The End of the Tour

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 2.]

Well, now I have to finally finish Infinite Jest. I’ve been sort of superficially fascinated by David Foster Wallace since I read The Pale King. I’ve read parts of essays, plus my (so far) abortive attempt to read Infinite Jest. The comments I’d read by him seemed to frustrate any attempt to make him into any kind of authorial or celebrity cliché. His thought seemed genuinely original, at least compared to most of popular culture.

Consider this commencement speech, for example, in which we hear how excellently Jason Segel impersonates Wallace’s voice. It is interesting for the additional reason that Wallace stumbles upon a truth that Lutherans should know well: everyone worships. Everyone has a god, whether they know it or not. “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart” (Luther, Large Catechism, First Commandment). He does not, of course, come to the Christian conclusion (namely, that if “your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one,” but “where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God,” who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ), but he apparently knew well the unlimited jealousy of those gods, being unable to extricate himself, except by taking his own life.

So I’d been wanting to see The End of the Tour (available on Amazon Prime), but, again, only half-heartedly. It’s difficult for me to watch biopics because I always wonder how true to life they are, which keeps me from enjoying them as movies. I haven’t read the book by David Lipsky on which this film is based, but Jason Segel is certainly believable as Wallace, from the interviews I’ve seen. The idiosyncrasies on display, including his junk food consumption and his contentment living and teaching at a small school in Illinois (at least during the time period of the film), add texture to the portrait of who the man was.

As David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is quickly recording words and impressions of Wallace’s house toward the end of the film, one particular thing struck me as it seemed to strike Lipsky, something strange enough not to be made up. He is looking at pictures in the bedroom and he finds a card with a prayer by St. Ignatius, “Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing that I do your will.” An interesting decorating decision, to say the least, since he never appeared to embrace any form of Christianity. Apparently he also went through the Roman Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults a couple times, though he never became Roman Catholic.

Other than to note significant moments (like highlighting quotes in a book), I don’t really know how to write about this movie, nor do I really want to. I want to recommend it, however, for consideration and digestion. While there is a lot of flippancy in the conversations between David and David (as would happen in real conversations), there are also moments of profundity, as Wallace (or, at least, Segel’s Wallace) hits regularly on the depths of what it means to be human, or lonely, or an artist, or famous. Or, for that matter, how much we love to be mindlessly entertained—which, without even finishing it, is very clearly the main theme of Infinite Jest.

Though much of the film is funny, there is a pallor that hangs over the whole thing, because of the significant choice to begin the film with Lipsky receive a phone call informing him of Wallace’s suicide (nearly ten years ago now). The tension that runs throughout the film, walking the line between happiness and sadness, between public and private personas, seems to have run through Wallace’s life itself. And it is a tension that is produced by an actual self-consciousness, an introspection that often leads to depression and suicide.

This is one of the increasingly rare films that is primarily dialogue-driven, but becomes compelling for that reason. It is not abstract philosophy, but the philosophy of a life lived under a perpetual question mark. Obviously, for Wallace, the question never was answered. But that he was thoughtful enough to raise the question in a culture as superficial as ours seems to be, and that he foresaw what the internet and entertainment could do, makes him and this film well worth considering.

Lost in the Bedroom

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 27.]

File this under favorite authors/favorite films. I’ve enjoyed reading Andre Dubus since I was in college. “Killings” is one of his short stories that moved me most. (For another, try “A Father’s Story.”) Todd Field and Rob Festinger do both the story and Dubus himself more than justice in their 2001 film adaptation, In the Bedroom.

I don’t detect a false note anywhere in this film. Every detail is fitted perfectly to the story, every moment adds texture and contour and weight. The kids on the baseball field, the Red Sox games on the radio at significant moments, the details of place in Maine: this is what it looks like to build a believable film.

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Inventing New Gods and Old

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 22]

It will always be my favorite example of Hollywood missing the point entirely: the 1999 remake/reimagining of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. The End of the Affair was one of my favorite novels that I read while I was in college. So when I first heard that the movie had come out with Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes, and Stephen Rea, I was excited to see how Greene’s vision translated to film.

I have no illusions about the difference between books and movies. I prefer, as often as possible, to read the book before I watch the film. But they are not the same sort of thing. Books can do things that films can’t, and vice-versa. But if the film misunderstands or completely misses the central theme of the book—especially if it’s one of my favorites!—it takes all enjoyment out of the experience of interacting with those two visions.

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The Dogma is the Drama


Amen and amen.

Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction.  If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious–others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them.  If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him?  We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly.  Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.

It is the dogma that is the drama–not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death–but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and the gate of death.  Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.

[Dorothy Sayers, “The Dogma is the Drama,” Letters to a Diminished Church20-21]




[Yes, there are “spoilers.”]

Silence is not a “Christian” movie.  If it were, no doubt the climax would see Inoue and his translator converted, the Japanese Jesuit mission judged an astounding success, and both Ferreira and Rodrigues refusing to trample the fumie (the pictures of Jesus or Mary produced in seventeenth century Japan).

It is also not an easy movie to categorize.  I should say, it’s not an easy story to categorize.  I’ve read the novel by Shusaku Endo twice, and because the film adheres so closely to the book, they can be considered as one story told in two media.

But what kind of story is it?  On the surface, it’s about a man riven with love for the Japanese and his Christian mission toward them, but who cannot seem to help them, no matter what path he chooses.  If he holds fast to his faith, they suffer.  If he apostatizes, they suffer, perhaps more deeply.

The title hints at the significant theme underlying the entire story: the silence of God.  For Rodrigues, though there is sound all around him, he does not hear the only Voice for which he longs.  That contrast of silence and sound is one of the masterful devices of the film.  There is very, very little music.  The sound comes (as it does in the book) from rain, waves crashing, the screams of those being tortured, the chants of Buddhist monks, and the hymns of the martyrs.

Endo’s genius (with Scorsese following) is that both the book and the film are silent about whether there really is an answer according to the terms that Rodrigues sets.  Where is God?  Is He speaking?  Is He speaking in the silence, as Rodrigues seems to hear in the voice of Christ toward the end of the movie and the book?

Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet.  “Trample!” said those compassionate eyes.  “Trample!  Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque.  But that pain alone is enough.  I understand your pain and your suffering.  It is for that reason that I am here.”

“Lord, I resented your silence.”

“I was not silent.  I suffered beside you.”

“But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly.  What happened to Judas?”

“I did not say that.  Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do.  For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”

But Our Lord was not silent.  Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.

The question is, of course, is this actually the voice of Christ?  Or is it the voice Rodrigues wants to hear, and so does?  Because this is neither a “Christian” novel, nor a “Christian” movie, we are left to ponder this for ourselves.

But that’s not the only question raised by the story.  Immediately, the question is, what would anyone do when faced with torture if one does not place a foot on a picture?  One of the Japanese interrogators puts it this way in the book:

“The sooner you get through with it, the sooner you’ll get out of here,” roared one of the officials.  “I’m not telling you to trample with sincerity and conviction.  This is just a formality.  Just putting your foot on the thing won’t hurt your convictions.”

The officials kept insisting to the Christians that to trample on the fumie was no more than a formality.  All you had to do was put your foot on it.  If you did that, nobody cared what you believed.

Is it “no more than a formality”?  Was it no more than a formality for the Christians in Rome to worship Caesar and to deny Christ, even if, in their hearts, they still held to Christ?  When, in an earlier scene, the Christians do trample on the fumie, they are then told that it is not enough, that they must spit on a crucifix and call the Mother of God a whore.  What is in a word, an action, a footstep, an image?  Jesus says that to deny Him before men means His denial of us before the Father.  Is that a spoken denial?  A denial in action?  A denial of omission, or of commission?  Silence requires an examination of all these questions.

And what about Christianity in “foreign soil,” in the “swamp” of Japan, as is repeated more than once?  Is Christianity a tree that grows well in one soil, but not in others?  Is it merely a Western religion, that cannot adapt to Eastern conditions?  This is a thoroughly modern question, as any overview of Christian missionary work can attest.  Is Rodrigues correct, or are Inoue and Ferreira?  Fascinating that reviewers on the other side of Christian faith have criticized the film precisely for the reasons that Ferreira says Christianity doesn’t belong in Japan: evangelism itself implies imperialistic and chauvinistic motives.  And, in a parallel move, that Scorsese has been unfaithful to Endo’s book by focusing on Rodrigues’ struggle, while using the Japanese “other” as a mere foil.  These questions are, in fact, at the heart of both the film and the novel, even 50 years ago when Silence was published.

Endo seems to be working through all of these questions and more himself.  This becomes clearer when reading his other books, where he touches on many of the same themes– though, perhaps, nowhere as powerfully as here.  In a few of his short stories, and elsewhere, the names of Inoue and Kichijiro (the inquisitor and cowardly Judas figure, respectively) reappear, indicating that Endo was working through–both before and after Silence–what these characters mean.

Endo, himself a Roman Catholic, struggles with the nature of a Japanese Christianity.  This is complicated by the historical reality of syncretism in Japan, where Christians did combine elements of Buddhism and ancestor worship with Christianity.  The Kakure Kirishitan were those who secretly held their faith and later, when persecution ceased, were reunited with the Church; while the Hanare Kirishitan continued to be separated and practice the syncretistic religion they had received.  [I recommend the fascinating preface by William Johnston in the Taplinger Publishing edition of Silence.  It includes excerpts from interviews with Endo, as well as examination of his views of Christianity and Japanese culture.]

In one sense, this film takes far more seriously the struggle of flesh and the Spirit than many of the movies that have been marketed to Christians in the past few years, which is perhaps why so few Christians have heard of or seem to be going to see this film.  Compared to something like God’s Not Dead, this film is more substantial, significant, and considered.  And because there are no easy answers, it is far truer to life in this creation.  There is no easy, happy ending.  And, for some reason, that has caused some Christian reviewers to condemn it (as if a film had to have a prescribed ending in order to say something to Christians).

This is much more Job than Heaven is for Real.

Which means that it is far more Scriptural than anything else that comes to mind in “Christian” cinema.  And yet, that’s not to say that it should be viewed as anything more than a semi-fictional exploration of faith, doubt, apostasy, and faithfulness.  In other words, this is not Christian propaganda, or proselytizing, or hagiography.  Endo is not, by his writing, praising or promoting some point of view.  This, I think, is why modern Christians are having trouble with both the novel and the film: they cannot categorize it, so it must be something less than edifying–which, perhaps, says more about Americanized Christianity than it says about the Faith (or the film) itself.  The general comfort in which we live–analogized by the fact that I sat in a leather, reclining theater seat to watch the film–has distanced us from the questions of the novel in such a way that the themes are as foreign to us as Japan seems to the Portuguese missionaries, and Christianity to the Japanese persecutors.

Since when is the Christian Faith so fragile that a fictionalized struggle–which is, at the same time, a real struggle–can threaten its adherents?  Maybe since American Christians have quarantined the Faith into neat boxes with 90 degree corners and perfectly straight lines.  Have we lost the ability to think?  (I fear that to ask the question is to receive the answer.)

I wonder, though, if there is not still another level to the story that makes Rodrigues into a Christ-figure, despite himself.  That is, perhaps very real apostasy–very real sin and denial–are sins for which Christ died.  If Christ’s suffering and crucifixion was graphically specific to graphically particular sins, then Rodrigues (again, in spite of himself) bears on his own shoulders the weight of the Japanese apostasy by taking it on himself.  They are set free from the same sin by which he condemns himself.

But even that action is not unambiguous.  And Scorsese complicates it by the absolute silence at the moment of Rodrigues’ apostasy, followed by the crow of a rooster.  Is Rodrigues Christ (as Ferreira tempts him to be)?  Is he Peter?  Or is he Judas (though Rodrigues has continually imagined Kichijiro in that role)?

Endo (and, in near perfection, Scorsese has followed him) has taken historical events and told the story in such complex layers that they have become, like our own lives and motivations, nearly impossible to disentangle.

But maybe that is precisely the point: to discern God’s voice in the myriad deceptions and longings and motivations of our own minds and hearts is a frustratingly silent enterprise.  Like Job in the vast majority of the book that bears his name, God refuses to speak to him.  He prays and rages and asks for an answer, a reason, anything.

God is silent.

But when God speaks, it is not to defend Himself and His ways.  Nor does His answer come where we think it should: in our suffering, or our love, or our desire to be faithful.  Neither is it to give us answers to our whys, or to intervene in the ways we wish He would.  There is an intervention, without a doubt.  But it is in the Son’s suffering, the Son’s love, the Son’s faithfulness.  It is in the Son’s forsakenness, the Son’s being emptied, the Son’s death.

And it is indeed in silence.  A silence more terrible than Rodrigues experiences.  But the counterpoint to the silence of God in the face of Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross is not His silence in the face of our cries.  Since the seraph closed the Garden’s entrance to Adam and Eve, that is nothing new, and it is not redemptive in itself.  The final word is not in how God, though appearing silent, speaks through us.  It is in the voice of the messenger sitting on the stone jarred loose: He is not here; He has risen, just as He said.  To look for another Word, or another Promise, or another Intervention is not faith, but a failure to take God at the Word He has given.  It is unbelief at its most pious: to look for a word from God in some other place than where He has actually spoken.

Neither the book nor the film should lead us to facile and superficial judgments on persecution, blasphemy, or apostasy.  Endo–as he himself said–was writing fiction, not theology.  But the best fiction can lead us into the deepest theological waters, as Silence leads us to meditate on God’s silence.  And perhaps God’s silent refusal to answer the questions we think are so profound can lead us to ask the question whose answer He has already given: whose answer is always and only the forsaken, suffering, dead, and resurrected Christ for us.


“No, that I do not have strength to believe”

But I think it very difficult to believe in a mild providence who looks down upon our earthly hell and smiles graciously in his beard; when I remember Gethsemane it is hard to believe that.  The rag on the rock, He who calls God His Father, is for me a protest and a contradiction of a nicy nice faith in God the Father.  I read during the war about human beings in Hamburg who, during a bombing, melted down with the asphalt in the streets.  Afterwards you could see a little child’s hand stick up out of the congealed mass.  I wonder if it is not the horror of this sight that makes it impossible for me not to look at the Christ hands in our altar painting.  This is the kind of thing the Good Father in heaven ought to look down on.  Perhaps a bit sorrowful, perhaps lifting His finger like an inept school teacher in the seventh grade: “Now let’s all be nice.”  No, that I do not have the strength to believe.

But what about my absolutism with respect to the right.  Perhaps it is a variant of this bland faith.  You put God a little farther away and change Him into a neuter; in that way you don’t have to reckon with His heart.

Klara Svensson in Holy Masquerade (53-54) [my annual Lenten reading]

An Entirely Wrong Scriptural Sermon

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C.F.W. Walther gives us some insight into why not every sermon (or song, for that matter) that is built from the Scriptures is a true or orthodox sermon.

That is the litmus test of a proper sermon.  The value of a sermon depends not only on whether every statement in it is taken from the Word of God and on whether it is in agreement with the same but also on whether Law and Gospel have been rightly distinguished.  If the same building materials are provided to two different architects, sometimes one will construct a magnificent building, while the other, using the same materials, will make a mess of it.  Because he is dim-witted, the latter may want to begin with the roof, or place all the windows in one room, or stack layers of stone or brick in such a way that the wall will be crooked.  One house will be out of plumb and such a bungled piece of work that it will collapse, while the other will stand firm and be a habitable and pleasant place to live.  In like manner, two different sermons might contain all the various doctrines–and while the one sermon may be a glorious and precious piece of work, the other may be wrong throughout.  …

This frequently happens when students give sermons. [Walther is giving lectures to seminary students.]  You will hear comforting remarks such as “It is all by grace,” only to be followed by “We must do good works,” which are then followed by statements such as “With our works we cannot gain salvation.”  There is no order to such sermons.  Nobody understands them–least of all the person who needs one of these doctrines most.

C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, 37-38

“The Flight Into Egypt” III

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Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes–
Some have got broken–and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week–
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted–quite unsuccessfully–
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress with joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father:
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will be done, that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

W.H. Auden, For The Time Being (ed. Alan Jacobs), 63-65

Reformation Week: Loehe on the Lutheran Church


The Lutheran Church knows that the Lord gives his Holy Spirit only through his Word and sacraments, and therefore it recognizes no other effective means than Word and sacrament. …

From its knowledge of human nature it knows that men will sooner open their hearts to the truth when it is gladly but sparingly imparted than when they hear its voice speaking constantly.  Therefore it understands how to give people enough of its means but not too much.  It does not consider it an insult, nor is it eager to interpret it as an insult, when someone says, “This pastor thinks it is enough if he preaches, catechizes, administers the sacraments, hears confessions, and comforts the sick!”  It knows that even the most faithful pastors do not do enough of this.  It has little use for multiplying pastoral duties but treasures those which are commanded in the Scriptures and have been recognized since ancient times.  To many people it is something novel that a man should not be a jack of many trades but a master of the few precious means, yet this is what the church has always thought.  In a word, it accomplishes much through a few means. …

It is enough, and more than enough, if a man just carries out the ancient duties of a pastor.  Superfluous and even a hindrance is the officiousness of modern pastors.  Here the slogan should be, “Not many, but much.”  The poverty of our fathers is richer than the wealth of their opponents.  It is through alternating periods of withdrawal and public appearance, stillness and publicity, through persistent use of Word and sacrament, through giving of a quiet but full measure, through modesty and steadfastness that the Lutheran church attains its goals.

It is not concerned with new means of encouraging good works, although they have been highly praised.  It does not desire to do its good works the way societies or factories do.  It knows that works carried out in the fashion of modern societies easily displace other works, disturb the harmony of manifold good works, and make men one-sided and intemperate.  It is afraid that societies which separate from the church and act as if everything depended on them may become organizations of extravagance and intemperance, even though they carry the name “temperance” in their titles.  …

The church has various activities, therefore, even though the means through which it performs them and encourages all good things are always the same–Word, sacrament, the holy office of the ministry.

Few means–many good works!  That is the way it is with the church.

J.K.W. Loehe, Three Books on the Church, 164-166

Capon on the Workers in the Vineyard

Opsías dé genoménēs [“when evening came”].  Heaven is Miller Time [I, and God, would pick a better beer, but that’s for a different time].  Heaven is the party in the streaming sunlight of the world’s final afternoon.  Heaven is where all the rednecks, and all the wood-butchers, and all the plumbers who never showed up — all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who just gave up on winning — simply waltz up to the bar of judgment with full pay envelopes and get down to the serious drinking that makes the new creation go round.  It is a bash that has happened, that insists upon happening, and that is happening now — and by the sweetness of its cassation, it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.

Heaven, in short, is fun.  And if you don’t like that, Buster (hetaíre [“friend”]), you can just go to…well, you’ll have to use your own imagination.  You’ll need it: this is the only bar in town.

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 397