In early 2004 Howard Dean was running for the Democratic presidential nomination and went on a tour of the Holy Land to shore up his foreign policy credentials and squash speculation that he was a secularist who couldn’t connect with religious Americans. A New York Times story of January 4, 2004 details some of the awkward and humorous aspects of Governor Dean’s efforts to make the religious side of his nature more familiar with voters, but the most memorable moment came when he spoke about his credentials as a serious reader of the Bible.
Touring with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Dr. Dean also visited Galilee, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. ”If you know much about the Bible — which I do — to see and be in a place where Christ was and understand the intimate history of what was going on 2,000 years ago is an exceptional experience,” he said.
Asked his favorite New Testament book, Dr. Dean named Job, adding: ”But I don’t like the way it ends.” ”Some would argue, you know, in some of the books of the New Testament, the ending of the Book of Job is different,” he said. ”I think, if I’m not mistaken, there’s one book where there’s a more optimistic ending, which we believe was tacked on later.”
(For those readers who lack either a religious or a literary education let me just observe that the Book of Job is, famously, found in the Old Testament. Dean’s statement about other New Testament books that offer a different version of Job is garbled nonsense.)What struck me about this particular gaffe or, really, gaffette, was how little it resonated in the general media. Writers and television hosts who had laughed themselves sick when Vice President J. Danforth Quayle misspelled potato (as potatoe) on the blackboard while speaking to schoolchildren did not think Dean’s mistake was particularly funny or embarrassing. Some conservatives chalked up the discrepant treatment to liberal media bias; more likely it was that the Ivy-educated types who staff the country’s newspapers would never spell potato wrong – but thought that misplacing a biblical book was something anybody could do.For a lot of Americans, however, it’s exactly the other way round. It seems anal and snobbish to get all worked up about misspelling a vegetable, but not knowing your Bible is serious business. Bragging about Bible knowledge that you don’t actually possess is even worse.Well, Howard Dean isn’t president and probably never will be; Barack Obama like most of our presidents since Jimmy Carter is at home with his scriptures. But the book of Job is back in the news; the Coen brothers have released one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen – A Serious Man. This is, basically, an adaptation of the Book of Job and nobody who sees it will ever forget which part of the Bible it’s from.Job was an interesting choice for Howard Dean’s favorite book. In many ways it’s the most shocking, out of place book in either testament; it shows God allowing an innocent man to suffer for no understandable reason. It defies the assurances of divine protection and providence that abound in other parts of the Bible; it is, famously, the book of the Bible that atheists like most, precisely because it rejects the facile pieties to which believers often like to cling.Like many of the Coen brothers’ movies, this one combines enormous ambitions with a remarkable focus on the everyday. The movie’s eye is so detailed, so relentless, that the filmmakers’ unwavering, all-seeing view of their characters and setting gives us a hint of the passionate intensity with which the God of the Bible observes His creation. It is very hard for a film to do more.The portrayal of God in the Book of Job is inscrutable and incomprehensible: power and knowledge so great that human beings can’t even ask it sensible questions. God speaks from the whirlwind but at the end of the day his ‘explanation’ to Job about why God sent him this suffering is about like what my old Texas-accented Groton headmaster used to say when he didn’t want to explain his actions to a gaggle of pestering schoolboys: “Je ne gonna tell you pas.”That is about all that Larry Gopnik gets from God or from his appointed rabbinical experts and exegetes in A Serious Man. It is all we get from the Coen Brothers in terms of an explanation of their own religious faith.Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst who worked with and then broke away from Sigmund Freud, wrote that the God of Job and by extension of the Old Testament was a cruel and heedless being, intoxicated with power and unaccountable to man’s moral sense. Jung argued that Christ came as God’s much delayed ‘answer to Job’; Christ was God become man and like Job was a just man who experienced unjust suffering. That is a rather unorthodox restatement of a classic Christian answer to the question of evil. God doesn’t tell us why there is evil, either in general or in terms of the suffering in our own lives. He does however share that suffering with us and through that suffering somehow we come to share more of His reality.But after seeing A Serious Man I was thinking of the Old Testament more than the New, and in particular I was thinking about the mysterious passage in the Book of Genesis where Jacob wrestles all night with a strange, unnamed figure, and refuses to let him go until he blesses him. “You shall no longer be known as Jacob, but Israel (literally, the one who wrestles with God) for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed,” says his opponent before leaving.Job was a wrestler. So are the Coen brothers. Israel, judging by the headlines, is wrestling still with God and with man.And as to what it all means, God still isn’t telling.