550: Are the Coens offensive? And, is their spiritual wisdom worth our time?

rom out of a whirlwind,

the LORD said to Job:
“Why do you talk so much

when you know so little?
Now get ready to face me!
Can you answer

the questions I ask?”
Job 38:1-3

Are the Coen brothers offensive?
    There they are in the photo at right. Their new film in theaters this week, “A Serious Man,” represents their “take” on the book of Job. The movie includes nudity, drug use by both adults and teens—and enough f-words to knock the film into a solid R-rating.
    That’s nothing compared to the shocking violence in “No Country for Old Men,” the relentless barrage of foul language in “The Big Lebowski” and all sorts of bizarre violence and sexuality woven through other Coen films—including the indelible image of Hollywood’s most famous wood-chipper murder: with the foot of the deceased still protruding from the bloody chipper when the detective (and we as viewers) finally “find” this tragic scene!

    But, are these guys offensive? We weren’t the first to raise this question. It’s been around for a long time, partly because it’s so obvious that these guys are drawing, again and again, on ancient spiritual themes. That rich stew of faith and foul deeds gets people talking!
    This time, it’s a little more pointed. Because “A Serious Man” tells the tale of a luckless Jewish physics professor—who also is luckless in his choice of rabbinic counselors—some Jewish viewers are asking if the Coens are fueling Antisemitism. That may sound extreme, but it’s true. Some Jewish viewers are asking this question.
    Picture this: You’re Jewish and you’re sitting in a theater with hundreds of gentiles watching (and laughing!) at the embarrassingly inadequate response of three rabbis to this poor professor’s plight, and well … You might begin to get very nervous about what the gentiles are thinking. Then, toward the end of the film, the Coens surprise us with one “gotcha” scene about Antisemitism that caused a gasp in the theater where I saw the film.
    After that darkly humorous surprise, the couple behind me in the theater actually grumbled, “G$^&$#@@ Coen brothers!!” The response from the other half of the couple was, “What did you expect?”
    The two were gone by the time the lights came up or I would have asked more about their response.

    But wait a moment! Have you read the Book of Job? The three “wise” and yet inadequate advisers? They’re right there in Job.
    It’s God—the Big Kahuna in the tornado—who sweeps onto the stage at the end of this ancient saga of Job and finally brings poor old Job to his knees with a withering rebuke.
    Again, I won’t spoil the end of “A Serious Man,” but watch for God’s cameo. You won’t forget it. And, just as in the Book of Job, it’s clear that all of this nonsense that obsessed and distracted the main characters for two hours of screen time … All that angst they ran around trying to resolve throughout the movie? The possibility of divorce, criminal charges, gunfire, disease, car accidents, cheating, bribery, theft and drugs? All that stuff?
    Well, Job 38:1-3 pretty much captures the Divine response from the heart of that terrifying whirlwind.

    ALL THIS WEEK, we’re exploring the prophetic—and controversial—themes raised by these filmmakers. On Wednesday, the popular Chicago-based columnist and author, Cathleen Falsani, will visit ReadTheSpirit to talk about her new book exploring the Coen brothers’ spiritual wisdom. The book is great for small groups and you can grab a copy via Amazon, at right.
    On TUESDAY, I’ll share a few of my own favorite—and provocative—Coen moments.
    On WEDNESDAY, Cathleen Falsani talks about “The Dude Abides.”
    But, ANYTIME this week, we’d love to hear from you via email at [email protected]

    Finally, let me point out that I’m not alone in writing like this about the Coens. Cathleen Falsani is a beloved inspirational writer for Zondervan and she loves the Coens. The film critic Roger Ebert raves about “A Serious Man.”
    And a rabbi who is an occasional contributor to ReadTheSpirit—Rabbi Brad Hirschfield—also just wrote his own short commentary, trying to dispel fears of Antisemitism. Brad wrote, in part:

    Having received numerous questions about the Coen brothers’ most recent film, a contemporary commentary on the Book of Job, called A Serious Man, I am going to respond … Most of the comments have focused on how the rabbis come off in the film. People are concerned about the apparently poor showing they make as counselors to the suffering Jew who turns to them in his time of need. Will, those who write me ask, audiences come to think poorly of Jews because of this?

For Starters, the questions assumes that most people think that all Jews are like rabbis, and that alone is a big presumption—one which gives rabbis far more status than is either real or appropriate. But the larger issue has to do with our fears about how we are seen, even as we live with greater acceptance in America than we have in any country other than Israel, ever in Jewish history. …

Now, Antisemitism is seen as the mark of small-minded bigots. They exist and must be dealt with, but we have more room to laugh at ourselves and I think that it’s fine when we do. Not to mention that compared to priests, rabbis have great public images.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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