancient version of The Good Place.

The premise of the folk story and the TV show is the same – would people actually be good if bad things happened to them? Or are people only good because they’ll get good things in return?  Job is only “righteous,” Satan sneers, because you’ve given him nice things. Let’s take them away, you’ll see that his righteousness is a sham.

When we see the book of Job as a moral parable, God’s response to Satan stops being a shocking exegetical statement about the nature of the Divine, and becomes part of the thought experiment – in this folktale, God also wants to know what happens when Job stops getting nice things. God is also fascinated by this thought experiment. This God is a god of stories, ready to blow up people’s lives to prove a moral point – just like the delighted demon in The Good Place who isn’t content to leave the Trolley Problem as a thought experiment, but wants to see what happens if Chidi has to encounter it in real time.

The Book of Job doesn’t lose anything when we read it as it was intended – a moral story with a warning and a question. Just like Michael Schur wasn’t choosing the “second best option” when he told a story about moral philosophy, the Bible doesn’t lose any credibility when parts of it are parables. Jesus himself spoke in parables, because Jesus knew that we learn things from stories that we can’t learn any other way.

If Jesus knew that stories teach us wisdom, why don’t believe that the compilers of Scripture wouldn’t also know this?

And Job is a terrible, terrible book to take literally.

Job has been used to tell us that we are being tested by God, that God is a vindictive God who takes delight in tossing danger our way just to “see what we’ll do,” to tell us that God is constantly checking in on us to see if we’re being good enough, and ready to kill our children to see if we”really love Him.”

But Job is a parable to help us think about the nature of being good, and to help us wrestle with the nature of suffering, not the ultimate revelation about the nature of God.

The ultimate revelation about the nature of God is Jesus.

When God wanted to definitely put an end to our questions about suffering and the justice of God, God came and joined us, and suffered next to us, and died and was forsaken by Himself – God forsaken by God! – to show us that whatever thought-experiments humans have taken on in the course of the thousands of years of history, however we try to understand suffering and goodness –

the final word is not Job. The final word is Jesus.

Next week we’ll wrestle a little more with Job, and some of the theological questions that it can raise for us. I hope that as we wrestle, though, we remember that a story isn’t second-best, and that our Scripture is written for story-people as well as fact-people. God knows that we’re story-loving people and gives us stories to feed our souls. Thank God, because in the world we’re living through, God knows we need stories to nourish us – even stories that ask big questions, and sometimes don’t give answers.

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