Tag Archives: religion

Who Is My Neighbor: the Quality of Mercy

The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

For Christmas Eve, a repost.

A young man in his blue linen cloak paces the dimly-lit room, then looks out the window  at the crowd gathering in the village square.  His ambitions exceed his current station, but he expects that to change after today. He is a lawyer, which is to say he occupies a lower rung in the religious order. He steps down the mud brick stairs of his house to the courtyard, then walks through the arch and onto the street.

Shielding his eyes against the sun, now  glowing white in a molten sky, he can clearly see the plaza. There are more people than he expected. Surprises irritate the young man, but he consoles himself that the larger audience suits his purpose. He walks briskly to the village square–he always moves briskly–thinking over his scheme to confront, and perhaps trap, the itinerant rabbi from distant Nazareth. His superiors cannot fail to be impressed.

Near the well,  Jesus is  talking to a small circle of men.   As the lawyer approaches the crowd, he feels his hands sweating.   Moving through the throng, he strides up to face the rabbi. After a  self-effacing introduction, he asks, “How can I attain eternal life, Teacher?”, painting  the last word with sarcasm.  He expects that  Jesus’ answer will offend the orthodox and prove his undoing.  The crowd is silenced by the lawyer’s boldness, just as he had hoped.

Jesus  deftly turns the question back on his inquisitor. The lawyer knows the law by rote and so he confidently quotes its letter. Jesus’ response, terse and provocative, exposes a chink in the lawyer’s  armor. The lawyer  tries an evasion. “Who is my neighbor, that I am to love?”

The crowd waits for their teacher to take up the challenge, perhaps with a sermon like the ones they have heard him deliver. Jesus smiles thinly, a knowing smile, but in his eyes there is a flash of anger. He has faced so many of these inquisitions–meant to trap him into some blasphemy–over the last year. The rekindled memories leave him inwardly seething.  He has thought about the answer to this question, or one very like it, through cool, dark velvet nights with only the flickering fire as companion, and so He retains his composure.

Masking his anger with an even voice, Jesus tells a tale of two pious men who pass by a wounded stranger on the robber-plagued Jericho road, not even approaching him to see if alive or dead; and of the third traveler who stops to assist the man, bathing his wounds in oil and taking him to an inn for shelter. Jesus faces the lawyer, but the crowd is his real audience–and when mentioning the solicitous man, He calls him a  Samaritan. Even his close followers glance at each other–did he really say Samaritan? According to Jewish tradition, Samaritans are despised outcasts; there is bitterness and enmity between the two peoples. A Samaritan as role model does not sit agreeably with the crowd, but Jesus had warned his followers that he had come to bring a sword.

His parable completed, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, sir, was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves?”  In the telling of the tale, his anger has faded;  his voice is almost serene.

The lawyer’s arrogance  has wilted in the Light. “He that showed mercy,” he replies, leaving unspoken the distasteful name, Samaritan.

Jesus’ voice is a friendly invitation. “Go and do likewise.”

As the Samaritan ministered to the injured man, so Jesus discerned the wounded spirit of the lawyer inside the cynical shell.  He treated his foe with acceptance, but with the parable challenged him  to think anew. In  so doing,  He placed before his audience a gift, allowing them to see, if they chose, that the quality of mercy is for outcasts as well as members of the tribe, for the reproachful as well as the faithful.

Sometimes a story’s meaning is inside, like a kernel in a husk; and other times the story’s most eloquent message is revealed by the manner of the narrator.



Close Encounters: Spiritual Aura Shines

The hope symbolized by light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.”

Earth's aura and crescent moon (NASA photo)

Earth’s aura and crescent moon
(NASA photo)


  The arts offered a space where we could pause for reflection, and perhaps glimpse a faint glow from over the horizon, amidst the malaise weighing on 1970s America. That most innovative of film makers, Steven Spielberg, slipped the bonds of science fiction’s conventions in a visionary movie. He portrayed an alien spaceship with a spiritual aura, like those Renaissance religious paintings where the radiance from above promises a hopeful future and a chance of renewal.

“Children Opening Doors to Beautiful Sources of Light”

When the 1977 film Close Encounters opens, a luminous space ship dazzles airline pilots by its unearthly maneuvers, while air traffic controllers in the American heartland try to make sense of what they see on their screens. Unable to reconcile what they are witnessing with their familiar experience, they dismiss the extraordinary, rather than seeking its meaning. As the story unfolds, an aged Mexican villager with a beatific smile tells scientists that the sun came out at night and sang to him, as a Madonna might to her child. When the scene shifts back to Indiana, the specter reappears, and Spielberg sends a curious, not fearful, child chasing an elusive orange vapor into the prairie night. What is hidden from the wise and learned is sometimes revealed to children. As Spielberg later explained, “Close Encounters is all about children opening doors to beautiful sources of light.” It is difficult to imagine a more numinous response to the angst then afflicting America.

In Close Encounters, the viewer is from the opening drawn into a world of light, music, and wonder, which captivates the senses more than the intellect. Instead of intrepid explorers, we meet ordinary people, tentative in their search for the strangers. They are warm and approachable, unlike the steely glint of heroism. The viewer can identify with their uncertainty in the face of the astonishing. Close Encounters shares Hamlet’s response to the dreams and phantoms of other worlds: as strangers, give them welcome.

As the story begins, a utility company repairman, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), heads out in his truck when the spaceship’s over flight turns out the lights and plunges Muncie, Indiana into an eerie darkness. He gets lost in the outer burbs, but the aliens seem to find him, and he looks up to a dazzling white glare before the ship glides off into the night sky. Although rattled, Neary listens to the cacophony of voices on his CB radio so he can track the ship’s path, and pursue it. Throughout the movie, this Everyman follows his inner voice, strange and compulsive though it may be, to search for the unknowable. Does obsession lurk in the shadows of the deepest religious experience? Implicit in the movie is this ambivalence.

Enlightened guide and a counter-vision

Although the events in the film unfold as seen by the Everyman character, we have to focus elsewhere to approach the essence of the film. A marvelous work of art, or an idyllic scene in nature, when truly taken in by the viewer, can inspire a sense of awe, but a more profound appreciation flows from knowledge. Similarly, a childlike wonder may inspire a quest for the mysterious light, and Neary’s obsession may pursue it, but only an enlightened guide can enrich the numinous experience.

In Close Encounters, the awareness is provided by a scientist, Claude Lacombe–although what variety of scientist remains nebulous. The actor is an icon of French New Wave cinema, Francois Truffaut, who had expanded the frontiers of film creativity in the 1960s. As the refrain in the movie goes, this means something.

Lacombe’s point of view gives permission to the viewer to reflect on the mystical light. “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” Through Lacombe’s perspective, we are invited to wonder and perhaps to begin to understand; what the radiance might represent is left to us. Given the increasingly materialist and secular outlook that was emerging in the 1970s, and since then has become increasingly dominant, this signifies a counter vision.

Consider that Lacombe is not an American pragmatist, but a French intellectual with a philosophical hue. He is drawn to the mystery, and his métier is the illuminating question. Yet, he is neither conducting an investigation nor solving a problem–that is the province of the technician. Lacombe might well agree with Einstein that scientific thinking involves a free play with concepts. He has the brilliant intuition to use several musical tones as the language to reach out to the aliens, relying on child’s play in the most fateful of communications. Recall the Mexican villager’s description of the ship: the sun that sang. Where a film involving space travel might well focus on the technology, the crucial tool in Close Encounters is simple music, and the goal is communication with strangers.

Quest and possibility

The scientist has set out on a quest—as have the child, Neary’s everyman, and, through identifying with the film’s characters, the audience. Each has taken a risk, even if it is only the hazard of unsettling their comfortable thinking, in hope of being renewed.

Lacombe’s philosophy accepts the possibility that there are things in heaven and earth that dwell beyond the realm of facts. He is like Einstein, who once said that he developed his relativity theory because he was still able to ask childlike questions about space and time. Lacombe has retained the child’s sense of wonder, yet he has cultivated the detachment necessary for insight into the shining enigma. William Blake wrote that the child’s toys and the old man’s reasons are but the fruits of the two seasons. Close Encounters’ script mirrors this: Lacombe is the adult companion to the Indiana boy who opens the door to the beautiful light. Not by force of logical argument, but through being open to creativity and inspiration, he calmly persuades his colleagues of the potential inherent in reaching out to the visitors. Lacombe is a prophet without self-righteousness.

No longer through a glass, darkly

With the majestic arrival of the mother ship at Devil’s Tower, a light from above shining in the darkness, time seems to be suspended, and the spiritual quest of Close Encounters reaches its apotheosis. We are by now alerted to the interplay of light and music that bounces back and forth between the ship and human technology. Emerging at last, the aliens appear, bathed in a diffuse white light. Neary and other explorers ascend into the ship, but the viewer does not follow them into the inner sanctum. What waits beyond the pale is left to the imagination, as each individual’s spiritual vision is her own. We no longer look through a glass darkly, but we are not yet seeing face to face. In Close Encounters, there is enlightenment, but no revelation—no definitive answers, only intimations. The hope symbolized by the light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.

© Tom Schultz, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.

Spiritual Resistance in the Crucible of American Slavery

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

 Inspiration  shines like a beacon  from great films when the screen portrayal reflects historical truth. In the 1989 movie, Glory, blue-clad soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment sing hymns around a campfire on the eve of a Civil War battle.   The former slaves—the United States Army’s first black unit—invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other. “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,” one fiery soldier says, “because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

 [Repost from April]

The historical truth is that the religion of American slaves played a crucial part in preserving their humanity in the face of a brutal system that tore down their human dignity. There was no escape from this existential threat. Slave revolts in the American South proved suicidal. Flight was possible, but so fraught with peril that it was available to only a heroic minority. For the vast majority who remained on the plantations, there was cultural resistance, and the center of that culture was the slaves’ religion.

The slaves’ Christianity taught that there was a power higher than that of the plantation owner, and that before Him the slaves were the equal of any man, with an equal claim to human dignity. Their religion also provided a source of solidarity and collective identity. These were powerful messages in the face of the master’s pervasive control of the slaves’ lives, providing an enclave for the slaves’ human spirit, an inner space protected from the toxic corrosion of slavery.  Religion promised a better future, but also fortified the slaves’ community to endure in the here and now.  100 years later, the civil rights movement’s great orator echoed this spirit. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” Dr. King avowed before the Lincoln Memorial.

The story of this cultural resistance in times that  tried men’s souls is  told in a remarkable book published two generations ago, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, authored by Eugene Genovese. The title itself says so much. Slaves in the American South have often been portrayed as passive, even submissive, and as victims. In Genovese’s account, they are the active subjects who make history, not merely objects to be used and abused by actors who wield greater power. From his narrative, it becomes clear that the slaves’ social labor and their collective struggle to maintain their human dignity contributed as much to the history of the American South as the actions of the planter aristocracy or the exploits of the great political families.

Genovese’s achievement  in writing Roll, Jordan, Roll merits admiration today. Although he is passionate, his book is reliably objective, untainted by the self-righteous tone that so often mars the current spirit in politics. His history reads from the bottom up, giving ordinary men and women their due as historical actors. For an activist and scholar on the left (as Genovese was then), it was a signal mark of creativity to recognize the critical part the spiritual played in enabling the slaves to maintain their humanity.

We are urgently in need of such objectivity and creativity in our politics today. As Abraham Lincoln said in the rancorous 1850s:  ” If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Indeed, with contemporary efforts to ban religion from public spaces and airbrush religion from American history, Roll, Jordan, Roll and its tale of communal spiritual strength speaks to us as a timely voice from the past.

Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone

let he who is without sin cast the first stone

Reclaiming the spirit of the law


A feverish look shines from the eyes of a young woman as three men in cloaks  of fine linen march her into the village square. Her skin is the color of olives; her long, dark hair is not plaited.  She wears a plain robe woven from wool and on her feet sandals of leather. Derisive catcalls and cries of “Adulterer!” “Harlot!” greet her from the gauntlet through which she is pushed and prodded. The white disk of the noonday sun allows no  forgiving shadows.

 The local Inquisitors are using the young  woman as bait, setting a trap to ensnare an itinerant rabbi from far-off Nazareth, who teaches in parables and dares to question their authority. They confront him as he stands near the well, observing the trial about to begin. The laws of Moses command that adulterers be stoned, they taunt him, what say you about this one?

Jesus knows his foes well, these thin-lipped dogmatists of the letter of the law. In all their studies of the prophets, they have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. He has foiled their stratagems before, and he regards them with an expressionless scorn. The crowd impatiently awaits his reply.  Stones in hand, they have their work to do. Jesus does not speak immediately, but instead writes on the ground as he composes an answer to reclaim the spirit of the law. Rising to his feet, he looks over the crowd and says in a voice that carries to the far side of the square:

“He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her.”

Jesus fixes a steady gaze on the Inquisitors, as their smirk of arrogance fades. Those among the crowd who a minute ago were crying for the woman’s blood now have silent tongues. The faintest of breezes rustles the leaves on the sycamore trees. Somewhere in the distance, a child cries. The  Pharisees are reduced to shuffling away in silence; not a word of response have they spoken. They are convicted by their own consciences. The crowd disperses, pondering Jesus’ words. “What does it mean?” a voice asks. No one has a ready answer.

The young woman alone remains with Jesus. She stands silently, in a daze. The cold sweat trickles down her back. I do not condemn you, Jesus says, and she feels the strength returning to her legs. She begins to weep, as relief flows  through her like a river. But Jesus is not one for situational ethics.    He places a hand on her shoulder and says,  “Go, and sin no more.” Before leaving, the woman gets a cool cup of water from the well and offers it to Jesus. He smiles, but with sadness in his eyes, and thanks her.

For one sun bleached afternoon, the law tempered with mercy is redeemed from the ones with bloodless lips who would see it etched into stone. Jesus has spared a woman who broke one of Moses’ laws; in so doing, he has invited the wrath of the patriarchs.  Jesus knows that soon they will have their day.