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By Patrick Malone

It’s hard to trawl through the Internet these days without tripping over some scribbler trying to cash in on physical distancing and self-isolation by telling us what we should be reading or watching whilst at home and what wisdom this recommended media imparts for our time of crisis, and I am pleased to say that I am likewise cashing in and bringing this feature to the Archdiocese of Regina news service. The theatres are shut down and we are staying home, so it’s time to consider an older – by which I mean from 2009 – film: A Serious Man, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The plot, briefly put, involves a physics professor named Larry Gopnik, whose marriage is falling apart, who is facing the likelihood that his tenure application will be denied, who is being offered bribes by a failing student, and whose life, in general, does not make any sense. He tries to consult three rabbis, but the senior rabbi is perpetually elsehow engaged and the two more junior rabbis have little obvious practical wisdom to offer, apart from inscrutable stories about Hebrew letters inscribed on the back of peoples’ teeth. Various physics concepts turn up, such as Schrodinger’s Cat (simultaneously living and dead) and the uncertainty principle, further adding to the sense that this unknowability is built into the very structure of the world.

Infamously, the Coen brothers make films which consistently flirt with comic nihilism: the world makes no sense, and people make no sense, but they are ridiculous and can be laughed at. A Serious Man, at least for most of the film, is very much in this vein. Larry’s trials are but comedic fodder.

However, this flirtation with nihilism vanishes at the end; Larry accepts his student’s bribe and changes the failing mark to a passing mark, and the telephone rings immediately, with bad news from Larry’s doctor. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, indeed. Meanwhile, an ominous whirlwind approaches his son’s school, as the teachers struggle to unlock the doors to lead the students to safety while the students wait outside. And then the film ends with one last fearful glimpse of the looming whirlwind.

What does that mean?

Accepting the bribe is the first significant moral decision which Larry makes in the story. Previously he has been carried along by the events of life, seemingly paralyzed because nothing makes sense to him. The second he makes a moral choice, even a morally deficient one, the character of the world in which he lives changes. Now, it is not the case that the world makes no sense and is ridiculous; now the world is mysterious and his actions have consequences which even seem like they can be judged.

Of course, Larry had visited the doctor well before making his moral choice, and the tornado had already begun. But beforehand, they had not been charged with the mystery of how we live when death hangs over us, of what choices we make. When Larry was making no choices, the events around him could only reveal that he was paralyzed, not that his choices have consequences, not what is in his heart. When we are confronted with death, and the possibility of judgment, no moment is too random to be ridiculously meaningless. The world is not a place of confusion, but of apocalypse. Apocalypse not in the sense of the world ending, but in the sense of revelation, of the veil being torn, of light being shone on our lives. The world is not a secular material world of atoms smashing into each other, but a sacramental world enchanted with God’s mysterious action, even if we do not yet know the meaning of that action. What is in our hearts is revealed.

The difference between these two perspectives is the difference between a public health crisis and a plague. The whirlwind either is merely a danger, or the place from where God speaks, as in the Book of Job  – and Job suffers despite being righteous. Even without seeing disaster as specifically connected to individual sins and judgment, we can see it as a time of God’s action making the mighty low and of the consequences of our sins being apocalyptically revealed; in the light of God’s judgment and truth, the cult of productivity ceases and gives the world a long-needed Sabbath, the ugliness of treating the old as expendable is exposed, so-called “medical assistance in dying” is interrupted, the deliberate reduction of fertility rates brings a country to crisis, abortions are no longer credibly “necessary,” hoarding is revealed explicitly, and all must rely on families and neighbours in solidarity.

This is not necessarily the meaning which Larry might discover in the ominous phone call or the whirlwind. That is left unsaid. Instead, as Rabbi Nachtner effectively but glibly points out, these signs call us to do that which we already know we should do: prayer, charity, repentance, conversion. We are not to be paralyzed and lukewarm. We want our signs and wonders to be telling us something new, but the true question is an old one: how to be in right relationship with God, and how He is calling us to do so through His action in the world though His judgment which reveals that which is in our hearts.

Perhaps the best conclusion is that of the Psalms, for instance, Psalm 60:

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;

    you have been angry; now restore us!

You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open;

    repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering.

You have made your people suffer hard things;

    you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.

[…]

Who will bring me to the fortified city?

    Who will lead me to Edom?

Have you not rejected us, O God?

    You do not go out, O God, with our armies.

O grant us help against the foe,

    for human help is worthless.

With God we shall do valiantly;

    it is he who will tread down our foes.

For more than I can fit in this essay even blowing well past my word court, Deacon Eric Gurash and Brett Salkeld’s Thinking Faith podcast on “Coronavirus and Bad Theology” can be accessed here, to hear more about sin, suffering, and God’s will and judgment.

Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.

Page URL: http://archregina.sk.ca/news/2020/04/07/serious-man-nihilism-or-gods-judgment