(WARNING: Massive spoilers for both The Cabin in the Woods and the Book of Job follow. You have been warned)
As a teenager I used to adore horror films and those weird, mess-with-your-head type movies. So Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, which excellently combines both qualities, reminds me of my adolescence. It feels like a movie I should have watched a decade ago, but in the good way of representing the best of what I liked in those days rather than reminding me of my poor taste. But for some reason it actually came out a couple of years ago, and I only saw it for the first time a little over a month ago.
In Cabin, what seems to be standard horror movie fare – a group of young adults goes off to a secluded locale and meets a grisly end – turns out to be the tip of a more sinister plot: some evil gods lurking in the earth will wipe humanity out unless a handful of people are anually sacrificed by way of torment and death at the hands of supernatural monsters. A secret organization exists to ensure that this happens smoothly so that the gods will remain placated.
But what does this sordid affair have to do with the biblical Book of Job? Job is described as a righteous man who suffers in an extraordinary fashion that causes him to question God and the moral order of reality. What leads me to pair them up is how they both seem interested in the question of the meaning of innocent suffering, and how they share some formal similarities in how they take it up.
Job is a poetic dialogue framed by a prose prologue and epilogue. In the dialogue, Job and his friends engage in a rather circular theological debate about the causes of Job’s sufferings. But in the prologue, the reader is introduced to another layer of the narrative which gives the explanation: in the divine counsel, Hassatan, The Adversary, questioned God concerning Job’s righteousness, suggesting that he is only good because God treats him well. In order to prove him wrong, God retracts his blessing from Job and allows Hassatan to torment him.
Thus the dialogue operates under dramatic irony, and a deeply unsettling one at that – to allow such pain and death (Job’s family is wiped out) for the sake of making a point seems extremely callous at best. The author seems to want the reader to ponder whether God is actually a jerk. And the question resonates, because, although it is the case that we can find redemptive and pedagogic value in our sufferings, it is also true that the wantonness of suffering in the world outstrips all rational suffering in the world. Actually, the sheer fact that a book like Job made it into the biblical canon makes it easier for me to believe that that canon is divinely inspired.
Although Cabin is slower in explaining the rationale behind the torment of the protagonists, it operates under a similar dramatic irony by showing the viewer that everything is under the control of a shadowy organization which is intent on persecuting them.
Now, there is a rather persistent theodicy which accepts in simple fashion the notion that the good are rewarded and the guilty punished. It follows from this that if an individual faces tragedy, there must be some guilt hidden behind it. This is the position that Job’s friends take: Job is suffering, therefore he is guilty. They thus set themselves up as judges of Job’s soul. But Job asserts his innocence, and the narrator informs the reader that he is indeed without blame.
While none of the heroes of Cabin can be described as blameless in the same degree as Job, there is no question that they don’t deserve to be murdered by undead torture zombies (or whatever they’re called). But for whatever reason, the organization doesn’t want their sacrifice to be seen as slaughtering the innocent, so they devise rigged scenarios where the protagonists will transgress some boundary and hence be seen as deserving of punishment. They give themselves the moral veneer of being judges.
In both cases, the parties at hand use a reward/punishment mindset to wash their hands of really grappling with the full significance of the suffering on display.
But both Job and Cabin’s protagonists feel that they are being unjustly persecuted, and eventually seek out a confrontation with the powers that be. God speaks to Job, and
Sigourney Weaver the Director speaks to the (surviving) heroes. And it is here that the two stories radically differ in where they go.
For Cabin, the banality and judgmentalism turns out to be a cover for pagan sacrifice. In order for humanity to be spared the wrath of the gods, the heroes must be killed. The heroes actually do live in a morally simplistic world where their suffering and death is given a rational explanation, and where the minds of the gods can be understood by humans. The survival of the human race is an easily conceivable objective, and one that is arguably the weightiest one imaginable. But this raises a crucial question: is there any humanly conceivable purpose so grave that it would justify the torment and destruction of innocent souls?
The answer the heroes make in the end is no. And I really, really, like this. When I was first watching the movie, it seemed like they were going to do a moral bait-and-switch at the end; the viewer is brought to cynically agree that the villains are right. Ideals get you killed; participation in the Real, grown up world means compromising moral integrity in the name of the greater good, etc. While the heroes’ rejection of this logic is done more as an act of existential defiance than as something approximating Christian hope, it’s a ballsy move on the part of the script that I sympathize with.
If the climax of Job was just God telling him that the entire debacle was caused by him attempting to prove a point, then the book would be unsatisfying, because it would be asking us to accept that answer at face value and to not probe deeper. But Job never finds out the reason for his suffering. Instead, God takes a different tack:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm and said: Who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! (38:1-3)
Girding loins in the ancient world referred to the practice of tucking the hems of one’s robes into the belt in order to move unencumbered. “Gird up your loins” was a way of saying, “prepare for combat”. Job, in in calling God to explain himself in a litigation hearing, has spoken fighting words, and God picks up the gauntlet. The idea of fighting with God is a theme seen elsewhere in the bible – Jacob becomes the patriarch Israel when he wrestles with the angel and refuses to let go until it blesses him. (Gen 32:25-31) God seems to approve of a sort of pugnacious tenacity on the part of his servants.
Instead of directly dealing with Job’s complaint, God, by way of ironic questions, launches into a speech describing both the wondrousness and the strangeness of creation, from its foundations to animals like the ostrich.
This only seems to provoke silence from Job, so God begins again:
Would you refuse to acknowledge my right? Would you condemn me that you may be justified?
Look at everyone who is proud, and humble them. Tear down the wicked in their place, bury them in the dust together; in the hidden world imprison them. Then will I too praise you, for your own right hand can save you. (40:8, 12-14)
Although Job is innocent, his mind is still stuck up in the theology of his friends, which has pushed him into a terrible either/or. Either he actually is guilty and hence has been inviting divine wrath by calling down God, or else God is guilty of injustice, and Job lives in a world governed by a morally suspect deity. Both of these options are bad ends! God seems to be indicating another route by underlining that he and Job are not equals.
William Blake, Behemoth and Leviathan
Most of God’s second speech is devoted to a description of Behemoth and Leviathan, two mythological creatures signifying the forces of chaos. God emphasizes that they are creatures, “whom I made along with you”. They can be subdued to no one but God. The point seems to be: if Job cannot even take on these beasts, how can he expect to take on God? And furthermore, if God can dominate them, what chance does Job have? The organization in Cabin, in their own way, attempted to control Behemoth and Leviathan, and got themselves killed for their efforts.
In spite of his apparent indignation at Job, God thinks that he has spoken rightly, while his friends have failed, and restores Job’s blessing. And Job seems contented by God’s speeches.
One way of looking at this ambiguous ending which appeals to me is to see it as expressing in poetic form the inscrutability of the ways of God. The retribution theodicy offered by the friends fails because it tries to reduce the mystery of God and the world to something comprehendable by humans. But God’s panoramic speech, culminating in an extended meditation on the monstrous and bizarre, serves as a reminder that humans are not in an epistemic position to pronounce judgment on it all. Hence Job remains something of a question mark.