This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

It’s never easy when someone you love stops communicating with you. A day of such silence can be hard to endure; weeks or months seem unbearable. What if the loved one who is silent despite your entreaties is God?

silence_2016_filmThat’s the situation in Martin Scorsese’s recent movie adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1968 novel Silence. Two 17th century Portuguese priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) have volunteered to go to Japan to learn the fate of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has not been heard of for years but is rumored to have apostatized under persecution. Upon their arrival, they quickly learn the dire condition of the country’s Catholics. All priests have been killed and the Christian faith is outlawed. Believers who refuse to renounce their faith are killed, often in the most gruesome manner possible. The suffering of believers tests the faith of Father Rodrigues, the film’s main protagonist. God’s silence in response to his prayers is perhaps a greater test.

We eavesdrop on Father Rodrigues’ thoughts via voiceovers, most purportedly from his written progress reports to his superior. Early on, he is confident that he is doing what God wants. “We asked for this mission, and he heard us,” he writes. The two priests hear confession, baptize, and offer the Eucharist to small groups of Christians they encounter. “I felt God himself was so near,” Rondrigues writes after a visit to one such congregation. Yet he wonders: “Why do they have to suffer so much? Why did God chose them to bear the burden?”

Rodrigues is consoled initially that his priestly ministrations were improving the lives of his charges. However, the forces of the inquisition soon become aware that there are priests in hiding, and consequently intensify efforts to get the villagers to apostatize. Rodrigues starts to doubt that his presence is beneficial. “I’m just a foreigner who brought persecution,” he writes at one point.

Rodrigues is eventually betrayed to the authorities. When initially imprisoned with a group of peasants who are Christians, he is distraught. “We’re all going to die,” he bellows. One of the other captives is puzzled. Their former priest taught them that upon death they would go to paradise, a better place. Is that not true? “Yes, it is true,” Rodrigues replies, but it’s evident who has the stronger faith. I’m reminded not to judge another’s faith by outward signs, especially by such insignificant indicators as nationality, race, or class.

The chief inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), explains to Rodrigues that the inquisition is not a matter of dislike or hate for Christians. Instead, Christianity must be eliminated because it is a danger to society. Besides, the Christian message doesn’t fit the realities of Japan and won’t grow on Japanese soil. Rodrigues mounts a defense. Christianity is the truth, he states, applicable everywhere. It grew well on Japanese soil until that soil was poisoned by persecution. A good theological argument does wonders at momentarily dispelling Rodrigues’ doubts. Those doubts still lurk beneath the surface, though. We Christians today may similarly be tempted to focus on intellectual arguments for faith as a way of evading our own spiritual struggles.

A competent inquisitor utilizes methods besides persuasive argument, and Inoue is certainly competent. Rodrigues is informed that the Christians being held captive will be tortured and killed unless he renounces his faith. What to do?. Rodrigues wants to be an example to the faithful, but at what cost to them? He is prepared to be a martyr, but not to have others martyred in his behalf. He prays fervently, but still hears nothing from God. He starts to wonder, “Am I just praying to nothing because you’re not there?” Rodrigues has gone from disappointment that God hasn’t spoke to doubt that God is there at all. He’s faced with a difficult dilemma, but I wonder whether part of Rodrigues’ problem is that he’s hemmed himself in by appointing himself as God’s defender. God is perfectly capable of defending himself. Sometimes my efforts seem like those of Rodrigues–I’m working much harder than God seems to be in order to bring about what I think he wants. When that happens, I’m probably not perceiving very accurately what he wants.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” prays Rodrigues at one point, in imitation of Christ’s prayer on the cross. How much like Christ is he, though? Another character points out that, whereas Rodrigues compares his suffering to Christ’s, the Japanese Christians, who are undergoing the bulk of the suffering, don’t compare themselves to Christ. Rodrigues’ sense of his own importance–the last priest representing God’s cause in Japan–is getting in his way. Perhaps, as a general rule, those who think they are Christ-like probably aren’t, and those undergoing hardship to whom that thought never occurs actually resemble him.

It may seem I’m rather hard on Rodrigues; I actually do admire his courage and passion. Some critics dislike the manner in which Rodrigues’ crisis of faith is resolved, but it did seem realistic to me. Scorsese reportedly had wanted to make this film ever since he read Endo’s book 30 years ago, and it’s easy to say why. Few films explore struggles of faith with such depth and nuance. I expect I will be thinking about this film for years to come, especially when my spiritual journey is at its darkest.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

manchester-by-the-sea-uk-poster

When we first meet Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck)  at the start of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea, it’s evident that something isn’t right with him. Lee, an apartment building janitor, goes about his work without complaint–shoveling snow, fixing faucets, and the like–but won’t supply even the slightest social lubricant to grease interactions with the residents he encounters. In fact, he seems to deliberately provoke one woman who is a bit obdurate about the matter of a leaky tub. He lives by himself in a basement room and spends his evening drinking by himself in a bar, where he ignores a flirting woman but takes offense when a couple of guys  look at him from across the room, picking a fight with them. Lee is troubled, but there is no indication of what might be troubling him. That makes him enigmatic. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe describes the movie as “a ghost story about a man who’s still alive,” and that’s about right.

In Lee’s case, it turns out that the ghost is himself haunted, as we learn from a series of flashbacks that are intercut with Lee’s response to a family crisis. He receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler)  is hospitalized. Joe dies while Lee is en route from South Boston to Manchester, on the North Shore. Joe’s will names Lee custodian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s spirited, temperamental teenage son. Joe’s plan was that Lee would move back to Manchester to care for Patrick, something Lee emphatically doesn’t want to do. About an hour into the film, we learn why: he had experienced a devastating tragedy when living there. It’s no wonder that he wants to be far away from reminders of what happened.

As a psychologist, I deal regularly with people who have suffered from trauma, usually either wartime combat or childhood abuse. Many of them are like Lee, trying to distract themselves from what happened but nonetheless pursued by it, easily swept into the maelstrom of memory. Scenes of past interactions between Lee and a younger Patrick show that Lee once had a playful, lighthearted side. As with some of my clients, that playful self has been lost. Like them, Lee’s interactions with others produce not joy but awkwardness, irritation, and withdrawal.

Lee tries to do the right thing. He delays his return to Boston and moves in with Patrick, driving his nephew to school and band practice, He doesn’t know quite what to do with a teenage boy: when Patrick indicates that he wants one of his two girlfriends to spend the night, a puzzled Lee asks, “Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?” Sometimes he is arbitrary, as when he decides he doesn’t want Patrick’s other girlfriend to visit, announcing “I don’t like her. Sorry.” He is cross and uncommunicative, as might be expected of someone who is trying his best to suppress the feelings constantly churning within. Looking out over Manchester in one scene, he is suddenly moved to frenzy, putting his fist through a window. Later, Patrick notices his bandaged hand. Their exchange goes like this:

Patrick: What happened to your hand?
Lee: I hurt it.
Patrick: (Smiling) For a minute there I didn’t know what happened to it.

Patrick sees the ludicrous side to Lee’s strained reticence, but Lee is too caught up in his struggles to notice the humor.

We like our stories to be redemptive, for healing to occur and people to grow as a result of their tragedies. Movies often cater to such desires. There is such a thing as post-traumatic growth–positive psychological change resulting from negative experiences. The mistake we make is to think that good always comes from adversity. Manchester-by-the-Sea reminds us that not every calamity has a happy ending. Lee never recovers his playful, buoyant self; we see only a faint echo of that self at the very end.  When his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) attempts to reach out to him, he can’t connect meaningfully with her. He appears to be permanently impaired.

Sometimes, as with Lee, the best we can manage is to soldier on courageously, doing what we think is required of us without any hope of receiving any joy or comfort in return. Here’s to the thousands of those for whom pain has become a way of life but are still trying to do what’s right. May they find peace.

Image from forbes.com.

Image from forbes.com.

Who am I? A pretty good indication of my sense of identity can be inferred from the things that I habitually do. In this season of the year, call it Advent, the Christmas Season, the end-of-the-year-holidays, or the Winter solstice, we are prone to return to whatever habits that shortened days, light displays, Christmas trees, and the like evoke in us (some places in the world don’t have strong associations with this season–I’m referring primarily to North America here). For some, the habits that float to the surface involve religious readings and rituals. Many have well-formed inclinations towards connecting with family and friends. Hearty sorts look forward to outdoor activities possible only under frigid conditions. Then there is shopping.

In his 2007 book Consuming Jesus, theologian Paul Louis Metzger suggests that, in twenty-first century North America, philosopher Rene Descartes famous statement “I think therefore I am” is a less apt description of contemporary attitudes than is the sentiment “I shop at Wal-Mart, therefore I am.” We identify most deeply, in other words, as consumers rather than as thinkers. What we have and use is more important to us than what we imagine and believe.

I’ve written before about the things we own being an important aspect of our identities. At the time I was thinking mostly about possessions in a static sense–the things that we’ve already accumulated and that now sit around our houses. What if, as Metzger seems to be suggesting, what most defines our identities is not what we already own but the process by which we acquire more? Then we would be most truly ourselves at Wal-Mart, or pursuing bargains at Target or Macy’s, or making our selections from the cornucopia that is Amazon.

What would it be like if we gave ourselves over entirely to the trend that Metzger identifies? Rather than seeing ourselves as homo sapiens, we would define ourselves as what Metzger, following Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, calls homo consumens. Correspondingly, we would view our worth in terms of our buying power–those who can purchase more are worth more since they both better support the economy and better exercise the ultimate human act of product selection. In this view of ourselves, our ultimate function would not be to worship God, be stewards of creation, gain knowledge, or exercise reason, but go to the store and buy more stuff, either to keep or to give to family and friends.

I want to be defined by worship, stewardship, curiosity, and reason rather than by consumption. At this time of year, though, I am constantly tempted–via catalogues, billboards, advertising circulars, social media, store displays–to define myself instead as a consumer. May I–may we–be given grace to resist the temptation.

I wasn’t going to write anything about the recently concluded election in the US, but I find myself thinking I need to say something, not about the election itself, but about the way that I (and my fellow US citizens, but mainly I) thought and acted during this last year. As a Christian, I try to be aware when my steps wander from the path of the pilgrim, the path of becoming more like Christ. When I recognize that I have strayed in some way, I repent, meaning not that I flagellate myself for my failings but that I ask for God’s mercy and help in redirecting my steps to where I should be. Following such a self-examination during the last week, I ask the following:

For the hours wasted reading yet another article covering political stories whose outlines I already knew,

Lord Have Mercy.

For my tendency to fear human power more than I trusted in your might and care,

Lord Have Mercy.

For my tendency to think the worst about those whose political position differed from mine,

Lord Have Mercy.

For my blindness to the faults of those with whom I agreed,

Lord Have Mercy.

For not listening as well as I might have to the views of others,

Lord Have Mercy.

For expressing my views in less than gracious ways,

Lord Have Mercy.

For my fear of having conversations about politics with those who might differ from me, not trusting that relationship bonds were sufficient to withstand any disagreement,

Lord Have Mercy.

For not praying constantly about all these matters,

Lord Have Mercy.

For forgetting at times that, in the end, your kingdom will come and your will will be done, regardless of the outcome of this or any election,

Lord Have Mercy,

Amen.

kyrie

Jerusalem

Jerusalem

The last several posts on this blog have been reflections on my recent trip to Israel. Among other things, I’ve talked about my efforts to approach the trip as a pilgrim, the context that I gained from visiting Biblical sites, and the insights the trip gave me into the Israelites and their God as well as the son of God, Jesus. Where does all that leave me, though? It was a great trip, but, what difference did it make in my life?

I went on the trip hoping that it would benefit me spiritually. I wanted more than just feeling God’s presence now and then while traveling; I hoped to change something in my thinking or behavior so that I would consistently be close to God. In my first post, I talked about going on the trip as a pilgrim, that is, as one who travels to a sacred place as a devotee, someone seeking spiritual benefit from the voyage. Ideally, I would not only go as a pilgrim but return as one. Pilgrimage, after all, doesn’t have to end just because travel has ended. What’s most important is not the physical journey but the journey of the soul, as portrayed in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Traveling back home can be an extension of the pilgrim journey, as T.S. Eliot alluded to in Four Quartets:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.

When I returned home, I think that I stayed in the pilgrim mindset for a month and a half, possibly two months. During that period of time, many people asked me about the trip and I was writing regularly about it. Talking and writing about Israel kept me focused on the lessons I learned and helped me partly transcend time–my mind was to some extent in first-century Palestine even while my body was in 21st-century America. That level of heightened awareness couldn’t last. After a while, I had written pretty much all I planned to and didn’t have as many opportunities to talk about the trip. I started to lose the sense of being a pilgrim.

I did continue to ask the key question that I began asking during the trip, though: What was I doing that kept me from becoming more like Jesus? I realized that I was spending too much time on the internet, so I tried to cut back some on that. I thought I might need to plan another pilgrimage and started to look at places to which I could travel. After a few days, though, I decided that was a false step. Making travel plans kept me from being fully present at home. Such focus on one’s immediate surroundings seems a precondition for remaining on pilgrimage–pilgrims fully inhabit each step they take rather than mentally jumping ahead to somewhere the road may eventually lead.

While I was trying to figure out ways to stay on pilgrimage I received an issue of Christian Reflection on the topic of “Traveling Well” (all issues are available here). I found several helpful references (including the above quote from Eliot). John Gatta quoted NT Wright’s  The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today: “it is not we, ultimately, who are on a journey for God in the face of Jesus. It is God who is on a journey looking for us.” God on pilgrimage! Doesn’t that describe what Christ did when he lived among us? How much God must love us to set out in search of us! Knowing of his ongoing pilgrimage helps me continue my pilgrimage.

Also in that issue, Christian T. George cited Lauren Artress’s Walking a Sacred Path, a book on labyrinth walking. Artress describes three stages in walking a labyrinth: purgation, illumination, and communion. George suggests that pilgrims pass through the same three stages. During the trip I tried to shift from being a tourist to being a pilgrim, using fasts to do so. That was the stage of purgation. I did get some illumination, I think, during those days of fasting and during my months of reflection following the trip. As I prayed over these bits of illumination, I sometimes experienced communion.

I have begun examining my daily experiences according to Artress’s scheme: am I in purgation, illumination, communion, or none of the above? I am starting to see the labyrinth/pilgrim walk as taking me in a circle: purgation, illumination, communion, then going out to the world to share God’s love, only to stray from the path and have to start again with purgation. Having this scheme in mind helps me know what to do next. Most commonly, I realize that I had gone out in the world with good intentions but got distracted. I need to get back on the pilgrim path, starting with purgation.

I’m pretty new to using this scheme of self-examination to guide my pilgrim journey. I’m sure I have lots to learn! I’ll use this blog to discuss any additional insights I discover along the way.

labyrinth

wrote recently about the old stone ruins our group saw during our recent tour of Israel. As I said in that post, seeing ruins built by different people groups separated from each other by thousands of years showed me that my historical sense is simplistic and our culture’s claims to uniqueness are totally inaccurate. I also described another lesson the ruins taught: we are very much like fortress-building ancients in our desire for security. I have a few more reflections about the ruins we saw, and they will be the subject of this post.

Our first encounter with the ruins of an ancient city occurred at Tel Gezer. While there, Tim, our tour guide, made the point that, just as the city of Gezer was situated strategically, on a trade route between Jerusalem and the coastal plain along the Aijalon Valley, we are placed strategically as well, located in a particular location in order to achieve a particular purpose. It’s not only Gezer as a whole that was located with a purpose in mind, but each stone within it was intentionally placed in such a way to form its walls, houses, and other buildings. The same can be said of us.

Peter describes Christ as a cornerstone, the stone put down first around which the rest of the wall or structure is built. Peter tells his readers, “ you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (I Peter 2:5). As a living stone, I’m meant to be part of a structure built around Christ, the cornerstone. If I was a stone standing by myself somewhere, I would accomplish nothing. Just as the stones of Gezer provided protection, shelter, and privacy only when arranged to form walls and buildings, we accomplish something meaningful only when we join together to make a larger whole.

Massebot at Tel Gezer

Massebot at Tel Gezer

At Tel Gezer there were a number of massebot (the singular form is massebah), or memorial stones. My son Elliot wrote a nice reflection on massebot  here. As with the massebot, memorials have been built by many different cultures to commemorate something thought to be worth remembering. Our age doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the memorials raised by previous generations. I recently read The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth. Bendroth suggests that one of the key features of modernity is that we disregard the past and consequently are stranded in the present. Modernity is characterized by a belief in progress, and thus is future-oriented. We think that previous generations have nothing to offer us. In consequence, we ignore the stone memorials they built and the living memorials that their lives provided.

In contrast with the modernist dismissal of everything before the present, Bendroth advises us to instead cultivate an appreciation of the past, recognizing the “infinite array of personal experiences and convictions, talents and achievements, sins and failures that make up the human race across time and space.” She calls such an appreciation “righteous remembering.” The trip to Israel was a step towards practicing righteous remembering. Believers from long ago can be massebot for me, memorial stones teaching me about the life of faith. I can also be a massebah for someone yet unborn. It’s useful to think of my life in that way.

The ruins found at archaeological sites we visited provide a nice metaphor for this process of learning from the past. Those who built on a previously used site didn’t just level the ruins and build something new atop them. They often searched the rubble for useful building materials. Thus, stones were sometimes taken from old walls or buildings and incorporated in the new structure. In some cases, this resulted in rather odd-looking walls patched together from salvaged materials.

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She'an

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She’an

Whether or not we realize we are doing so, all of us scavenge the past for materials we then re-purpose. I’m struck with how often ideas people express as if they are original hark back to a whole range of thinkers from the past, from the Greeks and Romans through Augustine, the reformers, and the Enlightenment all the way to Freud, Nietzsche, and existentialists. I gained an appreciation for how much we all draw on such previous structures of thought from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Becoming aware of where our ideas came from is an important step toward freeing ourselves from the prison of unexamined assumptions.

We build from the past, and are ourselves building materials that, like the stones in ancient tels, can be re-purposed. As a psychologist, I am always hoping that my clients will take something I’ve said and incorporate it in their lives. I’m essentially hoping to provide rubble that others find useful. Often they do so in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The church, the followers of Christ who are the living stones to which Peter alluded, is such a rebuilding project. We don’t look so much like an assembly of fresh-hewn, straight-edged blocks as we look like a collection of salvaged souls that are jagged and uneven but, remarkably, stand together to form a structure that God himself inhabits. It’s remarkable what he has done with a bunch of old stones!

Paul Peterson, a co-leader on the trip to Israel that I’ve been blogging about recently, talked about his father’s reaction upon returning from Israel several years ago. “I get it,” he told Paul. “Old stones. Lots of really old stones.”

What’s impressive, of course, isn’t the stones themselves but how they got to where they are. Thousands of years ago somebody stacked them atop one another to make walls, houses, temples, and the like. I’ve been reflecting on all those ruins. What lessons do they have for us?

I’ve seen “old stones” before this trip–at the acropolis in Athens, the forum in Rome, and the excavations in Ephesus, to name three places that come to mind. The Levant contains ruins that are much older than those sites, though. Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world, first settled about 11,000 years ago. When we went there we didn’t visit the site of the ancient settlements, but we did see very old ruins in other locations. For example, at Tel Arad there are ruins of a Bronze Age Canaanite city that is about 5,000 years old. The site was abandoned for about 1,500 years before the Israelites settled nearby in the 11th century B.C.

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

This pattern of successive settlements at the same site made an impression on me. We saw numerous tels–hills consisting of layer upon layer of settlement, each abandoned, then built upon by the next occupants. At the first site we visited, Tel Gezer, we sat near the city gates in the 13th level; 12 more settlements had been built atop those ruins. This level is thought to have been the city built by Solomon mentioned in I Kings 9, so it dated to about the 10th century B.C. There are more levels beneath this one; no one knows how many.

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

Tels confound our simplistic historical schemes that divide all of human existence into just a few categories such as ancient, medieval, and modern. Even if we look at single tel, it’s quickly apparent that many different people groups once lived there and these residents were often separated from each other in time and probably in customs as much as we are separated from figures like Julius Caesar or Clovis. That way of looking at human existence challenges our tendency to privilege living in the present, in modern times. We moderns are just putting down one layer. With the passage of enough time, if anyone remembers the USA they will probably be hard-pressed to say how it differed from the Holy Roman Empire or the Hapsburg monarchy. That’s humbling.

For the most part, the ruins we saw were walled cities or fortresses. They were probably constructed out of stone because its sturdiness provided advantages when a neighboring king decided to invade. We learned something about what made for good fortifications. For example, the city gate was the most vulnerable point so a double wall was often built there, with a chamber between the walls to hold soldiers ready to fight anyone who breached the outer gate. Of course, even the most sturdy defenses could be surmounted. At Tel Lachish and again at Masada we saw massive siege ramps built by attacking armies (the Assyrians and Romans, respectively). At both sites the attackers were ultimately successful.

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Ancient Canaanites and Jews lived in a world much different from ours, but we can understand their impulse to protect themselves. Though we no longer literally wall in our cities, modern nations use munitions, firewalls, and border fences to protect against threats. On an individual level, we lock our doors and turn on our security alarms; some of us have guns to defend ourselves. We accumulate savings to protect our retirement, buy insurance to protect against loss, and limit our openness with others to protect our emotions.

City walls were for the most part a good thing, as are our modern forms of protection. Once we have such fortifications, though, we are tempted to rely entirely on them. Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Judea:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh” (Jer. 17:5).

A couple verses later, he draws this contrast:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him” (v. 7).

Trust God. Do lock your door at night, though. None of the Old Testament prophets advised God’s people to dismantle the walls around their cities so that they would have to rely on God alone. There are a couple New Testament passages in which Jesus told his followers to dispense with ordinary precautions (e.g. Luke 10:4), but these instructions don’t seem to have been intended for everyone.

How do we insure that we depend primarily on God rather than turning to other sources of security? Jesus told stories about birds and flowers to help us with this (see Matthew 6:25ff). Birds and flowers don’t erect walls, but they’re doing fine. All the fortifications I saw on the trip are a good reminder that I, too, am prone to rely too much on my defenses. It’s important to remember that God is my source of security and only by trusting in him can I live in freedom, not in fear.