Faith

Harvey’s Suffering, the Book of Job — and God’s Great Promise

Why the film 'The Tree of Life' is about as relevant now as ever, and what we can learn from it

It was Bishop Robert Barron, in one of his marvelous film reviews, who pointed out that the key to understanding Terrance Malick’s movie “The Tree of Life” is the Book of Job. The movie, made in 2011, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Unusually, it was hated by most of the critics — probably a good sign.

However, Roger Ebert called it “one of the greatest movies of all time” — critics are given to superlatives. It is a strange film; it requires patience. But as Barron suggested, the clue to the entire film is given in the opening, with the words of God to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth …. when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

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The movie spends the first 15 minutes, with no speaking, showing images of creation — volcanoes, the sea, nature — probably why critics hated it and movie renters pressed pause and went to get a stiff drink. The movie tackles the enigma of innocent suffering and so much more.

The great English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton (always known as “GKC”) regarded the Book of Job as the most important book in the Bible. He said it was both the most interesting of ancient books and the most interesting of modern books. “The patience of Job” is a phrase everyone with a modicum of education once knew, along with many other biblical phrases.

Now that “nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation — are the largest group in the 18-35 age group in the U.S.A., quoting anything from the Bible is likely to be met with a blank stare; far better to use a line from “Star Wars.”

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Chesterton makes the point in his introduction to an edition of the Book of Job, published in 1916, that the book “stands apart from most of the books in the Old Testament.” He argues that the central idea of the Old Testament is what he calls the “personality of God,” almost to the point of the impersonality of man — “unless this gigantic cosmic brain has conceived a thing, that thing is insecure and void; man has not enough tenacity to endure its continuance.”

Job, he asserts, stands alone because it asks, “But what is the purpose of God?”

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Job suffers, unjustly, undeservedly. He laments — he stands as an exemplar for all innocent suffering. But even more, he had been prosperous and successful, a sign, the ancients thought, of God’s blessing. His famous lament is a questioning of God’s purposes — but as GKC said, what makes the book so splendid is that “God asks questions!”

A central question of the book, Chesterton asserts, is whether God “invariably punishes vice with terrestrial punishment and rewards virtue with terrestrial prosperity.” If that is the case, then the great danger, exemplified by the so-called “prosperity gospel” of the likes of Joel Osteen, will be that if “prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue, it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue.”

Yet when God speaks, when He questions Job, something changes. Job was “comfortless before the speech of God and is comforted after it.” God has not explained anything — He has not justified Job’s suffering or given reasons for it. The “refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design.” Job experiences what Chesterton calls, in a sentence of mystical elegance, the “terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told.”

Chesterton is a mystic, and may even be canonized for his theology of wonder. The Book of Job, GKC writes, comforts, not by answering the questions, but as a “psalm or rhapsody of wonder.” This is the reason Malick’s film opens with scenes of the creation and God’s awesome and poetic question to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth … when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

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Christians do not answer the question of innocent suffering, but they do experience the “terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told.” We were not told when the sons of God were shouting with joy, or when the morning stars were singing. We all suffer and question — but we know what St. Paul called the “hope in which we are saved.” Jesus Christ, and God’s unconditional love revealed in the paschal mystery, is the thing almost “too good to be told.”

Now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi,” that “if this absolute love exists,” we will have hope, the knowledge of redemption, the experience of the good news. Life, said Pope Benedict, “in its totality is a relationship with Him who is the source of life. If we are in relationship with Him who does not die — who is Life Itself — then we are in Life. Then we live.”

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“The secret of God,” said Chesterton, “is a bright and not a sad one.” The mystery of the redemption is intuited by Job in his comforting and not in his patience. The story “too good to be told” is the Gospel.

Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.  

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