It’s not every day God is portrayed as the ringmaster in a dark, musical circus, but Richard Swanson’s The Book of Job doesn’t subscribe to an everyday understanding of God.
“We played that as vigorously as we could so that you can’t go out of there with an unchallenged notion of God,” he said.
Swanson, religion professor and chair of the Humanities division, has been studying the Old Testament book of Job for 30 years.
Last spring, he began working with music professor John Pennington and students Matt Stoffel and Katelynn Kenney on a stage production of his findings on Job’s story.
“Job is worth wrestling with because Job asks the questions that everybody asks,” Swanson said.
Last Tuesday, after a year of planning, The Book of Job was performed in the Chapel of Reconciliation, with the audience filling nearly every pew.
While the story took place under a simple circus tent, the material presented was much more somber than any Ringling Bros. performance.
“Biblical texts are more honest and more daring than we are at so many points,” Swanson said. “That’s why I study this because it has taught me to tell the truth as near as I’m able to understand it.”
Stoffel, who became interested in the project after seeing Swanson’s production of St. Mark’s Passion last spring, worked with Swanson throughout the summer and was ultimately selected to play the role of God as the ringmaster.
Swanson’s project intrigued Stoffel initially because he said the format of performing biblical texts “allows you to do things with the bible that you can’t in simply studying it.”
Job, played by music professor Russell Svenningsen, found himself subjected to tremendous suffering, but through it all, defended God alongside his children in a cacophony of music, speaking and, at times, almost chanting.
“The trial that [Job] underwent is remarkable, and it’s a great testament to faith,” Pennington said.
Swanson translated the book of Job from Hebrew, and his translation was the basis of all the text sung, spoken and chanted during the performance.
“[Job is] ultimately a deeply faithful book about challenging the images of God that are held as the appropriate ones by a large number of people in every century,” Swanson said.
Pennington composed the entire score for the production, including music for Job’s character, the Augustana Chamber Choir and what he described as a “tiny orchestra” of student musicians.
“As a composer, I want to bring the text alive in a way that can’t be necessarily expressed even in a dramatic way,” Pennington said.
For Pennington, the experience of working with Swanson and various musicians was an example of the liberal arts in action.
“You think about what liberal arts means and what that experience is, and how interesting [it is] to have a religion professor and scholar, actors and musicians all collaborating to create something completely new,” Pennington said.
For Swanson, the musical component of the performance added a new level of meaning to Job’s story.
“Listening to the music that he found in those words teaches me something about the words that I’ve studied for 30 years … that’s a gift,” Swanson said.
Overall, Swanson said he hopes that The Book of Job gives voice to the question, “My God, why?” as a “real question, and not as a set up for ‘Well, because God has a plan.’”