Sunday, January 18, 2004

The sound of silence

In his 1969 novel Silence, Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo chronicles the plight of Christian persecution in 17th century Japan. It is the story of Portugese Jesuit Father Rodrigues, who upon receiving the news of the apostasy of his mentor, the distinguished padre Ferreira, braves the treacherous sea journey to Japan to investigate this blow to the struggling Japanese flock.

In many ways I was reminded of Roland Joffe's The Mission--the grim determination of 17th century missionary Jesuits. At the same time, the plot structure strikingly mirrors Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness--the search deep into the jungle for the brilliantly good man gone mad. In fact, I couldn't help but picture Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz when imagining the intellectual apostate Ferreira.

In terms of plot, not much happens. Endo instead chooses to focus on the internal spiritual battle of Rodrigues as he grapples not only with his own faith but his own justification for Christianity in this foreign land where peasants are brutally tortured and killed for it. Endo effectively utilizes the technique of shifting perspective as he begins his novel as letters from Rodrigues back to his order in Rome. The point of view then shifts to an omniscient narrative before finally entering into the journal of a cursory character observing the priest. Endo creates increasing distance from his hero throught the story that heightens the tragic downward spiral of Rodrigues.

But what most struck me was Endo's use of the motiff of sound, or the lack thereof (as the title establishes), throughout the novel:

"And like the sea God was silent. His silence continued... I knew well, of course, that the greatest sin against God was despair; but the silence of God was something I could not fathom" (68, 69).

Rodrigues watches as Christians are tied to crosses on the beach and left to drown in the incoming tide. He hears the moans of those hung upside-down in pits of human excrement. They are tortured not because they refuse to deny their faith, but because Rodrigues refuses to. And God doesn't ride in on a white horse in shining armor to save the day.

How does one grapple with the silence of God? The nation of Israel endured 400 years between the ministries of the prophet Malachi and John the Baptist--four centuries without a word from the Lord. In the span that temple was desecrated and destroyed. The country was runover by pagan Hellenists and then the Romans. And God was silent all that time.


I don't handle silence all that well. Even just know I find myself turning on the CD player to drown out that raging vacuum of silence. I cringe at quiet stillness. Something has to be in the background. And so, to me, the silence of God is a torturous thing.

But Fumitaka Matsuoka, in an article on Endo's Christology for Theology Today, writes,
"God's silence is God's message. It is the silence of 'accompaniment' for the forsaken and the suffering. The silence of God on the fumie is not the silence of 'nihil.' The image of Christ, though crudely carved by a non-Christian artist, becomes the mediator of God's accompaniment when seen through the eyes of faith, for the agony of apostasy is truly an agony because of the faith which precedes it. Here Endo develops a distinctly Japanese perception of faith."

This twentysomething American finds this disturbingly foreign. For the past five years I've been inundated with Sunday morning messages and chapel services that the Christian experience moves from glory to glory to glory. There's a Delirious song with a line to the effect of, "There is a God who saves the day." I find I've become absorbed in this Western idea of God as my superhero, whisking me away from my troubles and riding off into the sunset, only to feel disillusioned, cynical and abandoned when instead I'm faced with the silent God. Something in me craves an active God who vanquishes my problems--not this passive one who sits and cries with me.

Matsuoka continues,
Such theological notions as love, grace, trust, and truth are intelligible only in the experience of their opposites, Endo sees them incarnate in the person of Jesus through his own experience of failure, rejection, and, most of all, ineffectualness. Only rarely has modern Christianity presented the story of Jesus as the one to whom those who had failed, were rejected, lonely, and alienated could turn and find understanding and compassion. Endo argues that it is our universal human experience of failure in life that provides us with an understanding of Christian faith in its depth.

There is an idea rampant in the Christian communities that I have observed and participated in that suffering, loneliness, disappointment, failure, loneliness and alienation are sin. They are to be rebuked, overcome with the victorious blood and name of Je-hee-zus. (The incantation is all the more effectual if it's pronounced with three syllables.) They are no part of the Christian experience, and therefore, to feel them is neither living in victory, nor walking in the Spirit.

But the human experience proves otherwise. The martyrs of the universal persecuted church prove otherwise. The Christ portrayed in the 52nd and 53rd chapters of Isaiah proves otherwise. Padre Rodrigues as portrayed by Shusaku Endo proves otherwise.

And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

posted by Peter at 2:23 PM
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"If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, oligopistoi?" (Matthew 6:30, NIV).

"He replied, 'Oligopistoi, why are you so afraid?' Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm" (Matthew 8:26, NIV).

"Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'Oligopiste,' he said, 'why did you doubt?" (Matthew 14:31, NIV).

"Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, 'Oligopistoi, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?'" (Matthew 16:8, NIV).

"If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, oligopistoi?" (Luke 12:28, NIV)

The word the King James Version translates as "O ye of little faith," the Greek language compacts into one small word. Barclay-Newman provides the definition, "of little faith." It is a favorite word for the author of Matthew. Six times the word appears in the New Testament--five times in the Gospel of Matthew, once in the Gospel of Luke. (The author of Matthew also uses a variant--oligopistian--in reference to Jesus' description that the disciples have little faith.)

It appears nowhere else, and always in the speech of Jesus. He uses it in reference of the crowds listening to him. He uses it in reference to his disciples. He uses it to address that most reckless and foolhardy disciple of all, Peter. The word always creeps up in the face of the most self-conscious crises--worrying about daily provision, the sudden tempest on the Galilean Sea, Peter's failed attempt to walk on water, a lack of bread.

In Spanish, there is a word pobrecito, or poor little one, or poor little baby. It is a term of affection, a term of endearment. I have been called it on more than one occasion when I was whining more than I should. There isn't a hint of derision or condescension in it. It is a loving manner in which a parent addresses a fumbling child, or a loved one expresses dramatically exagerrated pity.

This is what I hear in oligopistos. This is how I imagine the Father calls me.

When I see Jesus using this word in this Matthew, I don't see him making a mockery of his disciples. I don't see him hand on his hips, finger-shaking, scolding the bad boys. I don't see him bringing a hammer-stroke of judgment, nor bringing out the dunce caps of humiliation. I see more a gesture of deep affection: "Oh pobrecitos, you're making a mountain out of a mole hill. It's going to be okay. Let me show you how."

I have little faith. Maybe only just a crumb. That's no negative confession. It's an honest self-assessment. I have every reason not to believe as I do to believe. But I am haunted by this inarticulate yearning, like a fading but never extinguishable ember, to hope still. Jesus said only a little faith could move a mountain.

"Oligopiste, you're getting a little out of hand. Slow down there, tiger. Stop worrying. I've got things under control. Everything. Let me show you." He tussles my hair.

Lord, increase my faith.

posted by Peter at 11:20 AM
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Monday, January 05, 2004

Voices in my head

So I saw this little film the other day. Maybe you've heard of it. Actually, I've seen it twice now. Here's what everyone else seems to think...

Stephen Hunter, Washington Post:
What we have is called civilization, and to defend it we will fight a war to end all wars, except for the war after that, and the next one, too. But anyway: "Return of the King," like many epic fantasies, decodes into straight combat stuff. We fight a big fight over here to keep from being overrun; meanwhile, our commandos try and sneak in and deliver a death blow over there. Okay, so instead of wearing camouflage tunics and carrying M-4s, our special forces ops have big hairy bare feet and dress like extras in "H.M.S. Pinafore."
The big fact is that "The Return of the King" puts you there at Waterloo, or Thermopylae or the Bulge, any desperate place where men ran low on blood and iron and ammo, but not on courage.

MaryAnn Johanson, The Flick Filosopher:
The words I keep coming back to, the ones that seem to fit this most astonishing of films best, are "terrible" and "awful." The old-fashioned senses of the words are what I'm talking about: Peter Jackson has given us a grandly eloquent film that inspires more terror and more awe than anything I've seen in a long time. I can compare my reaction to it only with the moviegoing experiences of my childhood, when the hugeness, the all-encompassing-ness of movies in all ways -- emotionally, viscerally, visually, aurally -- first astounded me, when "Night on Bald Mountain" and Darth Vader's stormtroopers horrified me to such a degree that I can still feel it.

Steven Greydanus, Catholic Educator's Resource Center, "Faith and Fantasy":
The priestly role belongs to Frodo, who bears a burden of terrible evil on behalf of the whole world, like Christ carrying his cross. Frodo's via dolorosa or way of sorrows is at the very heart of Tolkien's story, just as the crucifixion narratives are at the heart of the gospels accounts. As Christ descended into the grave, Frodo journeys into Mordor, the Land of Death, and there suffers a deathlike state in the lair of the giant spider Shelob before awakening to complete his task. And, as Christ ascended into heaven, Frodo's life in Middle-earth comes to an end when he departs over the sea into the mythical West with the Elves, which is as much to say, into paradise.

Gandalf is the prophet, revealing hidden knowledge, working wonders, teaching others the way. Evoking the saving death and resurrection of Christ, Gandalf does battle with the powers of hell to save his friends, sacrificing himself and descending into the nether regions before being triumphantly reborn in greater power and glory as Gandalf the White. As with Frodo, Gandalf's sojourn in Middle-earth ends with his final voyage over the sea into the West.

Finally, there is Aragorn, the crownless destined to be king. Besides being a messianic king of prophecy, Aragorn also dimly reflects the saving work of Christ by walking the Paths of the Dead and offering peace to the spirits there imprisoned, anticipating in a way the Harrowing of Hell.
While not equalling the religious vision of the books, the films honor that vision in a way that Christian viewers can appreciate, and that for non-Christian postmoderns may represent a rare encounter with an unironic vision of good and evil, a moral vision of evil as derivative of good and of the ever-present human susceptibility to temptation.

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker:
Then, we have men, a solemn race. Tolkien may be charting the victory, familiar from a hundred fairy tales, of good over evil, but such mastery comes at a melancholy price, for it marks the end of one age—that of wizardry, elvishness, and free trips on the backs of giant eagles—and the dawning of another. From now on, men will rule Middle-earth, and one senses, both in Tolkien and in Peter Jackson’s adaptation, a wistful belief that life, though fair and wisely governed, will be much less of a blast. Just inspect the face of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) at the close of this picture. Over many hours, his startling career path has gone from a quiet drink at the Prancing Pony to the sacred throne of Gondor (he is the King of the title), but does the guy look happy about it? To me he looks taut and burdened, not least by the terrible awareness that, this being Tolkien, he will have to sing a ballad at his own coronation.

Dr. Albert Oxford, "50 Reasons Why LOTR Sucks":
3. Quality Control at New Line.

Millions of copies of the LOTR DVDs have thick black bars at the bottom and top of the screen throughout the film. Didn't anyone catch this? You know what happens at the end, in the extreme foreground and extreme upper sky? Neither do I. Bush league, guys.
14. The Battle Droid Syndrome.

The mutated muscular soldiers of Mordor turned out to be hilariously ineffective fighters, a dozen of them held off by a single dying human. Apparently they made the beasts by crossing Orcs, Goblins and the French.
45. Casting.

Why couldn't Frodo have been played by Christopher Walken?

Lord of the Rings Drinking Game:
Every time you can tell the camera was mounted on a helicopter, take a shot.
If it's one of those really fast bits where the helicopter-camera swings around some dizzying remote mountain location, yell, "Wheeeee!"
Every time Frodo says "Oh, Sam...," take a shot.
If it looks like Frodo's about to kiss Sam, smack the first person who suggests they might be gay.

And finally, Agent Smith versus the Fellowship:
Smith: And you Wizards are the worst! Ack! Men and Elves and Dwarves and Hobbits... you were a cancer on the face of Middle-earth, and that's why we herded you into this massive multiplayer game.

posted by Peter at 10:22 PM
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