Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tobias Wolff on Faith and Doubt

Writer Tobias Wolff has a beautiful essay in the New Yorker that makes the point that art and poetry are often the means by which we come to faith. He tells the story of seeing a Bergman film, “Winter Light,” at a local church, with a friend while a student at Oxford. He begins by telling the story of the film, and the aftermath in the church:

Tomas, a Lutheran pastor and widower, is suffering a crisis of faith, barely going through the motions of his ministry; indeed, he can’t even find the heart to treat his lover, a schoolteacher, with kindness. One of his parishioners has become obsessed with the prospect of nuclear annihilation. At his wife’s urging, this man, a fisherman, comes to the pastor for reassurance, some blessed word of hope that he can grasp as a lifeline, but Tomas can offer nothing but the bleakness of his own despair. The fisherman commits suicide. Yet Bergman takes care to show that Tomas and the fisherman are not alone in their suffering, and that others, equally afflicted—the fisherman’s wife, the pastor’s steadfast lover, his hunchbacked assistant—are able to bear their pain into a still deeper faith and capacity for love.

It is a harrowing experience, this film, shot starkly in the winter light of its title and filled with wintry silences, the camera often unmoving in its scrutiny of the human face in anguish, uncertainty, and yearning. 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. It seemed to me a typical Pre-Raphaelite production: garish, melodramatic, cloying in its technique and sentimentality; pretentious humbug. The contrast between Bergman’s severe, honest art and this painting, on the same screen, chilled me. Was this what the minister held in his mind as the answer to all our problems—a kitschy figure from a calendar? 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. But would a different painting—Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” for example—have kept me in the pew? 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.

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?”

Read it all here.

I was struck by the point of this story, and reflected on my own journey. I came back to church in my mid-twenties while serving as a law clerk in Washington, D.C. I had only occasionally gone to church while in college and law school. The Washington Post magazine had an article about how Luther Place Memorial Church was operating a homeless shelter in the church at night, and I came to the services one Sunday out of curiosity. I came back the next Sunday, and then the next, and soon was a believer again. What happened? The fact that this was an incredibly open and welcoming congregation played a huge role. But I also must admit that the beautiful liturgy (helped by an outstanding choir) played an even more critical role in my decision to come back to the church.

Anyone else have a story about how art played a role in coming to faith?


Dan Porter said...

Chuck, you asked in this thought provoking post: "Anyone else have a story about how art played a role in coming to faith?"

Yes, Chuck, I do. But the answer is long and so I've posted it on my blog.

Chuck Blanchard said...


It's a wonderful post. Thanks!