From the Book of Job:
One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Job 1:6-12 – August 23, 2012)
A later selection from the Book of Job was called up by the Sunday Eucharistic Lectionary several weeks ago. In my sermon I said to the congregation that the Book of Job is fiction (which it is). You should have seen the look on one of my parishioners’ face! There’s a fellow in the congregation who is, shall we say, conservative with regard to the Bible. While I don’t believe he actually considers the Bible to be the inerrant word of God per se, he’s pretty sure that it is to be taken with the highest degree of certainty and words like “myth” or “fiction” applied to Scripture are not to his liking. I swear I thought he might have an apoplectic fit right there in his pew! But let’s be honest: do we really think that God and Satan are engaged (or have ever been engaged) in a game of chance involving the lives of human beings?
Because, when you get right down to it, that is the set up of the Book of Job – a bet between God and the Devil as to whether this good man, Job, will curse God if his life turns to garbage. If someone in the church does think that that’s the way God runs the universe, perhaps that person is following the wrong religion because that surely is not the way the Christian faith sees the world! In this, Christianity is not at odds with science. Albert Einstein once famously remarked, “God does not play dice with the universe.” And while quantum mechanics, chaos theory, superstring theory, and a whole host of new scientific and mathematical suppositions rely on the concept of probability rather than certainty, they still don’t posit a game of chance as determining the structure of reality.
If a game of chance is not the way the universe runs, then what are we to make of these verses from today’s Old Testament reading? If they are not factually accurate, then we have only two choices: they are a lie, or they are fiction.
If they are a lie, then they undermine the whole concept of Holy Scripture as an embodiment of Truth. If they are fiction, however, there is no problem. The Bible is not, as everyone ought to acknowledge, so much a book as it is a library. It is a collection of books, as we readily admit whenever we refer to the works found in this collection. We don’t refer to the “chapter of Genesis” or the “section of Isaiah”; we refer to them as “books”, books within a library. Just like a library, the Bible includes many kinds of literature. There are histories (the Books of Kings, Chronicles, and the Acts of the Apostles, for example). There are works of poetry (Psalms). There are books of etiquette and advice on good living (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). There are memoirs (the Gospels). There are collections of letters (the Pauline and other Epistles). There are law books (Leviticus and Deuteronomy). And among various other forms of writing, there is fiction (Job is both an example of fiction and of poetry).
The question for the student of Biblical literature is “Does fiction embody truth?” Do any of these non-historical, non-scientific forms of literature embody truth? What is the truth of a poem, for instance? Well, as an early 20th Century writer on the subject of poetry put it, poetry expresses the truth that
behind our daily occupation, beyond the business of the market and the pleasure of the circus, there lies an unexplored world of beauty – a world of complete satisfaction for the highest human capacity, a world from which we may derive courage, and hope, and faith, to help us in this world we live in. (Laurie Magnus, Introduction to Poetry, London:1902, pg. 68)
Fiction does the same thing. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Among the reasons fiction is worth writing, reading, and studying is not that it’s entertaining (although good fiction truly is), but rather that it teaches us important lessons about the world, about human beings, and (the religious person says) about God. It does so even if we’re not actively studying, not trying to learn these things; they get into us and into our thinking in unconscious ways. That’s what Scripture is supposed to do, too. And that’s why Scripture includes fiction and poetry along with history, memoir, and correspondence. And that’s why it’s perfectly OK to say, “Job is fiction.” It may be fiction, but it’s nonetheless true!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.