Winter Light

This is a feature I’m going to be starting up: film reviews on movies with spiritual significance. That doesn’t mean these movies give easy answers to hard questions. Some of them are spiritual in the sense that the book of Job and Ecclesiastes are spiritual. They can expose the meaninglessness of an unexamined life. They can puncture our cultural bubble of instant fixes and shoddy knee-jerk solutions. They can provoke thought and the pondering of deeper issues. I’ve come to appreciate a film that helps me meditate on the human condition and our need for redemption. They may not be well-known films (especially to Christians) but they are well worth paying attention to. Most of them are foreign. Most of them are in black and white, and it is fitting that they should be. I’ve heard it said that color film captures the surface of things while black and white film captures the essence of things. In films of this caliber, the black and white presentation is not a limitation; in fact, it opens a whole new visual frontier to explore spiritual questions.

These films are easily viewable – they (The Criterion Collection) are available on Hulu Plus for a monthly fee. That is how I am watching them. The Criterion Collection is a treasure trove for anyone interested in experiencing the best films ever made. The film I saw this morning was “Winter Light” by Ingmar Bergman. I get a lot out of Bergman’s films. I’m not sure what his personal beliefs were; I’ve heard he was an agnostic yet his films do not shy away from the big questions. They draw on Christian imagery for their power. If he was an agnostic, there must have been something deep in him that was drawn to Christian symbols as a way of expressing that agnosticism. It’s strange though; “Winter Light” could have been made by a Christian. Its subject matter is a crisis of faith in the life of a widower pastor in rural Sweden. The film begins with a worship service in an old, empty church. What is wonderful about this film is its slow but deliberate way of introducing the characters. There are roughly 10 participants in the church service and we are introduced to the characters by watching how they react to the Eucharist. One couple is tense and exchange worried looks. One young woman stares into space wistfully as if she is trying to believe what she cannot. There is an old pious lady who closes her eyes and repeats the prayers and harmonizes with the music. There is a misshapen man who shyly joins in. And the pastor himself is simple moving his lips, saying the words and playing the part. This opening lasts roughly 15 minutes. The beauty of this kind of film is that it doesn’t rush. It is quiet. You can hear every creak in that echo-heavy church. You can feel the biting cold. You feel like you are there – without 3D! It is simply great film-making by a director less interested in pushing along some artificial plot and more interested in giving an experience.

After the sparsely-attended worship service, the pastor is coughing sharply in his chamber while counting the meager offering of the morning. The misshapen man (actually upon closer inspection, it’s only his neck that is misshapen) asks to speak with him. The pastor callously dismisses him and tells him he will be at another church later in the day, they can talk them. The man bows out and then a man and his wife enter. The wife discloses that her husband, Jonas, has been reading about China getting an atomic bomb (this was made in 1963) and that suddenly he can think of nothing else. She tells the pastor (Tomas) that she needs Jonas to drive her home and he can be back in 20 minutes to speak privately with him. They leave and in true Bergman form, it is 20 minutes until we see him again. In the meantime, we find that the pastor has an admirer and that they have shared some kind of relationship. Her name is Marta and she’s an atheist. She walks in on him in prayer and asks him what is wrong. He answers, “The Silence of God.”

This is the subject of the film. Is God silent? Silence is also to the soundtrack to this film (as with most of Bergman’s films) so that watching it slowly develop feels like a meditative experience. I love films like this – you feel rested and (gasp!) smarter after you watch it. Or at least you feel like you’ve been through a meaningful experience. It’s not like most American films these days; mostly aimed at 15 year olds and homogenized by focus-groups for the lowest common denominator. When was the last time an American film (or a Christian film) ever dealt with a character who is struggling with not hearing from God?

So, the first question – is God silent? As a Christian I would have to say, absolutely not. But do we ever experience seasons in our lives as Christians in which God doesn’t seem to be as vocal as He once was? Absolutely. These are usually described as “wilderness experiences” and they are commonplace in the life of faith. They are part of the trials and tribulations that every Christian learns to bear with patient endurance. God is not a genie in a bottle and He does not answer to our shallow expectations of Him. We all must come to terms with a God who relates to us on His own terms. It’s all too easy to throw out pious platitudes when someone we know is struggling with not feeling God’s presence in their lives. It’s a real problem that person is facing and they need fellow sufferers, not bumper-sticker slogans. Tomas, the pastor, is an earnest believer who is all too aware of his own failings. His church is almost empty; no one comes. His juiced-up organ player mocks him at every opportunity. The prayers he prays from the lectern are empty. He prays and hears nothing. He is aware only of a presence of an absence. The silence of God that chills his bones.

Marta tries to comfort him but he pushes her away. Jonas finally returns, hoping for the pastor to solve all of his problems. The scene that follows is brutal; in which Tomas confesses his own crisis of faith to a despondent Jonas, who becomes uncomfortable and leaves. What happens to Jonas because of the pastor’s self-indulgent tirade is truly tragic. In that scene we find how the sharing of one’s personal doubts is not always helpful, especially to someone who needs hope. Doubt is part of faith; an important part. Without the ability to doubt, we will believe anything. We could end up in some U.F.O. cult and may find ourselves drinking cyanide Kool-Aid to show how much we believe. The ability to doubt and ask questions will keep us from swallowing any religious drivel that is spoken to manipulate us. We are told to test all things and hold fast to that which is good. We will not find that which is good unless we test all things. Unfortunately, I have yet to see an evangelical American film made by Christians that takes this very sober command seriously. The doubter is usually the villain until he finally turns off his brain. We are never asked to turn our God-given brains off, but to love the Lord with all of our minds. Part of loving God with our mind is using it to think critically about who He is truly revealed to be and who He is not.

Even Biblical passages can be “twisted” in ways that destroy us. When we hear a scriptural interpretation, how do we know that it is not twisted? Of what Spirit is it? If I am told something about Jesus that is inconsistent with the Gospels, it’s my responsibility to doubt. Even if the preacher is emotional about it. Job is a book about healthy doubt. Job, if you remember has a very real problem and all the “answers” that his friends have to offer ring hollow. Job refuses a second-hand explanation of things; he holds out to hear from God himself, and he is eventually vindicated. It is also important to remember that throughout the book of Job, Job’s friends talk ABOUT God – Job alone talks TO God. Even when God seems to be silent. Tomas eventually breaks down and calls the Christian faith nothing but illusions and lies. And yet he weeps deeply while he says this. Somewhere deep in him, he longs for the gospel to be true.

One of the most profound lines of the movie; Marta asks Tomas why in all of his religiosity, he dwells so little on the person of Jesus Christ? That is probably the most important line of the film to me. Tomas is a pastor and he knows all the prayers. He knows God as a distant, abstract concept. But even the atheist Marta sees enough of his faith to realize there is very little of Jesus anywhere to be found in it. Her question hangs in the air and charges the rest of the film with an odd, expectant poignancy.

So the film follows this unbelieving pastor through the dramatic events of the day and finally near the end, this misshapen man who asked to speak with him begins to talk. He talks about being in constant physical pain and about reading the Gospels. He says he envies Jesus because His physical torments lasted only hours before He died. Yet he found that Jesus’ real suffering was spiritual. From the agony in Gethsemane to His cry of “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” on the cross. Did Jesus doubt? Did He feel the full weight of the silence of God on our behalf?

This scene is one of the most powerful I’ve seen. The look on Tomas’ face when it dawns on him that Jesus experienced this crisis of faith on his behalf, and more. We see in his eyes what a difference a faith infused with the person of Jesus makes; rather than belief in a dubious concept of “God” somewhere far away. Tomas walks out into the empty church and begins a worship service – not caring that no one is there. He is going to worship whether anyone joins him or not. The closing words are, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, Heaven and Earth are full of His glory.” They hang heavy in the air, full of meaning.

Do we know the full extent of what Jesus experienced on our behalf? Even the crushing hopelessness so many of us silently endure, too afraid to talk about with Christian friends? To say that Jesus despaired does not mean He was any less divine, only that He drank the cup He asked to be taken from Him. He drank it to the dregs, and now none of us can descend deeper than He did. There is no darkness dark enough that His light is absent, in this life. If any are reading this and feel the weight of God’s silence, meditate on Christ’s cross. He, who was the Word of God, also experienced the feeling that God was absent. Was He? Some Christians say, yes, The Father turned His back on the Son. But He did not forsake the Son. He raised Him three days later. And those of us who reach out to Him who took our suffering upon Himself; we will be raised also.

I recommend “Winter Light” as a meditation on the meaning of suffering and the importance of taking to heart Christ’s work on the cross and His sufferings on our behalf.

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~ by shardsofeternity on October 5, 2011.

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