The Dude Abides

The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen BrothersThe Coen Brothers have a new film on the way, A Serious Man. Here’s the synopsis from the website:

Imaginatively exploring questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior, dental phenomena, academia, mortality, and Judaism – and intersections thereof – A Serious Man is the new film from Academy Award-winning writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen.

A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary man’s search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.

While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person – a mensch – a serious man?

Interestingly, a number of people who have seen the film have picked up parallels between Larry’s search for answers and the trials of the biblical Job. This would make sense to me, the Coen brothers have a habit of choosing texts to interact with in their films (occasionally they tell you: Homer’s OdysseyO Brother, Where Art Thou?; sometimes you just have to think about it: Camus’ The OutsiderThe Man Who Wasn’t There; and sometimes, well… Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men.
But there is more to Job than just a handy textual basis for film exploration. The story of Job resonates with one of the key themes in the Coen brothers’ work – the problem/possibility of theodicy. The Coen brothers wrestle with a world in which apparently inexplicably evil things happen: a dude can pee on your rug, or your mate Donnie can get killed by Nihilists, who knows? It can be funny, as in The Big Lebowski, or terrifyingly bleak, as in No Country for Old Men. Always the disturbing question is, why? The humour, the tension, the tragedy, comes from people who keep asking this question in a world that refuses to answer. There is something strikingly powerful and completely absurd about the human quest for sense.
But ultimately, the only place to direct those questions is toward God, and not any kind of god – only the kind of God that Jews and Christian point to could hold out the possibility of answers. In fact, most polytheistic religions tend to create hierarchies of gods, or at least hierarchies of being, under the pressure of these dreadful questions. Many, many of the idols we have manufactured were forged under the hammer blows of this particular interrogation. In theological jargon it’s called the ‘problem of theodicy’. It is the point at which our questions inevitably becomes prayers, even if the form of prayer involves screaming in the darkness and wondering if you’ll hear an echo.

Christian philosophers have plied the world with arguments for the existence of God since before the World really thought it was a question. But the inescapable question for God is not, ‘are you there?’ But, ‘what on earth are you doing?’. Sometimes our experience of evil can be so destructive, so awful, that the only possible thing we can imagine saying to God is, ‘how dare you? How dare you BE in the light of this…’ Not, ‘can God’s existence be proven?’ But, ‘can God’s existence be justified?’ The people who wrote the Bible thought about that question. A Lot.

“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22 NET)

On a different note: Zondervan has published a book about the theology of the Coen brothers. It’s called The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.

3 thoughts on “The Dude Abides

  1. Have you seen this yet? It's prompted some interesting discussion between myself and an atheist friend who read Job because they'd seen the movie.


  2. Hey Nathan,
    sorry for the slow reply – was away on NTE then moving house.
    I saw the film a few weeks ago. It's hard to characterise.
    The key moment is the ending of the film: a tornado bearing down on the characters. If you didn't know Job you would naturally read this as the culmination of the disastrous events that keep happening to Larry and as the ultimate exposure of the futile answers given to Larry by the 3 Rabbis. However, in the context of Job the 3 Rabbis are pretty clearly the 3 unhelpful friends and the whirlwind is the place from which God finally speaks for himself (Job 38:1). Breaking off with the whirlwind on the horizon means that the film is left open to profoundly different readings depending on which text it is read against and the sympathies of the reader.
    For my money, what the Coen's have produced is a reading of Job from the perspective of Ecclesiastes. It's an examination of suffering from a position 'under the sun', where God's purposes are hard to see and he doesn't show up in a whirlwind to defend himself. But this doesn't necessarily mean that it is all pointless or that one day the whirlwind won't appear on the horizon or what will happen if it does. We just don't know.
    What makes this a great movie is that it's answer is just as ambiguous as life. A simple existentialist polemic would have none of the power or the subtlety.


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