book of job

2019.33 (William Blake, The Book of Job)

            Interlaced realities. That’s my preferred way to explain sleepwalking to someone that has never experienced it. You see the real world in front of you, overlaid with a dreamscape where objects in the real world kind of correspond with what you are dreaming but your brain can’t separate the two, nor can it assign a hierarchy to it and favor one over the other. You could be standing on the edge of a quarry, ready to walk forward, off the edge, to your doom because you’re dreaming that you are on a road, and your brain might make the wrong decision as to which world was correct. You’re stuck not between two worlds, but in both, at the same time. It takes what seems like minutes for your brain to sort it out.

            When I was 17, I dreamed I was in a Shoney’s in Martin, TN. What an absurd sentence. I dream of Shoney’s. I sat down on a bench to wait for a table to open up and discovered the bench was covered in cassette tapes. But it was a dream, so I said, “Oh no. I sat on someone’s cassettes” and the dream moved along. When I woke up the next day, all of the cassettes in my bedroom were spilled off a bookshelf and onto the floor. In my 20s, I dreamed that I stabbed someone. I woke up holding a magic marker like a knife. In graduate school, I pulled my bed 5’ from the wall it was pushed up against.

            I had a solid 15 year run of sleepwalking when I lived in Philadelphia. Stress seems to trigger it in me, but lack of sleep also possibly contributes. So tired that I sleepwalk? My body hates me. There were two big sources of stress at work in me while living in Philadelphia. First: Philadelphia, itself. Maybe not Philadelphia as a specific town but living in a city in general. I don’t think I slept well because of the street noises. Second: deadlines. It was either the stress of them or the lack of sleep caused by them that made me do something wild on a weekly basis. There were a number of years that I worked about 70 hours a week in the studio on top of adjunct work and trying to be a part of society. There were a lot of deadlines but not a lot of accompanying sales so, if I calculated it, I bet I made about a 25 cents/hour. Things have slowed down in the studio, and I no longer live in the middle of a major metropolitan area, so this is a rarity now more than a predictable occurrence. It has only been in the past 5 years that I have realized that I’m not probably not going to be stuck with sleepwalking as a routine part of my life.

William Blake-  Job’s Evil Dreams , engraving, 7 9/16 x 5 5/8”, 1825, image courtesy the Tate

William Blake- Job’s Evil Dreams, engraving, 7 9/16 x 5 5/8”, 1825, image courtesy the Tate

            When I saw William Blake’s Book of Job engravings at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1997-98, I was in full somnambulist mode. The “Job’s Evil Dreams” panel spoke to me. “This seems familiar. Maybe I’m a visionary,” I thought. Maybe you’re a whackadoodle 18th/19th c. British visionary artist? Get a grip, kid. It’s a nightmarish vision of sleep. You get that these days. You’re tired because you paint until 3:00 every morning and yet you’re not getting any better. Sleep more and the visions will subside.

            But the series stuck with me. I consider seeing that complete series for the first time a key art viewing experience in my life. I’ve only experienced it as a full set one other time, in Philadelphia. It is the opposite of last week’s post about Hugo van der Goes’ meditative space. This is beefy drama plopped down in my life when all I read was southern Gothic and grotesque books. That’s what I wanted and felt like I needed at the time.


             “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”  - Genesis 3: 8-11


            “Who told you that you were naked?” is one of the saddest verses in the Bible. One of the saddest and it’s only on what…page 4? It’s over. If you’re Adam or Eve, you might not know that it’s over. But then again, you ate the fruit, so maybe you do. You covered yourself due to your newly recognized nakedness so maybe you can also see it coming that you’re getting ready to get booted from Eden. Life is getting ready to multiply in difficulty. The earth will no longer sustain you without effort. You’re going to get cold. You’re going to get hot. You’re going to die. One of your sons is going to kill the other. Maybe all of that snaps into focus when God asks you, “Who told you that you were naked?”

            Job is the “why do bad things happen to good people?” book of the Bible. The text in no way says this but my first thought to that question is usually, “Who told you that you were good?” In Mark 10, a young man addresses Jesus as “Good teacher…” Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Some interpret this as Jesus saying to the man that if Jesus is good then Jesus is God. If you see Him as good then you have to see Him as God. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition with Jesus. It’s something that would be mulled over through the centuries and eventually take the CS Lewis “liar, lunatic, or Lord” framing.

             I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to… Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.                                                   

(CS Lewis - Mere Christianity)

            An insane person or a person of pure evil is not going to make for a great moral teacher. You can’t pick and choose what you like from Jesus. Under what contemporary circumstances would you allow a person to present themselves full of moral wisdom, of which you respond favorably, only to have them turn around say, “Ummm, one more thing, I’m also a diety” and you say to yourself, “I mean, he makes some valid points so I can probably overlook the diety thing”? In one response, Jesus not only reveals his divinity but explains what is good. God is good. That’s it. It’s a short list. As harsh as it sounds, you’re not good. I’m not either. The only people that you hear say, “I’m a good person” are a) people that have never thought about it b) people that have done something horribly wrong and need to explain that misdeed as an anomaly more than it is part of a pattern of brokenness or c) when they feel like they have been wronged and that the universe doesn’t make sense…why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen to me?

            Our “goodness” as a relative measurement is laughable. Large chunks of our lives will be spent doing something awful, followed quickly by looking around to see anyone noticed it. If someone did see us, then we look for someone else doing something more awful so we can say, “Well, yeah, I did something bad but at least I’m not that guy.” And we can always find that guy. There is always someone worse than you, but sometimes you are the person that is worse than someone else. That should be the slogan for Twitter: “Twitter: You can always find a horrible person to make you feel better about yourself.”

William Blake-  Satan before the Throne of God , engraving, 7 5/8 x5 7/8”, 1825, image courtesy of the Tate

William Blake- Satan before the Throne of God, engraving, 7 5/8 x5 7/8”, 1825, image courtesy of the Tate

             If you read Job expecting an answer that gives you peace based on the idea that you’ll get a logical explanation for why God allows for all the evil of the world, you will be very disappointed. That’s not the book. The book is not going to tell you why people get shot or drown in tsunamis or die of cancer or commit genocide. That’s what you want to know, right? By golly, that’s what you deserve to know. I’m hopefully going around the sun 90 times, I’d like for a few of those trips to make sense, dadgummit. You demand it and if you don’t get the answer you want, then that must mean that there is nothingness and that the universe is cold and indifferent. This is ludicrous. There are 7.5 billion people and an infinite number of environmental factors constantly in flux on this planet, each one with a self-centered goal and you’re wondering how your life managed to get caught in someone or some thing’s wake. That doesn’t mean that the planet is wired incorrectly or needs a software update. At least for the stuff related to other people, it means that everyone is broken and self-serving and we trip each other up. At my worst (and my worst comes out on a daily basis), people around me in traffic or somewhere in public are simply things to be negotiated. I am a horrible person that will forget your humanity and instead just wonder why you and your dumb car are in my way in my attempt to get to the grocery store. “My way.” That’s evil. I can be evil. The world is so vast and deep and old and woven together that we’re all breathing Caesar’s last breath from over 2000 years ago, but you need a tidy explanation of a particular thing or event right now or the bargain made betwixt you and God is void. Best of luck. If that’s your position, you wouldn’t accept the complex truth even if it were offered.   

            Another reflexive reaction is to say, “Well I don’t believe in a God that would allow X or cause Y to happen…” What if that’s the God you got though? This isn’t a public official that you vote out in the next election. We’re talking about an entity of infinite power and knowledge that is beyond time. I don’t believe in a public bathroom where men would make a mess and not clean up after themselves, but life never fails to prove otherwise. I was at a concert for a semi-famous band about 15 years ago and the singer said something like, “If you believe there is a God that would allow this (ed.- I forgot what this was), then you should reject that God.” You should reject that God. What kind of 8th grade stoner logic is that? What if it is that God? If you believe in a temperature so cold in Alaska in January that it would allow a naked person to freeze to death, you should reject that temperature. Problem solved. Reject what you think doesn’t work. But really, what are you going to do? If 7.5 billion people just all said, “God, we reject you” do you really think that the entity that made the universe would rethink things? God is God, not a weak-spined politician getting ratioed on social media. That might sound defeatist and harsh and cruel. What if none of that is cruel? What if we’re too stupid to see that it is just and righteous. What if we are the equivalent of 7.5 billion 4-year-olds throwing a tantrum in Kroger because our parent won’t let us get gummi bears? What if your protests, though huge in your world, are minor in the larger picture? Every kid is going to yell at some point that they “hate” their parents. This is the child’s version of “rejecting a God that would allow something unfair to happen.” It doesn’t make you a bad parent. It makes you a being with a larger view of creation than the kid that’s only been around the sun four times. You don’t cave. Caving legitimizes immature behavior. If you’re undisciplined, you hit back as hard as you got hit and let the kid have it. If you’re in the right frame of mind, you exhibit patience and grace and understand that your child is incapable of understanding because your decision doesn’t jive with what he wants. Pick them up and remove them from public or allow them to flop around until they’re tired.

            Job doesn’t have everything taken from him in a challenge between Satan and God so that at the end God can swoop down with a towel and a spit bucket saying, “OK, champ, you’ve been put through the ringer but there’s a good reason for it that you’re going to understand…” God doesn’t even “reward” Job at the end by giving him double what he had lost. God gives it to him. There is no explanation. It’s a gift. God’s response to Job’s questions and protests is to give Job a lesson in humility and explain to him, in a way that he can somewhat understand, that Job doesn’t know what he’s talking about and he never will, but not to worry about it, because God is capable of understanding it.

William Blake-  Behemoth and Leviathan , engraving, 7 3/4 x 5 7/8”, 1825, image courtesy of the Tate

William Blake- Behemoth and Leviathan, engraving, 7 3/4 x 5 7/8”, 1825, image courtesy of the Tate

To quote John Calvin-

“For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”

            You want an explanation for how the world works? You wouldn’t even understand it if God told you. But that’s ok. Most of us really don’t know how the internet works, but we loooove the internet. You don’t know what dark matter is. You don’t know if you’re alone in the universe. You don’t even know, definitively, how the moon was made. You don’t know how you got here. But sure, demand your idea of justice and fairness and goodness in the world. How can you know what is just and fair in the world if you don’t even know what the world is? You float around on one rock near one star, of which there are an assumed infinite number and you haven’t even figured out that rock yet. What do you know about anything? Take comfort in your ignorance. Look how dumb you are. You forgot where you left your car in a parking lot last week, but the world holds together.