The Sound of Scorsese’s Silence

By Nick Olson

It’s been nearly a month since I finally saw Scorsese’s Silence, and what I remember most is the cry of cicadas and how crucial sound is to the film’s translation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel. The cicadas’ song is loud, and in Silence, they sound a sorrowful note.

We hear the cicadas and the crickets before we see anything onscreen. When the title screen appears, there is an abrupt cut to silence. The cue is helpful because we’ve learned to ignore most sounds, let alone nature’s song. Scorsese has much for us to see, but we’d better listen, too, or we may miss everything.

In any film there is a relationship between sound and silence. In Scorsese’s film the relationship is fundamentally theological: Does God speak?

The question is old, but in certain times and places God’s apparent silence seems deafening. My sense is that in America—in a culture where incessant distraction and consumption tramples the habit of being attuned to the cosmos—ours is a time when it’s easy to come to consider God silent. [Read more…]

Singing the Qur’an in Different Voices

heavily ornate lattice covering. I sat through the meeting distracted, nervous.

I should have been at ease. After all, I was with friends—members of a Christian-Muslim interfaith group, people I’d worked with for many years, people I trusted.

But I was coming down with an acute case of performance anxiety. I had asked Ismet Akcin, the Islamic Center of Rochester, New York’s newly installed Imam, if I might recite for him after the meeting, privately, the Qur’an’s “Throne Verse,” sura (or chapter) al-Baqara, verse 255.

And to do this in Arabic.

Hence…anxiety. [Read more…]

Endurance Test

a pair of nice shoes in the center of the floor.By Matt Newcomb.

My father held the wall to work his way from the bed to the couch, avoiding the ship’s bell protruding from the wall. He was sick—the kind of sick that meant out of work too. It was his adrenal system, or his pineal gland, or a hormonal imbalance, depending on the doctor. And it was definitely sleep apnea and diabetes on top of whatever else.

During his illness, when I was in high school, he would play a twisted game with me. I might be sitting in our leather recliner, the ugly but fought-over mark of middle-class luxury in our house. He’d slap me lightly on the cheek to try to get a reaction. No reaction. Another slap, building, a bit harder each time.

It was perhaps less a game than the action of a bored younger sibling, a role he frequently played. There was no question of serious violence; I dominated him in strength, height, and health by this point. Every couple of slaps he would ask if he should stop. My goal was to never say yes. I might move slightly with some slaps, but I would win. The question was whether my frustration or discomfort would make me stop him before his worry about hitting me too hard would stop him.

He was testing my endurance, not for how long I could take pain or discomfort, but for how long I could take him. Would I put up with the pestering slaps of his illness and neediness day after day? [Read more…]

This Place is an Altar

black and white image of a large hall filled with chairs and an altar at the front, presumably a church, that is completely empty. By Jason Bruner.

Pastor David—strong, sincere, and confident in his pressed shirt and polished shoes—greets me in the doorway. “This place,” he pauses, looking me in the eye, “is an altar.”

He seems genuinely glad to have an American in attendance, but I am in an entirely different sort of mood.

I’m in Kampala attempting to conduct research on the history of Christianity and medicine, but a staff strike has closed the libraries and archives for most of my trip. And the foreign, bureaucratic process that I hoped would result in a government office’s stamp of approval felt like trying to walk through an M.C. Escher drawing.

Though it is a short trip, I am depressed and lonely. I miss my wife and daughters. But the real problem is not the research or the strike or the distance.

The real problem is that I have been among people for whom faith matters, and not just in the sense of really believing things, but in the sense that they know they wouldn’t be alive—in a strictly biological sense—without it. For them, it is vital, in every sense of that word.

This vitality makes me aware of an absence: What do I have? Do I even believe in God anymore? Does it matter? [Read more…]

Always Becoming

silhouetted image of a woman standing in front of a window, mostly in dark. outside it is bright, light, and airy, inside you can only see the silhouettes of things. the windows open outwards, the image feels hopeful. The following is adapted from an address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing commencement ceremony last month.

For centuries, wise men and women of various traditions have troubled the terms being and becoming, without arriving at anything like conclusion. We affirm the beauty and joy of being—being writers, being Christians, being laborers in and lovers of a complex realm that is concurrently material and spiritual. Still, in the very midst of our being, we are obliged to affirm the efficacy of becoming, the call to be ever becoming.

During our residency we shared the deep pleasure of poring over Holy the Firm, a delicious if challenging text by the beloved Annie Dillard. Among the many provocative passages in that book, Dillard attends to the gap between what is known and what is.

“Here is the fringey edge,” she writes, “where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam. The salt sea and the islands—molding and molding, row upon rolling row—don’t quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves.” [Read more…]