Edmonton playwright Heidi Janz’ autobiographical Book of Jobes deals with the complexities of coping with difficult providences. The play’s central character, Rachel Jobes, despairs with God regarding the continued usefulness of her life in an extended courtroom scene that has many obvious parallels with the book of Job in the Scriptures. Throughout the play, there are a series of flashback scenes (“the evidence”) from Rachel’s life in which the competing perspectives of “being dealt an unfair hand” and “working with the hand that you are dealt” are illustrated with dramatic clarity.
After watching a Calgary performance last week, with playwright Janz participating in a post-production conversation, the predominant emotion I felt was admiration and sympathy. The story is of a Cerebral Palsy sufferer who has remarkably persevered through her disability (with the heroic assistance of many caregivers and providers) to earn a Ph.D.; she has coped with the deaths of her two closest friends; and she survived a vicious robbery in her home in which she was close to death, only to subsequently forgive her attacker and live her life with evident purpose and zeal. It all leaves one feeling pretty small and puts the obstacles of our own lives into perspective.
But that emotion, while understandable and human, is not the point of the story. As Rachel tells her German immigrant mother in a memorable exchange, although her disability is a part of her life, she doesn’t want to be defined or understood only in the context of her disability. And to be sure, the Governor General nomination of Janz’s Ph.D. thesis, her accomplishments as a playwright and author, and her scholarship and positions at the University of Alberta and University of Manitoba ranks her as a Canadian of accomplishment quite apart from the extraordinary circumstances with which this was all achieved.
But that too would miss the point. The value of our lives is not measured by achievement. The story is an honest story of wrestling with God’s providence. It is about having our eyes opened to seeing God’s gracious care at work even in settings and situations where human nature does not naturally look for it. On the one hand this is a very personal journey we each travel alone; on the other it takes place in a context of relationships and institutions that are not only the place, but also part of the story. Rachel’s story is one of personal perseverance but also one of a health care system, an education system, a justice system, family structures—to name just a few. Sometimes they help and sometimes they hinder; our structures, like people, are an imperfect lot. The play powerfully shows this, not only in the challenges Rachel faces, but poignantly in the background story of Rachel’s attacker. Broken structures do not absolve personal responsibility but do contribute disproportionately to evil even as healthy structures facilitate good.
The climax of the play is rooted in Heidi’s real-life experience that her attacker came intending to kill her. He told the court he was unable to carry out his intentions because of a “bright light” of divine intervention which prompted him to flee the scene. The play powerfully communicates that life itself is a gift, not a right. When God’s purposes for life are understood in this light, a very different understanding emerges, of disabilities such as cerebral palsy or horrific crimes like a violent robbery.
The well-told and well-presented Book of Jobes challenged its Calgary audience to think deeply about theological, philosophical, and institutional questions, even as it shared a compelling story of God’s grace at work in the world today.
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