Job, Jesus, and Jimmy Stewart

"What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.'' So said novelist and critic William Dean Howells (one of the first editors of the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's) about the America he observed from his birth in 1837 to his death in 1920. I'm glad he said it, because I find a kind of comfort in knowing that in at least one way America has not declined. One of the more consistent things about us has been our hunger for edifying pap. To be fair, we are not the first people willing to contemplate tragedy only on a condition that, at the end, everyone's all smiles. Christianity itself is based on such a tale. (So is Judaism, except according to the Jews the happy ending hasn't been written yet.) The teachings of Christ would present a very different challenge if they weren't framed within a tale of resurrection. And, as the Lord once said to Satan, "Hast thou considered my servant Job?'' "There was a man in the land of Uz,'' the tale begins, "whose name was Job.'' No one really knows how old the story is--some say 3,000 years. Many consider it the first novel in what has become the Western tradition. Job had everything: 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen "and a very great household.'' But, beyond this, he "was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.'' Isn't "eschew'' a wonderful word? To eschew evil implies to me a kind of fastidiousness, a sophisticated knowledge of exactly where evil is and how to step out of its way with care and balance. "Now there was a day,'' the tale goes on, "when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.'' The writing of this verse is so casual, yet so full of portents. It implies that Satan is, or at least has the rights of, a son of God. If you take the Bible literally, as fundamentalists do, you're presented here with scriptural "evidence'' that Jesus is one of many sons of God, rather than the Son, and that Satan may be his brother. The ease with which the Lord and Satan enjoy each other's presence in the Book of Job is remarkable. They seem not enemies, but colleagues. They show no hostility as they discuss their shared interest in humankind with a matter-of-fact, shop-talk air. They make a wager. Satan says that Job will deny his faith if he's vexed enough. The Lord, showing not much love or care for Job gives him over to Satan without batting an eye. Satan can do whatever he wants with Job except kill him. Job is tried sorely indeed, stripped of everything--his possessions, his family, even his health. His friends come to comfort him, but end up saying that he must have deserved all this somehow--must have committed some great and secret sin. The bulk of the Book of Job is a dialogue between Job and his friends that amounts to his friends saying that Job is a sinner and Job saying he's not. Some of the greatest language of the Bible is here, lines like "Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?'' and "Though I were perfect, yet would I not know my soul.'' But the most telling line (and, in a way, the crux of what the Bible both offers and demands, in the Old Testament and the New) is when Job says of the Lord: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him.'' (The first clause is often quoted, the second rarely. It's worth an hour or so gazing out the window to ask oneself why.) Finally, the tragedy arrives at its happy ending. The Lord shows up in a whirlwind and answers Job, admonishing him to "Gird up thy loins like a man.'' They speak for a few chapters, but finally "The Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.'' Job is rewarded, but we are cheated. What a different problem the story would have presented to us if, after saying, "Though thou slay me, yet I will trust in him,'' it had ended a bit later in the dialogue when Job says, "By the great force of my disease is my garment changed: it bindeth me about as the collar of my coat.'' Whisper that softly. Feel its power: "By the great force of my disease is my garment changed.'' That is the statement of a person who lives not unlike we do. But when the Lord comes out of the whirlwind and rewards Job with twice the riches he had--that's not a truth any of us knows; it's just a happy ending to sell us an ideology and a faith.Some of us are about to celebrate the birth of Christ--so why bring up Job? Isn't it the wrong part of the Bible for this time of year? Not as much as it may seem, for in America we don't tell many stories of Jesus around Christmas. Looking through my copies of TV Guide from November 29 to December 13, I find several stories about Santa Claus but none about Jesus. And Job? The American retelling of the Book of Job has become of the past 10 years, the most watched film in America, our most-shared Christmas ritual. I'm talking about the film It's a Wonderful Life. Between November 29 and December 13, Frank Capra's movie airs nine times--not in rotation on one or two channels, but at all hours on all channels. And this is only the beginning. I'll bet that on Christmas Day alone the film will air in Los Angeles at least five times on as many channels. It's a Wonderful Life begins with a sequence of prayers (just to let you know this movie takes place in ritual space). George Bailey (James Stewart) is being prayed for on Christmas Eve by his friends, his mother, his wife...there's even a whiny little plea from his daughter. Then we hear the voice, if not of God, then at least of one of God's subalterns, a voice that gives the impression that heaven is run along the lines of an efficient small-town post office. George Bailey is, as Job was, "perfect and upright,'' one who eschews evil. But unlike Job, and unlike the writers of the Book of Job (or of the Gospels for that matter)--he lives in a Puritan culture, or at least a culture with Puritan pretensions, founded largely by Puritans, shaped and then corrupted by them. In a Puritan culture, you cannot be "good'' unless you deny yourself. By this definition, George Bailey is perfect indeed, denying as he does his deepest urges, his grandest dreams, denying everything about himself except what he feels he owes to others. He does not "maintain his own ways'' before God or anyone--except, or course, before Satan, in the person of Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). (It's interesting that George Bailey never comes alive so intensely as when he faces Potter. As in the Book of Job, and most of literature, there is no drama without the meddling of Satan. And since everyone has a longing for some drama in their lives that's worth a stare out the windows too.) After years of denial and service, humility and generosity, wisdom and a little folly, George Bailey is getting fed up, but not enough to change. Then, through no fault of his own--as it must be in any version of Job--he is finally put in a situation he can't get out of. Poverty, disgrace and even imprisonment await him. He wants to kill himself. Heaven sends an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who's going to prove to Bailey that he has, as the title suggests, a "wonderful life.'' One of the odder ways he does this is to prove that if George Bailey had never lived in Bedford Falls, it would have been a much livelier place. Instead of the sedate, dull and predictable town that Bailey himself is so sick of, the angel shows him a town with a red-light district to rival New Orleans' Storyville. Laughter, dancing, fights and jazz blare out of every bar. It's exactly the sort of place George Bailey had wanted to travel to, but the film presents it (as Texans would say) as "pure-D sin.'' Consider, however, that most of what's original in American culture came out of such places--rock & roll, jazz, film noire, Westerns and much of our best writing, from Mark Twain to Anne Sexton, are rooted in our wilderness, not our goodness. This even applies to the American Revolution: that brewer of beer and sedition Sam Adams, recruited his rioters from Boston's taverns; they were considered, in their society, the lowest of the low. But they instigated our freedoms. It's a Wonderful Life paints such places as small-minded dens of iniquity, and considers it an achievement that George Bailey has managed, albeit inadvertently, to prevent all this. The film's idea of a wonderful life is strictly Puritan, all order, conformity (or, to use a kinder word cooperation), and a kind of pleasant, passionless passivity--leavened with a sense of fairness and generosity. (Or so it seems--actually, these last qualities are never tested, because no one in this film ever seriously disagrees with anyone else. The only real friction comes from Mr. Potter.) In other words, the story says very clearly that to go against or disagree with the community is, inherently, evil. If only we would settle for George Bailey's standard of sacrifice and self-denial, the film says, every home would be happy, every child would grow up whole. It's an insidious piece of Calvinistic propaganda, because the story never really tests itself by showing a single relationship that would not be recognizable anywhere except in a sitcom. Still, it's so well-made, who can help weeping at the end when this American Job, whose faith has been so sorely tried, receives his reward? But then we dry our eyes and return to lives where goodness is never enough, where self-denial makes for dullness or madness, where by the great force of our disease our garments are changed, and where without a touch of the wild it is not possible to maintain thine own ways.

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