Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Tree of Life, and a Note on Job

More or less on Michael Sporn’s recommendation, I’ve just seen Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. While I’m collecting my thoughts on this trying, tedious, and rewarding film, I’ll let Michael’s thoughts stand-in for many of mine:
The film starts with a vision of god that moves beyond to a patriarchal dominated family in Waco, Texas. The suggestion of a death leads us back to god and the creation of the earth. From protozoa to dinosaur to the birth of a child, this filmmaker exudes absolute love for every organism he can show us on screen. Yet, right from the dinosaurs onward he creates an ominous tone in this male-dominated power hungry environment. You’re always expecting something terrible to happen in the hands of the children who push the film forward. This is a film that technically has a new way of presenting itself almost through an impressionistic vision. The whispered narration and dialogue mix and blend into one; the sun streamed backlit late-afternoon interiors create a whispered visual to match.
It was the phrase “from protozoa to dinosaur” that got me.

The film is that of a mystic. I know nothing of Malick, though it seems he was born in the Bible belt and studied philosophy, so I don’t know if he is really mystic, but then, what’s really in that question? I once told my draft board that I was a mystic. Really? Really. That’s what comes through in the film: “exudes absolute love for every organism he can show us on screen.”

The film’s explicit religiosity bugged me in the beginning. Am I going to have to say something about this in my review? Am I going to have to declare, for example, whether or not I’m a believer? And then it didn’t bug me, not for the last hour or so. I just forgot about it.

I’ll have more to say about the film later, but I just wanted to dig out some old notes, from 25 years ago, on Job.


To understand the story of Job we must first reject the ending, in which Job regains all that he has lost, and more, for his possessions were doubled. The ending is known to be a later addition. We reject it, for it subverts the deepest significance of the basic story, which is that man and God are essentially and absolutely different, hence there can be no reciprocal contracts between them. The effect of that ending is to assimilate the story to an ethos in which such contracts are possible, in which it is reasonable for man to bargain with God.

The view of the relationship between man and God which is assumed, first by Job's three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and later by Elihu (also a later addition), is basically a contractual one. There are rights and obligations on both sides of the contract and if either party breaks the contract he is liable to punitive action by the other party. God may be immensely more powerful and knowledgeable than man, but he is no so deeply different that he cannot enter into contracts with man. In this view God is assumed to be just and a man's state is assumed to reflect his performance in carrying out his obligations to the divine contract. The basic contract seems to be: Man obeys God's rules and is rewarded or punished accordingly. Prosperity is a sign of good performance while misfortune is a sign of poor performance. Job's misfortune's are taken as a sign of his poor performance.

However, Job rigorously examines his life and can find no instances of poor contractual performance. He has met his obligations. Hence he cannot understand why he is being punished. But, the text is careful to assert, "Throughout all this, Job did not utter one sinful word." His friends insist that he must have done something wrong, otherwise God wouldn't be punishing him. Hence he should look more deeply and continue to do so until he finds what he has done wrong. Job will have none of this. And so we face a dilemma. If Job is both just and the victim of misfortune, is God then unjust?

The answer indicated by the text is, in effect, that justice has nothing to do with it, that the relationship between man and God is not one of reciprocal contractual obligation. On the contrary, it is wholly one-sided. God begins his answer by telling Job to "Brace yourself and stand up like a man." He then begins a long series of rhetorical questions:
Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations?
Tell me, if you know and understand.
Who settled its dimensions? Surely you should know.
Who stretched his measuring-line over it?
On what do its supporting pillars rest?
Who set its corner-stone in place,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted aloud?
The series of such questions amounts to a miniature encyclopedia of natural phenomena, one which emphasizes the absolute difference between God and man. For God has done and understands all this things while man, Job, has done and understood none of them. Job acknowledges this absolute difference, finally replying
I know that thou canst do all things
and that no purpose is beyond thee.
But I have spoken of great things which I have not understood,
things too wonderful for me to know.
I knew of thee then only by report,
but now I see thee with my own eyes.
Therefore I melt away;
I repent in dust and ashes.
The effect of the added ending, in which Job gets it all back, with interest, is to undermine this absolute difference between the human and the divine. If Job gets it all back, with interest, then the contract was not really broken at all. Job gets what is his due. That, however, is not what the story is about. The story is about absolute difference; it is attempting to replace the contractual view of the relationship between the human and the divine with a deeply ontological view, in which the divine is the underpinning, the ground, of the human.

Notice that the story is framed in such a way that the audience or the reader knows that Job did not do any wrong and that he is not being unjustly punished. We know that Job's misfortunes have nothing to do with punishment. The real reason - that Job is being used to make a point to Satan - may not be much better from our modern point of view; but it doesn’t contradict the basic point. In fact, the frame reinforces the point. For Satan has argued that Job is good only because God has rewarded him well. “But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and then he will curse you to your face.” And so Satan is given permission to wreck Job's life and Job does not, in fact, curse God. The story shows Satan, and us, that his view of the relationship between the human and the divine, which is the contractual view, is wrong.

Whatever the relationship between the human and the divine, it is such that Job was able to bear up under his misfortune without either blaming himself or cursing God. Could it be that he was able to do so precisely because God was Completely and Categorically Other?


  1. Malick may have been born in the bible belt, but, after some enormous success with Days of Heaven, he left filmmaking to become a Buddhist and work in the fields of his lord for five years.

    He then returned to film with a relatively new vision. All of his films show the love of nature explicitly, yet all show the violence men perform on each other in the face of this possibly god-given beauty. I guess, in a way, we are all Job. He has a theme.

  2. Ah, the Buddhist link is most interesting, Michael. Thanks for that.