Faculty Book Reviews
The Impatience of Job
George W. Rutler | 123 pages | Sherwood Sugden | 1981
Reviewed by Associate Professor of Communication Dr. Joseph Martin
The Book of Job is supposed to answer the question of why bad things happen to good people. And even though it contains the longest soliloquy attributed to God in all of the Bible, most people who manage to wade through its winding stanzas of conversation still can’t find an answer. Pope Gregory the Great, incredibly, wrote a 35-volume commentary on the book in the Middle Ages. What may seem more accessible to some, however, is a more recent 124-page paperback by George W. Rutler entitled The Impatience of Job.
Rutler begins by commenting on some dour verses:
Man that is born of a woman is of few days,
And full of trouble.
He comes forth like a flower, and withers;
He flees like a shadow, and continues not. (Job 14:1-2)
“On the last day of a recent year, I buried a woman on what felt like the coldest day of that year, on the top of a hill in a country cemetery overlooking the Delaware River,” Rutler begins. “There the couple of children and I stood in about a foot of snow, my black cloak acting like a sail against the wind and it seemed to me that the last thing I wanted to read was Job’s sorry lines, so I moved on to the alternate reading. At that moment a particularly strong gust of wind blew the two bunches of hothouse flowers off the grave and down the side of the hill and our little group stood still and black against the snow. So Job will always manage to be heard: he comes forth like a flower, and withers.”
From that starting point, Rutler moves through the touchstones of Man, God, and the Devil in relation to the jarring potholes of life. His voice is an accomplished one, having studied at the Gregorian University in Rome as well as Oxford and Dartmouth. Yet he’s also been a hospital chaplain and pastor to denizens of both Wall Street and Hell’s Kitchen. He was as a priest on the ground in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. That combination of experiences makes him a one-of-a-kind tour guide whose rapid-fire mind whirs along so fast at points you may just decide to lean in and enjoy the ride versus trying to keep up with him. This is a writer who throws down words in a manner reminiscent of William F. Buckley. Rutler’s rhetoric is so seamlessly readable (Dartmouth’s alumni magazine said his delivery “both disarms and knocks you out”) that a sampling of his punchy prose is as persuasive as any imprimatur.
The Devil, of course, is an unavoidable character in Job. And despite modern intellectual discomfort with the concept of personified evil in the spiritual world, Rutler doesn’t hesitate to give him more credence than the latest Avengers villain:
“God asks, ‘Where have you been,’ and Satan replies, ‘Roaming about.’ …It is not an evasive reply. Indeed, its precision is devastating, making it the most dangerous line in the Bible. Satan is all over the place. Incessantly busy, he never rests. He has no bed. He wears every uniform and possible outfit on every corner and at every party. He met Jesus alone in that most barren wilderness and incited the crowds in Jerusalem. He spoke systematic logic to Jesus with one voice and later shouted out of a madman’s mouth, ‘I am legion. I am everywhere.’ He has been legion in every generation: on field, in the court, in the church. Sometimes he puts on the drab of generals, sometimes the black of judges or the purple of bishops— consistently smiling, polite, gallant, mannered, and sincere.”
But fear is no match for faith in Rutler’s extended exposition, which excels at marshaling paradoxes to frame life as a journey, one that that can be not just endured but transformed by intentional, faith-full choices. “Job proclaims that God can do all things and that no plan of his can be thwarted. The way the Jerusalem Bible translates this, ‘What you conceive, you perform,’ reminds us that, more than passing on to God…metaphysical compliments, Job has declared the root affirmation of Moses, Augustine, Aquinas, and every burst of chromosomes into conscious life: the very will of God that things should be causes them to be. Ideal and action which are so disparate in human attempts at creation are one and the same and always perfectly effectual in the mind of God. God conceives perfection and thus it exists and the only distinction between heaven and earth is that in heaven there is no delaying the volition of God… The “world without end” is not an absent-minded place for those disinclined to stop; it is the absence of delay, the pure state in which reality totally exists, ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ and where Demosthenes and Daniel Webster are not different in age or syntax. Job’s encounter with this melts his frustration at what he wants to be and what he is, no longer impatiently seated with chin on hand and tongue stuck out like a gargoyle or existentialist spitting water on each passing intimation of loveliness or hope.”
It’s all heady stuff, with more than a few lines that may prompt a double-take or re-reading. But as a pastor as well as an academic, Rutler manages to pull application from the theological reflection and philosophical musings. A concluding chapter calls Job “Food for the Fed-Up.” There he observes, “The wrestling match between heavenly Father and earthly son is the vigor of true religion. The whole practice of the prayer life is called ascetics, which comes from the Greek word meaning athlete, and whenever pious writers speak of the school of the soul we should expect to think of the gymnasium discipline and exhilaration. This is where sweat comes in… Jesus is not just a memory. He has a voice and it coaxes fruit from fruitless trees, fish from empty nets, and patience from impatience.”
“The patience of Job” was a phrase that sprang from the King James Bible’s rendering of James 5:11. But later versions also translated the Greek word hupomone as “persistence” or “endurance.” That variety helps explain how Rutler can present the Hebrew patriarch as one both impatient and yet very patient man. Much of what the Christian publishing juggernaut serves up these days as devotional fare doesn’t demonstrate much staying power. The Impatience of Job, combining scriptural substance with stylistic elegance, has it in spades. Since it’s wrongly gone out of print, Rutler’s little book may take some effort to track down. But try finding it through an interlibrary loan…and some patience. This is one that will reward the effort.