What Is a “Mormon” Reading of Scripture? Thoughts on Michael Austin’s “Re-reading Job”

What Is a “Mormon” Reading of Scripture? Thoughts on Michael Austin’s “Re-reading Job” October 1, 2014

Every four years, every Sunday School in the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints turns its attention to the Old Testament. Only a single lesson over the course of that year is dedicated to Job, of which biblical book Victor Hugo said the following: “Tomorrow, if all literature was to be destroyed and it was left to me to retain one work only, I should save Job.” Forty minutes every four years—that’s not even enough time to get Latter-day Saints interested in Job, let alone to share something actually substantive about the book with them. If Mormons are to develop the kind of engagement with Job the book calls for, it’ll have to happen elsewhere.

So it is that Michael Austin, currently provost and an academic vice president at Newman University, has attempted to start up a conversation about Job that can’t be brought to a conclusion during a Sunday School meeting. A couple of months ago, Greg Kofford Books published his Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem, one of the first volumes to appear in the publisher’s Contemporary Studies in Scripture series. It’s a beautifully written book, the sort that makes me frustrated at my stilted academic prose and overly philosophical style of presentation. And it has moments of unmistakable interpretive genius (see especially Austin’s discussion of the violence and sexuality in Job 40!). And it does an enormous amount of the crucial work of packaging the findings of biblical scholars for a lay audience that will allow for more serious engagement with scripture.

So I have to ask myself—I’ve been asking myself for more than a month now—why this beautiful, brilliant, and productive book nonetheless leaves me feeling like an opportunity was missed. What follows is an attempt to answer that question for myself. The result is an unfairly grumpy review of an otherwise excellent book. I suspect I’ll appear overly negative, but I think the answer to my question goes to the root of the very enterprise to which I’m most committed. My apologies in advance, then, but I think it may be essential to sort this question out.

The first substantial question Austin asks and answers in Re-reading Job is this: “Why does the world need one more book about Job?” (p. x). It’s a good question. And Austin’s answer is also good: “I have yet to meet a Mormon Job” (p. x). What justifies the entire project, according to Austin—and on this I couldn’t agree more heartily—is the need for a specifically Mormon reading of a book that’s inspired so much inventive reading over so many centuries. Of course, there arguably are Mormon Jobs, even if Austin hasn’t run across them. Joseph Smith worked through the King James Version of Job in late 1832 or early 1833, making many notes that might be investigated to outline the contours of a specifically Mormon Job. Enough has been written by Latter-day Saints of all sorts about Job (beginning from Joseph Smith himself) to justify assembling something of a reception history of Job in Mormon history. And a few years ago, Kendal Hunter, a Latter-day Saint, published a full but largely devotional book on Job with Cedar Fort, another Mormon publisher. So there are Mormon Jobs, though I’m entirely sympathetic to the idea that none of these constitutes an essentially Mormon engagement with Job—more than sympathetic. What Austin announces from the very beginning of his book, the need for a Mormon Job, is something I’m more than happy to hear announced.

The difficulty is this: I haven’t been able to find a Mormon Job in Austin’s book.

As I’ve already noted, where Austin succeeds best, he packages modern biblical scholarship for a lay Mormon audience. That’s crucial for the future of Mormon engagement with scripture, but there’s nothing particularly Mormon about doing it. Indeed, there’s arguably something rather un-Mormon about it. Far from encouraging a uniquely Mormon hermeneutic of the Book of Job, Austin devotes most of his book to urging Latter-day Saints to bracket their more familiar approaches to scripture in order to learn from non-Mormon historians, literary critics, and theologians. Far from producing a Mormon Job, Re-reading Job suggests that there’s little promise in pursuing a Mormon Job, and much more promise in giving attention to the many non-Mormon Jobs produced over the centuries.

There’s perhaps one exception to this trend in Austin’s book, when he discusses “the role of revelation” in the final chapters of Job. Austin quotes Robert Alter: “The moment the Voice begins to address Job out of the storm, Job already has his answer: that, despite appearances to the contrary, God cares enough about man to reveal Himself to humankind” (p. 79). Austin notes that this approach to the text “has special resonance for Latter-day Saints, as it underscores both the need for, and the availability of, continuing divine revelation” (p. 79). Here, for the first and, unfortunately, last time, an intentionally Mormon lens is used to see what’s at stake in Job. Sadly, as Austin quickly makes clear, he’s borrowed this point of interpretation from another Latter-day Saint: John Tanner, whose 1990 Sunstone article, “Why Latter-day Saints Should Read Job,” is very worth reading. So far as I can tell, the only moment in Re-reading Job where an explicitly Mormon Job makes his appearance, it’s a Mormon Job already worked out by another Latter-day Saint and simply borrowed by Austin.

If there’s indeed a need for a Mormon Job, why doesn’t Austin give it to us? Or why doesn’t he at least clarify what he means when he speaks of a specifically Mormon Job?

I could content myself with just asking these questions, and with assuming that Austin didn’t mean himself to produce a Mormon Job (but only, perhaps, to pave the way for such a project), if it weren’t for what does become the central theme of Re-reading Job. After working his way semi-systematically through the text of Job in the first half of his book, Austin turns his attention to broader questions the Book of Job raises. The most important of these—Austin comes back to it a number of times, and he dedicates the first thematic chapter to it—is the status of “religious orthodoxy.” Austin argues that the principal purpose of the Book of Job was to attack the orthodox Deuteronomistic theology that saturates the Old Testament. On Austin’s summary account, the Deuteronomistic picture is one in which there are direct rewards for moral behavior and punishments for immoral behavior. Although there were elements along these lines in the views of the Deuteronomists (and although the Book of Job does contend on behalf of grace), the picture Austin paints is cartoony, especially since he leaves out (among other things) the centrality to Deuteronomistic theology of the Law and the Covenant. It’s only thus that Austin’s Deuteronomists can look much like today’s blandly moralistic pietists, but the fact is that they don’t look much like any actual ancient Deuteronomists.

Now, to be clear, I’m entirely fine with critiques of pietistic orthodoxy. Indeed, I encourage such critiques! But there’s something odd about Austin’s argument that such a critique lies at the heart of Job. The much more obvious target of the Book of Job’s criticisms is the Wisdom tradition, especially the Proverbs. And on the best reading, the Wisdom tradition that’s actually in the cross-hairs of Job’s assault-rifle speeches represents anything but the reigning religious orthodoxy of those (like the Deuteronomists) who were anciently committed to the Law and the Covenant. Wisdom was rather a kind of trans- or international conception of things, something rather like what today would pass as the most common secular worldview, the reigning unquestioned (or unquestionable) ideology that stretches across all cultures. Job’s friends rather clearly represent that tradition, and it’s that tradition that’s called into question in Job. The Book of Job is thus less an attempt to undermine Deuteronomistic nationalism than it’s an attempt to undermine banal cosmopolitan truisms.

Why does it matter to get these details right? Job does contest the “law-of-the-harvest” approach to divine rewards and punishments, no? Yet, in my view, getting the details right matters because the elements of the Deuteronomistic theology that Austin ignores are precisely the elements of the Old Testament that most interested Joseph Smith and that therefore still lie at the heart of Mormonism. Critiquing exclusivism in the name of compassion can only get us so far. Joseph Smith did plenty of that, and we ought to do the same. But What interested Joseph Smith from the beginning to the end of his ministry—the veritable leitmotif of the Restoration—was covenant, and specifically the Covenant to which the Deuteronomists precisely gave so much attention. If there’s anything particularly Mormon about the Old Testament, it’s this covenantal theme. Of course, I think Joseph Smith (following Isaiah) improved in crucial ways on the Deuteronomistic theology, fixing some of their nationalistic excesses, but Joseph was at the same time heavily dependent on that same theology. If we lose the Deuteronomists, we might well lose Mormonism along with them.

This, then, is perhaps what ultimately worries me the most about my being unable to find a Mormon Job somewhere in Austin’s book. It’s not just that there isn’t a Mormon Job, it’s that Austin’s Job seems to leave little room in the Old Testament for its most Mormon aspects. It’s therefore worth asking again and quite directly what exactly constitutes a specifically Mormon reading of a biblical text. I have my doubts that we’ve really begun to pursue such a project. But I’m entirely convinced that it’s a project worth pursuing.

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