Faith and calamity, the travails of the modern-day Job

So what have we learned when bad things happen to good people? as Rabbi Harold Kushner famously put it in his book of the same name, some 30 years ago. He, too, has returned to the theme, with a slightly more nuanced take on the travails of the modern-day Job.

In a secular age, there are a few characters from the Bible who are instantly recognizable to most people. Jesus certainly, Moses. 

Coming third, I think, is Job, though there are still, even highly educated, people who think the name is merely a synonym for employment (I heard this from a religion reporter on American network TV).

Next summer, Will Smith will star in a big Hollywood version of Job, a film tentatively titled Joe, about a guy who has everything — family, good job, house with a picket fence, the movie promo says — until it all comes crumbling down.

In a time when one Hollywood producer is reported to have said, if it doesn't have a cape, it won't fly, the story of Job, flightless as he is, still has a universal appeal.

In fact, you can see the life of Job on every newscast: men and women, with all the pleasures and gifts of a normal life, are suddenly stripped of what they own and love by natural disaster, war, crime, crony capitalism, warlords or The Great Global Recession of 2008.

So what have we learned when bad things happen to good people? as Rabbi Harold Kushner famously put it in his book of the same name, some 30 years ago. He, too, has returned to the theme, with a slightly more nuanced take on the travails of the modern-day Job.

The tormented life

To recap the Bible story, Job is a rich and righteous man, blessed with seven sons and three daughters, lots of domestic animals (500 oxen, 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels; the writer of Job likes his statistics rounded off).

The newest book from Massachusetts Rabbi Harold Kushner. (Random House)

One day, Satan bets God that Job is only a goody-goody because nothing bad ever happens him.

So God has Job's children slaughtered, robs him of his animals, and covers his body with horrible boils. Then he sends three friends to comfort, argue and further torment him.

From self-righteous satisfaction — I'm so good, so deserving, look how my kids turned out — to inexplicable suffering, Job asks what he did to deserve this. He asks his comforters. He asks the Lord.

Unlike his modern-day PR, Job does grow angry but never really curses God, though he comes close. He prefers to curse himself, and his being born in the first place.

Job is our contemporary because so many people today seem to be asking why me and mine when sorrow strikes. Even those who don't believe seem to be casting about for some sort of rationale, beyond themselves, when disaster strikes.

Why my son?

There are no shortages of quick answers, and we in the media often have our own ready list (racism, poverty, bullies, climate change). 

Not to be outdone, the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins once said that God is the biggest bully of all. Of course he meant the God of our imagination, since Dawkins doesn't believe God  exists.

Rabbi Kushner. (Ariel Kushner Haber / Random House)

The question of how bad things can happen to (presumably) good people is a question Rabbi Kushner has famously asked for decades.

Thirty years ago, his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People became a bestseller. Now, a dozen books later, he has written a follow up, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, in which he is still searching for answers, just like all those bereft people who crowd our newscasts.

Like Job, Rabbi Kushner is, in his pastoral way, both relentless and engaged, as well as demanding of answers (you can hear an interview with him on CBC Radio's Tapestry). 

He also has his own Job story. His son Aaron was stricken with progeria, a disease of rapid, premature aging, which turns children into stark Holocaust-looking victims at a young age.

Aaron died at the age of 14, and that was when Krushner began seriously to ask the question: Why? Why me? Why my son?

When bad things happen

It's curious, I suppose, that even a rabbi, schooled in the historical calamities of his people, can ask this question. But when it happens close to home, the subject become agonizingly real.

All the ready answers he mouthed to those he visited in hospitals, or grieving for children killed in automobile accidents, turned to bitter dust in his mouth.

Consequently, Kushner, in all his books, has struggled with this question and so, 30 years later, you can ask, what has he come up with?

In essence, he tells us once again what he discovered decades ago: that God cannot necessarily cure your cancer or a child's lethal disease, but He can provide the strength to muscle through your tragedy.

God is not, writes Kushner, some "cosmic vending machine," where you can "pull the plunger for the blessing you want, and if you don’t get it, feel entitled to curse the machine and take your business elsewhere."

Still, it seems that after so many decades his argument is growing more sophisticated, more textured. Like a Christian "process" theologian, he speaks in terms of God's limitations (or withdrawal, as some Jewish mystics would have it).

To believe that God is not all powerful means, in the end, that the tornado, cancer cell or murderer's knife doesn't have your name on it. And Kushner does indulge in the old theological argument that these hardships are the price of our humanity. 

Frankly, I've never found that idea particularly satisfying, nor, do I imagine, do untold millions of sufferers around the world.

But what is more satisfying, at least on an emotional level, is the final answer Kushner gives us to the age-old "problem of God."

Like many religious people, Kushner believes deeply that God is living, caring, and present, and a being to be experienced. That is also what Job discovers, at least in Kushner's reading of the Book of Job.

That's not an answer, of course, that can be adequately recounted in a two-minute news story about some tragedy. And not everybody has the taste for it.

But that's Kushner's answer and his form of consolation for himself and for his readers and congregants. Whether it will work for Will Smith's ordinary Joe in the upcoming movie, we'll have to wait until next summer.