By Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, May 2, 2015
I've been haunted –fascinated – by screens: movie screens, television screens, computer screens. For a long time, as the following example suggests.
"Long ago, rain fell on mud and became rock … half a billion years ago … but even before that … beneath the rocks … are the words of God. Listen."
Those who have seen the beautiful 1992 film directed by Robert Redford, A River Runs Through It, based on Norman Maclean's book, may remember this opening scene where Maclean's father, a Presbyterian minister and seasoned fly fisherman, bends down to the height of his two young sons with a river stone between his fingers.
In the closing scene, a narrator speaks over striking images of nature: "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs."
Then the last line, one I've used in a sermon on baptism: "I am haunted by waters."
The first time I saw A River Runs Through It, it seemed to me to be the creative “screening” of the beginning of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him… life… light that shines in the darkness, without being overcome … And the word became flesh, and lived among us.”
Another line from the film “screens” all those scriptures that suggest on the one hand that we cannot earn or merit salvation (God’s love), that it is free – that’s why we call it grace – but, on the other hand, not easy. It’s Norman Maclean's reflection on his father's love of fly fishing, and the expertise he had gained.
"My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."
I am haunted by screens.
The incredible thing about screens is they can take us to emotional heights and depths we never imagined. Their power, for example, is that any one of us might walk into a darkened theater and move out into the light a different person. In a way, good movies have that power in common with a moving liturgy.
During the Civil War, Walt Whitman often visited the sick and wounded as a volunteer nurse. He would read passages from the scriptures to dying soldiers, one of whom inquired whether he was a religious man. He replied: "Probably not, my dear, in the way you mean." Then he kissed the dying man.
Similarly, the best religious films, TV shows and novels I've seen and read are not religious in the way that phrase is commonly understood.
Have you ever identified a spiritually astute scene you came across in a movie or TV show … or a novel? One that invited reflection both from those of us who may think of ourselves as religious or spiritual, and those of us who may not. I suspect it was probably not from a film with a specifically religious theme, one that would not appeal to mass audiences because it seemed like an illustrated sermon, or, in the case of a book, simply a lengthy sermon.
If you have one in mind, I'd appreciate a note about it. Send an email note to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may find it in a future column.
I am haunted by screens.
[Canon Bill Lewellis, email@example.com, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]
By Bill Lewellis
Canon Bill Lewellis
I recommend this 138-minute film from director Terrence Malick (Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn), now available on DVD. It could be the centerpiece of a fruitful two-day retreat. Having viewed it twice (easy for a retired guy to say), I'd recommend a first viewing prior to consulting any reviews. Don't seek meaning, just let the film flow into you. If you have already read reviews, do what you can to prescind from them. Let the film – the imagery, the music and the narrative – simply flow into you. Then (1) bask in what you've seen, and (2) read a few reviews. There are many. Here are five: Spirituality and Practice, NYTimes, Roger Ebert, The Guardian, Wikipedia. On the second day, or some later day, view the film again. Enjoy again while seeking your own meaning, not what the director's meaning may be but what you seem to be taking from it. Make liberal use of the pause button for contemplation. Says Roger Ebert at the conclusion of his review, "It all happens in this blink of a lifetime, surrounded by the realms of unimaginable time and space." Warning: It requires concentrated viewing. If you are in any way distracted while watching The Tree of Life, if you watch it with anything else on your mind, you will neither enjoy the film nor solve your distractions.