Absurdity between God and Evil

By Tim Winterstein

After I watched Troubled Water last week, one of Amazon’s recommendations was Adam’s Apples (2005, streaming on Amazon Prime), about a naive pastor in Denmark, Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen), who welcomes in a neo-Nazi in hopes of (I think) rehabilitating him. Add that neo-Nazi to a Saudi immigrant who robs gas stations and an alcoholic Dane, and it’s a weirdly religious, absurd black comedy.

In spite of the weird aspect ratio thing that Amazon was doing, I was slowly drawn into the story. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny in its absurdity. The pastor is not only naive, but indefensibly and, apparently, invincibly so. Nothing that Adam does can shake Ivan’s optimism and “faith,” including a picture of Hitler on the wall and beating him viciously. Ivan says that Gunnar’s alcoholism is cured, though he doesn’t hide the many bottles and Ivan even offers to pick up some “medicine” for him when he goes out. And Ivan is convinced Khalid is done with robbery, though there is a balaclava and a large wad of cash in his jacket, not to mention the gun he easily produces to get rid of the crows in the apple tree.

Further, Ivan refuses to admit that his son is completely disabled and that his wife committed suicide. He views it all as an attack from Satan that he is to withstand. All of it: the crime, the alcoholism, his wife’s death, a neo-Nazi beating him up, the crows and worms in the apple tree. It is all a Satanic attack, and Ivan believes that he is simply called to bear up under it with an undying optimism.

Adam does his best to break Ivan of his blindness to reality, not only by beatings, but by mockery and embarrassment. Nothing works, which works up Adam’s frustration. But in the middle of all the absurdity, this film (intentionally or unintentionally) hits upon the inexplicable reality of evil in the world.

Adam’s Bible keeps opening to Job, so he finally starts reading it one night. Then he confronts Ivan with his conclusion: It is not the devil who is attacking and testing him; it’s God. “The devil hasn’t wasted any time on you,” Adam says. “God wants to kill you.” Ironically, it is, in fact, the devil who takes away everything from Job (which Ivan apparently hasn’t read; “It’s about a crocodile. That’s what I’ve heard.”), not God. But God is the one who allows Satan to attack Job, though Job never knows this. As far as Job is concerned, it is God who has brought all his misfortune on him.

So while we might be inclined to defend God by putting the blame on the devil, what does it matter to Job? All his crops, his children, his animals, and his wife are gone. His health is gone. He probably wishes he were dead. And what does it matter to Ivan, dying from a brain tumor, ignoring and minimizing the events in his life? Whether it’s God or the devil, doesn’t it all come down to the same thing in the end?

Maybe it matters theoretically or philosophically, to some extent. But it doesn’t matter practically. If everything you have is taken from you, deciding it’s the devil rather than God doesn’t actually change the facts of the case. And does it even make you feel better in the long run? More likely, you’ll decide that you hate the God that seems to hate you.

That’s why the issue of whether God is for you or against you can never be solved by speculation or circumstance. Circumstance changes. Speculation is affected by the interpretation one takes toward the facts as presented. And when Adam comes in and smashes the seemingly invincible interpretation that Ivan has been assuming, Ivan has nothing left to fall back on. He denies his faith—at least until some other neo-Nazis enter the scene, and an act of violence restores what was being lost.

The end is humorous, and writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen seems to be aiming at the possible triumph of optimism, good humor, and kindness over evil. But for me, the period before Ivan’s personal conflict is resolved is the more profound, and gets closer to the reality of a silent, distant, hidden God’s relationship to humanity.

The way out isn’t in a new or recovered naivete, but in the violence done to the Word made flesh (which—perhaps I am wrong about Jensen’s vision—is hinted at during the storm when the scarecrow becomes a bare cross). In Christ’s death and resurrection there is a Voice that we cannot hear in storms, tests, speculation, or imaginary realities. It is a final word, and—finally—the only way out of the stale-mate represented by Ivan and Adam in those moments in the church.