A well-known axiom in both life and storytelling states that the matters we find most personal are also the most universal. Whether it’s film, literature, or some other medium, stories with the most specific and distinctive settings and points of view are usually those an audience will find most relatable. In the words of Robert McKee: “An archetypal story creates settings and characters so rare that our eyes feast on every detail, while its telling illuminates conflicts so true to humankind that it journeys from culture to culture.”
A Serious Man, the 2009 masterpiece from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a darkly comic film exploring the nature of God, religious inquiry, and human suffering. Set among a community of Jews living in Minnesota in the 1960s, the film mirrors the Coen’s formative years, arguably making it their most personal film to date. That level specificity brings with it a familiarity and universality that just isn’t present in most of their work, or anyone else’s for that matter.
Mormons can have a hard time grappling with the same issues explored in A Serious Man. We seem to define periods of our lives by the struggles we face. Dealing with trials is the focus of countless conference talks, priesthood and Relief Society Lessons, and Mormon.org videos. Within Mormon doctrine and culture, there are recurring themes about the source and meaning of our mortal struggles. And, let’s be honest, quite often, they are confusing, contradictory or just simply nonsensical.
The same is true for much of the advice offered to Larry Gopnik, the hero of A Serious Man. Larry, a Jewish physics professor, is essentially a Job figure facing a barrage of what Mormons would call trials, all happening at once without mercy or concession. In his suffering, Larry seeks answers from all aspects of his Jewish faith: the doctrine, the traditions, and the community. And, spoiler alert, for the most part, he comes up short.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film opens with a prologue set in an unnamed Eastern European village, apparently during a harsh winter sometime the 19th Century. A Jewish man returns home and promptly informs his wife he has invited an old friend over for supper. The wife insists that this particular friend is dead and that the person coming must be a dybbuk, a malicious spirit or demon from Jewish mythology. When the friend, whoever he is, arrives, he laughs off the woman’s accusations, so she stabs him in the chest with an ice pick. Bleeding and possibly dying, the old friend – or possibly the dybbuk – walks out of the house and into the cold night.
Oh—and the entire scene is in Yiddish, with subtitles.
Was the husband extending a kindness to his fellow man, or was he cursing his family by inviting in a malevolent spirit? Was the wife doing God’s will by disposing of a demonic personage, or did she commit murder, the worst of all sins? The answers, including the ultimate fate of their houseguest, are left entirely unresolved.
The movie doesn’t take time to ponder the meaning of the prologue, and, instead, drops the audience abruptly into the trials and tribulations of Mr. Gopnik.
In the early moments of the film, Larry finds out that his wife wants a divorce so she can marry a close family friend. An anonymous antagonist is sabotaging his tenure application. His WASP neighbors are subtly trying to annex part of his yard. His students hate him, and one, a Korean immigrant named Clive Park, is trying to bribe him for a better grade. And, he doesn’t have the money to pay the lawyer handling his divorce and real estate issues. Things just snowball from there, getting much worse as time goes on, particularly when his wife’s would-be lover dies and Larry somehow finds himself obligated to pay for the funeral.
Two other related characters deal with their own form of Job-like suffering in parallel narratives. Larry’s brother Arthur is an antisocial freeloader who has troubles with the law, difficulty fitting in, and a huge cyst on the back of his neck. Larry’s 13-year-old son Danny owes his pot dealer $20, but his funds, along with his portable radio, were confiscated by a teacher at his Hebrew school, forcing him to sprint home from the bus every day to avoid catching a beating for not making good on his debt. Plus, when he gets home, the crooked TV antenna on the roof makes it impossible for him to watch his favorite show.
Larry is rarely bitter about his struggles. Mostly, he wants to know why they are happening to him. Is he being punished? Does God have it out for him? Or is it all just random chaos?
As a physics professor, Gopnik knows more than most about the workings of the universe. But, ultimately, all he really knows is that he doesn’t know anything, as he teaches students in a stress dream:
Larry Gopnik: The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.
Despite his vast understanding of the physical fabric of the universe, he’s unable to make sense of or stave off its wrath and he has no idea why. Yet, like his students and their midterms, Larry is still responsible for living his life, regardless of whether he can figure it out.
Mormons are taught that acquiring knowledge and understanding of the universe beyond the theological is key to their spiritual progression. President Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, declared that “knowledge comes both by reason and by revelation.” LDS scriptures tell us to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118) and that “(w)hatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection” (D&C 130:18).
Yet, how often do LDS teachers and leaders counsel members to seek or rely upon that kind of knowledge when dealing with a spiritual crisis? Would a Mormon typically expect Larry Gopnik’s knowledge of quantum mechanics to help him understand and cope with his trials?
I’d wager not. But, I’m not sure why.
More often, Mormons are told to “lean not unto [our] own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5) and seek guidance or comfort almost exclusively from the Lord, even if that advice seems to contradict other LDS scriptural directives for people to study issues out in their minds before seeking answers from the divine. Reconciling those ideas may not difficult in the abstract, but some find it hard to do so in practice.
For his part, Larry Gopnik is very willing to forego a scientific explanation for his struggles and to find and accept whatever answers God has for him. This leads to what is essentially a standard three-part fable as Larry seeks guidance from the three rabbis at his synagogue.
The junior rabbi tells him to simply change his thinking, gain a new perspective, and all will seem beautiful once again, including the parking lot outside the rabbi’s office window.
Larry is understandably disappointed by that advice, so he meets with Rabbi Nachtner, the senior rabbi, who offers us another seemingly profound and potentially supernatural parable, “The Goy’s Teeth.”
The rabbi tells Larry about a Jewish dentist who discovers a message engraved in Hebrew on the back of a patient’s lower incisors. The message – “Help me, save me” – seems to urge the dentist to take some action, but he can’t figure out exactly what he should do. Larry waits patiently through the rabbi’s story for an answer, only to learn that there isn’t one. There’s no real moral or underlying message to the story. In fact, Rabbi Nachtner seems perplexed that Larry expects any answer or resolution at all. His point, if he has one, is summed after he finishes the parable:
Rabbi Nachtner: Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.
I have literally been told the exact same thing in my days as Latter-day Saint. Also, I have given the exact same advice to others. In fact, reminding people that they can’t expect to understand everything on their own timetable is kind of a go-to move among the Mormon faithful. The kicker, of course, is that, for most of us, that conclusion rings true. It’s not a joke or a copout. But, that doesn’t mean it’s satisfying, particularly for those earnestly and desperately seeking to understand their mortal struggles.
That’s precisely how Larry feels about the open-ended lesson, so he makes a worthy effort see the aged Rabbi Marshak, a wise, almost mythical scholar and theologian who, according to his secretary, spends most of the day thinking. As Larry peers through the rabbi’s office, seeing the old man at his desk, he is certain that the answers to all his questions are right there, if only he can get through the door. But, alas, he never does.
But the Larry’s journey for truth doesn’t stop there. Near the end of the film, still flustered by his fruitless search for divine consolation, Larry receives a visit from Mr. Park, the father of the Korean student trying to bribe Larry for a higher grade. Neither Clive nor his father will confirm or deny that he left the money, but they make clear why the money was placed on Larry’s desk and what he must do if he wants to keep it. This minor paradox deepens after Mr. Park threatens to sue Larry either for defamation simply for saying Clive offered the bribe or for taking the money without giving Clive a passing grade. Larry, nearing the end of his rope, tries to point out the contradiction. The father’s reply is simple:
Mr. Park: Please. Accept the mystery.
Those three words are the closest thing Larry gets to an answer for his all of his questions. But somehow, they actually work. Eventually, Larry embraces not having the answers, and things do get better…for a while.
He attends Danny’s bar mitzvah and watches, with pride, as his completely stoned son recites from the Torah. In that moment, Larry and his wife reconnect with some level of understanding and affection for one another. And, Danny, now a man according to Jewish tradition, is sent to meet with Rabbi Marshak.
On the long walk through this wise man’s office, Danny sees the accoutrements of a learned life. There are books and paraphernalia dealing with science, theology, and philosophy. This room is clearly a place where one can find answers to any of life’s questions, religious or secular, natural or supernatural.
After an awkward silence, the Rabbi Speaks:
Rabbi Marshak: When the truth is found. To be lies. And all the hope within you dies…then what?
As the rabbi clears his throat, we realize these words are familiar – they are the lyrics “Somebody to Love,” by Jefferson Airplane, the same song Danny was listening to when his radio – and his $20 – were confiscated in Hebrew class.
The rabbi continues:
Rabbi Marshak: Grace Slick. Marty Balin. Paul Kanta. Jorma…something. These are the members of the Airplane. Interesting.
He then hands over Danny’s radio, and the money is still with it. Virtually all of Danny’s problems are now solved. And, though, at first glance, it appears that the Coens are mocking Larry – and by extension everyone else – for seeking profound answers to existential questions, the wise old sage, utters one last line:
Rabbi Marshak: Be a good boy.
The Coens are known for their nihilistic views about the nature of existence and the influence – or lack thereof – of any divine or benevolent forces. Perhaps A Serious Man really is just another ironic folktale about the meaninglessness of it all. But, at the end of their struggles, the heroes in this particular film do get answers: Accept the mystery. Be a good boy. Not bad advice at all.
Virtually every faith grapples with the question of theodicy, or why a loving God allows for evil and suffering to continue. We all wonder, at one time or another, why bad things happen to good people. More often, in our selfishness, we wonder why bad things – even if, in the global sense, they aren’t all that terrible – happen to us.
The most common answer offered from Mormonism is that “it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11) because we cannot know happiness without misery, nor righteousness without wickedness. That idea is not entirely incompatible with Larry Gopnik’s struggle. After all his suffering, he does seem more able to take pleasure in his son’s rite of passage and he feels greater relief and satisfaction when he eventually gets some promising news about his tenure prospects.
There is also a curiously common worldview within Mormonism where God is somehow viewed as selecting specific individuals for specific trials, not to simply inflict pain, but to help us learn carefully chosen lessons. Therefore, as the formulation goes, we should be grateful for our struggles. Truth be told, the theological implications of this view are horrifying. It essentially answers the theodicy dilemma by saying God not only lets bad things happen, he specifically chooses who they will happen to.
We can skip the catalog of difficulties faced by human beings individually and collectively, from disability to poverty, and from disease to war. The simple story of Larry Gopnik is enough to demonstrate the absurdity of this belief. After seeing his life fall apart, would Larry realistically have found greater affection for God if he grew to understand that God was directly and intentionally responsible for his plight? I don’t know how that could be the case, but if the comments we often hear Gospel Doctrine class are any indication, many Latter-day Saints would argue that, in those circumstances, Larry should be even more grateful.
Oddly enough, this non-doctrinal notion that God singles out which of his children will be subjected to individualized endurance tests is at the heart of the beginning of the Book of Job, which is the part most Mormons tend to skim over due to our refusal to believe that a loving Father in Heaven would spend time making bets with Satan on the faithfulness of his children.
Instead, when Mormons speak of Job, we tend to focus on following his example of patience and longsuffering through the most difficult trials. I would posit – and I think the Coen Brothers would agree – that we should also spend time considering the end of the story when, after Job asks God to explain all of his misfortunes, God speaks from the whirlwind.
The tl:dr of God’s counsel to Job in that moment: Accept the mystery. Be a good boy.
In the brilliant final moments of A Serious Man, God speaks to Larry, Danny, and everyone in the audience in much the same manner, with more suffering and calamity apparently on the horizon and the only comfort coming in the words of the Airplane: “You better find somebody to love.”