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                                                          Mr. Dean and the Book of Job

                                                                           A C Grayling

It seems that Mr Howard Dean, when he was temporarily front-runner for nomination as Democratic Party presidential candidate in the United States in the year 2004, had to furbish his religious credentials preparatory to visiting his country’s Bible Belt - the southern states, home to the Southern Baptists and many other ‘bible-believing’ and ‘born-again’ sects. Noticing that he had so far failed to mention the deity in any of his election speeches, he decided to remedy matters by volunteering the information that he knew the Bible well. When asked which New Testament book was his favourite. He replied, ‘The Book of Job.’

There would have been no greater risk to Mr Dean’s chances of becoming President if he had said ‘Oliver Twist’. Americans do not require their presidential candidates to display much factual knowledge; the incumbent President, Mr George W. Bush, enjoyed a well-known pre-election blank concerning world geography (and much else), as evidenced in interviews, a fact greeted with equanimity by a sufficient plurality of voters to get him the White House job. In the same spirit, Mr Dean’s advisers doubtless calculated that approving mention of the Bible is enough to charm Bible Belt ears, whether or not he was genuinely acquainted with its contents.

But Mr Dean’s citing of Job was puzzling. Of all scriptures it gives least comfort to apologists for the God of the Old Testament (where, in case you share Mr Dean’s level of acquaintance with the Bible, it belongs). This God is in origin a volcano deity - manifesting itself in fire and burning bushes atop mountains, and in pillars of smoke - and he is an arbitrary tyrant of egregiously murderous habits. Regretting that he created humans, he drowned them all except for Noah’s family, presumably hoping to restart history; but with no happy result, for he had to continue frequently striking people dead, from Onan (of the misdirected seed) to the thousands who disagreed with Moses about the proper management of Israel’s wanderings, and whom he therefore swallowed en masse in a great hole. And so, numerously, on.

The story of Job caps all. To win a bet with Satan over Job’s faith, God kills Job’s seven sons and three daughters, and destroys his wealth and health. When Job justifiably complains of this treatment, God bullies him, the tenor of his argument being that since he is far mightier than Job - ‘Where wast thou’, he asked, ‘when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ - he can do what he likes: might is right. It is not for Job to question God’s actions, including the infliction of wholly undeserved tortures.

We are supposed to take comfort from the fact that God in the end restores Job’s wealth and gives him more children. (According to some scholars this is a later addition, when the need for an upbeat ending was recognised by priests anxious that their flock might seek elsewhere for milder and more just deities - who were, after all, the ancient world’s insurance companies; for though rarely reliable they were all that was available). No parent in our own more godless age would regard God’s belated remedy as compensation for lost children - presumably large quantities of faith are needed to think otherwise.

The Job story is intended to illustrate the virtue of absolute obedience and blind faith. But this is not the aspect of religion uppermost in Bible Belt observance. Contemporary Christianity cherry-picks its Bible teachings, ignoring injunctions to give all your money to the poor, to repudiate your family, to give no thought to the morrow, etc., since Christianity is an unlivable creed for all but desert anchorites. Rather, the significance of ‘Bible-believing’ in the southern states is akin to that of Roman public religion in classical times. As a mixture of social bond and national good-luck charm, worship at the temples of Jupiter, Mars and other approved deities was a public duty in ancient Rome, and anyone who refused it was regarded as that most subversive of creatures, an atheist. Atheism was punishable by death. The Romans regarded the Christians as atheists because they rejected the state’s tutelary gods, and therefore punished them accordingly. Hence Nero’s attack on them in ad 64, the first of Rome’s ultimately futile attempts to extirpate this new version of the ancient but ever-recurrent Oriental legend of a hero or god who visits the underworld and returns, a legend which repeated itself often before its Christian version, from Osiris in Egypt to Orpheus with his lyre among the Maenads.

As in Rome, so it is in the Bible Belt where public office was closed to anyone who did not profess to worshipping the public gods. It is the profession of faith, not its content, which seems to matter; which is why if Mr Dean had claimed that Genesis is an alternative name for the Apocalypse, he would not thereby have injured his chances one jot


                                                            From The Heart of Things [2005]


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com

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