Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Asking the Right Questions, Cohen Brothers Style

Here is my column from the March edition of The Flame, the monthly newsletter for the Nebraska church where I work. It's based around the new Cohen Brothers movie, "A Serious Man." Also, here's a Catholic priest reviewing that movie.

Each year, I make a point of watching all of the films nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards. They are not always the best movies out there, but it is as good a viewing guide as any.

One of this year’s nominees is the latest from the Cohen Brothers, “A Serious Man.” The movie is about a physics professor whose wife asks him for a divorce, and the struggles they face in their Jewish community. Critics argue about the film’s message. Is it about the way God works in our daily lives? Our struggles to understand God? A modern retelling of the Book of Job?

Given where I am in life right now, what I got out of the film was probably not what the Cohen Brothers actually intended, but I’m going to run with it anyway: It is not always the answers to our questions that matter, but our struggles with the questions themselves.

At one point, the professor’s rabbi answers three questions from another man, a dentist, who is also struggling trying to figure out what God (or Hashem) is telling him. The rabbi’s answers are at first frustrating but perhaps go deeper than would appear: “The teeth? We don't know. A sign from Hashem? Don't know. Helping others? Couldn't hurt.”

The professor and the dentist are both frustrated by their questions, but ultimately events conspire to render the answers they seek meaningless anyway. It was the process of asking that mattered most, for through their struggles they grew closer to God.

This lesson is one many of you already know quite well. I, however, encountered it for the first time just last year in one of my Native American studies courses at college. From discussions with Father Tom to spiritual direction at Resurrection House, it is a lesson that has followed me to Nebraska.

My six months here have forced me to ask many new questions about life and about myself. One simple example comes from a book I recently read by author Shane Claiborne, who writes, “If you ask most people what Christians believe, they can tell you… But if you ask the average person how Christians live, they are struck silent. We have not shown the world another way of doing life. Christians pretty much live like everybody else; they just sprinkle a little Jesus in along the way.” Prompted by this quote, I have begun to ask not just, “What am I called to do?” but also “Who am I called to be?”

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but I continue to ask. Perhaps that’s all God wants me to do right now. Perhaps it is when we struggle with asking that we grow, even more so than when we finally live into the answers.

Why does God teach us the way God does? Don’t know. Why is it so hard to live on God’s time? Don’t know. Should we do more to help others? Couldn’t hurt.

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