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A Soulful Afternoon in the Library

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. The following appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 16-18. Used by permission.


I was browsing through the recent-arrivals shelf at the public library when one of our librarians stopped to tell me how much she liked a film she had just seen on video. A film critic always hates to admit that he hasn’t seen a film, so I was relieved when the movie turned out to be Cinema Paradiso. Yes, I had seen it and yes, it was a fine work of art. It is much more than that, she said. "Anyone who doesn’t like that picture doesn’t have a soul."

A busy library is not the place to begin a discussion on the nature of the soul and how and whether one can lose one’s soul. But as I resumed my browsing I pondered the matter and decided she was right. Viewers who find Cinema Paradiso just another subtitled yarn about village life in wartime Italy are dangerously close to functioning without a soul. Ifwe define the soul as that dimension of our existence which is connected to the ultimate in the universe, then I am prepared to agree that one needs an active alert soul to resonate with a movie like Cinema Paradiso. This picture invites us to connect with the depths of reality, to mesh with the ultimate.

To engage in an intellectually responsible discussion on this topic in our time we must first define the soul, prove its existence and then explain how it can disappear. This battery of questions cows us into polite submission, for we have been educated to believe that truth must be measurable. We must assemble data according to scientific methods and offer a conclusion that will stand until someone else comes along with newer, more valid data. We are victims and practitioners of the modern mind-set that relies on what Italian philosopher Gianni Vattinio describes as "the reduction of everything to exchange-value" (The End of Modernity).

One way to counter this model of reality is to speak anecdotally—an approach scholars tend to find objectionable. How often we are told: "The evidence you are giving is purely anecdotal, a collection of random stories that can’t stand up to the harsh demands for rational validation." What are the central questions that matter, according to this view? Not how should I live, but will it succeed? Will it work? What is the bottom line? The more data we accumulate to prove that something works, the more validity it possesses. Anecdotal evidence is not sufficient for serious conversation.

Consider, as just one example, the man whose eyesight was restored by Jesus. When questioned by his friends as to how such a miracle could have happened, the man replies, anecdotally, "All I know is that I once was blind, and now I can see." Nice, but not enough to verify the healer as a reliable practitioner.

French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard maintains that one of the deadening contributions of modernity is to limit knowledge to "quantities of information" that are "translatable into computer language." In a section on Lyotard in An Introductory Guide to PostStructuralism and Postmodernism, Madan Sarup points out how Lyotard explicitly contrasts scientific language, the language of verification and falsification, with narrative or story, "which certifies itself without having recourse to argumentation and proof." Narratives are "fables, myths, legends," which scientists regard as part of a "different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped."

This embrace of measured reality as the only valid reality is at the opposite end of the spectrum from an equally irresponsible dependence on emotion alone. We would not survive as an organized society if we all relied only on John Wesley’s dictum: "If your heart is right, give me your hand." A more balanced approach is essential. (Wesley balanced it with stern disciplines of thought and action.) But the soul shrivels when it is not open to experiential connections with the ultimate. Our obsession with measured reality ill prepares us for God’s strange, undeserved and unexpected gifts of grace.

Describing a period in his career when his health was bad and his spirits low, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman confessed to a friend, "I’m about to lose my joy. I can feel it physically. It’s running out. I’m just drying up, inside." Bergman recalled how Johann Sebastian Bach discovered that his wife and two of their children had died while he was away on a trip. In his diary Bach wrote, "Dear Lord, may my joy not leave me." In his autobiography Bergman wrote: "All through my conscious life, I . . . lived with what Bach calls his joy. It . . . carried me through crisis and misery and functioned as faithfully as my heart, sometimes overwhelming and difficult to handle, but never antagonistic or destructive. Bach called this state his joy, a joy in God."

To lose one’s joy is to lose one’s soul. Our existence is too crowded with burdensome tasks and unexpected setbacks for us to assume that alone we can overcome what confronts us. Bach’s experience of joy continues with us through his music. Bergman’s constant struggle between the experience of grace and despair is permanently available in his films. Both Bach and Bergman testify that holding on to joy is no easy assignment. But without joy, the ability to connect with the ultimate, we are left with only the hollow certainty of measured reality.


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