Favorite Films: Winter Light (1963)

The Middle Film of Ingmar Bergman’s Trilogy on the Silence of God

The film is almost impossibly bleak. At the very beginning, a parishioner comes to the Lutheran pastor played by Gunnar Björnstrand and confesses that he is depressed because the Red Chinese have the atomic bomb, and they have no respect for human life. Because of the stresses of his own life, Björnstrand admits his own depression (he is a widower who has recently lost his beloved wife) and winds up sending him away even more depressed. Within minutes, we discover that he has committed suicide next to a roaring river by sending a rifle shell at his head.

It gets even worse. Björnstrand is being pursued by the local schoolteacher, played by Ingrid Thulin (in above photo). But the pastor remains stubbornly alone as, coming down with a cold, he must conduct a service at nearby Frostnäs. He goes there, with Thulin in tow, only to find that none of the parishioners have shown up. He gives the service anyhow, beginning with the words “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty; Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory.”

Swedish Film Director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Bergman’s trilogy includes Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963). These are, in no sense of the word, cheery films, as they deal primarily with God’s silence or even absence in the light of an increasingly disjointed world.

So why would anyone want to see such depressing films? For the same reason that they would see a performance of King Lear or read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It doesn’t take long before one realizes that there is no laugh track in our lives. I keep thinking about what the Philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote regarding the study of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche:

We live, so to speak, in a seething cauldron of possibilities, continually threatened by confusion, but always ready in spite of everything to rise up again. In philosophizing, we must always be ready, out of the present questioning, to elicit those ideas which bring forth what is real to us: that is, our humanity.

Although I do not consider myself to be an atheist, I do believe that no one can accurately describe God or God’s relationship to mankind. The Christians have this book which is several thousand years old and written by a number of authors. Some religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, do not even have a God in the Christian sense of the word.

So when a great artist like Ingmar Bergman is honest about his own doubt, I am refreshed by his honesty. The problem, to me, is not how to worship God, but how to make one’s way in this bewildering world without benefit of Providence or God’s love.

I used to be a devout Catholic. Then, in September 1966, I survived major brain surgery and moved to Los Angeles to begin graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. For a brief while, I felt grateful to God for my survival; then, I thought: Why did He try to destroy me with twelve years of excruciating pain? The only masses I have attended since then have been funerals and nostalgic visits to beautiful old South American churches.

Magical Architecture: Santa Catalina (Arequipa)

A Warren of Narrow Pedestrian Walkways

Surprisingly, the most magical places I visited in Peru were not the world-famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu or other places, but rather the Spanish churches and convents. After all, the Inca had no writing, so while their ruins showed an incredible knowledge of masonry that could withstand severe earthquakes, there was little that aroused my imagination.

A place that did, however, was the giant convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It occupied something like a whole square mile that was walled off from the city that surrounded it and had a warren of narrow pedestrian walkways.

It Was, After All, a Convent

I spent an entire day, from morning to late afternoon, wandering around the grounds of Santa Catalina, with its monastic cells, courtyards, kitchens, chapels, and even a strange room where the faces of nuns who had died were painted on canvases and displayed.

At Times, It Was Almost Like Modern Art

As Christianity begins its slow fade in the Western World, I begin to look upon religious monuments of the past as being every bit as interesting as that of ancient civilizations. In Peru, I loved visiting the old churches, convents, and museums of ecclesiastic art. I must have attended a dozen masses, just because they took place while I visited.

The Walls Were All Either Blue or Dark Orange

I took dozens of photos which I could have shown here, because Santa Catalina mesmerized me. If you should happen to go to Peru, you will probably wind up in Cusco and Machu Picchu, but for your health, it is better to go first to a place where you will not be so afflicted by the dread soroche (altitude sickness). Arequipa, at 7,660 feet (2,335 meters) is a good place to prepare yourself.

And not just because of Santa Catalina!

Serendipity: A Plea from the Pagans

Winged Victory (Nike) bronze statue against background of Trajan’s Column and dome of Santa Maria di Loreto church. Rome, Italy.

I have always been fascinated by the period of transition from the Paganism of Ancient Rome to the Christianity of the last days of the Western Roman Empire. It was in AD 313 when Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire with his Edict of Milan; and it was in AD 476 when the Western empire fell.

Naturally, the transition was not sudden. In AD 375, the Emperor Gratian had the Altar of Victory removed from the Roman Senate, this despite the fact that most of the members of the Senate were still Pagans. On that occasion, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus complained to the emperor: “Grant, I implore you, that we who are old men may leave to posterity that which we received as boys.” He goes on:

All things … are full of God, and no place is safe for perjurers, but the fear of transgression is greatly spurred by the consciousness of the very presence of deity. That altar contains in itself the harmony of the members of our order and the good faith of each of them individually. Nor does anything so much contribute to the authority of the Senate’s decrees, as the fact that one body, sworn to the same oath, has resolved them. Greco-Roman Paganism is to us a ridiculous body of myths, but to the Roman Senators, making sacrifices to the Altar of Victory was not only patriotic but an act of piety.

Symmachus continues:

Let me use my ancestral ceremonies, she says, for I do not repent me of them. Let me live after my own way; for I am free. This was the cult that drove Hannibal from the walls of Rome and the Gauls from the Capitolium. Am I kept for this, to be chastised in my old age?… I do but ask peace for the gods of our fathers, the native gods of Rome. It is right that what all adore should be deemed one. We all look up at the same stars. We have a common sky. A common firmament encompasses us. What matters it by what kind of learned theory each man looketh for the truth? There is no one way that will take us to so mighty a secret. All this is matter of discussion for men of leisure. We offer your majesties not a debate but a plea.

This plea did not sit well with the new Christian orthodoxy of the empire. St. Ambrose wrote the official response, which was essentially that Christianity was replacing the old order of things.

Interestingly, it is now Christianity that seems to be on the defensive … to be replaced by—whatever.

 

A Christian Sugar Coating

Landscape from Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

This is my first post since I promised to read several Arthurian manuscripts from the 11th and 12th centuries A.D. and report on my conclusions. The main conclusion is that we have been conditioned by later re-tellings of the legend to regard the tales as primarily Christian. That’s because the whole Matter of Britain including Arthur, the Holy Grail, Lancelot, and Camelot have been hijacked—first by Christian monks and then by Victorians such as Howard Pyle.

I am currently reading a work by the 12th century poet and troubadour Chrétien de Troyes entitled Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charette). It contains what might be the earliest mention of Lancelot of the Lake, whose name is not even mentioned until halfway through the work. (Since there are so many unnamed knights in the work, it is difficult at times to follow the action.)

Lancelot Having Sex with Guinevere or Some Unnamed Damsel

In no other early Christian work does one find such unabashed indulgence in sex as one does in some of the earlier Arthurian romances. This seems to me somewhat contrary to Christian mores of the time, though probably not in actual practice. In Chrétien’s telling, several damsels want to give themselves to Lancelot, but he holds back because of his desire to rescue Guinevere from King Bademagu and his nasty son Meleagant, who kidnapped her. After Lancelot’s fight with Maleagant, the married Guinevere readily gives herself to the French knight:

Now Lancelot possesses all he wants, when the Queen voluntarily seeks his company and love, and when he holds her in his arms, and she holds him in hers. Their sport is so agreeable and sweet, as they kiss and fondle each other, that in truth such a marvellous joy comes over them as was never heard or known. But their joy will not be revealed by me, for in a story it has no place.

Lancelot Slaying Enemy Knights

The adulterous love is only one element borrowed from earlier pagan myths. There is something rather suspicious about medieval knighthood. It seems to derive from Celtic and Germanic sources of powerful warriors, but glazed over with a Christian sugar-coating.

 

Time and Chance

Statue Beheaded by the Santa Marta Earthquake of 1773

At 3:45 PM on July 29, 1773, a Richter 7.5 temblor struck the third capital of Guatemala, then called the Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalan. The city was filled with churches, monasteries, and convents. Half of the city’s religious were killed by the quake, and within a couple of years, the capital moved to its present-day location in the Valle de la Ermita, where it is known as Guatemala City.

Nowhere was the devastation more apparent than the churches in the western half of the city now known as Antigua, especially the Church of the Recollects on 1a Calle Poniente. During my five-day stay in the city, I visited approximately a dozen ruined churches. None, however, made quite the impression on me as La Recolección.

Ruins of La Recolección in Antigua

The roof of the church had completely caved in, sending huge multi-ton masses of brick and concrete crashing to the floor. If any services were being held at the time, I find it hard to believe that there were any survivors. For all I know, there may still be skeletons under the masses of rubble.

While in Antigua, I called my brother in Palm Desert, California and described the chaos to him. Dan Paris, who has spent years building in earthquake country, told me that much of the disaster could have been avoided if only the Spanish had mixed straw with the concrete. The Maya, whose own houses were built based on a racial memory of thousands of years of shaking earth, did not suffer quite so much.

Not all the churches in Antigua were flattened by the Santa Marta quake of 1773. La Merced and San Francisco were two of the churches that managed to survive more or less intact, though the convent attached to La Merced was heavily damaged.

Ruins of La Recolección with Volcan Fuego in Background

It felt odd for me—who had traveled to Guatemala to see the ruins of ancient Maya cities—should have started my trip visiting the more recent ruins of Christianity. It made me feel as if the Christian ruins were, in their own way, equivalent to the Maya ruins, and that we are all subject to the vagaries of time and chance.

 

 

Among the Ruins of Christianity

A Room in the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima, Peru

I started my travels in 1975 with an interest in ancient civilizations. Then, I found myself also visiting the ruins of a much more recent civilization—our own. It reached its apogee in Peru. I was definitely interested in the Inca, but I found the remnants of Christianity in Peru to be even more interesting. Lima in particular was a treasure house of ecclesiastical art, not only in the cathedral and the main churches, but also in the archbishop’s palace, which is just as interesting.

For some reason, I was particularly interested in the depiction of angels in the New World. These were not the hermaphroditic or epicene angels of the mother country, but images of masculine strength that obviously owed something to the images of supernatural beings among the Incas.

Image of Angel in Lima’s Cathedral

The angel in the above picture appears to be driving a spear into some unformed material, like clay. There is a look of determination on the angel’s face as well as a feeling of strength. Most of the statuary and art in the churches were actually done by Peruvians, and not transshipped from Europe.

Statue of Angel in the Museo de Las Conceptas in Cuenca, Ecuador

I saw the above statue in the Museo de Las Conceptas in a former convent in Cuenca. He is another one of those militant angels of South America, and one who is in the middle of overcoming a demon. Cuenca has two religious museums. One is the former cathedral on the main square, and the other is in the former convent.

If you find yourself visiting Latin America, you will find some interesting bits of our own history as it has been adapted and modified by the converted natives. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is among the highland Mayans of Chiapas. I don’t have any pictures for you, because I was warned against even taking my camera to Chamula. Some European tourists were killed by the Chamulas by taking photos in the church. My brother and I did see the church. There were statues of Christ, the Virgin, and various saints, but they were covered with stalks of corn. In place of pews, there was a large open space, where the Chamulas lie face down on the floor with arms outstretched, surrounded by lit candles.

As you can see, going to church is a part of my visits to Latin America.

 

From Out of Nowhere: Bam! Nibiru!

It’s All Over This Saturday

For feeble-minded Christians, especially those who believe in all the cockamamie conspiracies that are “revealed” by self-proclaimed prophets, Earth can possibly be destroyed this coming Saturday by a roving hidden planet that no one has seen yet. That planet has variously been called Nibiru and Planet X (among other things). That’s the prediction of David Meade, a self-published author whose subject matter is astrology and the Bible. How can such a planet, supposedly larger than the Earth, be at one and the same time invisible and moving very, very fast?

This whole Nibiru/Planet X catastrophe has been predicted several times before. Even Meade originally set the date in October, but revised his prediction because of the recent eclipse. I would have thought he would base his prediction on that well-known Beast of the Apocalypse, Donald J. Trumpf—but no.

Sometimes I think these Christian conspiracy theorists have altogether too much time on their hands.

My suggestion is that, on Sunday, September 24, the survivors of the Nibiru disaster gather together to mock David Meade and his kind. You can do so by contacting him at DavidMeade7777@gmail.com—if, that is, he doesn’t close that e-mail account beforehand.

 

Grace Notes

Ex-President Jimmy Carter

Ex-President Jimmy Carter

I’m not going to wait for Jimmy Carter to die before giving him the tribute I think he so richly deserves. No man who has served as President of the United States has gone on to have such an inspiring post-political career. He has been a force for good both in the United States (Habitat for Humanity) and across the world (The Carter Center).

In a recent interview, he says he has had a good life, and that the best decision he ever made was marrying his wife Rosalynn. (The worst decision was not sending an additional helicopter to rescue the Iranian hostages.) He is thankful for his life—and millions around the world who have been touched by his good deeds are thankful for his life.

I once worked with Manuel D. Plotkin, who served as Carter’s director of the Bureau of the Census. He recalls once meeting his former boss in a hotel lobby. Upon recognizing him, Carter asked how he feels the 1980 census, which was performed under his watch, came out. Plotkin smiled and said, “It was a resounding success, Mr. President.” Carter smiled and shook his hand, replying, “I’m happy something turned out well.”

Today, as his days dwindle down to a few, Carter is the closest thing we have to a living saint. Never have I seen an Evangelical Christian who not only showed he had something between his ears other than mucus, but demonstrated in his own life a muscular and honest Christianity that serves as a beacon to all men of all faiths. I understand that after his cancer treatments today and tomorrow, he plans to teach Sunday school. I think that what he would have to say would be worth listening to, because who today—especially if he or she has been in politics—has lived the Sermon on the Mount the way he has?

If the Christian heaven truly exists, President Carter, it is because of the efforts and beliefs of men like you!