Sunday, August 24, 2014

Everything Is Illuminated Bible Study "laskavo prosymo"..."you're welcome"

I'm on a Ukrainian kick. It seems that one of the reasons I'm read in the Ukraine is my posts on the film EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. So, I'm releasing here for free the Bible study I wrote on that film. I hope you enjoy it.

The Gospel In Film:
Everything Is Illuminated


EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is an independent film based on a book of the same name starring Elijah Wood. It is a simple story with a strange cast of characters, but underlying the absurdity is a deep message of meaning and interconnectedness that can serve as a powerful foundation for a good Christian discussion.
The film follows one Jonathon Safron Foer on his quest to learn about his pre-holocaust ancestors in the Ukraine. He is searching for an elusive town called Trachinbrod and enlists the help of some colorful Ukrainians to help him. Foer is an obsessive-compulsive, insular young man who collects various and sundry items from just about every event in his life, and writes down those events in detail in a journa. His guides are Alex Perchov and his grandfather. The Perchov family is strange and dysfunctional, earning extra money by helping wealthy Jewish men like Alex search out their heritage, while harboring vaguely anti-Semitic sentiments.
The search for Trachinbrod ends up being rather difficult, as the town no longer exists. As the men search from tiny village to tiny village, looking for any scrap of information they may find, they come into conflict with one another, Grandpa in particular quite disturbed by the journey. Foer himself is made uncomfortable by the places they are forced to stay, and the subtle anti-Semitism that he detects in their conversation. Eventually, they make their way to a small house where a woman who knew Jonathon’s grandfather lived, the woman suffers from a collection compulsion much like Jonathon does, and tells him the story of the Trachinbrod. Apparently, the town was razed by the Nazis, and its inhabitants were tortured and killed. It turns out that Alex’s grandfather was present at the massacre, and survived by hiding under dead bodies. He survived by hiding his Judaism and taking on the persona of an anti-Semite. Through Foer’s quest for self-discovery, he has one of his own. In the end, though, he takes his own life in response to being confronted by his past. His son, sensing some higher purpose behind it all, writes it all down in a journal much like Jonathon’s.
The film’s central question is about the meaning of life. Jonathon is questioned early on about why he collects things and why he writes down his experiences. His response is to ask ‘why does anyone do anything’, suggesting that an act is just an act, with no real purpose behind it needed.
The strange coincidence of Jonathon choosing to be led by a family that was, in the end, connected to him is an attempt to present an alternative view, which develops throughout the film. It is the view that life is ultimately meaningful. That Jonathon collects things not for ‘no reason at all’ but because he senses a deeper value in each moment, and wants to hold on to it. He is told by one woman that the objects do not exist ‘because of him’ but that he exists ‘for the objects’, that is, so the truly important moments in life are held on to. Alex tells Jonathon that they are forever connected because they have found something to live for. Jonathon no longer has to do things ‘just to do them’ but because there is some meaning and value in life. For Christians learning to delve deep into matters of meaning and purpose, there be no better jumping off point.


This film is to be watched in two parts only, unlike most of the other films in the collection. Ideally, the whole film will be watched within one class, with the break in the middle to finish half of the book. This movie should be used with adult groups only.

Section 1:

Section 2:

Everything Is Illuminated Study

Section 1
Bible Passage:

Hebrews 11:8-10
Ecclesiastes 3:9-15

Discussion Questions:
Why does Jonathon collect stuff?
(Note: It’s a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. He is afraid of forgetting the important moments of his life so he keeps things to make sure he doesn’t forget.)

What kind of people is the family that is helping him on his quest?
(Note: Weird, very weird. They are not the kind of people you want leading you on an important adventure in a strange land. They are simple people, but want to pretend to be urbane.)

Why do you think the idea that the Ukraine was anti-Semitic bother Peter?
(Note: He has pride in his Ukrainian heritage and doesn’t like the idea that the Ukrainians aren’t basically ‘good’. Peter thinks in very basic terms, ‘good and bad’ ‘cool or uncool’, ‘likes me or doesn’t’, there’s not much of a sense of gradations of gray, just black or white.)

What is the irony here?
(Note: Both Peter III and his grandfather Peter use anti-Semitic and subtly racist terms and exhibit prejudiced attitudes. Jonathon is highly offended by their use of the term ‘Yid’ which is usually a derogatory term for eastern European Jews.)

Why is it important for Jonathon that Sammy Davis Jr. was a Jew but Michael Jackson was ‘definitely not a Jew’?
(Note: Sammy Davis Jr. is someone he can be proud of being associated with and he can be proud chose Judaism but he certainly does NOT care to be associated with Michael Jackson.)

Why do we care who is associated with our religion, why do we try to ‘claim’ certain individuals?
(Note: We take the character of those associated with a given religion as ‘proof’ of its validity, morally speaking. The better people we have in our group the more we can make claims of the goodness of group itself. This reasoning is a bit off, but not completely.)

Jonathon asks why anyone does anything, and suggests his writing about his family’s past is ‘just something he does’. Ecclesiastes seems to point to a kind of emptiness to action as well. What do you think of this view?
(Note: It seems to me that both Jonathon and Ecclesiastes are taking great pains to avoid looking at the real reasons for their actions: they find meaning in it. They may not know WHY its meaningful, and Ecclesiastes is trying to argue that talk of objective purpose in human endeavors is nonsense, but they’re actions betray their beliefs. They do see value and meaning in what should objectively be empty gestures. The idea that seemingly empty gestures can hold the key to the meaning of life is quite interesting.)

Both Jonathon’s quest and his vegetarianism exemplify how much a stranger he is in the land. The Hebrews passage speaks to this. What does it really mean to be a ‘stranger’? How should we respond to strange behaviors and beliefs?
(Note: Your ways will always seem strange in other cultural contexts. We should remember that, and from it draw the conclusion that we shouldn’t judge other people’s customs too quickly. Images of Abraham, and even Jesus, are religious visions of the stranger. How we treat these people in some ways determines how we are treating God, the strangest ‘person’ of them all. )

Section 2

Bible Passage:

Sirach 5:1-10

Discussion Questions:
Why is the beauty and fertility of the land so important and why does grandpa mention it?
(Note: Like the younger Peter, ‘grandpa’ is trying to show Jonathon the goodness of his ancestral home, and at the same time is reaching out to Jonathon to try to find his own peace.)

What does the trip become for grandpa?
(Note: A way to deal with his own guilt from his involvement in the persecution of the Jews.)

Why does Peter want Jonathon to believe his grandfather is good? Why do we need to convince others of the goodness of the objects of our own love?
(Note: You are who you love, in a sense. If we love people who are bad, we fear this means we are bad. This is only a half-truth, however. Besides we have a hard time seeing anyone in their full complexity, we tend to try to categorize people neatly as ‘good’ and ‘bad. Peter’s tendency to do this anyways means it is more pronounced in him.)

Bible Passage
1 Kings 19:9-10
2 Maccabees 6:1-11

Discussion Questions:
What did the woman mean when she said “I am Trachinbrod”?
(Note: She meant that she is the last survivor of the village, and that she also is the keeper of their memory. The town lives on in her.)

Can you imagine what it would be like to be the last of your kind?
(Note: It may be hard to imagine, but Elijah at least had some sense of what this woman is going through, and the Bible tries to convey the utter devastation the Jews experienced through him. Part of what the Bible gives us is a window into real suffering.)

Was it right to resist spitting on the Torah if it meant someone else died?
(Note: This is hard to say. We have conflicting intuitions. God may have wanted him to spit, if it meant the life of his daughter. But we can do nothing but marvel at his strength, his sacrifice, and his spirit. To resist temptation to do what you think is right is always admirable and always a glimpse into the kingdom of God. Whether it’s ultimately the right decision is a matter for another context.)

Why have people tortured the Jews to get them to deny their religion?
(Note: This would break their spirit and destroy them as a people. To separate them from God would also to be separate them from themselves, and finally destroy what has made them a surviving people. It is a horrible example of man’s inhumanity to man.)

Why does Jonathon say the ring was buried?
(Note: Because Augustine didn’t want it forgotten, she wanted some proof she existed to survive.)

Why does Augustine’s sister say it was buried?
(Note: To call Jonathon back to this place, to lead Jonathon on his destiny.)

She says: “the ring doesn’t exist because of us, we exist because of the ring”? What is the importance of this distinction?
(Note: It is the difference between whether life is meaningful or whether we just make life meaningful. Is it only us who decides our destiny, or is destiny something ‘real’. The woman is insisting it is, that there is meaning in life and in a sense a God in the universe.)

Bible Passage:
Matthew 27:3-10
Sirach 6:5-17

Discussion Questions
Why do you think Grandpa killed himself?

Why do you think Judas killed himself?

Do you think its right for Peter to suppose Grandpa’s suicide gave him peace?
Why or why not?

Why does Peter write the book, write what Jonathon does?
(Note: Peter writes because he and Jonathon have ‘discovered something to life for’. It is a record of his discovery of the meaning of life. Now both men have a REASON to write.)

What is illumination, do you think?


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