Jesus, Psalm 19 and Empty Words

The Sound of Silence
Jesus had something to say about empty words. We’ll get to these words a little a later after we’ve encountered some other words, as well as some silence. Simon and Garfunkel rereleased The Sound of Silence as a single some fifty-six years ago in September 1965 to some acclaim. Its previous release, in a different musical form, a couple of years earlier had not been a success. The song was written by Paul Simon and since 1965 there have been diverse opinions as to its meaning. Such ambiguity and polyvalence are often a good thing for a song or a poem’s popularity and therefore survival. This is, for example, probably part of the story behind the 150 biblical psalms which are most likely a small fraction of Israel’s hymnody.

I understand The Sound of Silence to be an expression of concern about the nature of modern society and culture. More specifically, that a clarity regarding underpinning principles, philosophy or truth is absent. There is instead just a resounding silence. This lack of words of value and words of veracity seems to fit with:

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

The singer of the song seems to know a potential antidote to this cultural malaise:

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”

But this wisdom is met as just another voice amid the competition, and these ‘words, like silent raindrops fell’. The song goes on to allude to the creation of new gods—the neon god they made—alluding perhaps to consumerism, materialism and marketing, symbolised by the observation that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”.

Whether, or not, this is the meaning of The Sound of Silence, I find that any testament I make as to my faith is met by people ‘hearing without listening’ and perhaps to them my words, as ‘my truth’, are like me ‘talking without speaking’. In a world of cynicism about a guiding narrative all testimony to something bigger rings hollow or perhaps there is simply a communication failure. And so in this way the collective denial of universal truth means that ‘silence like a cancer grows’. Words as signifiers and pointers to something else evaporate if there is no possibility of belief in what they point to.

Creative Speaking and Speech
The Bible, when it can be heard, makes a very different claim right from the outset. Just a few verses in, and we find all creation being spoken into existence. And with such rhythm that words are celebrated as this unfolds. God even takes delight in naming things. Following on from such an opening, is it any surprise that Psalm 29 can make the more modest claim that God’s voice is like the loudest thunder? Although here, God’s voice is as destructive as it is creative in Genesis 1. It seems that this biblical deity can both create and destroy with his thunderous voice. Humankind echoes this potential for bipolar speech-acts as part of their reflection of God’s image. Our ability to both create and destroy with our words is part of what lies behind the empty words that Jesus refers in Matthew’s gospel (see below).

Psalm 19 also picks up where Genesis 1 leaves off. There the connection between creation and God’s speech is given a little twist. In verses 1–6 it is creation that does the talking, speaking of the God who spoke it into existence:

Day after day they pour forth speech;
  night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
  no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
  their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:2–4, NIVUK

These verses push the speech metaphor to breaking point. This is both ‘speech’ (v.2) and ‘not speech’ (v.3). This recognition that we are both dealing with a metaphor and stretching it to its limit is vitally important. We are dealing with poetic (but nevertheless true) ideas in all their richness. Neither Genesis 1 nor Psalm 19 provide literal accounts of creation being spoken into existence or creation testifying to its creator. We have something that is mysteriously difficult to pin down. We have language grappling with the undeniable reality of creation as observable fact—testifying in some sense to the creator. This is a testimony that can’t be otherwise, a worldview that accepts creation without creator makes no sense here. This is a working hypothesis that explains the universe in all its wonder and magnificence. This is no mechanistic account of the way things are, or the way things came to be. This is faith seeking understanding—a faith and an understanding that is more than two millennia old but we each should make afresh day-by-day.

Instruction
The second half of Psalm 19 deepens this poetic claim of metaphysical insight. Verses 7–11 complement creation’s testimony to the creator with reflection on the creator’s words. These words are precious and sustaining to creation and its creatures:

The decrees of the Lord are firm,
  and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
  than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
  than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
  in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:9b–11, NIVUK

Some scholars of the old form critical school see a tension between the first and second part of this psalm. But this is over-categorisation to the detriment of the richer poetry and synergy of its claims, all centred on speech. The creation and God’s instruction are twin pillars of order behind the space-time universe. They are each so very different and yet interwoven as the very fabric of reality.

In the face of God, the creator, whose creation points to him as a cosmic signpost and the claim that he has provided instruction for us, the psalmist is all too aware of their frailty (vv.12–13) and asks:

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

Empty Words?
Such a laudable response to God seems worlds away from these sober words of Jesus:

‘. . . But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Matthew 12:36–37, NIVUK

Before we rush confidently to celebrate the merciful possibility of acquittal we would do well to pause. We all know that our words can be creative and life giving as we echo a microcosm of God’s creative capacity. It is equally clear just how destructive our words can be. Even our empty words can cause real harm and destruction. Being human means experiencing time-and-again, directly and indirectly, both the life-giving and destructive potential of words. Words after all are not heard in a vacuum. They arise from our heart (Matthew 12:35) and they signify the state of our innermost being.

How might we avoid empty words? How might we not be silent when we should speak? Whilst we can try harder, and this might not be a bad thing, it’s not the answer. Rather, the hope we have is not only to look to Jesus Christ, the Word, to acquit us, but to also to transform us. What if praying such Scriptures as those above could work such a miracle?

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
  be pleasing in your sight,
  Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14, NIVUK

 

 

Reel Spirituality: My Top 10 ‘Theological’ Films

Top 10 lists can be rather self indulgent. And if you find them so you might want to skip this post! I am hoping, however, that this post might have some value in celebrating the role that good cinema can have on our personal spirituality. I am hoping that this post will inspire some dialogue—please comment below, politely please!

The films below are not ‘Christian films’—although a small number are meant to be religious, or spiritual, to some extent. They are films that have been made by people at the top of the cinematic game who want to shed light on the big issues of life, as well as no doubt having other motives too. Such films when viewed through our vision of Christ, and imagination informed by faith, have the potential to enrich our minds and hearts. Films can also be a tool for sharing our faith.

This is not a film review and I want to avoid spoilers, but some elements might be given away so please don’t read the supporting text if you are a purist and have not seen one of the films.

Number 10 on my list is The Thin Red Line. This film seems like a typical, albeit very good, war film at the start of viewing. It is towards the end of the film that events and words work to achieve a special depth and profundity. The film’s conclusion also makes sense of other earlier elements in the film. Even if you normally don’t watch war films why not give this one a go? Like many of the films below it does have some gritty aspects—these help root the film appropriately in the full horror that is war. I would recommend you check all of the film’s below in terms of their rating/classification before watching—I know not all Christians approve of various adult themes in cinema.

The next film, Of Gods and Men, is closely based an a true story. This adds to a sense of growing concern for the monks, who are centre stage, as you watch this film. It becomes increasingly apparent that there won’t be a classic happy ending. This film, like a number of others here, raises questions about the value of life and to what extent we stick with the calling that God makes on us in the face of extreme hostility.

Number eight on my list is a film that I find to be as beautiful as it is at times harrowing. It shows the gospel and the Church being worked out in South America. To my mind, it simultaneously celebrates the gospel whilst casting an immense shadow on some aspects of the Church as institution. The film also has one of the most remarkable portrayals of conversion to Christianity that I have ever seen on screen. Like all the films here it contains tears. In each film the tears are shed in different contexts. Here the tears are shed as awareness of sin comes home to someone who has trafficked uncountable people, and even killed his own half-brother.

Number 7 on the list, Silence, takes place at a similar time to The Mission. I can’t say a lot without giving too much away. What I can say, is that it is difficult to watch the terrible experiences that so many converts to Christianity experienced in Japan’s early years of engagement with Europeans. It raises profound questions about how to respond to religious persecution in its most life-threatening forms.

Signs is an unusual film. And it is one where it is important to play close attention to what’s going on right from the outset, otherwise the deeper aspects of the film will be missed. In particular the opening minute, or so, reveals key information about the main protagonist, Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson.

Next, at five, on my list is Life is Beautiful. This film tackles the most disturbing events of the Twentieth Century. Some viewers might find its handling of the subject matter of the horrors of the holocaust have overstepped a line. It is certainly vital to note that from the outset it claims to be ‘a parable’. Never has a film had a more bittersweet conclusion.

Less controversial is the next film on my list, Bladerunner. This film has become a cult film and I won’t get into the issues surrounding the existence of multiple versions of the film. I will however recommend the Director’s Cut for those who need to make a choice without wanting to investigate further. Like other films on this list the real (reel?) revelation occurs in the closing minutes. These closing minutes contain some of the most amazing dialogue in any science fiction film, as well as some less than subtle imagery. The philosophical questions explored in this film are also central to this film’s wonderful sequel, Bladerunner 2049.

Number 3, Gran Torino, is another film which seems to be something different at the outset than what it is later revealed to be. The film does have a lot of bad language, because of the realistic portrayal of one of the sub-cultures that it a key part of the film. The film has, in my view, one of the profoundest ends to any Hollywood film. When I watched this with one of my teenage son, last year, the closing credits felt like a religious experience.

I struggled to choose between the next two films and I’m having second thoughts even as I type. But a ‘joint first’ seemed inappropriate. Terrence Malick is the only director to appear twice on this list and I know he does not appeal to everyone. But please give this film a go if you haven’t seen it. It is a truly amazing film and is undeniably unique. It’s weakness, for some, is that the plot is difficult to piece together on the first viewing. Once the plot is pieced together it reveals an amazing and rich journey of faith. A faith journey as messy, complex, yet full of grace, as many of us in the audience can testify to.

A dialogue spoken at the beginning of the film is a vital lens through which to see the whole film:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

My top choice proves to be a difficult film for some. It is certainly long, but not overly so for me. It has Tom Cruise playing a ill-spoken misogynist who make me cringe. Yet, this film is nothing less than biblical in some ways. Most obviously, all of the film’s many characters are united by an event straight from the Book of Exodus. Even the title is a deliberate play on the Latin term magnalia Dei, the Mighty Acts of God—a reference to the God of Israel’s deeds in the exodus of his people from captivity in Egypt. At a more subtle level, the lives of the characters, like those of the Patriarchs, have repeating patterns. The film can be understood as a reflection on Providence, but of course its probably not quite what Paul Thomas Anderson had in mind. Like number two on this list, The Tree of Life, this film is meant to be seen through the lens of an opening dialogue, After the portrayal of some remarkably unbelievable stories the narrator concludes:

It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “something that happened.” This cannot be “one of those things”. . . This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. . . These strange things happen all the time . . .

In faith, of course, such words connect with us with the central faith and hope we have in Christ.

Please feel free to disagree and offer your own suggestions below.

Already I’m concerned that I’ve found no place for A Hidden Life . . .