The main religious topic of J. B. is the theodicy paradox: Why does a presumably benevolent, omnipotent God allow evil and suffering to exist in the world he created? All religions have tried to find answers to this paradox, usually asked by a person who is suffering greatly without knowing why. Like the biblical Job, J. B. is willing to accept all his suffering without losing faith in God, if only God would show him why he deserves such punishment. However, he rejects the supercilious pseudo-explanations of the modern comforters: the priest, the Marxist, and the psychologist.
The traditional biblical answer is given when God appears to Job in a whirlwind: It is presumptuous for humans with their limited understanding to question the omniscient creator of the universe. Instead Job is asked to accept God’s will unquestioningly, and he does. J. B. responds similarly to the Distant Voice; he accepts, as he must, God’s assertion of his superior power and wisdom, but his acceptance has a tone of melancholy and resignation that irritates Zuss/God, who had clearly expected more exuberant praise. J. B., as Archibald MacLeish would have it, has not been answered, he has been silenced.
Nickles/Satan is even more infuriated by J. B.’s decision to make a fresh start in life, despite the absence of a clear answer from God with regard to the reason and justice of his sufferings. How can J. B. live his life over again, knowing that there is no justice in the world and that he might have to repeat his ordeal? Just like some theologians have answered the theodicy paradox by redefining the attributes of God, J. B. realizes that he cannot continue to base his life on the existence of divine justice, because if it exists at all, God refuses to reveal it to him. His new life will not be founded on philosophical abstractions; instead it is the love for his wife and the world around him that will replace theology and help him to put his life in order. This virtual elimination of God from daily human life is very close to the traditional Deist position of François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, as well as to post-World War II existential philosophy.
Themes and Meanings
As a twentieth century Job, J.B. could have been depicted as a victim of his own success—some selfish or arrogant businessman who takes credit for his high standard of living. Archibald MacLeish chooses, however, to make him an unwilling but empathetic participant in his century’s meaningless suffering. MacLeish has explained that he saw in the biblical Job a vehicle for examining the “inexplicable sufferings” of humankind in the modern world—a world in which millions could be killed because of their race or simply because they were inhabitants of a certain city. J.B. is delivered into the hands of a God who mistrusts him more than Satan does, indeed, a God who is more satisfied with winning a bet than in proving the faithfulness of his disciple.
It can be said that J.B. asks questions similar to those asked by the biblical Job, but in a different religious context. J.B. lives in a postbiblical—specifically post-Christian—world; piety and fidelity are ornaments to be hung on already achieved success, not the means toward achieving it. In the midst of his grand achievements, J.B. would never have been prompted to ask: How can man love and serve a God who seems to be indifferent to (or unable to resolve) the issue of cosmic evil as it manifests itself on the earth? To ask this question, one must step into history and not cocoon oneself within the sanctity of home and family. The biblical Job finally accepts the answer that God’s justice and mercy escape mankind’s ability to understand it, and thus Job must simply accept what has happened to him as an exercise of Divine freedom that ultimately has restored Job’s losses. In contrast, the answers discovered in the course of J.B. are less orthodox and less theological.
One response to J.B.’s predicament in the play is foreshadowed by J.B.’s wife,...
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