By Loren Seibold
A few nights ago while watching TV I happened on to Ingmar Bergman's film Winter Light (thanks, TCM). It's hard to use the word "enjoy" to describe watching a Bergman movie: if there is any joy, it is too subtle for me to detect. It is more like a dose of dark-tasting medicine for the soul.
The central character of Winter Light is Tomas, a Lutheran priest who, because of his wife's untimely death, has lost his faith in God. As the movie opens he is physically ill, morally compromised, and selfishly depressed. His crisis of faith infects those around him: his lover, Märta, an agnostic schoolteacher who adores him but for whom he has only contempt; and Jonas, a fisherman who comes to him for comfort and then commits suicide when the pastor offers him nothing but his own hopelessness. The shocking denoument after all this sadness (made more intense by Bergman's bleak, claustrophobic style) is Tomas standing before an empty church leading worship, at which point you wonder if it is the most cynical thing a man has ever done, or the bravest; whether the gospel is enervated by the man, or whether it is a moment of triumph for word and sacrament in spite of him, or even, oddly, through him.
For any thoughtful, conscientious pastor, watching Winter Light should be painful. Each of us has enough doubts of our own that Tomas is a sympathetic figure. Laypeople want pastors to be role models, while we are painfully aware of our own feet of clay. Tomas makes us question not only the depth and consistency of our faith, but how often we commit malpractice, as Tomas does with Jonas, by our self-absorption.
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A second blessing from Winter Light was an exquisite piece about it that I found, by novelist and memoirist Tobias Wolff. Wolff tells how as a young man he went to see Winter Light at an Oxford church with Rob, a secular and somewhat jaded friend.
"When the movie ended, we all sat there as if stunned. I used the word 'harrowing.' Truly I felt harrowed, crust broken, buried things churning to the surface. The minister returned to the front of the church. In his frank, conversational way, he described his understanding of the movie—humanity in peril, lonely, afraid, as we seek power and find only more fear and loneliness, hiding from one another and from what we really want and what would give us true strength and friendship and new life, and yet here it is, all the while, knocking on our door—
"Now the minister motioned to the projectionist, and an image of Jesus holding a lantern filled the screen. I had seen it before, in the Keble College chapel: William Holman Hunt’s painting 'The Light of the World.'
"Let me say that up to that moment I’d been listening, really listening, attentive as the fisherman for an answer to the bleakness of our situation. And this minister was no Tomas: he was clear and confident, he knew he had that answer, and I’d begun to feel a sense of grudging assent—not surrender but the first stirrings—when that picture appeared. And then I lost it.
"Because I really disliked that painting....I turned to Rob. 'Let’s get a pint.' But Rob was intent on this very image. Rapt. He barely glanced at me. 'You go on.' That night—to some extent, that picture—changed his life. He enrolled in Bible classes at the church, and went on to become a missionary in Africa. The same night sent me in the opposite direction, at least for a time. ...
"And what drew me back, some time later, toward the possibility of faith? Poetry. George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot. One night, I was reading the last lines of 'Little Gidding' to a friend, my voice thick with emotion, and when I looked up he was staring at me with kindly amusement. 'So,' he said. 'You really like that stuff?'
Wolff concludes, "We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives."