It was Bishop Robert Barron, in one of his marvellous film reviews, who pointed out that the key to understanding Terrance Malik's movie "The Tree of Life," is the Book of Job. The movie, made in 2011, won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Unusually, it was hated by most of the critics; probably a good sign. However Roger Ebert called it "one of the greatest movies of all time" – critics are given to superlatives. It is a strange film; it requires patience, but as Barron suggested, the clue to the entire film is given by the fact that it opens with the words of God to Job: "where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth … when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy?"
The movie spends the first fifteen minutes, with no speaking, showing images of creation – volcanoes, the sea, nature – probably why critics hated it and movie renters pressed pause and went to get a stiff drink. The movie tackles the enigma of innocent suffering – and so much more.
Chesterton regarded the Book of Job as the most important book in the Bible. He said it was both the most interesting of ancient books and the most interesting of modern books. "The patience of Job" is a phrase everyone with a modicum of education once knew, along with many other biblical phrases. Now that "nones" – those who claim no religious affiliation, are the largest group in the 18 to 35 age group, both in the U.S. and the UK, quoting anything from the Bible is likely to be met with a blank stare – far better to use a line from Star Wars.
Chesterton makes the point in his introduction to an edition of the Book of Job, published in 1916, that the book, "stands apart from most of the books in the Old Testament." He argues that the central idea of the Old Testament is what he calls, the "personality of God," almost to the point of the impersonality of man – "unless this gigantic cosmic brain has conceived a thing, that thing is insecure and void; man has not enough tenacity to endure its continuance." Job, he asserts, stands alone because it asks, "But what is the purpose of God?"
Job suffers, unjustly, undeservedly. He laments – he stands as an exemplar for all innocent suffering – but even more – he had been prosperous and successful, a sign, the ancients thought, of God's blessing. His famous lament is a questioning of God's purposes but, as GKC said, what makes the book so splendid is that "God asks questions!"
A central question of the book, Chesterton asserts, is whether God "invariably punishes vice with terrestrial punishment and rewards virtue with terrestrial prosperity." If that is the case, then the great danger, exemplified by the so-called "prosperity Gospel" of the likes of Joel Osteen, will be that if "prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue."
Yet when God speaks, when He questions Job, something changes. Job was "comfortless before the speech of God and is comforted after it." God has not explained anything – He has not justified Job's suffering or given reasons for it. The "refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design." Job experiences what Chesterton calls, in a sentence of mystical elegance, the "terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told."
Chesterton, it has been argued persuasively by Father Robert Wild, is a mystic, and may even be canonized for his theology of wonder. The Book of Job, GKC wrote, comforts, not by answering the questions, but is a "psalm or rhapsody of wonder." This is the reason Malik's film opens with scenes of the creation and God's awesome and poetic question to Job: "where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy?"
A Christian does not answer the question of innocent suffering, but they do experience the "terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told." We were not there when the sons of God were shouting with joy, or when the morning stars were singing. We all suffer and question, but we know know what St. Paul called the "hope in which we are saved." Jesus Christ, and God's unconditional love revealed in the Paschal Mystery, is the thing almost "too good to be told."
Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical on hope, 'Spe Salvi,' that "if this absolute love exists," we will have hope, the knowledge of redemption, the experience of the Good News. Life, said Pope Benedict, "in its totality is a relationship with Him who is the source of life. If we are in relationship with Him who does not die – who is Life Itself – then we are in Life – then we live."
"The secret of God," said Chesterton, "is a bright and not a sad one." The mystery of the redemption is intuited by Job in his comforting and not in his patience. The story "too good to be told" is the Gospel.
Father Benedict Kiely is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Stowe, director of Continuing Education for Clergy for the Diocese of Burlington, and Burlington Police Department chaplain.
Copyright 2016, Father Benedict Kiely