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Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Spirituality ...

HOPE AND DESPAIR IN POPULAR CULTURE: Yesterday I encountered two different approaches to the question of God and justice. In the morning, I heard a song on the radio from my favorite band, 3 Doors Down; so I got on Google and looked up the lyrics and the video. The song is called “Not My Time”, and here’s the video site.

According to a Christian discussion group, 3 Doors does NOT qualify as a Christian band. (Well, all the better in my reckoning.) But the video in question clearly has a religious theme to it, reinforced by various shots of churches with crucifixes and Madonna-like statues along the path of the young running savior with dreadlocks (who is versed in an extreme sport called “parkour”). And one of the refrains to the song goes “there might be more than you believe, there might be more than you can see”. Another nice line (I think it’s nice, anyway) goes like this: “my friend, this life we live, it’s not what we have, it’s what we believe in”. Sorry if that’s not enough for the “Christian warriors” out there.

Later in the day, I decided to go see the Coen brothers’ latest movie, “A Serious Man”. This movie attempts to take all the hope spun out by a band like 3 Doors Down and suck it into a black hole of ironic humor and intellectual cynicism. In some ways – many ways, perhaps – Serious Man is a Jewish thing. (But the same can be said for Christianity, right?) The questions transcend the suburban Jewish culture through which the Serious Man story is layered.

In a nutshell, Serious Man is the book of Job presented without a happy ending and with a streak of dark humor. Or attempted humor, anyway. There were about 15 other people in the theater with me, and some of them laughed at the bizarre way that Professor Gopnik’s life just kept getting worse and worse, in spite of his efforts to find solace in God and his Jewish tradition. This was a very nervous, tentative laughter. I did not join in.

Despite the failed attempt at belly laughs, there are some profound moments in Serious Man. Such as the pleading fashion in which the Professor asks a rabbi “why does God make us feel these questions if He does not intend to answer them?” Obviously (given the movie’s cynical bent), the rabbi provides a crass, irrelevant reply, something to do with Hebrew letters etched into the teeth of a non-Jew. Another interesting point focuses around the “old rabbi”, Rabbi Marshak, the bearded grand poobah of the Gopnik family’s temple. Professor Gopnik pleads with Marshak’s secretary to arrange for him a talk with the old wizard regarding his many afflictions; we then see her open the door to his chamber (more than an office), discuss Gopnik’s request with him, then return with the message “the rabbi is busy”. Gopnik, feeling another sting on top of all the other insults and injuries to his life, tells her “He doesn’t look busy.” She replies: “he’s thinking”.

Ah yes, another cheap shot at the hypocrisy and ultimate irrelevance of religion. But in a way, the Grand Rabbi is right; God went silent on Job; he also went silent (or isn’t there at all) for Gopnik, and now the wise old Rabbi decides that if God can’t say anything relevant, he certainly can’t either. After all the bogus sympathies and wisdoms thrown at Gopnik by the two other rabbis that he talked with, you can see that the bearded-one just might have a point. Perhaps all that “thinking” of his is not in vain.

Then comes an encounter between Marshak and Gopnik’s son. The son, a typical pot-head teenager from the late 1960s, has just had his bar mitzvah. Part of the ritual involves a follow-up spiritual conference with the grand rabbi. After some uncomfortable staring, the rabbi puts a transistor radio with cheap plastic earphone on the table, and pushes it over to the teenager. Earlier in the movie, this same radio was confiscated from the boy as he was listening to the Jefferson Airplane and not to the venerable teacher at his Hebrew school. Now it is being returned, along with a wise quote from the old rabbi. And of course, the quote is from a classic Airplane song, with a slight twist: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies”. The rabbi then attempts to name the members of the Airplane, stumbling a bit on Jorma Kaukonen’s last name. Young Gopnik, who for most of the movie is just a waste of life, now has his moment; he solemnly nods in agreement with the rabbi, forgiving his lack of finesse with a rock star’s goy name (although ironically, Kaukonen’s mother is Jewish; he thus qualifies as a son of Israel).

Of course, just as some existential satisfaction appears amidst the gloom (along with the news that Gopnik might get tenure at his college despite some blackmail letters accusing him of moral turpitude), the Coens then set up a grand ending: Gopnik sells out his morals to a student offering a cash bribe (Gopnik needs the money to help his worthless brother, who is in trouble with the police); then he is told by his doctor that “we need to talk in person about your test results, right now”; and then a nasty tornado comes straight at his son in the Hebrew school parking lot. And then the credits roll; no resolution, no “tonic note” to it all. Everything just goes dark.

Yes, yes, I get it already. Life’s a bitch, and then you die, no matter what you did or didn’t believe. 3 Doors Down must be wrong – this life is NOT what you believe in. It must be what you have, after all.

I got a good laugh from the ending to the “Not My Time” video; by contrast, I didn’t laugh at all during “Serious Man”. But my style of laughter is different from many people’s. I laugh at things that bring unexpected joy to me. I hardly laugh to scoff or ridicule someone else.

Perhaps though we should laugh at what the Coens serve up – laugh at the wrongness of it all. I can’t deny the fact that horrible injustice exists in this world (especially all the horrors experienced by Jewish communities throughout history). But to declare that all is darkness in this realm . . . . well, it seems a bit premature to me. By the same token, you can’t believe that a parkour angel in sneakers will surely save you the next time a truck runs a stop sign in your path.

We live poised atop a question mark. It’s tempting to give in to the darkness, or alternately to imagine that all is in the hands of a loving creator. But in reality, the great question remains unanswered throughout our lives. The glass remains half empty and half filled. I myself am trying to hold out for hope, despite black tornadoes and painful death from cancer. Even if this world is just a fleeting blip of randomness, as physics Professor Gopnik seems forced to conclude, it will still be a better blip if we can hold out hope. (One bit of proof: the music on a 3 Doors Down album is 10 times as good as anything on the Serious Man sound track! I never liked the Airplane all that much anyway).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:20 pm      

  1. Jim,
    Some years ago (well actually many years ago–about 35 years ago really) I heard a conversation between two women in a ladies' room that I've never forgotten. The women speaking together made no attempt to lower their voices, so I was really not eavesdropping on their conversation.

    One said to the other: My husband and I decided together when we got married that our "thing" would be "things"–what nice things we could get in our life together.

    I've thought about what this remark very often over the years and wondered how she and her husband have fared in this world. Are they still together? How soon did it take before there was an inevitable divorce? Did they stick to that "acquisition of things" philosophy as the driving force of their marriage? Have they been happy? How many "things" have they acquired in these 35 years passed? What happened if some catastrophe (say a burned down house) destroyed all their "things" in one fell swoop? Or have they long since gone their own ways? Does the woman still hope to make "things" her "thing" in life?

    Your comments reminded me once again of this woman and her husband and set me to wondering about them once again. Perhaps my wondering is for naught as they may have long since parted ways. Frankly, that would be my guess.

    Then too, there are phases where one can see a real point behind at least some type of religious concept in one's life. I've long believed in the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and some periods of life are tantamount to being in a "foxhole."

    However, these aspects of life are often followed by serious consideration of whether all religion boils down to some play for power that in the end will prove its own irrelevancy.

    I find myself considering the irrelevancy of religion as a viable thought once again in my life. (Not sure I'm happy about that but I can see it coming on.)

    Another thought I had as I read your comment was that there are many times in life (at least as far as I've been concerned) when there is nothing at all that seems worthwhile. Not the acquisition of physical "things" much less (and perhaps even less so) the intangible "things" such as "thinking" and/or making a contribution to the world that may be considered a real contribution to humanity. There are times when all seems ashes, just ashes. A dark night of the soul, so to say.

    Then, that phase often passes with time and change in situation or circumstances. Sometimes such change takes years but it inevitably seems to come, and life seems to have at least some small purpose.

    I've found, though, that through it all–the "dark night" times and the "brighter day" times–watching out each day for at least one thing of beauty is helpful–most particularly in the "dark night" times.

    Perhaps I've missed a deeper meaning you meant to convey in your comments. But your blog set me to thinking that the pendulum inevitably swings one way or the other in life–often triggered by events and/or circumstances in life.

    Perhaps the real "trick" is to learn how to deal with the pendulum swings and see them for what they are–just that pendulum swings. Not an easy thing to do.

    Comment by MCS — November 5, 2009 @ 6:32 am

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