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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > November 2009 > The Coen Brothers and the Voice from the Whirlwind
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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.

Posted: 11/25/2009 2:07:42 PM by Word On Fire | with 3 comments
Filed under: ASeriousMan, BookofJob, CoenBrothers

Ok, thanks a lot for your post. It was of good help to me, hope to hear from you soon again.
2/1/2010 7:37:18 AM
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I just saw the film again on DVD yesterday, and in the special features of the DVD the Coen brothers alluded to the key of the mystery-Indeed it was in the scene with the old Rabbi Marshak, but I don't believe the refrain, "you better find somebody to love" was mentioned in that scene. Rather, the ominous and perhaps even pernicious "when the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies" is quoted in isolation, without the love refrain. Perhaps they are pointing to the love refrain, indeed that is the implicit verse even if Rabbi Marshak does not explicitly recite it, and the Coen brothers respect the intelligence of the audience in not making everything explicit. But, it seems that Marshak just says the ominous lyrics about truth being lies and joy dying and then tells the boy Danny to "be a good boy" and indeed that was the quote that the special features goes to right after the Coen brothers mention that that scene in Marshak's office lair holds the key to the mystery, "be a good boy".
What is my take?
Well, we see the main protagonist, Larry Gopnik, in his office looking at an expensive lawyer bill at the end of the movie. Gopnik goes on to do something immoral because of this bill, which calls back to what he had said earlier in the movie in that very same office chair about actions having consequences in his office. And immediately, Gopnik gets a call after his immoral deed with even more bad news about his health. This scene is interpolated with the whirlwind scene that Fr. Barron speaks about with Grace Slick's powerful voice singing the refrain "you better find somebody to love." This love refrain I recall was in this last scene (but, again, not in the Marshak scene).
So either the key of the mystery is the love refrain, "you better find somebody to love" or Marshak's last words in the film, "be a good boy." The former key with the love refrain makes sense for all the reasons Fr. Barron mentions above, the latter key makes sense for the relationship "be a good boy" has with Larry Gopnik's bad boy lapse into immorality with its immediate consequences. This latter key also points to the ominous and pernicious first lyrics of the Jefferson Airplane song, "when the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies." Obviously Larry Gopnik has had his whole world turned upside down, everything he thought was "truth" turned out to be lies. The joy in him, if he really had any, died; and Gopnik certainly fell into depression. So what is Gopnik left with? Be a good boy? Can you blame Larry Gopnik for lapsing after all the trials he endured? The reason I call these first lyrics pernicious (about truth being lies and joy dying), and maybe I'm guilty of isegesis here (reading into the text), is because the first lyrics seem to say that this world view is very dark. Why should Larry Gopnik be a good boy? Especially if he has to live in this dark world where God, as Larry himself discovers, "makes you feel the questions and never gives you answers." Larry gives a good faith effort to find God's will. No response. And squeezed to the breaking point, Larry lapses into immorality, he does something not befitting a serious man. Here Gopnik differs from the blameless Job significantly. But it appears the Coen brothers are trying to present Gopnik as blameless as Job, and indeed even an Thomistic moralist could call Gopnik invincibly blameless in his immoral deed - did he not try to do everything he could to follow God's will?
We're left with a tragedy, where the truth is found to be lies, not only for Gopnik, but for us too. How we don't see God, the dark night, is exposed, and the truth of God is said to be lies, killing our joy.
Now this flies in the face of the film's first scene with the dybuk and the later tooth scene with God's direct message (these two scenes are interestingly contrasted too, the first scene shows the wife's reaction to evil being faithful, immediate, and strong, whereas the dentist's reaction to God in the tooth scene is first skeptical, then has unrelated searchings, and ultimately forgets it ever happened, basically the dentist misses the message entirely whereas the wife gets it right away.) Both of these scenes seem to point to the existence of the supernatural.
Comedically, and probably tellingly, the Coen brothers invoke the name of Jesus Christ in two or three scenes, mostly just in the frustrated anger sense of "Jesus" or "Jesus Christ!" Maybe the Coen brothers are saying, yeah we know about Jesus, and that's not gonna change anything here. Again, I'm reading way into this, but it is art!
2/20/2010 11:21:20 PM
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Gabriel David A. Medina
Interesting article father. Thanks also for being my friend in facebook. I agree that when things don't work for us anymore, we better find somebody to love and I think that we should love ourselves first telling ourselves that everything would be fine and we don't have to worry. Having faith and hope in the Lord is loving the Lord. We don't know what the future has for us but we know that God is already there as well as here in the present with us. I know that if we walk blindly into the night, we shall not fall down because God would send His angels to assist us. Also, we can take just one step at a time and eventually we'll arrive in our destination. I also learned from a friend in twitter that the journey is what brings us happiness not the destination. It's holding on to the Lord during crisis and believing in ourselves that brings peace in our worrying minds and joy in our troubled hearts. This is what I know and I would do whenever I'm faced with obstacles in life. It is another opportunity to Love God and myself more. I thank God and you father through this blog for giving me an opportunity to share. God bless! :-)
3/1/2010 10:08:46 PM
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