Who Is the Real Jesus?

One of the earliest images of a bearded Jesus (Roman catacomb of Comodilla, late 4th century)

I looked for him and did not find him.
I will get up and walk round the city.
and will look for him whom I love with all my soul.

–– Song of Songs 3:1-2

 

When I teach my seminar on “Jesus and the movies,” I show 20 different actors who have played the gospels’ leading man on screen during cinema’s first century. Every actor has his moments, and some of the cinematic Jesuses are very compelling. But something about the role itself invites the critical knives.

Jeffrey Hunter was 33 when he played Jesus in Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” (1961).

The casting of teen heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings (1961) caused some to call the film “I Was a Teenage Jesus”. But “to his credit,”one reviewer said, Hunter “plays the Son of God with embarrassment.” In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the Swedish Max von Sydow, whose art-film resume set him apart from the “Hollywood Jesus” stereotype, was nevertheless slammed for “an aphorism-spouting, Confucius-say edge to his speech, an overtone of pomposity.” Another critic added that von Sydow “hardly varies his expression, which is mild suffering, as if he had a pebble in his sandal.”

Ted Neely’s hippie Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstarwas dismissed as “a droopy little fellow with sad eyes and long hair,” while Godspell’s playful Jesus was savaged by Time Magazine as “a teeny-bopper stoned on himself.” Robert Powell’s eyes in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) were just too blue to suit the historical realists. And Willem Dafoe’s uncertain and anxious Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) caused the NPR critic to complain that “this Jesus wonders, wonders, wonders who––who wrote the book of love?”

Even positive reviews were tinged with doubt about the viability of portraying the Son of God. Writing about Robert Wilson, who played Jesus in my father’s 1954 film, Day of TriumphNewsweek said that while he doesn’t make Jesus seem “pale or namby-pamby … neither does he make him the red-blooded he-man.”

Interpretive representations of Jesus­—–in theology, painting, and film–– have been the subject of debate from the beginning. Even when he was present in the flesh, people gave very different answers to the question he posed: “Who do you say that I am?” That’s only natural. We humans are a mystery, even to ourselves. Add divinity to the mix, and the interpretive task becomes an endless play of perspectives.

The original “screen version” of Jesus (Hans Memling, St. Veronica, 1475)

I once did a video interview with a young Palestinian woman whose idiomatic phrasing expressed this perfectly. “Jesus is a very big word,” she told me. “You can never get to the end of it.”

When a critic, or one of my students, looks at the screen and thinks, “That’s not Jesus,” it implies that they themselves would recognize Jesus if they saw him. And that guy on the screen just isn’t him!

But if there is no definitive way to play a role so inherently mysterious, then no actor has to be the Jesus. He only has to make us see some things that we may have missed in previous tellings. Painters and preachers will tell you the same thing.

A youthful Christ evoked Resurrection (St. Costanza, Rome, c. 5th century)

Over the centuries, we’ve had Jesus meek and mild, and Jesus the Pantocrator––emperor of the universe. We’ve had the loving Jesus and the angry Jesus. We’ve had the Prince of Peace and the troublemaker, the Man for others and the social revolutionary. We’ve had the Good Shepherd, the Cosmic Victor, the healer, the teacher, the prophet, the mystic, the ascetic, the party animal, the Suffering Servant, the Savior, and the Man of Sorrows.

In 14th-century England, Julian of Norwich pictured Jesus as our nurturing mother. Other cultures have added their own distinct perspectives, seeing Jesus as shaman, medicine man, and exorcist. And what we know these days about Jesus is that he was a feminist, radical, egalitarian, postmodern critic of consumer society.

Revolutionary Jesus (Russia, 20th century)

Martin Scorcese, who directed The Last Temptation of Christ, was savagely criticized for taking liberties with the gospel story. His response?

“You have the choice between my wrong version
and your wrong version
and somebody else’s wrong version.”

Every narrative is fictional, a version from a particular perspective, with some things emphasized and some things left out. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted story, or an uninterpreted Jesus. And that’s okay. The Incarnation means that God is fond of particularity, choosing to dwell in a particular human body in a particular way. And to say that “Jesus lives” means that the particularity of incarnation continues to go on. Jesus keeps turning up in many guises, seen through many eyes.

Jesus is a very big Word. So every version will be “wrong” in the sense of being incomplete. That is why diversity of interpretation is a blessing. The reception of revelation is a collective act performed over time. The four lives of Jesus given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John establish this principle of interpretive diversity at the very beginning of Christianity. Each gospel offers a distinctive perspective, a different Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus is a rebel who challenges the oppressive powers: the clergy, the demons, and the empire. His revolution is a mystery that most fail to see or understand, except a few followers to whom “the secret of the Kingdom has been given.” The revolution seems to fail in the end, but then there is the empty tomb and those strange angelic words:

“He is not here.
He goes before you into Galilee.
You will see him there.”

And where is Galilee? It’s where the story began, so there is in Mark this circular motion which takes you back to the beginning to look again at the story in the light of the Resurrection, and this time maybe you start to see what’s really happening, you start to see who––and where–– Jesus really is.

Matthew’s Jesus is the rabbi, the divine teacher who conveys to us the mind of God in the Sermon on the Mount, the kingdom parables, and the representative suffering that seems to fulfill and redeem Israel’s destiny. His gospel starts with Emmanuel, the newborn child who is God-with-us, and it ends on a mountain top meant to recall the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, with Christ’s promise that “I am with you always.” As in Mark, Jesus is a story that never ends.

Luke gives us the compassionate companion who embraces the poor and the outcast. Only Luke’s Jesus speaks of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Unlike Mark’s gospel, which keeps circling us back to the original story of the historical Jesus, Luke’s version propels us forward into the future of the risen Jesus, who continues among us as the Spirit-filled church, manifesting divine presence in the breaking of the bread and the healing of the world.

Supper, George Tooker (1963)

John’s Jesus is the most variant of them all. The divinity of his Jesus is clearly visible from the start: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Fourth Gospel resounds with the divine name first revealed to Moses: “I am.”

I am the light of the world.
I am the bread of life.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I am the true vine.
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the door.
Before Abraham was, I am.

Some people worry about whether Jesus actually said any of these things during his earthly life, as if they could only be true if spoken by the first century Galilean Jesus. But if Jesus is risen and living and with us always, then to have these words spoken through the voice of the inspired community, the Body of Christ on earth, expands rather than violates the norm of authenticity. Read the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17) as if they are spoken by the risen Christ, and John’s Jesus feels more like revelation than invention.

Whatever the historicity of John’s Jesus, he is the one many of us have met––as the bread of life, the deep well of living water, and the door between the worlds by whom we make our own safe passage through death into life.

The foundational narratives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were only the beginning of the process. Now it’s our turn to add to the story of Jesus, from the particularity of our own experience. How, exactly, do we tell the gospel according to us?

 

Hans Memling, Christ Blessing (1478)

 

Related posts:

The Ten Best Jesus Movies

Ten Questions to Ask About Your Own Picture of Jesus

Faith Meets Works: And the Winner Is . . .

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Jesus open eyes of a man born blind (1311)

Without faith, no good work is ever begun, or completed.

–– Caesarius of Arles

 

A homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of the longest running debates in Christianity is the one about faith and works.
Which is primary? Which is more necessary?
Are we saved by faith alone, or do our works matter as well?
Is our salvation due entirely to God, or do we ourselves play any part in it?

This argument goes all the way back to the New Testament. As James asks in today’s epistle, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14)

James is responding to the notion that we are saved sola fide––by faith alone–– and not by anything we ourselves are able to do. He seems to be dissenting from St. Paul’s emphasis on “justification by faith,” worrying that it could weaken our ethical motivation.

If the good works that we do make no difference in whether we’re saved––because God is as gracious to sinners as s/he is to saints–– then what’s the point of working hard to do the right thing?

Like the workers in the vineyard, can’t we just show up at the last minute and receive the same wages as those suckers who spend the whole day sweating in the hot sun? (As if our own reward is the heart of the matter!)

Such a caricature, of course, does little justice to the nuanced reflections on faith and works by great thinkers like Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin. But still, in the end, it is fair to ask whether the whole debate is more a matter of language than substance. What do we mean by “faith,” or “justification,” or “salvation?” Without getting too far into the theological weeds, I’ll just say that such words, whatever their particular meanings, all signify a state of being tuned in to the divine way–– a condition shaped by and conformed to what James calls “the royal law”: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, the life of faith is the life of love, mirroring the eternal self-offering of the Holy Trinity in our own manner of living each and every day. When we no longer live for ourselves but for God, anxiety about whether we’re good enough is the last thing on our minds. When we surrender our lives to the Way, the Truth, and the Life, good works are simply who we are and what we do as Love’s chosen instruments.

Good works are not a means to an end, a way to glorify ourselves or earn heavenly rewards. They are simply what happens when God is in us and we are in God.
If you are a blazing fire, you give off heat and light.
If you are “Christ’s own for ever,” your actions are radiant with love and justice.

As Jesus put it, “Let your light so shine before others,
that they may see your good works and give the glory to God” (Mt. 5:16).

Jesus was speaking from experience. As St. Peter said in one of his sermons, “because God was with him, Jesus went about doing good and curing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). Today’s gospel, cramming multiple healings into two paragraphs, fits Peter’s concise description of Jesus as a man who went around doing good, a man in a hurry to repair the world.

Good works have been called the fruits of faith, because they make the inwardness of faith visiblein a way that others can see, and nourishingin a way that others can taste. “Good works are witnesses to the Christian faith,” said a fifth-century priest named Salvian, “because otherwise a Christian cannot demonstrate that he has that faith. If he cannot show it, it may as well becompletely nonexistent.” [i]

Where would the world be if we were all faith and no works? The hungry can’t eat our ideas. The vulnerable won’t get much protection from our “thoughts and prayers.” Intention without implementation is pretty useless, as James reminds us in his Epistle:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17).

There was once a man whose heart was so broken by all the pain and injustice in the world that he cried out in anger and despair, “O God, see how much your people suffer! See how much anguish and misery there is in the world! Why won’t you send some help?”

And God answered, “I did send help. I sent you.” [ii]

So where do we start? There’s a world of hurt out there. Can we make a difference? Scripture gives high priority to serving the poor, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, including the outcast, protecting the defenseless, tending the sick, visiting the prisoner, and guarding Creation. At a time when the exact opposite of all these things is being carried out by the highest levels of our government––with the enthusiastic approval of a shockingly high number of white Christians––we can become exhausted, if not despairing, just thinking about the immense labor of resisting evil and preserving the common good.

That’s when works need faith as much as faith needs works––faith that another power is at work here; faith that we aren’t doing it by ourselves. In fact, repairing the world is not a humanproject at all. God started that work, and God will finish it. Meanwhile, as God’s hands and feet in the world, we chip in as best we can for our brief span. Be not afraid. God is always out there ahead of us, hard at work.

God is out there in the attorneys fighting to protect and reunite the children and parents being separated and abused at our southern border. God is there in the faith communities offering protection and sanctuary to the victims of bigotry and racism. God is there in the striking prison inmates who refuse to be treated like animals. God is there marching in the streets against gun violence and environmental suicide.

Oh wait. Is this mixing religion and politics? Of course it is, because religion and politics have always been inseparable, if what you mean by politics is that people actually matter, and the common good actually matters. In a 1979 manifesto, activists Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson defined politics in what I would call religious terms:

“Politics is the way we live our lives. . . It is the way we treat each other, as individuals, as groups, as government. It is the way we treat our environment. It is the way we treat ourselves. Politics has to do with where we shop, what we eat, how we maintain our health. It has to do with the kinds of schools we create, the energy we use, the neighborhood organizations we build, the work we do. Politics involves our way of seeing the world, of developing our consciousness, of awakening our whole selves. It has to do with our attitudes, our values, our innermost dimensions.” [iii]

Of course, for many of us the work of repairing the world is relatively quiet and local most of the time. Random acts of kindness and so forth. As Wendell Berry says, “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling . . .” [iv]

A writer named Bob Libby gives a lovely example of this. He liked to go running at the beach, and whenever the tide was low he saw an old woman “walking along the shore in her white tennis shoes, floppy straw hat, and oversized print dress. She always carried a crumpled brown paper bag that matched the texture and color of her skin.”

Her name was Maggie, and she’d walk along with her head down, pausing occasionally to stoop over, pick something up, and examine it. Then she’d either toss it away or put it in her bag. Libby assumed she was collecting shells, but when he asked her about it one day, she said, “Not shells at all. Glass. Sharp glass. Cuts the feet. Surfers land on it. It sure ruins their summer.” [v]

It doesn’t take much to make the world better, does it? As John Wesley said,

Do all the good you can
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can. [vi]

I’ll leave you with one more story, a parable by Megan McKenna:

There was a woman who knew the world was falling apart. Every day the news made her more depressed. But one day, as she wandered sadly through her town, she had the impulse to step into a little shop she had never noticed before. To her surprise, standing behind the counter was Jesus! At least he looked like all the pictures she’d ever seen of him.

 So she went over and asked him, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?” “I am.” “Do you work here?” “No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.” “Oh. What do you sell in here?” “Just about anything!” “Anything?” “Yep, anything you want.” Jesus leaned forward. “What do you want?” “Um, I’m not really sure.” “Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

 So she did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. When she returned to the counter with her very long list, Jesus looked it over. Then he glanced at her with a smile and said, “No problem.”

 Then he bent down behind the counter, picked out a bunch of different small packets, and laid them out in front of her. “What are these?” she asked. “Seed packets,” Jesus said. “You take them home to plant, then you nurture them and help them to grow, and one day in the future there will be others to come and reap the harvest.”

“Oh,” she said. [vii]

 

 

 

[i] Thomas C. Oden, The Good Works Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2007), 336.

[ii] David Wolpe, Teaching Your Children About God, q. in Frederic & Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life (New York: Scribner, 1996), 317.

[iii] Ibid., 330. McLaughlin and Davidson were part of the New World Alliance, an idealistic project to create a “transformational politics.”

[iv] Wendell Berry, q. in Brussat, 341.

[v]Bob Libby, Grace Happens, q. in Brussat, 341-2.

[vi] q. in Brussat, 360-61.

[vii] Adapted from a story in Megan McKenna, Parables, q. in Brussat, 359. McKenna has the woman walk out without buying anything, like the rich young man who decided following Jesus was too hard. My wife, also a preacher, thought the congregation should be left with the woman’s final response still undecided. So I ended it with “Oh.” But I can’t help hearing the disappointment in her voice.

 

Mountains to Try Our Souls

The author in the North Cascades, August 2018.

For once I stood
In the white windy presence of eternity.

–– Eunice Tietjens, “The Most-Sacred Mountain”

 

For most of European history, people found little pleasure in mountain landscapes. Mountains were a nuisance––obstacles to travel and economically unproductive. And they had little value as scenery. Their artless, irregular shapes disturbed classical ideals of order. Christians of the Middle Ages would allegorize the chaos of wild wastes and broken stones as the unsightly rubbish of a fallen world––the postlapsarian antithesis of Eden’s gentle and harmonious garden. As late as the eighteenth century, travelers crossing the Alps drew the curtains of their carriages to prevent any upsetting glimpses of geological chaos.

Yet the theological mind has long been lured by the sacredness of mountains––the places where earth dares to reach for heaven, and the solidity of matter converses with clouds. Their alien, forbidding environment evokes the mysterium tremendum, that dangerous energy “beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.” [i]

Dante and Virgil as the foot of Mount Purgatory (after a 14th century illumination)

Dante’s Purgatorio provides the supreme western model of physical ascent as transformative spiritual pilgrimage. Its seven-story mountain offers neither picturesque scenery nor recreational adventure. It’s no place for the casual or careless visitor. It exists only as a rigorous ordeal of purgation and rebirth. Such mountains are best avoided unless you want to change your life.

In contrast, Dante’s Italian contemporary, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) left us a rare record of medieval mountain walking as an appreciative outing unburdened by excessive meaning. When he ascended Provence’s Mount Ventoux in the spring of 1336, he became “the first to climb a mountain for its own sake, and to enjoy the view from the top.” [ii] That may be a slight exaggeration, but Petrarch’s enthusiastic write-up of his day-hike does feel closer to Wordsworth than to Dante. He took pleasure in the nearness of drifting clouds and the distant vistas of snowy Alps and the Mediterranean blue.

Petrarch remained medieval when he reflected on the allegorical dimensions of his walk. “What thou hast repeatedly experienced to-day in the ascent of this mountain,” he told himself, “happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life.” And when he opened the copy of Augustine’s Confessions he always carried with him, the passage that caught his eye made him worry whether he had been enjoying the creation more than its Creator. If only he had brought Mary Oliver instead!

But still, the Italian humanist couldn’t really renounce the pleasure of that walk. “My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer,” he wrote. Centuries would pass before it became common practice to climb mountains simply because they are there, and embrace the experience as an invigorating challenge. [iii]

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Anglican theologian Thomas Burnet’s response to the Alps in 1671, we can foresee the emergence of a more modern sensibility. But it didn’t come easily. Still deeply imprinted with Europe’s cultural aversion to mountains as the “ruins of a broken earth” and “a dead heap of rubbish,” Burnet was appalled by the Alps’ “ghastliness,” disorder, deformity and lack of symmetrical balance. They threatened his understanding of God as the Great Architect whose glory shone in Creation’s meticulous design. “I was not easy,” he confessed, “till I could give my self some tolerable Account how that Confusion came in Nature.” [iv] But at the same time, he was unable to dismiss the Alps’ emotional impact.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson, in her classic study of the “aesthetics of the infinite,” describes the drama of Burnet’s fierce struggle between head and heart:

“Whenever we look among his passages on wild nature, we find conflict between intellectual condemnation of asymmetry and emotional response to the attraction of the vast. . . If Burnet could not forgive Nature for her confusion, he could not deny the effect of her vastness. . . The emotions he felt among the Alps were enthusiastic, primitive, and violent and as such repellent to a disciple of Reason.” [v]

Burnet tried to resolve his inner conflict by writing The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684), blaming Creation’s visual disarray on the Flood––and the human sin that caused it. The post-diluvian mess of mountains and other wastelands was therefore no failure of intelligent design. The Divine Architect was off the hook. Neat, but I suspect that the unnerving wildness of the Alps continued to haunt Burnet’s dreams.

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

By the eighteenth century, such lingering resistance to the sublime began to collapse. When poet Thomas Gray toured the Alps in 1739, he looked upon the same “magnificent rudeness” which had so disturbed Burnet, but he fell for it utterly. “You here meet with all the beauties so savage and horrid a place can present you with,” he wrote in his journal. Rocks, cascades, ancient forests “all concur to form one of the most poetical scenes imaginable.” [vi]

As if the ancient curse had been forever lifted, the mountains would become for nature lovers like John Muir an inexhaustible source of joy and blessing. “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” he wrote about his beloved Sierra in 1911, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” [vii]

But if the mountains can bring such joy, has their wild otherness been forever tamed? Those who climb say otherwise. My friend Robert Leonard Reid, an experienced mountaineer and one of my favorite writers, sees engagement with the high country as inherently spiritual:

“No sport that I know of has spawned a literature as introspective, as probing, or ultimately as religious as mountaineering. The sport causes climbers to experience unimaginable hardships and then, at the ends of their ropes, to plumb their souls for meaning. They emerge from their excursions to the edge of unknowing with insights into their spiritual natures that transcend the possibilities of mere sport. The literature is replete with tales of magic and mystery, of wild humor and terrible sadness and loss and then rebirth––all integral to the practice of climbing, all the result of protracted contact with the unseeable.” [viii]

 

Dante carried upward in a dream to Purgatory’s gate. (Gustave Dore)

I fell in love with mountains as a boy on family vacations at Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada range. There’s a 10,000’ peak above the lake, and the steep scramble to its summit was one of my favorite adventures. I’ve rambled the high country ever since, including Mt. Agazziz (13,899’), Mt. Rainier (14,411’), and Mt. Whitney (14,505’).

I am drawn to the way mountains mean. I sometimes carry a copy of Purgatorio in my backpack. It’s a perfect guide for the pilgrim who seeks “the mountain where Justice tries our souls” (Purg.iii.3).  And a holy mountain was the subject of my first film as writer/director. It was a Pilgrim’s Progress ascending through a series of obstacles, ordeals, distractions and temptations. As the climber nears the summit, a suave Satanic figure urges him to be reasonable and admit the folly of his spiritual ascent. In our disenchanted world, what does the search matter when there’s nothing really to find? [ix]

“The mountain of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb,” said Gregory of Nyssa.[x] He used the word epiktasis (“straining forward to what lies ahead”) to describe the goal of human life, in this world and the next, as the endless pursuit of God’s inexhaustible mystery. Never knowing what’s beyond us is the life of faith. It’s why we keep climbing.

When Moses summited Mount Sinai, he disappeared into the Cloud of Unknowing, the dazzling darkness of divine mystery. Whatever happened to the Hebrew prophet up there, the mountain itself became a foundational archetype for every spiritual ascent. The Arabic name for Mount Sinai is Jebel Musa, “Moses’ mountain.” Although not the tallest of the region’s peaks, its volcanic mass, “rearing its giant brow above the plain, as if in scornful contemplation of the world beneath,” proved a persuasive indicator of its biblical authenticity. [xi] Two millennia of Christian pilgrimage have further burnished its sanctity.

An English pilgrim’s description of its “savage grandeur” in 1885 speaks the language of the serious mountaineer: “The whole aspect of the surroundings impresses one with the conviction that he is here gazing on the face of Nature under one of her most savage forms, in view of which the idea of solitude, of waste, and of desolation connect with those of awe and admiration.” [xii]

There are more difficult ascents, but none more serious. St. Stephen, a 6thcentury monk at Sinai’s monastery of St. Catherine, would stand at the “Shrive Gate” where the 3000-step Stairway of Repentance began, posing to every aspiring climber the challenge of Psalm 24:

Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord?
Or who shall stand in God’s holy place?

You needed to make the correct response if you wanted to set foot on the holy mountain:

Those who have clean hands, and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
They shall receive blessing from the Lord,
and righteousness from the God of their salvation. [xiii]

I climbed Mt. Sinai in 1989, reciting the Jesus Prayer as my tired legs slogged up the final 750 steps: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” At the summit, I celebrated Holy Eucharist with a community of Anglican and Catholic pilgrims. I also managed to drop my binoculars off a precipitous ledge. I had to laugh at this unwilled offering to the mountain. Their untimely end seemed a fitting metaphor for the mystic’s loss of natural sight in the presence of the holy

When I climbed Mt. Whitney nine years later, there would be a sudden burst of sunshine to brighten the cloud-shadowed summit, followed quickly by lightning and snow. But Mount Sinai provided no comparable display of power and might. Whatever the mountain of God wanted to tell me, it whispered in an unknown tongue. When I returned to the world below, this is what I set down in my journal:

Egeria, that talkative 4th century pilgrim to the Holy Land, is strangely mute about her experience on Mount Sinai. “Now that we had done all we wanted,” she wrote, “and climbed the summit of the mountain of God, we began the descent.” We have to wonder: what happened to her at the top? We long for a more eloquent reporter, perhaps a John of the Cross, who could write of his own spiritual progress,

 “The steeper upward that I flew on so vertiginous a quest,
the humbler and more lowly grew my spirit,
fainting in my breast.”

And what did experience at the summit? Hmm––Egeria was right. You can’t talk about it. Whatever I felt is irrelevant. The mountain is not about me; it pays no attention to my comings and goings. And whether such sublime indifference is a matter of annihilation or splendor is the question over which faith hangs suspended. [xiv]

Perhaps silence is the best homage we can offer our holy mountains. What is most valuable can never be possessed. What is most real can never be fully seen. Louis Golding makes the point perfectly in his 1937 account, “I Stood Upon Sinai”:

“I found I had got to the top of Gebel Musa, a grand mountain commanding grand views, but not to the top of Mount Sinai. For the Holy Mountain is a spiritual, not a physical experience. Few men have ever reached the summit, and few will get there again. Perhaps it is only when the Mountain is veiled round with impenetrable cloud, that the Mountain begins to be visible at all.” [xv]

 

The author on the summit of Mount Sinai, 1989.

 

Related Post: “Every common bush afire with God”

[i]Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy(1923), 28.

[ii]Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art(1949), 23.

[iii]You can read The Ascent of Mount Ventouxhere: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/petrarch-ventoux.asp

[iv]q. in Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959/1997), 207.

[v]Ibid., 213, 215, 220.

[vi]Ibid., 356.

[vii]John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra.

[viii]Robert Leonard Reid, “The Mountain of Love and Death” in Mountains of the Great Blue Dream(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 15-16. Reid’s writing about the high country is full of wit and wonder. His latest collection of writings, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West,just came out in paperback.

[ix]Ignatz(1972) is not currently available, but I’m working on it. I took the protagonist’s name from the mouse in Krazy Kat comics, with a simultaneous nod to Ignatian spirituality and the German term for a holy fool. The blockhead game played by the man in black references Death’s chess game in Bergman’s Seventh Seal.

[x]Life of Mosesii.46, in Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 106.

[xi]Edward Palmer in 1871, q. in Mount Sinai, Joseph J. Hobbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 100.

[xii]Edward Hull, in Hobbs, 123-24.

[xiii]Hobbs, 234.

[xiv]Personal journal, May 12, 1989.

[xv]Geographical Magazine6 (1937), q. in Hobbs, 239-40.

The Names of God

Emperor Constantine and bishops holding the Nicene Creed.

Many years ago, on the slopes of Mt. Sinai, I met a monk from the Orthodox monastery at the foot of the mountain. Michael was a young American, but he rebuffed my curiosity about his journey from a Pennsylvania childhood to an ascetic community in the Egyptian wasteland. “A monk’s past is meaningless,” he said brusquely. Embracing the desert spirituality of renunciations, he had little patience for the inessential. He was terse, acerbic, and opinionated, as harsh and unyielding as the landscape. I was intimidated by this strange and demanding figure. My own thoughts and questions began to seem weightless and trivial in the face of such passionate certainty.

Michael reassured me that Anglicans were his favorite schismatics, but our novelties and lack of theological rigor were clearly not up to his standards. “We do have the Nicene Creed in common,” I said, trying to find a point of agreement. “We recite it in the Sunday liturgy.” I was wrong about that, Michael insisted. Since we use the western aberration of the Filioque clause, we are not really saying the Nicene Creed, but only a defective imitation of it.[i]

In an ecumenical spirit, I said I was happy to defer to the eastern Church on the matter of the Filioque. “Not the eastern Church,” Michael shot back. “It’s the undivided universal Church.” He was fond of absolutes. But what did I expect to find in the wilderness––comfortable small talk?

I thought of Michael last Sunday when I experimented with the creed at an outdoor eucharist on the shore of Puget Sound. We wanted to minimize the use of printed texts, so that the people could keep their eyes on their surroundings rather than the pages of a bulletin. That was easy in the case of repeated chants or choruses, but reciting a long text like the Nicene Creed posed a challenge.

Summary statements of the faith have been a part of Christian practice from the beginning. We are bound together by a shared story and shared understandings. St. Paul proposed a creed of exemplary brevity: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will find salvation” (Romans 10:9). Over the ensuing several centuries, creeds would grow longer and more controversial. The more they tried to say about the mysteries of faith, the more they became subject to critical scrutiny and debate.

Although the liturgical use of creeds remains obscure in its origins, making common declarations of belief eventually came to seem a natural function of the worship assembly as a way of self-definition and communal bonding: “This is why we’re here. This is the story and the reality we belong to.”

Even though individual worshippers may quibble about language and terminology, or differ in their precise understandings of creedal formulations, the fact that we recite a creed together is perhaps more important than its content. What we say about our faith certainly does matter, but unanimous agreement about mysteries beyond all human knowing is not what binds us together. Faith is more relational than propositional. As the Byzantine preface to the Nicene Creed puts it:

So, brothers and sisters, while we have time,
let us love one another,
that we may with one heart and mind
confess our faith.

My concept for the creed in the beach liturgy was to have the assembly chant, slowly and repeatedly, the first words of the Nicene Creed: Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God). Over this unifying sonic ground a cantor would utter a diverse series of words and phrases expressing the names, attributes and activities of the Holy Trinity.

In one sense, the attempt was pure folly. The God greater than anything we can conceive cannot be captured in language. As the Tao says, “One who knows does not speak. One who speaks does not know.” But God, however hidden, wants to be known. God reveals. God addresses. God responds. And we in turn make our “raid on the inarticulate, / with shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.”[i]

Creeds are communal work, hammered out in conversations and councils over time. And I, writing in my study, am no Nicaea. But there is still a certain collectivity in my Credo, a diversity of voices either consciously borrowed or lodged deep within me from forgotten sources. You will hear the Bible and Nicene Creed, Augustine, Bonaventure, Henry Vaughan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Eberhard Jungel, Dorothee Soelle, John Bell, Terrence Malick and others. You may wish to differ, delete or add. Consider it a work in progress. Your reactions and reflections are welcome.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God,” several American computer scientists are hired by a Tibetan monastery to program a computer that will speed up the spiritual labor of listing every one of the divine names. It’s a huge number, but the computers can make it happen in a matter of weeks.

‘Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names – and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them – God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.’

‘Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?’

‘There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up … bingo!’

‘Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world.’

Chuck gave a nervous little laugh.‘That’s just what I said to Sam. And do you know what happened? He looked at me in a very queer way, like I’d been stupid in class, and said, “It’s nothing as trivial as that.”’

Clarke’s story ends with the scientists fleeing the monastery in the dark, just before the computers list the nine-billionth name. Dismissive of the “superstitious” beliefs behind the project, they were afraid the monks would blame them when the world failed to end as predicted. As they hurry down the mountain, one of them happens to look up. “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

Well, for better or worse, I list my tentative and infinitely incomplete “names of God” below. Brother Michael of Sinai would undoubtedly disapprove. But I am not presuming to supplant the Nicene Creed. I only want to explore the possibilities––and the boundaries––of Christian language in liturgical and poetic forms. How can we make the naming of God a prayerful, contemplative and formative experience in a communal setting? What words take us deeper into the Mystery? Do any of them go astray, or have an expiration date when they become no longer fruitful? How do we recognize and welcome the divine names yet to be revealed?

 

Credo in unum Deum

Holy and eternal God, without beginning or end,
Beauty so ancient and so new,
Source of all that exists and the ground of all possibility.

Hidden yet revealed, author of life and mender of destinies,
desire of every heart, the meaning of every story.

Mystery of the world, fount of our being,
inexhaustible and overflowing, grace abounding.

Constant and just, wiser than despair,
the joyful Yes negating all nothingness.

The great I am, beyond all knowing,
the Unnamable whose names are many:
Creator, Sustainer, Pardoner, Gift-giver,
Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, Truth, Faithfulness, Blessing,
Alpha and Omega, Ruler of time and history, ineffable and untamable Spirit.

Eloquent silence, dazzling darkness, blinding radiance,
so far beyond us and yet so deep within us,
in whom we live and move and have our being.

Abba, Amma, Father and Mother of us all: personal, relational, intimate;
Love who loves us,
our true home.

+

Jesus Christ, the Given One, eternally begotten of God,
who by the power of the Holy Spirit
became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
fully human and fully divine,
Word made flesh, living and dying as one of us,
that we might see and know
the self-diffusive love of God,
and at the same time
realize the full and perfected form of our humanity.

As God’s icon, the face of love for us,
Jesus renounced privilege and power,
living without weapons or self-protection,
giving himself away for the sake of others:
servant and sufferer, healer and helper,
shepherd and Savior, repairer of this broken world.

Handed over to the enemies of life,
Jesus died on the cross.
But on the third day he rose again,
breaking the power of death,
opening the way for us
to live in God forever.

+

Holy Spirit, Love’s consuming flame,
the eager, wild wind of divine surprise:

Quickening power, creative energy, inner light,
dearest freshness deep down things,
the strong force of love drawing all things into holy communion.

Life-Giver, Sustainer, Sanctifier, Counselor, Comforter, Awakener,
disturber of the peace, tender bond of affection,
voice of the voiceless, empowering fire of prophetic imagination,
the breath in every prayer, the longing in every heart.

+

Holy and undivided Trinity,
your catholic and apostolic Church belongs to you alone.
We give thanks for the renewing power of our baptism,
marking us as Christ’s own forever, forgiven and free.
And we pray that we may always live in the light of resurrection,
with steadfast hope for the glory to come.

May the faith we confess in this place
be made known in the lives we lead and the choices we make.

Amen!

 

 

 

 

 

[i]Filioque(“and the Son”) was added to the words, “who proceeds from the Father” in describing the “procession” (the movement of self-giving and receiving among the persons of the Holy Trinity––it’s complicated!) with respect to the Holy Spirit. The original Nicene Creed names the Father as the sole source of the Spirit’s procession, but “Filioque”––making the Son a partner in the Spirit’s procession––was later added to the text by the Western Church, creating a major source of conflict with the Eastern Church which continues to this day. The first draft of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer of 1979 tried to drop the Filioqueclause as a gesture of Christian unity with the East, but traditionalists voted it back in (later conventions have signaled the intention to omit it from any futurePrayer Book). I was present for that debate at the 1976 General Convention, which seemed more orderly and polite than what I’ve heard about the Council of Nicaea! My own practice is to omit the clause when I say the Creed. I guess I still haven’t gotten over that conversation with Br. Michael.

[ii]T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets,

Sacred Dance: Training for Blessedness

The heavenly dance in Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment (c. 1425)

Dancing is like a beautiful garment, a garment in which the Spirit moves and delights…When we dance we can recognize our own beauty…and with all creation simply be, thus spontaneously praising the Lord. To dance is to know we are chosen…responding with a human soul to God’s chosen time.

–– Carla De Sola

In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will lead the chorus of the righteous…and they will dance around Him…and point to Him, as it were with a finger, saying, This is God, our God forever and ever; God will lead us…with youthfulness, with liveliness.”

–– Jewish Midrash

 

It’s a rare Sunday when we get two Lectionary readings about dance, a subject we rarely discuss in church, and almost never engage in. In one reading, dance seems a good thing, a spirited form of prayer. In the other, it is a bad thing, tainted with sex and murder.

In the passage from II Samuel, King David and his huge crowd of supporters make a grand procession to bring the ark of God, the potent symbol of divine presence, into the city of Jerusalem.

The ark, a gilded wooden chest, had been carefully constructed in the Sinai desert soon after the Exodus. As a sign that God was always with them, it accompanied the Israelites during their long years of wandering in the wilderness. Then, after they finally reached the Promised Land, the ark was captured by the Philistines. The Israelites eventually got it back, but there were still more adventures and delays before the sacred symbol could finally come to rest in the holy city.

But when the day of its triumphal entry finally came, we might have expected an orderly, dignified parade to signify the solemn meaning of this moment. But the Bible tells us that King David and thirty thousand others danced before the ark as it approached the city. They danced “with all their might” (that is to say, without any inhibitions––it seems that David flung away most of his clothes). They cheered and shouted at the top of their lungs while trumpets, lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals made a deafening racket. It was more like a Seahawks game than a religious procession.

The narrator doesn’t exactly tell us what to think about all this mayhem, but he does give us a brief glimpse through the eyes of Michal, daughter of David’s predecessor and now David’s wife. In a very cinematic way, the story cuts from a wide angle shot of the procession to a close shot of a high window, where a solitary woman is looking out on all the commotion:

As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart (II Samuel 6:16).

Anyone who has danced in church can probably visualize the scorn on Michal’s face, because they themselves have seen that look. It’s the look of someone who knows what belongs in church and what doesn’t, the look of someone who is thinking, “Liturgical dance is not edifying to the Lord.”

While literature, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture have long had honored roles in Christian worship, dance, more often than not, has been regarded with suspicion or hostility.

In the sixteenth century, Catholic priests were threatened with excommunication if they led dances in church, while the dour Presbyterian John Knox blasted the practice of “fiddling and flinging” in the place of holy reading and holy listening. “The reward of dancers,” he said, “will be to drink in hell.”

Five centuries later, the hostility persists in many quarters. If you Google “liturgical dance,” you will find no lack of naysayers. An evangelical complaining about the phenomenon of “praise dancing” is typical:

Looking at people dancing to [a recording] with fake emotions does nothing but take up time. Church is . . . not a Broadway Show. At church people are coming to get delivered from evil spirits. And all this fakery is getting real pagan. Grown men and boys are now dancing too!

And a Catholic priest, feeling ambushed by the unexpected inclusion of dancers at a diocesan mass, called their contamination of the holy mysteries “an act of spiritual and liturgical terrorism.” [1]

Wow. Really? What has dance done to prompt so much attitude?

“Dance in the Liturgy,” a Vatican advisory published in 1975, acknowledged that in some non-Western cultures dance still retains a religious connotation, and may therefore be appropriate for liturgy. But in the West, the union of dance and religion has long been severed:

“Here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure. For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations”. 

Is “an atmosphere of profaneness” unavoidable wherever there is dancing? It’s always a risk, I suppose. Can we watch dance, or engage in dance, without having our intentions of prayer and praise overwhelmed by more carnal responses? In my experience, yes we can.

Today’s other dance reading is the gospel story of Salome dancing for Herod (Mark 6:14-29), sometimes cited half-jokingly as Scriptural support for the anti-dance crowd. See what happens when people start to dance? Things get out of control. This nasty little tale epitomizes the commodification of bodies and the steamy side of dance, what some regard as the inevitable side effects of bodies in motion. To them sacred dance is an oxymoron.

But if our secular consumer society, so impoverished in its collective rituals, has left people ill-equipped to dance for God––and with God––do we just concede the game to the culture and abandon the practice? Or should we endeavor to create occasions where people can recover and nurture the innate human capacity not just to dance, but to let the divine dance in us? In the quaint phrasing of his 1948 reflection on the attentive performance of the mass, Catholic priest Ronald Knox admitted that such aspirations would be nonsense if “what you mean by a dance is the wireless in the hall playing revolting stuff and you lounging round in pairs and feeling all gooey.” [2]

Whatever our anxieties and discomforts about our bodies and others’ bodies and the sexually charged atmosphere of our culture, we need to get over it, or else we will lose one of the best and truest dimensions of embodied life: the ability to offer our whole selves––body, mind, soul and heart––to God, and to feel God’s pleasure in the joy of our sensory lives.

In his classic study of the holy in art, Gerardus van der Leeuw found in the Sufi practice of whirling and bowing a beautiful example of embodied prayer which leaves the anxieties of self behind:

“The dervishes dance until they have forgotten everything. Earthly, bodily life is discarded, blown away. Dancing is not a secular pastime, but training for blessedness. In ecstasy, the body becomes light and the chains of the soul loosened.” [3]

Movement is the world’s most ancient language. The universe itself is a dance of movement and countermovement. God moved over the sea of chaos, and the universe was set into perpetual motion. Earth dances with heaven, finitude dances with the infinite, death dances with life, human dances with divine. Move and countermove. Call and response. When we move our bodies in rhythmic and patterned ways, we mirror the dance of Love that moves the sun and stars, and we echo the angelic dance around the throne of God, whose own inmost nature is a dance of selfless give-and-take among the triune persons.

The Psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands, the mountains dance, the hills skip like lambs. Or as van der Leeuw puts it, “Everything spins and circles, everything leaps to the rhythm of the universe.”[4] Life is motion, and to live it is to dance. Our only choice is to do it well or do it badly.

Who understands the exalted dance,
The bowing, bending, waiting stance,
The spinning round forever?
The mincing pace, the whirling space,
The flight that ceases never?

For love may stop, and love may hop,
And love may sing, and love may spring,
And love may rest in loving,
And love may sleep, and love may leap;
What mind can follow, proving? [5]

 

 

Related post: God is a dance we do

 

[1]Quoted in Heidi Schlumpf, “In Defense of Liturgical Dance,” National Catholic Reporteronline, April 14, 2017 (https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/defense-liturgical-dance).

[2]Ronald Knox, The Mass in Slow Motion(New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948), 3.

[3]Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, trans. David E. Green (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1963), 62.

[4]Ibid., 28.

[5]Ibid., 31.Attributed to Sister Bertke of Utrecht, a medieval recluse, whose tiny cell left her little room to move, much less dance. Perhaps her cramped quarters inspired her vision of the soul’s dance with God.

 

All Is Grace: The Spiritual Cinema of “First Reformed”

Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”

“Oh my Lord, when will you cease from scattering obstacles in our path?”
“Do not complain, my daughter. This is how I treat my friends.”
“Yes, my Lord, and that is why you have so few of them.”

–– Attributed to St. Teresa of Avila

 

Many of God’s friends have known the dark night of divine absence, when God falls silent and faith loses touch with an answering Presence. Some have understood this as a form of progress, a necessary purgation of comfortable words, images, concepts and feelings as the questing soul goes deeper and deeper into an ungraspable Mystery. Others have experienced God’s silence as nothing but nothingness, a one-way ticket into the void. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Paul Schrader’s harrowing new film, First Reformed, traverses this abyss with an intelligence and seriousness all too rare in American films about religion. The life of faith is easy to satirize, trivialize or sentimentalize in popular culture, but Schrader treats it as a subject of critical import. And in so doing, his film attempts to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn.”[i]

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the middle-aged pastor of an old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The 250-year-old white colonial structure has an interesting history, but its days of relevance are long gone. Almost no one attends Sunday worship, and the building only stays open through the sponsorship of a nearby megachurch, which preserves it as a kind of museum. Tourists stop by now and then for souvenirs, and Toller’s job is to hang around and lend some authenticity to the place, like the costumed actors who re-create the past at popular historic sites.

Toller, however, is an ordained minister with a serious vocation. He conducts real worship and counsels his tiny flock. So the inescapable sense of play-acting in a museum is demeaning and demoralizing. His humiliation will be recognizable to all those clergy and congregations left behind by a culture where the biblical God has been rendered harmless––or even unthinkable.

Toller, whose very name suggests loss and mourning, lives a lonely, solitary life in a house of monastic bareness. His marriage fell apart long ago, after the death of his son in Iraq. His health is failing, and he is depressed. Prayer comes hard for him, and doubt is his constant companion. His life is a desert with no rain in the forecast.

A spiritual director once told me in a time of personal crisis, “Congratulations! You’re exactly where you need to be––fallen overboard into a raging sea.” John Donne said the same thing with seventeenth-century elegance: “No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.”[ii]

Such a rigorous spirituality may never pack the churches, but it is intriguing that First Reformed has struck a chord with critics and audiences alike. Perhaps this is due to its demanding seriousness, so refreshingly alien to the self-congratulatory spirituality of our time. We grow weary of trivia. We want to fall for something that matters so absolutely.

Half a century ago, Paul Schrader wrote a book which had a major impact on film studies. Transcendental Style in Film opened many eyes, including mine, to a different kind of cinema, in which the sacred is expressed not through psychological realism but through a film style fraught with renunciations. No expressive or self-conscious acting presuming to explain the mystery of human beings. No fancy camerawork interpreting a scene or manipulating an audience. A withholding of many of the emotional satisfactions which moviegoers have come to expect. Transcendental cinema, in Schrader’s view, doesn’t just represent religious experience. It creates it in the viewer.

“Transcendental style,” he concluded, “can bring us nearer to that silence, that invisible image, in which the parallel lines of religion and art meet and interpenetrate.”[iii]

Schrader was raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist home. Movie-going was forbidden in his childhood. But he eventually fled the constricting faith of his ancestors and, like the Prodigal Son, lived in the distant country of movies saturated with violent themes and forbidden pleasures. He also worked on the script for The Last Temptation of Christ. Some of his films, like American Gigolo, revisited the spiritual terrain of his seminal book, but First Reformed, made in his early seventies, is Schrader’s most explicit homage to transcendental cinema, and especially to the work of my favorite director, Robert Bresson, who once said, “No art without transformation.”[iv]

First Reformed strongly echoes Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950) in many ways: a pastor in crisis who keeps a journal and speaks it in voice-over; a worrisome stomach ailment; a bleak environment––claustrophobic and without exit; a barren and unanswered prayer life; a heavy dark cloak as metonymy for his sense of confinement; the suicide by shotgun of a parishioner in despair; and long silences begging for divine presence. Schrader’s Bressonesque film style––the constraining “Academy” film ratio (1.37:1) instead of the expansiveness of wide screen, an austere minimizing of music and camera movement, the cold factuality of interior spaces begging for the miracle of life and breath––also tells a story. As Susan Sontag once remarked of Bresson, his form does not merely perfectly express what he wants to say. “It is what he wants to say.”[v]

Schrader’s writing in Transcendental Style about the three forms of alienation in Bresson’s film reads like a template for First Reformed:

  • The priest and his afflcted body: “He feels himself condemned by the weight he must bear, and associates his agony with the sacrificial agony of Christ.”
  • The priest and his parish: “The priest’s agony alienates his community, and it is an agony which he seems unable to control.”
  • The priest and the fallen world: “The priest is unable to cope with the world of sin, either in himself or others. . . He is able to bring peace to others, yet has none himself . . . His holy agony allows him none of the temporal means of release which Church, society, and body provide.”[vi]

But there are also some crucial differences between the two films. The priest’s only diet is bread and wine, identifying the priest’s suffering with the eucharist. The pastor substitutes whiskey for wine, and pours in some Pepto-Bismol to boot, creating a nauseous parody bereft of holy resonance.

The priest is young, innocent and virginal, without a haunting past. The pastor is middle-aged, burned out by an excess of experience, and carrying a burden of grief and loss unknown to the young. Their contrasting faces read like different languages. Claude Laydu, a non-actor whose face suggests an inner life attuned to divine secrets, has the expressive eyes and hieratic features of an icon. When he gazes offscreen, it seems possible he could be glimpsing the hidden God. Hawke’s face is creased, tired, tense and unexpectant; his narrowed eyes give off no light.

Claude Laydu, Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed (2018)

Both men identify with the Passion of Christ. Toller’s boss, a megachurch pastor practiced at compromise, tells him, “You’re always in the garden [of Gethsemane]. Jesus wasn’t always in the garden, sweating blood. He was on the mountain, in the marketplace, and the Temple. . . But for you, every hour is the darkest hour.”

In Bresson, the priest writes in his journal, “I am a prisoner of the Holy Agony,” and the film mirrors the Stations of the Cross. But Toller seems unable to turn his personal anguish into gift, while Bresson’s priest, though suffering inwardly and rejected by many, manages to make an immense difference in the lives of some:

Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.[vii]

First Reformed also draws key elements from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, described by Robin Wood as a “spiritual documentary” where “alienation from the past, from the traditional beliefs and customs that formed the basis of a way of life” has left church and village stranded “between two worlds, belonging to neither, bewildered and unfulfilled.”[viii] Its Swedish Lutheran parish is as much a relic of a vanished age as Toller’s “souvenir church.”

Bergman’s aging Lutheran pastor, Tomas (the name of Jesus’ doubting disciple), is also in a crisis of faith. He recites the liturgy without conviction, and his pastoral counsel has a patently empty ring. When a parishioner confesses his despair over the prospect of nuclear war (the film was made in 1962), the pastor tells him, “We must trust God.” But then he averts his eyes from the man’s gaze, a “tell” that betrays his own unbelief. After receiving such impotent counsel, the parishioner goes down to the river and shoots himself. Virtually the same incident occurs in First Reformed, but instead of nuclear winter, climate change is the engine of despair. Sickened by statistical forecasts of environmental collapse, a young activist finds no comfort in Toller’s citations from Thomas Merton on facing the abyss with courage. The activist goes out and shoots himself in a snowy wood.

Another element Schrader seems to have borrowed from Winter Light is the character of Karin, the caring woman who wants to mother the troubled pastor. The audience audibly winces when the pastor of First Reformed responds to the woman’s kindness by saying, “I despise you!” But on reflection this seems not just an inability to receive affection, but a way of saying, “This is not that kind of movie. My sickness unto death will not be cured by a romantic cliche.”

In Bergman’s film, Tomas goes even further. In what Wood calls one of the “most painful and ugly . . . in all cinema,” Tomas annihilates Karin’s illusions about their relationship. But strangely, the terrible honesty of this exchange, along with his confession of religious disillusionment in a previous scene, seems to open the possibility for an unexpected grace in which each may discover a kind of salvation in human relationships which an exhausted orthodoxy can no longer provide.

Though Tomas has lost his faith, the film ends with him at the altar, speaking the old words of praise because that’s the only language he possesses for whatever, if anything, is beyond him: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are filled with your glory.” The nave is even emptier than the one in First Reformed––only Karin and the sexton. But we see Karin, who is an atheist, listening with the utmost attention. “[T]he irony is very beautiful and touching, the disillusioned priest celebrating Vespers for the confirmed atheist, a sort of inexplicit communion between them.”[ix]

Although neither they, nor Bergman himself, have been able to retain the language or vision of inherited belief, the eyes of faith might still perceive in the ending of Winter Light (its Swedish title is The Communicants) a hint of the communion which God never stops desiring, no matter what the rest of us manage to believe.

As the poet Christian Wiman suggests,

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.[x]

Or as Natalie Carnes puts it in her intriguing new book, Image and Presence, the iconoclasm of the cross ensures that the death of old words and images does not mean the death of the Reality behind them. “The cross breaks the brokenness, the violence of idolatry. It breaks brokenness to proclaim the ubiquity of God’s love. It identifies the way God is present in a special way, a riven and riving way, to those suffering divine absence. It courses through the cosmos, which takes its shape, displaying the broken center of all things.”[xi]

The ending for Bresson’s priest, in contrast, remains firmly within the language of Christian orthodoxy. Having passed through his dark night of doubt, and resigning himself to premature death from cancer, he dies in peace. His last words, spoken to comfort a doubting friend, is the best summary I know of the Christian faith:

“What does it matter? All is grace.”

The ending of First Reformed, however, is nothing like the country priest’s trusting departure from this world, nor does it settle for the potential beatitude of purely human relationships suggested by Winter Light. Something extraordinary and redemptive seems to happen in its enigmatic conclusion, but no one can say exactly what. Everybody I know who has watched the film asks the same question: What did you think about that ending?

Its highly charged mix of image, symbol, physicality and feeling resists any closure, and Schrader himself has rightly refused to explain it. Critics have applied words like “epiphany” and “catharsis” to the final scene, but have generally avoided discussing it. This reticence respects the viewer’s right to see for oneself, but it also suggests that none of us are sure what to make of it. I share that sense of indecidability regarding the climax, but can’t help thinking about it.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film yet, read no further until you do.]

While most of the film has been inspired by Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light, the ending shares an affinity with a third film, Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). For most of that film, the protagonist, Michel, is locked within the prison of his ego, unable to connect with reality beyond the self. Unable to love. In the final scene, he is locked in an actual prison cell. Jeanne, a woman he knows in an unromantic way, comes to visit him. The film has so far given us little reason to think there is, or may be, a deep connection between these two. But in a famous ending that seems sudden, unexpected, and unmotivated, she reaches out to him, and he responds to Love at last. “Oh Jeanne,” he says, “what a strange path I had to take to reach you.”[xii]

The ending of First Reformed, like the ending of Pickpocket, is a powerful image of surprising and unmerited grace. Jean Collet’s reflection on Bresson’s climactic prison scene could describe Schrader’s ending as well: “If this final illumination was caused by some necessity of plot, we would no longer be required to speak of grace. By definition grace is that which is free of any necessity, and hence gratuitous. Isn’t that enough to make the conversion of Michel not appear improbable?”[xiii]

In the course of First Reformed, Toller shifts the focus of his spiritual struggle from his own inwardness to the fate of an earth in dire peril. In a prickly conversation with Edward Balq, the church’s financial patron but also a notorious polluter, he is warned by the conscience-free entrepreneur to keep politics out of church. Clergy should not meddle in public issues. And environmental concerns are too complicated to be subject to moral judgments. But Toller rebukes him with a simple but convicting question:

“Will God forgive us?”

As Toller goes on to ponder the immensity of the stakes, he comes to decide that Balq, as a servant of darkness, must be killed in an act of prophetic terrorism. This horrifying turn of mind threatens to lose the sympathetic viewer. As we watch this decision unfold, we are thinking, “Don’t go there!”

Balq’s arrival at the church’s 250th anniversary celebration provides the perfect opportunity. Vesting for the ceremony in the rectory next door, Toller puts on a suicide vest beneath his black robe as we hear him, in voice over, reciting Ephesians 9:11-12:

Put on the whole armor of God,
so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

In Toller’s troubled mind, the cosmic powers of darkness are sitting in a pew next door. But the viewer is appalled by the pastor’s descent into madness. However evil the acts of men like Balq, equating a suicide vest with the armor of God is abhorrent and wrong.

When Toller learns that Mary, the pregnant widow of the dead activist, is inside the church as well, he abruptly scraps his apocalyptic mission. Her life means more to him than his terrible burden of wrath. And her unborn child, like the child of the Nativity, signifies hope for the human future in a fallen world. To put that at risk would be the greater sin.

But he still feels compelled to make a dramatic self-sacrificial gesture, turning the violence against himself. His vocation is in tatters, he will probably die of cancer, and the end of humanity may be drawing near. He had once warned the activist about the pride of a certitude that surrenders hope in the face of despair. Now he himself has become a prisoner of that fatal arrogance, confusing his own suffering with Christ’s. He prepares to make his own body a signifier of planetary suicide.

He replaces the suicide vest with a coil of barbed wire, wrapping it painfully around his torso in parodic imitation of the crown of thorns. Then he covers his bleeding body with a Christ-like white robe––a vivid image of the paradoxical tension between the Christ of glory and the broken and desolate Christ on the edge of oblivion. But just before Toller can take his own life with a toxic glass of drain cleaner (a grotesque symbol of baptismal cleansing?), he looks up to see Mary, standing quietly on the other side of the unfurnished empty space of his living room. When did she enter? Why has she come?

“Ernst,” she says. It is the first time we have heard anyone speak his baptismal name. He’s always been addressed as “Reverend Toller.” But now, like Magdalene weeping at the tomb, he hears his name called by the tender voice of his “savior,” summoning him back from the dead. Without any hesitation, he sweeps across the room into her arms. As they embrace and kiss with unrestrained intensity, the camera, so still and quiet throughout most of the film, suddenly comes to life, circling round and round this miracle of redemptive love, like angelic praises whirling around the throne of God.

This breathtaking perichoresis [xiv] continues without ceasing for a full minute, until it abruptly vanishes in a startling cut to darkness and silence. No lingering fadeout, just this sudden absence. Over the next bewildering 8 seconds, the viewer wonders whether the projector has broken. But then, the credits begin to scroll across the blackness, accompanied by the same low-pitched waves of mournful sound heard in the film’s bleak passages of environmental dread, as if to resist any presumptions of “happily ever after.” We may have glimpsed for a moment the miracle of saving love at the heart of the universe, but our fallen world still yearns in the dark.

To me the last scene felt like something more than the natural outcome of the affinity we saw building between Ernst and Mary after her husband’s death. Reducing their union to a formula of movie romance would fail to perform the revelatory transit from the visible to the invisible. Schrader wants to give us more than a warm, familiar feeling. He wants to deliver the Wholly Other, who will not be contained by language or understanding.

So Mary, pregnant with future, provides a surplus of meanings as she offers Ernst––and the receptive viewer––the divine embrace in all its forms: grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, healing, hope, joy and the mystery of self-diffusive love. Its very unexpectedness is a sign of its sacred character. It is not something of our own making. It is pure gift.

The essential function of spiritual cinema is not to structure a plausible narrative confined to the world we know, but to use the means of its form to create an experience of the life-giving sacred in the viewer’s inmost self. So whether Mary is the divine feminine, Dante’s Beatrice, an angel, a dream, Toller’s long-lost soul, or simply another one of God’s human children trying to connect, what does it matter?

All is grace.

 

 

 

Related postThe Ten Best Religious Films

 

[i] From “Brownsville Girl,” a song by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard on Bob Dylan: Knocked Out Loaded (1986). “How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh / “We’re going all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn / Till the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies” / Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”

[ii] Devotions lxxxvii 17, q. in Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 164.

[iii] Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 169.

[iv] Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), 5.

[v] Susan Sontag, “The Spiritual Style of Robert Bresson,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1966), 180.

[vi] Transcendental Style, 73, 75.

[vii] In the film, the priest speaks these words in voice over as we see him kneel by the deathbed of a woman for whom he had been a vehicle of miraculous grace.

[viii] Robin Wood, Ingmar Bergman (New York: Praeger, 1970), 111.

[ix] Ibid., 122-23.

[x] Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing,” in his collection of the same name (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 24.

[xi] Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 113.

[xii] Schrader uses this line verbatim, and recreates the essence of Bresson’s scene, in his own film, American Gigolo (1980).

[xiii] Jean Collet, q. in Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (New York: Continuum, 2003), 82.

[xiv] This Greek word for “dancing in a circular pattern” has long been used to describe the ceaseless movement of interpenetrating, self-diffusive love which is the Holy Trinity. Schrader’s image may be more carnal than most theology is used to, but that’s the price of the Incarnation!

When Love is the Way

Magnus Zeller, The Orator, Germany c. 1920 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The Episcopal “Daily Office” provides prayers and Scripture for various times of day. Derived from medieval monastic liturgies, the practice of hallowing the beginning, middle and end of our days with both corporate and private prayer can offer refuge and refreshment, lifting us out of the relentless rush of time to remember what it’s all about and deepen our connection with the holy One, who is our Source, our Companion, and our End.

This venerable prayer practice is not an escape from the world, but a way of attending to it with clearer vision. Thus the Daily Office offers challenge as well as comfort. The God of history will not let us ingore the calamity and suffering wrought by what the original Book of Common Prayer called “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Sometimes the biblical readings seem ripped from the headlines, like this week’s Wednesday reading from Proverbs:

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.[i]

I have to confess that in the midst of my prayer time I succumbed to uncharitable amusement when I read these words. They describe the American president––and his corrupt and cruel minions––so perfectly! But neither righteous outrage nor satirical jesting––and certainly not any presumption of our own goodness––will deliver us from the menace of these times.

Of course we must take sides against the malicious designs of evil tyrants in order to defend the vulnerable and preserve the common good. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded my generation of theology students, trying to keep one’s own hands clean in a dirty conflict can be a form of capitulation. Sometimes our innocence must be sacrificed in the historical struggle for a better world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this when he joined the plot against Hitler.

But engaging the powers of darkness solely on their own terms is toxic, perhaps fatal, in the long run. If our goal is community and communion, we cannot make division and opposition our primary weapons. On the day following the assassination of Martin Luther King (and two months before his own violent end), Bobby Kennedy made this point boldly to an audience afflicted by passions of grief, fear and rage.

“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. . . . violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[ii]

The United States has weathered dark and dangerous times before. But with the exception of the Civil War, has there been another time when our nation’s very survival has been in such doubt? Institutional and legal norms are under daily assault by the White House and Congress; Republicans turn a blind eye to corruption and the clear threat to democracy; racism, hatred and fear are fostered and encouraged by “the most powerful man on earth,” and a third of this country lives in a fact-free bubble, impervious to reason and morality. A recent headline called us “The Banana States of America.”[iii]

Bells of warning should ring out Danger! in every city and town. Prophets should shout The end is near! on every street. Pundits may worry, dissenters object, and activists resist, but where is the widespread public cry of peril and alarm? Imagine such passivity after Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Are most of us still taking for granted our national stability? Do we simply assume everything will return to normal after the next two elections?

In a recent Washington Post column, “Watch What Happens in Rome,” Anne Applebaum examines current Italian politics as a disturbing cautionary tale for the United States. After finally ousting a corrupt authoritarian leader, Italy failed to revert to a more benign and centrist public order.

“Reeling from the flood of broken promises, electorates did not turn back to honest realists who told them hard truths or laid out the hard choices. On the contrary: In Italy, as in so many Latin American countries in the past, the failure of populism has led to greater dislike of “elites,” both real and imaginary; a greater demand for radical and impossible change; and a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before.”

Applebaum then wonders what we all should be wondering:

“In President Trump’s wake, we too are not necessarily going to return to the status quo ante, to a tame trade-off between centrist conservatives and centrist liberals, all of whom respect the Constitution, believe in the old definitions of patriotism and get elected based on their experience and political views. It is just as likely that national politics becomes a patchwork of competing, incompatible single-issue groups and causes; that otherwise disparate groups meet one another online and form temporary alliances. It is just as likely that irresponsibility and irrationality become something that people vote for, not something that they reject. Watch what happens in Rome, because it could be America’s future.”[iv]

Whether this or some other equally destabilizing scenario should come to pass, what are the friends of God called to do? Sadly, many of my Christian brothers and sisters are only making things worse. As another columnist, Leonard Pitts, lamented last week:

“Having seen putative Christians excuse the liar, rationalize the alleged pedophile, justify the sexual assaulter and cheer as walls are raised against the most vulnerable, it’s obvious that many of those who claim that name embody a niggardly, cowardly, selfish and situational “faith” that has little to do with Jesus.”[v]

In encouraging contrast to such shameless apostasy, an ecumenical group of Christian leaders has issued a timely manifesto, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” Click the link to read the whole text, and share widely. It’s a good theoretical foundation for a gospel-based resistance.

The Confession is structured in six sections, pairing what we believe as disciples of Jesus and what we reject. Yes to imago Dei, no to racism; yes to compassion and kindness, no to neglect or abuse of the vulnerable; yes to servanthood, no to domination; yes to communion, no to division and oppression; yes to truth, no to lies; yes to global community, no to “America first.”

The last of these may be the most challenging for those who subscribe to the great American heresy of exalting nation over God. As Clarence Jordan observed many years ago, the biggest lie told in America is, “Jesus is Lord.” But “Reclaiming Jesus” aims higher: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. We in turn should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than to seek first narrow nationalistic purposes.”

Tonight the framers of this Confession are processing to the White House gates for a candlelight vigil. As they have written,

“We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.”[vi]

Among the many church leaders marching in that procession will be the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the Episcopal Presiding Bishop whose sermon on love’s redemptive power, at last week’s royal wedding, invited a global audience to imagine the world as God made it to be:

Imagine our homes and families when love is the way.
Imagine neighborhoods and communities when love is the way.
Imagine our governments and nations when love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce when love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.[vii]

Let all the people say: Amen!

 

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[i] Proverbs 6:16-19.

[ii] Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968: https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Senator-Robert-F-Kennedy-to-the-Cleveland-City-Club-Cleveland-Ohio-April-5-1968.aspx

[iii] Patrick T. Fallon, “The Banana States of America,” Washington Post, May 22, 2018.

[iv] Anne Applebaum, “Watch what happens in Rome. It could be our post-Trump future,” Washington Post, May 18, 2018.

[v] Leonard Pitts, “Oregon school district forced LGBTQ students to read the Bible––how Christian,” Miami Herald, May 17, 2018 (http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article211384374.html).

[vi] “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” (http://www.reclaimingjesus.org)

[vii] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-currys-sermon-royal-wedding