Learning from “J.B.” and Job Through Pain and Pandemic: An Overview and Critique of MacLeish’s “J.B.” in Light of COVID-19
The scenes are overwhelming: body bags piled along hospital corridors, grandparents struggling for breath in isolation wards, long lines of desperate shoppers and job-hunters, and whole cities in lockdown. How can Christians respond faithfully to the disease and suffering our world is currently experiencing? Amidst the chaos of a global pandemic, the creative arts offer a fruitful outlet for us to voice our sorrows, and grapple with different schemas to respond faithfully to God amidst pain and pandemic.
In 1956, American poet Archibald MacLeish explored the vexing dilemma of theodicy in J.B., a play written in order to address “questions too large for you which, nevertheless, will not leave you alone.” Based on the Hebrew Bible’s original account, his Pulitzer Prize-winning work recast Job as a twentieth-century banker and millionaire, Sarah as his wife, and Zuss and Nickles  as circus actors performing a sardonic, commentary-filled reprise of Yahweh and the Adversary’s biblical exchanges. While we await a new generation of playwrights to theologise in light of COVID-19, I offer this overview and critique of MacLeish’s work to spark debate about how we relate to God and the problem of evil in these uncertain days. Following a survey of the plot and background of J.B., I will briefly explore how MacLeish’s portrayal – particularly the “death of God” ending – coheres and contrasts with the book of Job itself, then suggest some reflections and responses in light of our uncertain and painful times.
A survey of MacLeish’s “J.B.”
The original Broadway production of J.B. (running from 1956–8) won critical acclaim and provoked a nationwide reflection on God and faith, amidst the fallout of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in the 1940s, the threat of nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and preceding the rise of the “death of God” movement in the 1960s. MacLeish’s play typified Job’s reception history during the late 20th century: a period when artists, writers, and bible scholars tended to focus on the anguish of Job’s dialogues (Job 3–31) rather than the acceptance seen in the narrative frames (Job 1–2, 42). MacLeish himself described this angst, shared by many at the time, in a 1955 sermon: “How can we believe in the justice of God in a world in which the innocent perish in vast meaningless massacres, and brutal and dishonest men foul all the lovely things?” The substance of his question remains pertinent amidst the chaos of COVID-19: “How can we believe in the justice of God in a world in which the innocent perish …”?
The plot of J.B. loosely follows the biblical book. In MacLeish’s version, God commands Satan to inflict a series of modern-day calamities upon J.B., his wife Sarah, and their five children. Military death, a car crash, rape and murder, terrorism, and nuclear war all feature. As calamity after calamity strike, J.B. and Sarah embody two contrasting responses to the problem of evil.
J.B. begins the story espousing life as beautiful and his wealth as undeserved, yet seems in denial about the possibility of meaningless pain and loss. As the story progresses and he loses his children, he nevertheless insists “from his heart’s pain” that God would not deal punishment without cause. Under J.B.’s version of theodicy, God’s justice and goodness must be preserved, at the cost of empathising with human suffering or maintaining his own innocence.
In contrast, Sarah questions God’s justice and character in order to justify the calamities that have befallen them. As the play progresses, she spars against Job’s perspective, not only mimicking the “Curse God and die” epithet of Job’s wife (Job 2:9), but even exceeding it with exclamations such as, “[The Lord t]akes! Kills! Kills! Kills! Kills!” and “God is our enemy …” She later retorts: “You wanted justice, didn’t you? There isn’t any. There’s the world …” According to Sarah’s theodicy, an all-powerful God who allows human misery cannot be considered good. She eventually walks out on J.B., their differing theodicies remaining unresolved.
It is the final scene, however, where MacLeish charts a strikingly different course to the biblical text and posits his own answer to theodicy. Instead of restoring J.B.’s fortunes, God disappears from view entirely, allowing J.B. and Sarah to share a final, intimate conversation:
J.B.: Why did you leave me alone?
Sarah: I loved you.
I couldn’t help you any more.
You wanted justice and there was none —
J.B.: He does not love. He Is.
Sarah: But we do. That’s the wonder.
They cling to each other. Then she rises, drawing him up,
peering at the darkness inside the door.
J.B.: It’s too dark to see.
She turns, pulls his head down between her hands and kisses him.
Sarah: Then blow on the coal of the heart, my darling.
J.B.: The coal of the heart …
Sarah: It’s all the light now.
Blow on the coal of the heart.
The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we’ll see by and by …
Sarah admits leaving J.B. because she could no longer bear him holding on to his idea of a just God: “You wanted justice and there was none.” Chastened, J.B. acknowledges that God has felt distant to him: “He does not love. He / Is.” Sarah replies by stating that the fact they love is wondrous enough. The couple embrace each other and resolve to rebuild their lives again. Upon the final curtain, MacLeish’s thesis hangs in the air: those who suffer will not find comfort by appealing to God’s justice or goodness, since “The candles in churches are out,” and “The lights have gone out of the sky.” Instead, the audience is invited to answer the problem of evil by focusing exclusively on the love in their own hearts. Simply put, “J.B. and Sarah reject God and affirm life.”
MacLeish’s absurdist conclusion to J.B. captures the zeitgeist in which moderns and late-modern readers understand and conceive of Job’s story: humanity is magnified, while God is sidelined. For example, Harold Kushner understands MacLeish to mean that “… In a world where children die and cities are bombed, a world we have learned we cannot count on … we will go on living in it because, God help us, it is the only world we have.” Priest avers that, for MacLeish, human love provides the only “island of meaning.” This marginalisation of God amidst suffering is now largely accepted in most Western societies. It is not surprising, therefore, that the wider society’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is, by and large, absent of any public commentary of God’s character and purposes.
What does the book of Job teach us about suffering?
Where does MacLeish’s exchange resonate with the book of Job, and where does it fall short? To explore this, we must leave Broadway and journey to the land of Uz. While space does not permit us to comment on the book in its entirety, there are at least three ways that the book of Job differs from MacLeish’s.
Is suffering a theodicy to be solved? Job vs. J.B.
Where J.B. ends with an emotional presentation of secular theodicy, the book of Job itself warns us to be skeptical of attempting to pinpoint one in the first place. While Job does suffer in ways that many readers resonate with and take comfort from, we are told from the outset that this is the account of a unique individual “greater than all the sons of the east” (Job 1:3). His story includes unique details (e.g., the dramatic loss of all his children and possessions in a day) that do not mirror the suffering of every person. Furthermore, once the prologue establishes that Job’s suffering is innocent in nature, while it is challenged in the interlocutions of his friends, the question of theodicy is not explicitly addressed or resolved in the remainder of the book.
Therefore, our tendency (and that of MacLeish and other receptors of Job) to prise a logical rationale from Job’s sufferings for ourselves does not match the narrator’s own approach. Wilson reminds us: “The reason why people suffer is not the focus of this book.” It is instructive that no church, denomination, or tradition has ever endorsed a specific theodicy as the way to explain all suffering. Central to the book of Job’s message is that we cannot understand every reason God has for pain, sorrow, or evil: this deliberate silence should deter us from using his story to construct theodicies.
Is there then an explicit purpose to the book of Job, if not to argue for a particular theodicy? It seems so: readers learn from the conversations in the heavenly realm (1:6–2:10) that Job’s suffering was intended to test whether or not he “feared God for nothing (ḥin·nām)” (1:9). The sufferings Job and his wife experience are not the core issue; rather, they serve as the means of revealing the genuineness of their faith (2:9–10). The book of Job underscores that, amidst innocent suffering, there are ultimately two basic responses: to turn to God, or turn away from Him. By claiming that “the candles in the churches are out” and “the lights have gone out in the sky,” however, the final exchange in MacLeish’s J.B. seems to present turning away as the only preferred outcome. Ironically, as J.B. and Sarah unite upon their new understanding of theodicy, they become reconciled with each other, but estranged from God.
Is there justice from God? Job vs. J.B.
An important theological claim in J.B. is expressed in Sarah’s retort: “You wanted justice and there was none.” Far from a solitary thought in the play itself, this sentiment seems to be a key feature of MacLeish’s own theology. While writing the play, he asserted that, “to the old poet who wrote this drama thousands of years ago, the injustice of the universe was self-evident.” MacLeish’s observations on the severity of Job’s travails despite his innocence led him to the “inevitable” conclusion that his sufferings “are unjustified in any human meaning of the word justice.”
However, a thick reading of the book of Job forces us to abandon such simplistic views of justice. First, we must consider that the bulk of Job’s dialogue to God is written as lament for justice. Even after Bildad carelessly insists that God must have exercised justice by “giving [Job] over to the penalty of their sin” (8:4), Job is courageous enough to maintain his innocence and to lament the lack of an arbiter between them (9:33). As his friends’ counsel grows more and more accusatory, Job is incited from merely yearning for death (e.g., 3:3, 3:11) to resolutely searching for something more. He declares his hope in a redeemer who will stand upon the earth (19:25) and grows in his boldness (or perhaps arrogance) to litigate God Himself (13:18, 23:4).
On balance, therefore, Job is not a disbeliever in God’s justice. Rather, he senses the absence of it in his present moment (19:7), yet is still aware “that there is judgement” (19:29) for those who wrong him. As a result, he pushes back on his friends’ simplified retributive theology (21:7): they sound coherent, but fail to comfort him, nor correlate with real life. Unlike J.B. — who abandons hope of seeking justice — Job’s lengthy laments are proof that he still yearns for justice. He seeks it by remaining in covenant partnership with God, and insisting that God maintain covenant partnership with him. In contrast, the absence of extended lamenting in MacLeish’s portrayal of J.B.gives rise to a wooden and unsympathetic portrayal of the Joban sufferer who is a mere shadow of the undignified and shattered justice-seeker we observe in Scripture.
It is also instructive for us that, when Yahweh finally speaks (38:1–40:2; 40:6–41:34), He rebukes Job not for wanting justice, but for “discrediting His justice” (40:8). Job’s pursuit of justice is not wrong, however, he has presumed only two choices: either God shows up, or Job can pronounce Him guilty. This is why in God’s final speech, He challenges Job to consider that true justice will require God-like power (40:9a), words (40:9b), majesty (40:10), and even righteous anger (11–13), none of which Job possesses himself. It is one thing for Job to hold fast to his integrity: however, he must do so without nullifying God’s righteous character in the process. By portraying that there is no justice from God and only darkness, however, MacLeish contradicts the language of Job’s lament, and the tenor of his testimonies. In the Biblical account, there is justice from God, but not in ways that are neatly boxed up for Job — or for us — to challenge lightly.
How should suffering shape how we love? Job vs. J.B.
The final exchange in J.B. reflects MacLeish’s desire to portray “something that is obviously there but is omitted from the Biblical account - Job’s action.” In MacLeish’s account, J.B. neither grovels fatalistically nor curses his Creator; he pursues love but without seeming reference to the God who authors and embodies that love. When we observe the biblical text, however, it becomes apparent that while Job’s actions do alter as a result of his encounter with Yahweh, it does so differently to MacLeish’s characters.
First, instead of abandoning God, Job responds to Him directly with self-abasement and repentance, having now heard and seen Yahweh for himself (42:5–6). In addition, Job willingly serves as a mediator between his three friends and Yahweh, sacrificing bulls and rams and interceding on their behalf (42:7–9). He is moved to sacrificial love for his friends. Finally, the last line of the book concludes that Job died immensely blessed: wealthy, old and “full of days” (42:17) – inviting us to graft this Gentile landowner into the faithful legacies of Israel’s righteous ancestors such as Abraham, Isaac, and David.
Often overlooked are the more subtle aspects of Job’s catharsis. For example, in the prologue, Job’s children are anonymous victims, whereas, in the epilogue, we are specifically told that Job gives his three daughters beautiful names: Jemimah (“turtledove”), Keziah (“cassia” or “cinnamon spice”) and Keren-happuch (describing a black eye-shadow). Once we learn that Job even grants them an inheritance (42:15) — an unusual action within the Ancient Near East at the time — it becomes apparent that Job’s suffering has shifted his worldview: there is a turning to human community and celebration through Job’s loving acts and a greater appreciation of the beauty around him. The key distinction here, however, is that his loving acts flow out of a continued and deepened relationship with Yahweh.
Likewise, amidst our trials, it is vital that we continue to practice love of God and love of neighbour while remaining anchored in a covenant relationship with Yahweh. In contrast, MacLeish’s characters seem to end the play essentially declaring that “All You Need is Love,” when so much more could be gained – a deeper relationship with the God of Love Himself.
Surprised by suffering: staging a better response
MacLeish’s reimagining of Job’s account remains a provocative and well-crafted play, with its ability to raise questions worth asking in our current age of pandemic panic. If read uncritically, however, J.B.’s final thesis risks turning readers towards celebrating love in the absence of belief in the God who authors and embodies it Himself. Thankfully, the book of Job itself offers wise insights on suffering worth reintroducing into the public conversation: don’t try to solve the problem of evil, keep searching for God’s justice, and let suffering shape us to see God more clearly, love more sacrificially, and to marvel at the beauty he still places in our lives. Amidst a scarred and scared world, these are certainly biblical ideas worth expressing with new songs and stories that tell the truth in beautiful ways.
In light of the current challenges, I offer two final suggestions for staging a better response to the suffering we experience: one practical, and one artistic. The first is that Job offers not one, but two schemas that faithful Christians can follow during pain or pandemic. One is to imitate the patience of Job in the prologue as we mourn our losses, and bless Yahweh who “gives and takes away” (Job 1:20–21). Then, when it is no longer bearable, the second is to model the messy laments and protests of Job in the dialogues: appealing to God for action, and trusting that only He will finally resolve the chaos of COVID-19, and our unanswered questions about suffering. Both are genuine, biblical expressions of faith.
Finally — returning to our initial literary spark — I offer a creative reimagining of how MacLeish could have ended his play more aligned to the biblical account’s epilogue (42:1–17). Would it have sounded more like this?
J.B.: Why did you leave me alone?
Sarah: I loved you.
I couldn’t help you any more.
You wanted justice and there was none —
J.B.: But my eyes. They’ve seen Him.
He. Is. God.
Sarah: Why then? Why all this?
He looks at his scars.
We either love God for nothing,
Sarah: Or we don’t love Him at all.
J.B.: But we do.
Sarah: That’s the wonder.
He drops on his knees beside her in the doorway, his arms around her.
Sarah: Oh, the tree. He showed me the tree.
J.B.: I only heard him before.
Sarah: And now we see Him.
She is half laughing, half crying.
He saw us. He heard us cry.
J.B.: Your hands, Sarah. They smell like cassia.
They cling to each other.
Sarah comes forward, lifts a fallen chair, and sets it straight.
J.B.: What if it’s too dark to see?
She turns, pulls his hands down into hers, and turns their palms out.
Sarah: Then call on the God in our hearts, my darling.
J.B.: The God in our hearts.
Sarah: He’s all the light we need.
The light increases, plain white daylight from the door, as they work.
WH Chong is a husband, father of four, freelance writer and itinerant preacher. He received his MDiv from Sydney Missionary and Bible College. In his spare time he likes reading dead authors, cycling Auckland's bike paths, making music and complaining about Arsenal. He blogs at chongsworship.com.
 Archibald MacLeish, J.B.: A Play in Verse (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 151–152. Throughout this paper, I refer to the biblical text as “Job”, MacLeish’s 1958 publication as “J.B.” (in italics), and its titular character as “J.B.” (without italics).
 Archibald MacLeish, J.B.: A Play in Verse (Acting Edition) (New York: Samuel French, 1956), 6.
 First portrayed on stage by Christopher Plummer before his star turn as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
 For those who currently find themselves in “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23:4), it may be wise to pause from this paper and turn to the words of Scripture instead for God’s comfort and refinement through the Suffering Servant.
 For example, see John Mcnees, “MacLeish’s ‘J.B.’: A Review of Reviews,” The Harvard Crimson November 1959. Retrieved from https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1959/11/19/macleishs-j-b-a-review-of/.
 Daniel Estes, “Communicating the Book of Job in the Twenty-First Century”, Themelios 40.2 (2015): 247.
 Archibald MacLeish, “God Has Need of Man”, in Dimensions of Job: A Study and Selected Readings, ed. Nahum Glatzer(New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 279. This sermon, preached in a Congregational church in Farmington, Connecticut a year before the Broadway run of J.B., offers a glimpse of the theological convictions MacLeish himself held.
 For a detailed analysis of MacLeish’s evolution of thought, see John Priest, “Job and J.B.: The Goodness of God or the Godness of God?” Horizons 12 (1985): 265–283.
 MacLeish, J.B., 43.
 MacLeish, J.B., 38.
 For example, in Scene One, when asked to recite Sarah’s poem questioning the days gone by and “Heaven’s quandary,” J.B. instead absent-mindedly recites that “to be, become, and end are beautiful.” See MacLeish, J.B. 42–43.
 MacLeish, J.B., 109.
 MacLeish, J.B., 110, where J.B. says: “I have no choice but to be guilty.”
 MacLeish, J.B., 110.
 MacLeish, J.B., 89; after two of her children die in a car crash.
 MacLeish, J.B., 102.
 MacLeish, J.B., 151. She continues her bleak assessment as follows: “Cry for justice and the stars / Will stare until your eyes sting. Weep, / Enormous winds will thrash the water. / Cry in sleep for your lost children, / Snow will fall … snow will fall …”
 This view is succinctly stated early on by Nickles in the first line of a tune: “If God is God, He is not good, if God is good He is not God …”. See MacLeish, J.B., 11.
 MacLeish, J.B., 151–152.
 MacLeish, J.B., 151–153.
 MacLeish, J.B., 151.
 MacLeish, J.B., 152.
 MacLeish, J.B., 153.
 MacLeish, J.B., 153.
 Priest, “Job and J.B.,” 269.
 Harold Kushner, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person (New York: Schocken: 2012), 193.
 Priest, “Job and J.B.,” 269.
 Unless otherwise stated, translations from the Hebrew text of Job are my own.
 Lindsay Wilson, Job, THOTC(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 213.
 Wilson, 213. Similarly, C. L. Seow, Job 1–21: Interpretation and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 106, notes: “Theodicy in the sense of a defense of divine justice does not appear to be the purpose of the narrator.”
 Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), 95.
 Keller, Walking, 95, instead advocates the practice of mounting a defence – not trying to tell the full story of God’s purposes in allowing evil, but simply showing that the existence of evil does not mean that God’s existence becomes doubtful or impossible.
 Wilson, Job, 214.
 MacLeish, J.B., 151.
 For example, Nickles and Zuss’s debate early on in MacLeish, MacLeish, J.B., 9, 17. See also J.B. and Sarah’s exchange in Scene 8, 108–111.
 MacLeish, “God Has Need of Man,” 283.
 MacLeish, “God Has Need of Man,” 283.
 MacLeish, “God Has Need of Man,” 266.
 Or more literally, “even nullify my justice.”
 On this passage, Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 51 claims that these lines mean that God is challenging Job to “keep the world straight and true,” but is unable to do it. The force of God’s challenges here, however, should be read rhetorically – God is challenging Job to show His power and strength with the full knowledge that only He alone can do so, something which Job agrees with afterwards: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted” (42:2).
 MacLeish, Theater Arts, April 1959, 61. Cited in Priest, “Job and J.B.,” 274.
 I take the Hebrew verb here (mā·ʾǎs) to be reflexive (“I despise myself”) and that an object is implied, with the NIV, LXX, and John Gray, The Book of Job (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010), 488.
 Commentators differ on what Job is repenting from. Samuel Ballentine, Job (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing: 2006), 693–697, gives a good overview and appraisal of the translation options, but the point remains that Job responds to God and does not dismiss him.
 Amidst the suspicion levelled at Job’s motivations for trusting God, it is important to recognise that his stance towards God changed prior to his restoration of wealth, not as a result of it.
 Ballentine, 718.
 David Clines, Job 38–42, WBC(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 1238, though he alleges that Job only rewards them with an inheritance “solely because of their beauty” (1239). I have a more optimistic outlook on Yahweh’s ability to transform a person’s character.
 Ballentine, Job, 717.
 Wilson, Job, 214. Though he cites David Clines, Job 1–20, WBC (Dallas, TX: Word, 1989), I could not locate the original quotation.