The sky above the land of Uz
Could change the way the ocean does
In moments, with a boding wind,
As though the blue of day had sinned.
So opens John Piper’s epic retelling the story of Job in powerfully poetic form. His long poem forms the base for the art movie “JŌB the Film” released in 2011, but not nearly enough people are aware it exists or have yet to see it.
Piper narrates the film himself with a somber and somewhat darkened mood. His voice is almost keening in places, like a subdued wail.
The tragic atmosphere suits the tale, and the author explains in a comment why he doesn’t hold back on the anguish: “Pain and loss are bitter providences. Who has lived long in this world of woe without weeping, sometimes until the head throbs and there are no more tears to lubricate the convulsing of our amputated love?”
Even more emotive and emotionally wrenching than the Bible narrative, Piper extends Job’s story with fictionalized names and details. His friends have histories and come from far places.
He says of Zophar: “The news went northward too, and when it reached the town of Tadimor, the old man Zophar wept and wore his grieving robe.”
Piper replaces their diatribes with Job’s guttural reaction to their cruel judgments, as their words “exploded in the mist,” tearing chasms in his heart.
Imputing pain to the land and heavens as the ancients would, Piper’s Job repeatedly reads the skies as omens for good or evil. Art creates an echoing backdrop for the film’s scenes.
The portentous skies show up before his children die, and on the day he becomes very ill: “It robs,” He thought, “like some celestial thief – Who thinks to gain by bringing grief?”
Before his friends come with their ravaging comforts, Job sighs, “I’ve seen this sky before. It seeps from some great battle in the deeps – Of angel-riven heav’n.”
Finally at the peaceful if not entirely happy ending, all skies are beneficent and calm.
“And restful evening, without pain,
Or any red and boding stain
Up¬bleeding from the sutures of
The distant soil and sky above
The land of Uz.”
Art by graphic artist Chris Koelle fills the screen with a series of dramatic drawings. Visually, they extend the seeds planted by Piper’s verbal imagery. Koelle eloquently uses rough, sketchy strokes in charcoal and ink for these characters. He explains his style as wanting to portray the “raw, gritty intensity” of the original poem. Lack of color leaves them spectral and somewhat otherworldly, especially as they are contrasted against brilliant, deep, background colors throughout the film.
Expert animator Danny McNight put the entire film together. Taking Koelle’s drawings for an earlier book version, he digitized them and creatively played with effects for a partial animation. McNight also incorporated Piper’s narration and an original musical score by Aaron Greene, along with other sounds.
Piper is a theologian and a prolific writer. His original studies in literature and philosophy are both evident in his epic Job poem, as he wrestles with dark, primordial mysteries of grief, death, the injustice of suffering and the unknowable complexities of God.
Because the book of Job is at least in part a memorial, Piper’s poem has that aura. He uses an ancient elegiac style similar to the 16th century poet Ben Johnson. Elegies at the time had three parts that work remarkably well for the book of Job: mourning for the dead; honor or praise for the dead; and eventually comfort or consolation.
Johnson wrote “To the Immortall Memorie, and Friendship of that Noble Paire, Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison.” It eulogized the death of his friend Cary and was a form of Pindaric Ode. He also wrote a short lament on the tragic loss of his child, “On My First Son.”
Varying in length of stanzas, Piper’s “The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God” still follows quite a rigid metrical pattern. Most lines are iambic tetrameter, and virtually every two consecutive lines rhyme at the end (in this form – aabbccddeeffgg).
Piper served as a Baptist pastor in Minneapolis for 33 years and is still active as a speaker and writer. He composes poems for family occasions and biblically themed poetry as an annual exercise around Lent, or at this time of year.
For Koelle and crew, their new film adaptation of Piper’s “JŌB” is an independently produced “labor of love for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.” They offer it as a resource for those who struggle with doubt, despair and hope in the midst of bitter suffering.
Without fanfare or hoopla, the world is slowly warming up to biblically based art films. Since “JŌB’s” release it’s been continually shown across the globe. Koelle describes its effects in “churches, schools, small groups and, no joke, on aircraft carriers” as faith-deepening.
“I have written for sufferers,” Piper explains, and when he conveys Job’s boils in gruesome detail, Koelle matches him graphically blow for blow:
“The putrid pus that seeped like thin
And yellow sap from crimson bark
Built up with dreadful days of dark
And drying blood”
One goal of “honest art” is to acknowledge cynicism, despair and ugliness and work though it, Koelle reasons. But contemporary “Christian” art often evades those nasty things and can emotionally disconnect from a church that is suffering terribly at this moment.
Along with “The History of Redemption” and “The Book of Revelation,” this is Koelle’s third, major, Bible-based art project. The trilogy is solid evidence that artists and companies are willing to invest in artistic and novel re-presentations of the Bible in all mediums. They also hope to find support from the church and wider audiences.
Koelle describes how “imagination sparks toward wonder and faith” in this type of adventure: “I believe that meditating on Scriptures and images together is like… a turning diamond or participating in a dance, and it’s inevitable that word and image dance together in the imagination from faith to faith.”
Pastor John Piper and Koelle would like the world to know that “JŌB the Film” is FREE for churches and groups to show (no strings attached) by submitting a form through the www.jobthefilm.com website. Individuals can also download it online for an offering of any size or buy it at iTunes store.