A unique recipe for healing: Bill Murray and a biblical text

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In this November 12, 2020 image taken from video, actor Bill Murray takes part in a virtual production of "Poetry for the Pandemic." Murray is set to play Job in a biblical reading designed to spark meaningful conversations across spiritual and political divides. (Theater of War Productions via AP)

Against the backdrop of a pandemic’s blight and wounds from an acrimonious election, a group of acclaimed actors on Sunday staged an online reading of a religious text with remarkable relevance to the current moment: the Book of Job.

Audience members may have been drawn to the production by the casting of Bill Murray as Job, the righteous man tested by the loss of his health, home and children, but the real star was the format. Staged on Zoom, it was aimed at Republican-leaning Knox County, Ohio, with participation from locals including people of faith, and designed to spark meaningful conversations across spiritual and political divides.

After the performance, several people from the area were asked to share their perspective on the ancient story in a virtual discussion. It was then thrown open to some of the scores of others signed in, no matter their location. One young woman studying social work shared that Job's judgment at the hands of others during his suffering inspired her to reflect on “how I am practicing empathy” during the coronavirus.

The structure of a dramatic reading followed by open-ended dialogue is a fixture of Theater of War Productions, the company behind the event. Artistic director Bryan Doerries is an alumnus of Kenyon College in Knox County and chose the area to focus on bridging rifts opened by the election and sharing the pain of a pandemic that's tied to more than 275,000 U.S. deaths.

By using Job's story “as a vocabulary for a conversation, the hope is that we can actually engender connection, healing,” Doerries said. “People can hear each other’s truths even if they don’t agree with them.”

The performance was headlined by Murray and featured other noted actors such as Frankie Faison and David Strathairn. The cast also included Matthew Starr, mayor of the Knox County town of Mount Vernon, who will play Job’s accuser. He said the timing is perfect for the moment the country is going through, between the pandemic, the heated election and racial justice protests.

His hope is that the event and the dialogue afterward lead to less shouting and more listening. And a good story like that of Job can do so more effectively than a new law or a new directive, by changing people’s hearts, said Starr, a Republican and supporter of President Donald Trump who founded an independent film company before going into politics.

“God does not say that bad things aren’t going to happen, but He does tell us, when they do, we’re not alone,” Starr said.