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Dr. Travis Cooper: Scripture in Defense of Literature & the Case of the Book of Job

Posted: October 19, 2015

A Tutor Talk by Dr. Travis Cooper

Note: Periodically members of the Thomas Aquinas College teaching faculty or chaplaincy present informal lectures, followed by question-and-answer sessions, on campus. These late-afternoon gatherings afford an opportunity for speakers to discuss topics of great interest to them and to share their thoughts with other members of the community. Dr. Travis Cooper delivered the following talk on October 13, 2015:



Scripture in Defense of Literature, and
The Case of the Book of Job


Let me begin with a caveat. The thoughts that follow are exploratory in nature: the subject matter is wonderful, mysterious, complex, difficult. I’m trying to see my way through to a right understanding, and I’m hoping that in the Q&A we can as a group make headway. Consider what follows, then, as an invitation, from one who loves both Scripture and literature, to think more deeply about these.

That Scripture is in some meaningful sense a literary work is apparent to anyone who takes and reads. Scripture is in large part a story, prominent elements of which are images or metaphors for divine truths, as St. Thomas discusses in the opening question of the Summa. Of course, any deep, to say nothing of thorough, consideration of Scripture as literary must take into account the divine Author and His purpose in bringing forth the body of works we call “Sacred Scripture,” and such consideration soon reveals Holy Writ to be something all its own. Nevertheless, the very fact that God reveals Himself to men through human words, and in particular through the story of His dealings with men, justifies and in fact requires a literary approach toward understanding Sacred Scripture (as Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, among other magisterial documents, makes clear).

Today I wish to explore the significance for literature of this fact — i.e., as St. John Chrysostom says, God’s “unutterable kindness” in adapting His speech “in His providence and care for our nature.” Having dwelt on this fact, I intend also to look briefly at the Book of Job as a literary work, more particularly, as the expression of a deep tragic vision of man.

A word about the relationship between these two parts of my lecture: it is my hope that what I establish in the longer, first part of the lecture will justify and shed light on my approach and conclusions in the shorter, second part of the lecture. I have decided upon Job for the second part for two reasons: first, some level of familiarity with and a great fondness for that book in particular; second, tragedy has a certain priority in the West and the Book of Job is probably the fullest expression in Scripture of tragedy’s unique vision of man, the cosmos, and God. Other genres of literature are of course also present in Scripture and thus are worthy of examination — and, in fact, I’ll speak about comedy briefly in the course of this lecture — but a fuller treatment of comedy and any treatment of the other genres will have to wait for another day.


That God speaks His words through men in human fashion, more particularly, that the Word of God that the Holy Spirit inspired certain men to commit to writing was cast largely in the form of narrative and image — this fact constitutes an apologia for literature as a way of coming to know, of achieving vision. The very existence of Scripture, of God’s intent for us to come to learn about ourselves and Him through story and image, shows that story and image are modes of speech capable of embodying and conveying truth, insight, vision. In fact, St. Thomas goes so far as to say, in the opening question of his Summa, that metaphors or images are neither mere embellishment nor capable though unbefitting means for conveying divine revelation but rather, in fact, are necessary and useful, being more suited to our peculiarly human way of knowing and being able to be understood by all, not merely the wise.

But it is not only in its literary mode of speech that Scripture implicitly defends literature’s aspirations to communicating vision or insight through story and image: the most significant truth communicated to us in Scripture constitutes, I think, the ultimate foundation for such a possibility. That truth, of course, is the Incarnation, God made man, the Word made flesh. In a world in which the flesh, corruptible matter, can be assumed by, united to, and suffused with the Godhead; in a world in which the glory of that Divine Person can be perceived in His flesh (in His Transfiguration and, if I am reading John’s Gospel aright, in the crucifixion); in a world in which God becomes man to reveal more fully and, in fact, with finality, what God is — “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us (I John 1:1-2) — in such a world, I say, literature, the communication of vision through the display or narration of human action concretely embodied, is not merely admitted as possible but even gloriously affirmed. A man born of woman, through His life in the body, through His words and deeds, manifests the Godhead, both to those around Him during His life and to men of all succeeding generations. God chose the life of a humble Jew as the way to communicate even to us non-contemporary followers, us followers at secondhand, His being — His love, His inner life.1

God Himself, Pure Act, so ordained things that He can manifest Himself in the lowliness of flesh. Nor is this all — in the Old Testament, God reveals Himself under the form of fire and cloud. But more substantive, more significant, more godlike images of God are also identified in the Old Testament. Moses is commissioned to be as God both to Pharaoh and to the Israelites (a commission he fails to fulfill at Meribah). In his words and actions he is to be the image, the icon of God to others. Most amazingly, however, all men are created as images of God: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion … So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him” (Genesis 1:26-27). Genesis seems to suggest that man exercises dominion over creation through his being in the image and likeness of God, through his being different than the rest of the animals — being infused with God’s breath, the breath of life, rather than being brought forth by the waters or by the earth. This is all to say that the Lord God is imaged in man’s exercise of dominion — the divine is imaged in the action of the human. And this imaging of God comes to its completeness, of course, in Christ, in God made man. The cosmos, then, is so constituted that lesser beings can image greater, the bodily the unbodily, and so that the actions of man can bear significance and depth, even divine depth, through their visible appearances. And what is this but the very heart of literature?2

It should be noted that though I have separately considered Scripture’s literary mode of speech and the fundamental truth communicated (in that literary mode) by Scripture, these two facts about Scripture are inextricably intertwined. For Scripture narrates, through various literary forms and with the help of recurring images, the story of God’s dealings with men, culminating in His coming to be with men most fully in the Incarnation. As Dei Verbum states:

It pleased God, in His goodness and wisdom, to reveal Himself and to make known the mystery of His will… . By this revelation, then, the invisible God, from the fullness of His love, addresses men as His friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into His own company. This economy of Revelation is realized by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other. As a result, the works performed by God in the history of salvation show forth and bear out the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain. The most intimate truth which this revelation gives us about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ, Who is Himself both the mediator and the sum total of Revelation. … He … completed and perfected Revelation … by the total fact of His presence and self-manifestation — by words and works, signs and miracles, but above all by His death and glorious resurrection from the dead, and finally by sending the Spirit of truth. (§2, §4)

Revelation is accomplished by deeds and words, perfected by those of Christ, God-made-man. It occurs in time and space, in fact, over a long period of time and in various lands, being completed in God’s entering the world, entering space and time, and sending forth his apostles to the ends of the earth. Thus, there is salvation history. This compels the narrative superstructure of Scripture: Revelation is a story to be told, and Scripture tells it.

But it is no mere history. What is to be revealed — God Himself and His salvific will for mankind — cannot be recounted merely historically, even though Revelation occurs in history. The words and deeds of God, recounted in Scripture through words, themselves signify, themselves have meaning. As St. Thomas puts it, God as author of Scripture can signify not only through speech, as men do, but also through what speech signifies, that is, through things themselves, which would seem to include words, events, deeds, even concrete objects. This means that Scripture contains several senses, several layers of meaning and thus of interpretation. God has so fashioned the things signified by the words of Scripture that they themselves have significance and depth beyond their bare existence: they point to deeper realities and even future events. In this way, it seems to me, God shows Himself the ultimate writer, the most powerful literary author. For all stories, or at least all good stories, bear significance beyond the mere events and people and things narrated3: if they did not, they would be a mere recitation of events, mere history (and bad history at that). Oedipus Rex is not merely about one man’s extraordinary journey of self-knowledge and concomitant fall from grace but about all of us, as the chorus of Thebans itself makes clear. Priam’s embassy to Achilles is described — through images, events, descriptions, and words — as a descent into Hades. Fire is, in several great works of literature (notably the Iliad and The Waste-Land), significant on many levels: it is disordered, self-destructive passion; it is the God-given glory that marks epiphany, self-manifestation; it is mortality, what reduces the body to ashes.4 St. Julian the Hospitaller’s life, as so vividly described in Flaubert’s Three Tales, begs to be understood not merely as the tragic journey of one man from blood-lust to love of others but also as a type, an image, of the journey each of us must undergo to overcome our particular sinful inclinations and achieve heroic virtue; even more universally it is the drama of human history, the story of mankind’s fall, through sin, from a paradisal state into wandering and suffering until God brings us back to Himself. What I mean to show by these examples is this: God is in his own category as an author not because He alone can cause the things recounted by words to signify beyond themselves (for literature does likewise) but because He alone can do this with real things, real events, real deeds, real people. In this respect, then, literary works are imitations of God’s great literary (and more than literary) work, and their authors imitate God’s creative and ordering activity, accomplishing “sub-creation.”5

But that which Scripture recounts in words signifies not just any ol’ realities but, at least often, realities beyond merely human comprehension. Such realities, signified by the words and deeds and events narrated in Scripture (i.e., signified by the words of Scripture) — such realities must therefore be presented in a way that is accessible to us and yet also retains, because it points to and invites contemplation of rather than exhausting, the mystery these realities contain. Not surprisingly, then, does Scripture recount these deeds and words in various literary forms and with the help of a multitude of images: fire, water; bread; journey; playing the harlot, adultery, virgin, bride, bridegroom, wedding feast; New Jerusalem; mountain, sheep, shepherd; circumcision; 40 days; word; body; etc.

Sacred Scripture, then, in communicating through its literary mode of speech God’s revelation of Himself and His will for us, provides a defense for, in providing an example of, the possibility of coming to know, coming to see, through story and image. Furthermore, Revelation itself, what is communicated in Sacred Scripture, affirms and indeed provides the ultimate foundation for this possibility, for it states that God has so arranged, has so created the world that the lower can image the higher, the lesser can be an icon of the greater, the bodily of the unbodily. Not without reason, then — in fact, most fittingly — does Scripture itself make abundant use of images.

But more than this — Scripture can be seen, it seems to me, as the fullness of literature, i.e., as containing the plenitude of literary vision. I am not yet convinced of this rather bold claim, but I am inclined to agree with it. What follows are my current thoughts about this, inchoate as they are; I hope we can think together about this question in the Q&A session. At the very heart of this claim is the fact that Scripture reveals the deepest contours of reality — the very fabric of the created order (especially man), its relationship to the Uncreated Creator, and even the nature of that Uncreated Creator Himself. Put a different way, Holy Writ makes known to us the reality and origin of the human condition and that of the entire world as well as God’s plan to redeem and transform man and in fact all of creation — the origin, state, progress, and end of man and creation is revealed to us from the point of view of God Himself, or at least by God Himself. This most ultimate vision of things is, as we have seen, presented through the narration of God’s dealings with men and through concrete, image-filled descriptions of these realities. Scripture begins with a poetic, “mythic” (in Tolkien’s sense of the word: i.e., not “unreal” or “make-believe”) portrayal of the beginnings of creation and man’s abandonment of God and consequent loss of full moral and metaphysical integrity (i.e., sin and death). It traces the journey of mankind from that fall, from its first parents, displaying and situating the myriad forms of human greatness and depravity through both literary narration and moral exhortation; it foreshadows in images, foretells in prophecy, and recounts in narration God’s loving remedy for man — ultimately, the Incarnation, Redemption, and Resurrection — and it figuratively represents the “day of wrath,” the end of human history, the four last things.

Now, the various literary genres — I have in mind the genres of poetry that Aristotle lays out early in the Poetics: epic, tragedy, comedy, and what I suppose we would call “lyric” — by imitating embody and express the deep movements of the human soul as it confronts itself, other men, the cosmos, and the divine. These genres seem to be various ways man stands before the world and the divine and ways the world and the divine stand to man. There’s an enormous amount that could and should be said about these genres, but I wish merely to say this: insofar as literature, through its various genres, communicates a vision of man in his relationship to the world and to the divine, or, less globally, even insofar as literature embodies and suffuses with meaning any human action worthy of artistic imitation, it will never approach the completeness of the imaginative vision of Scripture, which encompasses all human action and indeed the complete action of man throughout history. This is not to say that whatever is imitated in any literary work has already been explicitly anticipated and embodied in Scripture: it is to say that because Scripture reveals in literary fashion (imaginatively) the full arc of the human journey and does so from the most ultimate perspective — that of God Himself — it constitutes the deepest literary vision.

Let’s look briefly at comedy to flesh out this thesis. In some sense, comedy’s presentation of lowly man as divinely aided towards a desired happy conclusion that is better than one deserves, a conclusion oftentimes imaged as a wedding feast, arrived at through a journey that educates man in the passive virtues (long-suffering or endurance, hope, trust), which are achieved, again with divine help, in facing a fallen world — in some sense, this vision of life is given complete literary expression in Scripture. For God, in Scripture, reveals the basis for this comic vision of the world, reveals the fundamental truths grounding this vision: man is a fallen creature who must face a fallen world, acquiring with divine help the virtues necessary to achieve successfully his true end, viz., union with God Himself, the wedding feast of the Lamb, which man does not himself deserve. Furthermore, various features generally found in comedy have their fullest expression in Scripture: the movement from subjection to law into liberty (think of Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, but the New Law of Christ above all!); benevolent women guiding matters, sometimes through deception (Athena, Beatrice, Portia — but also Rebecca, Judith, Esther, and, above all, the Blessed Virgin); the preponderance and usefulness of disguise or hiding (The Odyssey, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, but the Child Jesus and, in some sense, the Cross above all!), and the pairing off of men and women (name a comedy; but it is Christ and His Church above all!). This illustrates, it seems to me, the point: that to the extent that literature communicates a vision of man, the world, and God, it can do so only in approximation to the breadth and depth of Scripture’s own vision of these things. Scripture reveals the deepest truths that ground any literary vision, and Scripture reveals these through the fullest narration of human history and in images that are divinely chosen (either directly or indirectly6). The other genres could likewise be examined, but since that would take too long and since I will be addressing tragedy in the second part of this talk, I will forego any further examination for now.

It seems, then, that the height of the comic vision is to be found in Scripture, for Scripture affirms (with divine authority, of course) the most basic, ultimate truths that ground and constitute the comic vision, and it describes the same arc of human life and ultimately human history in literary terms, leaning heavily on fundamental images (marriage, especially). I do not think that this claim is either equivalent to or necessitates claiming that Sacred Scripture is the most exquisite, poetically perfect representative of this vision — perhaps the Divine Comedy is more well-crafted, according to purely aesthetic literary standards, than the parts of Scripture in question. Given this, it might turn out that my claim amounts, at least in large part, to claiming that literature resolves to Revelation, since I am saying that literary vision finds in Revelation its ultimate ground. Put another way, great literature shows us some deep reality, some profound truth, through the medium of beauty, but it does not as literature provide an argument for that truth still less affirm it with divine authority. So Revelation — and thus theology — provides the ultimate ground for what we come to see through literature. Nevertheless, I am saying at least a bit more than this — viz., that Scripture’s plenitude of literary vision is to be ascribed not merely to its uniqueness as expressing divinely-revealed truths at the heart of reality but also to the divinely-inspired literary elements in which and through which Scripture presents these truths. But to put it that way is, I think, too sharply to separate the literary and concrete from the universal truths in question, for isn’t it the case that inseparable from and constituting, in part, these truths are things such as the Old Law, Mary’s fiat, and Christ’s Cross, each of which is a reality (thing or action) and an image, i.e., literary and concrete? So while some of the literary elements in which Scripture dresses itself may be merely decorative details, helpful analogies in some way separable from what is being revealed — for example, the particular poetic meter or rhetorical devices being utilized, or particular images (perhaps the two trees — or is it one tree? — in Eden) — still, there are concrete actions and particular things and maybe even literary images that cannot be separated from what is being revealed. Again, because what Scripture reveals is not merely the truth about God and about men but Truth Himself, a Person, and His intention for man and consequent actions towards men, and therefore also the actions of those men in response to Him — because of this, narrative is central to Scripture, ineradicable from it. (As St. Paul says, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve” [I Cor. 15:3-5]; and a few verses later: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” [I Cor. 15:14].) And because God as the author of Scripture gives meaning, gives signification to the real events, deeds, and things narrated, such things function as images, i.e., as literary elements. St. Paul himself notes something like this in that chapter of Corinthians: the resurrection of Christ signifies, and in fact entails, the resurrection of the dead. Since, then, Scripture tells the actual story of the journey of mankind and of God’s dealings with him, and through this true story images or signifies Who God is, how He stands to us, and how we should and should not respond to Him — it is therefore the most perfect form of mimesis, of imitation, and it is the story at the root of all other stories. This is to say nothing of the fact that even those things that are merely images in Scripture — Israel/the Church as God’s sheepfold, the wedding feast of the Lamb at the end of time, God as fire, etc. — are, nevertheless, images that are either conceived under divine inspiration or are images that God Himself establishes. So, as I stated earlier, I am inclined to think that Scripture constitutes the fullness of literary vision (in the sense I have been identifying).


I turn now to tragedy and to the Book of Job. At the outset, a distinction must be made, one that I have been presupposing in various places already but must now make explicit. A few minutes ago I listed the major poetic genres: tragedy, comedy, epic, and lyric. And then I proceeded to speak of comedy and “the comic vision.” These latter, however, must be distinguished, as must tragedy and the tragic vision, epic and the epic vision, and lyric and the lyric vision. Tragedy, comedy, epic, and lyric each name not only the vision proper to each genre but also the manner of imitation proper to each genre. They are all in verse (at least usually). Tragedy and comedy, strictly speaking, are drama: as Aristotle notes, they are in the form of action, not of narration. Epic, on the other hand, is narrated rather than acted (and, according to Aristotle, involves no change in the kind of meter being employed). My consideration of these genres of poetry does not reach everything that these genres include, but only the particular perspective they offer of man, the cosmos, and God, their “vision.” Each of these genres, as quite a few scholars have argued, constitutes a different — albeit complementary — literary vision. Briefly put, the arc of or progression in human action, the pattern, that each of them imitates constitutes a distinct genre, calls forth distinct characteristics or properties with regard to their object of imitation, kind of imagery, etc. Put more colloquially, they imitate different “slices of life.” Now, the vision embodied in tragedy, comedy, and epic can be found outside their full and proper expression; meaning, the comic vision and tragic vision can be found outside drama and the epic vision outside verse narration: for example, these are all present in Scripture as well as in the modern novel; the tragic vision dominates the Iliad; the comic vision pervades the Odyssey. (I am not certain, though, whether the lyric vision can be separated from lyric form.) All this is to say that my consideration of these poetic genres is limited to the pattern imitated and vision constitutive of and unique to each genre, as well as various features that, as a consequence, fall to each genre. This is all very abstractly put.

Let’s proceed to the tragic vision in particular. It seems to me (by which I do not mean that I have come up with this myself — many people have addressed this question and I am either entirely or largely drawing upon their insight) — it seems to me that the pattern of human action at the center of the tragic vision is the gradual achievement of wisdom, of vision, on the part of a lordly human being, by humbly submitting to suffering at the hands of God, which culminates in reconciliation with that God. The tragic vision of man sees him as noble, as like a god, and in that nobility dangerously prone to over-reaching, to pride, and lacking the wisdom to see rightly his proper place and status in relationship to God. Man in his greatness is, yet, not omniscient nor omnipotent, and cannot escape acting either unaware of the true character or object of his act or under the compulsion of an impossible choice between two terrible options, and his fall is swift and astonishing. Suffering necessarily follows, through which, ultimately, reconciliation is achieved (assuming the tragic hero accepts and learns from his suffering). Achilles, Oedipus at Colonus, Lear, Hamlet, Dmitri Karamazov, Raskolnikov, and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky seem to me representative of this trajectory. But there are also failed tragic heroes, great men who defy the divine, who trusting in their own greatness refuse to submit, suffer, and be reconciled. King Saul, Macbeth, probably Othello, and Captain Ahab are of this ilk. Part and parcel of tragedy, then, as Aristotle states, is that the hero be noble — renowned, prosperous — and that his change of fortune from good to bad, his fall, should not be caused by viciousness but by frailty or shortcoming or blindness. Closely connected with this is the impression given that the misfortune, the fall of the hero is undeserved or at least beyond what is deserved. The misfortune and consequent wandering or suffering is no mere retributive justice: it is astonishing, terrifying; it is at the same time mysterious, the work of the gods.

These elements of the tragic vision explain how tragedy arouses pity and fear and thereby the cathartic effect. As Aristotle states, we pity the hero for his unmerited misfortune and we fear seeing this misfortune in someone who is, after all, a man, as we are. To put it more globally, beholding the seemingly excessive punishment of misfortune inflicted upon the noble being that is man elicits our pity, while identifying ourselves as such a being, as man in his nobility and yet imperfection, elicits fear, because we see how man, though noble and great, is yet brought to such destruction through what appears to be the exploitation by God of some shortcoming of man’s — we see that we can likewise be brought low.

There are a few features proper to tragedy that merit noting. The scene, the world as presented, is stark: it is man wrestling with God. The community is generally in a state of disrepair: suffering from the plague, ruled by a king-killer, haunted by a curse, etc. So the tragic protagonist is on his own, so to speak — there is not the preponderance of helpful female characters, as there is in the comic world. In fact, the feminine is either distorted, i.e., masculinized — Jocasta, Clytaemnestra, Lady Macbeth — or, remaining feminine, it is oppressed. The stage is dominated by the hero and the gods, with the hero’s destiny at stake. Trial and judgment — and guilt — are central themes.

What, then, of Job? Job is in several respects the ultimate tragic protagonist: he is a patriarch, noble of character, wealthy, renowned. In fact, he was “the greatest of all the people of the east” (1:3). But the author of Job is at pains, above all, to emphasize Job’s blamelessness: he was “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (1:1). God Himself is so proud of Job that he points him out to Satan. To Satan! “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth?” (1:8). It is probably impossible or nearly so to imagine a greater, more noble, more virtuous character. Despite this, the Lord points him out to Satan and gives him up to Satan’s scourge: the Lord allows Satan to plunge him into deep misery. The disconnect between Job’s actions and his suffering is enormous, more so than any other tragedy I know. I cannot see a scintilla of evidence, in the description of Job, that he is proud or blind or in any way morally wanting. Job’s suffering is perhaps the most mysterious of all sufferings (leaving Christ aside!).

It seems clear to me, then, that the opening chapters of the Book of Job place us squarely and swiftly into the world of tragedy. And, in fact, each of those features of tragedy that I identified a few minutes ago is present here: the scene is stark — man wrestling with God, the community barely appearing (his family has mostly been struck down, and the only extra-familial community representatives are his 3 friends who sit with him in silence for seven days, then proceed to lambast him). The only female character encourages him to curse God. And the central themes are, indeed, trial and judgment and guilt.

The tragic arc of the Book of Job is completed with the Lord’s appearance and speech to Job, Job’s response, and the Lord’s judgment. In a masterful series of rhetorical questions, the Lord makes clear to Job His wisdom and His power, working hand-in-hand. To put it another way, the Lord displays His providence, His intimate knowledge of, rule over, and care for His creation. The particularity of His questions underscores this point: the objects of the Lord’s care are deer, hawks, lions, ostriches, rainclouds, etc., rather than animals or elements generically. The Lord attends to, cares for, and delights in the living beings He has created; He is not at a remove from His creation, but, rather, is close to it, acting in it. This providential care extends even to the wicked and to the ultimate agents of evil, including, under the image of Leviathan, Satan himself. The Lord is proclaiming the ease with which he rules over even such as Satan.

Note that the Lord does not give Job a precise, understandable, “just” reason for his excruciating suffering. It seems He simply appears to Job and makes clear His providence.

Job responds to the Lord by confessing his ignorance: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). Job, it seems to me, is acknowledging that such matters as the divine justice, and divine providence generally, are beyond his pale, are matters about which he cannot and ought not set himself up as a judge. He is consigning the matter to the inscrutable judgment of God, all-just, all-powerful, and provident for all. Before this event, Job had merely “heard” of the Lord but now he “sees” Him; that is to say, Job knows the Lord more fully now than he did before, and therefore, as he says, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). It would appear, then, that there is some progression in Job: he has gained vision, he “sees.” But this seeing is “seeing through a glass, darkly.” It is not rationalizing, not human understanding: it is being shown a great mystery, the Lord at work providentially in the suffering even of the righteous. He directs the affairs of men without hindrance, and none are party to His purposes. Like Oedipus, Job is initiated into a great divine mystery. Both of them come to see deeply.

The Book of Job is, then, a rich and deep expression of the tragic vision of man. Even the most righteous and noble and renowned and prosperous of men is subject to calamity. In this way, actually, the Book of Job stretches to its limit the tragic pattern: nowhere can the gulf between the protagonist’s deeds and his suffering be more enormous and apparent than in Job’s case. Still, in that it portrays God as ultimately responsible for this suffering, which falls under His providential care, working for man’s good by giving him vision, the Book of Job puts us at the very heart of the tragic vision. (In this regard, one is minded of Oedipus and Orestes.)

But what of the distinctive effects of tragedy, i.e., pity and fear? I have purposely left these for last; I wish to conclude this lecture with a consideration of the role of pity and fear in the Book of Job, for it seems to me that this book teaches us how to read, how properly to respond to, literature (and, in particular, tragedy).

If Aristotle is right, and I take it that he is, we the audience or readers should experience pity and fear when we behold the tragic action. In Greek tragedy, these emotions are often enough found in the chorus. Now, it seems to me that, although it is not drama, the Book of Job provides its own chorus, or at least its own audience — Job's friends. And in fact we learn from Job himself that his friends are afraid: he identifies fear in their reproof of him: “You see my calamity, and are afraid” (6:21). He also calls their reproofs “lies.”

A little background is in order here. Job’s friends have, from the moment Job initially lamented his state and cursed the day of his birth, attempted to explain why these calamities have befallen Job and, on that basis, have offered him advice. Fundamental to their account of these calamities are, it seems to me, the following principles: (1) God is entirely just; (2) misfortunes come from God as the inevitable punishment for wickedness; (3) in fact, however, no man is righteous before God; (4) God will reward those who return to Him. Relying on these principles, they have claimed that because Job is suffering such calamities, he is being punished for his wickedness, so that he need only return to God in supplication for his misery to pass.

Job consistently and thunderously decries this analysis, this diagnosis of the situation, referring to their account as “lies.” He protests his innocence and complains and appeals to God: “I am blameless; … I will say to God, ‘Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me’” (9:21-22, 10:2). In response to this protestation, Job’s friends castigate him in turn. Zophar states that Job’s guilt calls for more punishment than God has so far inflicted; Eliphaz thunders at Job: “You are doing away with the fear of God, and hindering meditation before God. For your iniquity teaches your mouth, … Your own mouth condemns you, and not I; your own lips testify against you” (15:4-6). Each of his friends accuses him of pride and presumption: “Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities” (22:5). Nevertheless, Job continues to maintain his innocence; in fact, he states that he has prepared his case, his defense, before God. And as is to be expected, Job reproves his friends for failing to be friends in his hour of tribulation: he calls them “miserable comforters” who, like God, pursue and persecute him.

As I read it, Job is saying that his friends behold the calamities that have befallen him and are afraid: if this can happen to such as Job, it can happen to us also. Rather than taking pity on Job, confronting their own fear, and undertaking self-examination, they attempt to make sense of Job’s misfortune: they seek to make his calamities explicable, predictable, and, ultimately, controllable by appealing to their own puny and, at least in part, false notions of God and of His dealings with men (reward and punishment): such an appeal allows them to say to Job “Misfortune is the due and inevitable punishment of wickedness; thus, be not wicked!” They show partiality to God by defending what they think to be true of Him even against the facts of the case, viz., that Job is blameless. Their fear leads them to retreat to the comfort of their own ideas about God, ideas that are false, without genuinely seeking to understand the ways of God. Against them, Job maintains that the wicked are not inevitably punished in this life, but rather they often prosper, and that just men do not always live to see God’s justice carried out, and at the end of the book the Lord vindicates Job’s position and rejects theirs.

So, Job’s friends wrongly submit the mysterious realities at play in this story to their puny categories and principles. This reduction makes them incapable of pity for Job (as Job also sees: “miserable comforters are you all”). They fail as friends, but they also fail as a chorus, as an audience: they do not undergo the catharsis proper to tragedy, for they stop up the access to pity. They fail, then, to learn from the tragedy. They fail to achieve vision vicariously through Job.

This is a lesson, it seems to me, for all readers of literature and especially of tragedy. As readers of literature, are we like Job’s friends? Do we attempt ab initio to force the deep, mysterious meanings of the great tragedies to square with our own principles, categories, frameworks? One common form of this is moralizing, casting aspersions on the moral character of the tragic protagonist and so (and maybe even as a way of) failing to engage with the dark, difficult, wondrous mysteries present in tragic suffering. Are we so caught up with identifying (or even inventing) moral failures in Oedipus, Lear, Hamlet, Achilles, etc. that we lose the opportunity to see with their eyes, to suffer with their hearts, and thus enter the mystery of tragedy? We should, like Job, acknowledge the darkness, the seeming injustice, and strive mightily to enter into and begin to understand the mystery. Do we recognize, as Job ultimately does, that such understanding of deep realities comes to us, or rather is given to us, as the fruit of such open, receptive honesty, appreciation, and inquiry, rather than being something we ourselves create in sheer response to the situation presented to us? Just as in philosophy or mathematics we do not immediately bring theology to bear, so in literature we should be open to seeing things, be open to learning from the struggles and darkness even in pagan works. Theology is not threatened thereby; it sits calmly, waiting, knowing that the depths plumbed by the great literary authors and their readers ultimately open onto Revelation, in which they are shown forth in all their splendor and truth.




  1. At this point the following objection may arise: is it not the case that grace given by God and the witness/word of the Church are absolutely indispensable for us to possess that vision, that insight, that knowledge of the truth of God and man that is in question here? Isn’t it also true that the Sacraments, and above all the Eucharist, in the intimate love and knowledge of God that they cause in us, greatly surpass what a mere story can accomplish? So not only is the story not sufficient on its own — it is even surpassed. Both parts of this objection must be granted. Still, they need not and do not, I think, militate against the conclusion I am drawing. As for the first part, it is true of literary works, too, that we must give ourselves to them, stand open to them so as to receive the vision they can communicate, and that this is often with the help of one who stands as a mediating witness to this vision, i.e., a teacher. As for the second part, while it is true that a direct experience of such an action, rather than beholding it on stage or reading it in a book, would surpass the vicarious experience literature provides, I have not been making the claim that literature provides the highest or most intimate mode of insight, but rather that it provides some meaningful vision.
  2. Philosophy would, I think, provide a more proximate foundation for the possibility of communicating through literature a kind of intuitive knowledge. In affirming the substantial unity of form and matter, the principle agere sequitur esse (“action follows being”), the object-->activity-->power-->nature route taken by natural philosophy, and the moral significance of the concrete human act in its object, circumstances, and intentions, Thomisic philosophy likewise grounds, at least in part and more proximately, the literary enterprise.
  3. See the famous Letter to Can Grande, probably (or perhaps) written by Dante.
  4. In Scripture, fire likewise has many meanings. Sometimes it signifies God Himself (the burning bush, the pillar of fire, etc.), other times the purifying action of grace, or even the punishment of the wicked. It is a particularly wonderful and complex image in Luke’s Gospel.
  5. This is Tolkien’s term. I should note that I am doubtless applying this term more broadly than Tolkien would, at least in part because I mean it in a looser sense.
  6. For example, many of the images I listed above are represented as being used and even in some cases as introduced by God Himself: sheep, Bride/Bridegroom, circumcision, fire.