Since writing my article ‘Fred Rogers vs. Oprah Winfrey,’ I got a chance to see Tom Hanks’ new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I thought it was a beautiful, moving film, and I came away wanting to be a better person. Interestingly, I went with a group of friends who were divided between those who loved the movie and those who hated it.
One of the people in the group who didn’t like the movie texted me the next day, saying he thought the film was opposed to the values of classical education.
Tertullian (155-220) once famously questioned what commonality there was between Athens and Jerusalem, indicating his suspicion of attempts among his contemporaries to synthesize Christianity with Greek philosophy. My friend asked a similar question, “What hath Mr. Rogers Neighborhood to do with classical education?” His answer was just as emphatic as Tertullian: NOTHING.
Well, that got me started, and for the rest of the day my poor friend was inundated with a series of text messages explaining why I thought the Mr Rogers’ movie was congruent with the values of classical education. (For me, any type of communication is serious discourse, even text messaging.) Below I will copy and paste my side of the conversation because it gets to the heart of something that is of profound interest to many of my readers, namely the relationship between classical education and emotional wellness. To respect my friend’s privacy, I will not be sharing his side of the conversation, although my replies do make reference to his objections.
In 2012 I wrotethat good fiction can help us grow in wisdom by inviting us to grapple with the pain, confusions and ambiguities of human experience, including experiences that we may be very different to our own. We grow into richer and deeper people by living through these experiences, even vicariously through fictional characters.
I was reminded of this recently as I’ve been reading 20th century Catholic novelists who portray the crisis of doubt. For me, two of the most intriguing works in this genre have been Silence by Shūsaku Endō, and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.
Silence is a novel Endō wrote in 1966 showing the progression from belief to apostasy in the tumultuous context of 17th century Japan. The End of the Affair (1951) chronicles a journey in the other direction: from unbelief to faith. Both books present agonizing spiritual dilemmas for the characters, and both conclude with the faith of the main character still unresolved for the reader.
Silence, like Psalm 13, struggles with God being completely quiet in the midst of the soul’s agonizing quest for Him. But unlike Psalm 13, which ends in praise of God, Silence ends on a deeply discordant note. By contrast, The End of the Affair explores the turmoil that arises when we want God to be silent and yet He palpably and inconveniently invades our world, demanding commitments from us that seem to only bring pain and loss in their wake.
In 2016, Silence was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese, himself a lapsed Catholic who wanted to do justice to the book’s spiritual themes. The film is an amazing work of artistry that remained true to Endo’s book, although watching it is no substitute for reading the book.