“The Tree of Life” and “The Book of Job”


I saw The Tree of Life last night, and it is a remarkable film. I loved all 14 billion years of it. (Yes, it does stretch back to the creation of the universe, but with emphasis on the last 60 years.)

There are two explicit references to the Book of Job, beginning with the opening title card, which refers to God’s confrontation with Job where God asks in the midst of Job’s terrible suffering what he knows about the origins of creation: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth. . .when the morning stars sang together?” (38:4,7).  The entire movie is keyed to this reference, which even then may not fully penetrate the mood of mystery whose motifs seem to be never-ending rounds of love and loss.

Frye, of course, wrote extensively about the Book of Job — about this climactic confrontation between God and Job especially — and, not surprisingly, offers clarification. From The Great Code:

The fact that God’s speech is thrown into a series of rhetorical questions to which “no” is the only answer seems to give it a bullying and hectoring quality, and certainly there is no “answer” to Job’s problem. But did we ever seriously think that so great a poem would turn out to be a problem with an answer? To answer a question. . .is to accept the assumptions in it, and thereby to neutralize the question by consolidating the mental level on which the question was asked. Real questions are stages in formulating better questions; answers cheat us out of the chance to do this. So even if we are dissatisfied with God’s performance, a God who was glibly ready to explain it all would be more contemptible than the most reactionary of divine bullies.

We remember that Job himself was groping toward a realization that no causal explanation of his alienated plight was possible. In a sense God is speaking out of Job’s own consciousness here: any causal explanation takes us back to a First Cause, that is the creation. The rhetorical questions really mean, then, in this context: don’t look along the line of causes to the creation: there is no answer there, and no help there. How Job got into his position is less important than how he is to get out of it; and it is only because he was not a participant in creation that he can be liberated from the chaos and darkness within it. (CW, 217-18)

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3 thoughts on ““The Tree of Life” and “The Book of Job”

  1. Sophia

    “it is only because he was not a participant in creation that he can be liberated from the chaos and darkness within it.”

    I don’t understand this. Because he was not an actor in creation, he can be free from the darkness. Can you explain what is meant? We weren’t there in the beginning, yes, I get that part. Creation came out of chaos and darkness. We came after, is his point — I’m supposing– and to look back to causes is to look in the direction of chaos and darkness?

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      I hope somebody cleverer than me throws in on this one, Sophia, but, as I put up the post, I have a responsibility to respond.

      Happily, I only have to follow Frye’s lead and hope I understand where the lead goes. Here’s where I think it goes: God is saying to Job, in effect, that the mystery of creation is something he can never know, and that any appeal to make his condition comprehensible along these lines is therefore fruitless: “Where were you when the stars sang together?” You weren’t, so you cannot possibly understand. This means that Job is freed from the all-too-evident “darkness and chaos” within creation which has always mystified the faithful and non-faithful alike. This revelation leaves Job with an intensified sense of the present in which it no longer matters how he got to where he is, it only matters where goes from there, and that is readily available to him. This, I think, is a manifestation of what Frye calls “recreation,” whose first condition is faith: not doctrinal faith, but faith in a liberated creativity that is inherent to a fully realized human nature.

      Frye regularly claimed that everything he knew he learned from Blake. I assume, therefore, that his insight into the Book of Job is an extension of Blake’s notion of the “human form divine”: divinity that is within us and not to be sought without. To know this is to be free of the idolatry of the faith that invariably ossifies into the dogma of compelled belief, which is not only oppressive but potentially murderous and self-defeating. It reminds me of the Max von Sydow character in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (which revolves around the nature of creativity), who observes that, “If Jesus could see the things done in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

  2. Bill Koch

    Long time Frye fan, first time making a comment: I’ve thought about this comment by Frye, too, and what I’ve come to see it referring to is how we are born into an environment not of our making, but which has made us during our childhood years. When we get into the adult years, we have to see how we cannot help but be who we are and we see how what we are is from the environment we grew up in. But that environment also gave us tools that it knew we would use as adults. Now, as we go through our adult years, we can be freedom from being blamed for being born and raised in this chaotic structure, but we are responsible to do what we can to organize a little better the structure that we do have. As I tell students, the writer of Genesis 1 seems to say that if we adults with imaginative literacy skills use our words responsibly, then we are reflecting the image of God. After all, the only image of God we have in Genesis 1 is of a disembodied voice speaking and those words organize the formless earth and then multiply its features. And then when adults in 2012 consider their historical situation, they see that the written word is very new, alphabet literacy even newer, but the spoken word is old. and so adults in 2012 have four ways to be responsible with words, and they also know that it’s ok to start a thinking event (and thinking largely uses words) with messy thinking, since we have revision to organize the mess. So i teeach students that it is ok to forgive themselves for having rough drafts and to tell that little critic in their head that criticzes their first drafts to go to hell. IN that way, they see that they aren’t responsible for messy starts but they are responsible to responding to the mess they make with verbal tools of clarificaiton and growth.


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