Wolfe writes of a night in his young adulthood when he and a friend, having nothing better to do, went to a local church to see a free screening of an Ingmar Bergman film, Winter Light (1963).* Neither of the intellectuals was religious at the time and when the minister of the church opened the movie with prayer the two friends exchanged glances, as if to say, so this movie isn’t entirely free.
The film, which I’ve viewed since reading Wolfe’s essay, is about a minister, Tomas, who is having a crisis of faith and is unable to give solace to one of his parishioners, who is in a state of spiritual despair, afraid of nuclear annihilation. But it is the steadfast love of the minister’s girlfriend, a nonbeliever, and the gentle prompting of a hunchbacked, faithful church servant that truly reflect the light of Christ in this film.
After Wolfe viewed the movie that night, an image of William Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World appeared on the screen. Up until this point, Wolfe, who’d been moved by the film, had felt the first stirrings of “grudging assent” toward belief, but when that image popped up on the screen, it was gone. His friend, on the other hand, couldn’t move from his seat, mesmerized by the same image that Wolfe had found “garish, melodramatic, cloying in its technique and sentimentality.” And here are the words that have stuck with me since reading Wolfe’s essay: “We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.”
Prior to reading Wolfe’s essay, I had of course considered how our personal tastes (what Hume described as a peculiar kind of “emotionally inspired discrimination”) can greatly affect our lives--from the home in which we live to the spouse we choose—but I had never really thought about the role aesthetics can play in our religious convictions. But it makes sense. Art is one of the primary vehicles through which religious and theistic ideas are communicated. When I look back on my faith journey so far, it has been art (books, movies, plays, paintings, etc.) that has either helped establish, confirm, challenge, or change my spiritual beliefs.
Wolfe’s words helped me understand how, as my faith has evolved over the years,
certain things I once found emotionally and spiritually evocative, for example a religious image or ritual or worship style, could lose its potency and appeal. Or why I’ve never had a particular affinity for Christian genre music, fiction, or films. (On the recommendation of
several friends, I watched the blockbuster movieFireproof, but I found its message too
Wolfe states in his essay that it was poetry--the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and George Herbert--that moved him back toward the possibility of faith. C. S. Lewis, once an atheist, was partly led to faith through pagan mythological literature. Anne Lamott experienced a “lurch of faith” after reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
I’ve read that our aesthetic tastes are believed to be driven by reward centers in the brain, that sensory stimuli we find particularly pleasant activate our “feel good” hormones. Neuroscientists have also learned that emotionally charged experiences translate into stronger, more vivid memories than do mundane and routine events. The amygdala (a limbic system structure) embeds this emotional event firmly into memory, so that whenever we re-encounter that stimulus (say a religious icon or an object associated with a spiritual epiphany), we associate it with the pleasure (or distaste) we first experienced.
Could our taste preferences, and ultimately our spiritual beliefs, boil down to brain chemistry and hormones? To think, all of our fights and wars in the name of our gods, everyone convinced that their Truth is THE Truth, and maybe, in the end, it might just come down to You say tomato, I say tomahto.
*Winter Light is part of Bergman’s trilogy of faith movies. The others include
Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence.