Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel The Reader is a tricky book to adapt to film. The plot—about how Michael Berg, a teenager in Germany in the 1950s, falls in love with an older woman with a mysterious past—may seem neat and tidy, but the story is actually about fear and guilt, ethical responsibility and moral ambiguity.
He awakens on February first, stunned again by that odd wonder: how quickly old has come. Of course if his will were done he’d have risen youthful, but age is here, he’ll own it. He thanks God
for its coming without companion pain, without reliance on medicine. As he has since he was younger, he puts on snowshoes and clambers over drifts and up a daunting bluff. As much by determination
as muscle he powers on through the powder. The view from here—a blessing: eastward the white White Mountains all seem to be staring placidly down on ice-dams hunched in the river. He kicks his feet out of leather bindings
to climb a tree. West, a neighbor’s strange herd of alpacas mills, all wool, though mere months back—short-shorn, with feeble reeds for necks— they were fragile creatures, naked, susceptible, silly, same as us all.
He forces air out through his teeth—birdwatcher trick—and imagines a lisping cloud, his sounds small jets of steam. Let kinglets come, he dreams. Did an eagle shriek? Too far to tell. But golden-crowned kinglets are flying
from his south to land all around, on his limb and all the way up to the crown, then are gone so quickly he all but missed the marvel: the kinglets come.
For Christians (as for religious people of various sorts), music is a basic human activity. We cannot live without worshiping, and we cannot worship without making music. Smack in the middle of the Bible are the Psalms, the blues and praise songs of the ancient Hebrews. And the earliest confessions of the New Testament may have been lifted directly from hymns that rang out in corporate worship.
Then I looked down into the lovely cut of a missing river, something under dusk’s upflooding shadows claiming for itself a clarity of which my eyes were not yet capable: fissures could be footpaths, ancient homes random erosions; pictographs depicting fealties of who knows what hearts, to who knows what gods. To believe is to believe you have been torn from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim. I come back to the world. I come back to the world and would speak of it plainly, with only so much artifice as words themselves require, only so much distance as my own eyes impose. I believe in the slickrock whorls of the real canyon, the yucca’s stricken clench, and, on the other side, the dozen buzzards swirled and buoyed above some terrible intangible fire that must scald the very heart of matter to cast up such miraculous ash.
2. 2047 Grace Street
But the world is more often refuge than evidence, comfort and covert for the flinching will, rather than the sharp particulate instants through which God’s being burns into ours. I say God and mean more than the bright abyss that opens in that word. I say world and mean less than the abstract oblivion of cells out of which every intact thing emerges, into which every intact thing finally goes. I do not know how to come closer to God but by standing where a world is ending for one man. It is still dark, and for an hour I have listened to the breathing of the woman I love beyond my ability to love. Praise to the pain scalding us toward each other, the grief beyond which, please God, she will live and thrive. And praise to the light that is not yet, the dawn in which one bird believes, crying not as if there had been no night but as if there were no night in which it had not been.
Here’s your Ash Wednesday story. A mother carries her tiny daughter With her as she gets ashed and the Girl, curious and wriggly, squirms Into the path of the priest’s thumb Just as the finger is about to arrive On the mother’s forehead, and the Ashes go right in the kid’s left eye. She starts to cry, and there’s a split Second as the priest and the mother Gawk, and then they both burst out Laughing. The kid is too little to be Offended, and the line moves along, But this stays with me; not the ashy Eye as much as the instant when all Could have been pain and awkward But instead it led to mutual giggling. We are born of dust and star-scatter And unto this we shall return, this is The Law, but meantime, by God, we Can laugh our asses off. What a gift, You know? Let us snicker while we Can, brothers and sisters. Let us use That which makes dark things quail.
Between 1990 and 2010, Iowa lost over 500 churches. The numbers reflect migration from rural to urban areas and the fewer number of people who identify with a faith community. The decline in churches is having a direct effect on the social fabric of the state. According to research at Iowa State University, nine out of ten rural people said they rely less on their neighbors than they once did. Surviving churches have gone back to older patterns to find leadership, engaging itinerant pastors or lay leaders. Some are surviving through cooperation with other denominations or with ethnic Christian groups (Pacific Standard, January 20).