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The divine emptiness


RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–My best high school girlfriend dumped me during the summer of ’73.

As if that weren’t depressing enough for an angst-ridden teen, I discovered Ingmar Bergman the same summer on the public TV station my mother watched nightly. Whiling away the dog days, wondering if I had a future, I found comfort in the brooding Swedish director’s films. For one thing, he showed me there were bigger things to be depressed about than romantic rejection — like death, existential meaninglessness and the silence of God.

I didn’t come close to comprehending Bergman, but I knew he was asking the Big Questions in films like “The Seventh Seal,” “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light” and “Cries and Whispers.” I was asking the same questions on a far simpler level: Why am I here? Why am I so lonely, even among family and friends? Why is it so hard to love others? Does God exist? Where is He? Why doesn’t He speak to us? Bergman helped me understand what I was searching for.

I began to find answers less than a year later. I discovered that God was eager to speak to me through His Word and His Son, Jesus Christ, that He loved me more deeply than I could imagine and that He desired my whole mind and heart in return.

Bergman, a preacher’s kid, followed a different path. His father was a stern Swedish Lutheran minister who locked him in a dark closet when he misbehaved. The young Bergman accompanied his father on preaching trips to little churches in the countryside, but eventually rebelled against his family and rejected organized religion. (He later said he had lost his faith without realizing it at the age of eight.)

His films personified the crisis of faith in the Western world. But Bergman never stopped searching for God. That quest was the subtext of most of his more than 60 films. Woody Allen, the comedian-turned-director, once called him “probably the greatest film artist … since the invention of the motion picture camera.” If the mark of a great artist is the relentless search for truth, I agree.


Bergman died July 30 at the age of 89. As far as I know, he was still searching.

The “God-shaped vacuum” in the human heart, as someone described it, is a very powerful absence. God placed it in us, His creatures, and nothing can fill it other than His presence. “The heart is restless until it rests in Thee,” Augustine rightly prayed.

This vacuum, this unbearable silence within the souls of those who have yet to encounter Christ, is one of the greatest allies of missions and evangelism. It is a ravenous hunger and an unquenchable thirst that sets unbelievers on an unceasing search for God. As the lost seek Him, the Good Shepherd calls His children to seek them — just as He mercifully sought us.

Worldwide, suicide rates have jumped by 60 percent over the past 45 years, according to The Economist magazine. Each year, about one million people take their own lives. Many suicides occur among the poor and the desperate, of course -– but also among the aimless and the hopeless. Rates are high in ex-communist nations, where new hope has yet to fill the chasm left by regimes that destroyed old traditions. Rates are high in countries such as Japan and South Korea, where students face huge pressures to achieve.

The suicide capital of India is Bangalore, the high-tech urban center where most of the people who take their own lives are highly skilled workers.

Material things and human relationships simply cannot fill the empty space within. Perhaps that’s why so many people in the “new China” are turning to Christ.

“The driving force behind these conversions is a sense of spiritual emptiness,” Robert L. Moore, a professor of anthropology who recently visited China, wrote in the Orlando Sentinel. “China’s new dominant ideology is not communism but consumerism, a consumerism that leaves many middle-class Chinese feeling somehow empty. It is these newly prosperous Chinese who are most strongly drawn to Christianity.”

Moore cited a successful Chinese professional who works for a government TV network. She embraced Christ after finding that other things didn’t satisfy. “So you get good grades,” she told Moore. “So what? So you can buy things. So what? So you have a good husband and a child. So what? Christianity offers something more in life, something of value.”

Uncounted millions feel the same emptiness, whether they can voice it or not.

Ingmar Bergman expressed the emptiness with great power in his films. I hope he found the only One who can fill it.
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

Listen to an audio version of this column at: http://media1.imbresources.org/files/32/3286/3286-18034.mp3