The Coen Brothers and the Voice from the Whirlwind
By Rev. Robert Barron
In the course of my ministry as a teacher, lecturer, and retreat master, I hear, perhaps more than any other question, the following: “how do I know what God wants?” Put in more formal theological language, this is the question concerning the discernment of God’s will. Many people who pose it tell me that they envy the Biblical heroes—Moses, Jeremiah, Jacob, David, etc.—who seem to have received direct and unambiguous communication from God. I usually remind them that even those great Scriptural figures wrestled mightily with the same issue. And then typically I draw their attention to Job, the person in the biblical tradition who anguished most painfully over the matter of discerning what in the world God is doing.
The Coen brothers, among the most gifted and thought-provoking filmmakers on the scene today, have made a movie called “A Serious Man,” which amounts to a contemporary re-telling of the story of Job. The hero of their film is Lawrence Gopnik, a mild-mannered Jewish physics professor at a small college in 1960’s era Minnesota. There is nothing particularly impressive about Larry; in fact, he corresponds pretty closely to the stereotype of the schlemiel. More to it, he’s surrounded by a fairly dispiriting cast of characters, including a hen-pecking wife, a pair of self-absorbed teenage children, and an unemployed brother who spends his days (and nights) draining a boil on the back of his neck. As the story unfolds, we witness a steady accumulation of woes befalling Larry. First, his wife announces that she is in love with another man and that she wants a divorce; next, the dean of the math department informs our hero that his tenure application is in doubt; then, Larry’s brother is arrested for illegal gambling and suspicion of sodomy; finally, the father of one of his students threatens him with a lawsuit. All at once, everything is collapsing around Larry Gopnik, twentieth-century Job.
At this point, he turns to his Jewish faith for answers. It’s interesting to note that none of the major characters in this film seems to disbelieve in God. As in the book of Job, the question is not whether God exists, but what God is up to. Larry speaks first to a very young rabbi, who seems to be fresh from the Yeshiva and is filled with fairly trite recommendations about changing one’s attitude in order to see God in all things. He opens the blinds to reveal the drab parking lot and effervescently comments that God can be found even there. Unsatisfied, Larry moves on to a more mature rabbi, who tells him a strange story. It seems that there was a Jewish dentist who discovered a series of Hebrew letters on the backside of a patient’s teeth. They spelled out “help me; save me.” This miracle vividly reminded the dentist of God’s presence, and sent him on a spiritual quest. Still wondering, still uneasy, Larry comes in desperation to the office of the most respected rabbi in the area, but he is rebuffed by the great man’s secretary: “he’s busy,” she blandly tells him. The three rabbis are meant to represent, it seems clear, the three friends who attempt, unsuccessfully, to comfort Job in the wake of his enormous sufferings.
The answer that Larry seeks comes most unexpectedly. Throughout the film, we see his son Danny preparing, in a fairly desultory way, for Bar Mitzvah. In the midst of one of his Hebrew classes, the boy is listening on his transistor radio to the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love.” His annoyed instructor confiscates the device and it eventually finds its way to the aged rabbi whom Danny’s father had unsuccessfully tried to see. After the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, Danny is ushered into this great man’s presence to receive a word of wisdom. To the boy’s infinite surprise, the ancient rabbi begins to quote from the Jefferson Airplane song: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies…wouldn’t you love somebody to love; you better find somebody to love.” At the very end of the film, a great tornado is bearing down on the town, and we hear on the soundtrack the powerful voice of Grace Slick intoning those words: “you better find somebody to love.” Of course, the book of Job comes to its climax when, in response to Job’s questioning, God finally speaks out of a desert whirlwind. “You better find somebody to love” is therefore the Coen brothers’ version of this divine word out of the storm, the ultimate answer to the question of what God is up to.
If we look back at the three “answers” given in the film, we find a coherence with the great biblical tradition. The simple word of the young rabbi is, in fact, spiritually rich. God is indeed found in all things, even the most ordinary, and we do need to shift our awareness in order to appreciate his presence. And the story of the mysterious letters is also biblical: sometimes, on rare occasions, God speaks through miraculous and extraordinary means. But the word of the old rabbi—and the voice that sings out of the whirlwind—is indeed the ultimate communication from the Holy One. If you want to discover God’s presence and intention, especially during times of great struggle, “you better find somebody to love.” Not bad advice from the rabbis Coen.