Reflections on Scorsese’s ‘Silence’

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Last Saturday Stephanie and I watched Scorsese’s Silence. The cinema was pretty empty to begin with, especially for a Saturday evening, but for the first time in my (limited) cinema-going experience, several people walked out of the film within the first hour. I can totally understand its lack of attraction to the average movie-goer: it was a world away in almost every sense from The Departed or Wolf of Wall Street. Yet to Steph and I, a big-budget critically-acclaimed film offering theological reflection about cross-cultural missionary work, persecution and suffering? We were gripped throughout.

However, by the end of the film, we were both somewhat disappointed. We went in expecting profound reflections on suffering, faith, and God, but didn’t get that, despite the intentions of both the film and the novel. Instead, I found it to be an unintentionally fascinating look into the self-defeating nature of a theologically liberal conception of faith; and actually, in many ways, a surprisingly anti-Christian film.

Spoiler alert: this blog will reveal and assume knowledge with major plot details in the film and book. Note: as the title suggests, I have not read the book – this is purely a reflection on Scorsese’s film.

Contra Silence, God is far from silent in suffering

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I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?

A repeated refrain of the film is God’s apparent silence whilst his people suffer. Multiple times the central character pleads to hear God’s voice, to see him intervene, to know his guidance. But with the exception of a repeated icon of Christ wearing a crown of thorns, and the voice in the climactic scene of the film, there is apparently no booming speech from the heavens, nor any quiet whisper, nor any divine display – even whilst terrible suffering is being infliced and endured. Hence Father Rodrigues’ crisis of faith, mentioned in quotes such as the one above.

Yet to me this was a very superficial understanding of God’s communication. Perhaps it’s the catholic nature of the film, but my Bible-loving Protestant heart was screaming out: somebody please read, quote, or even just reference the Bible! The Word of God, as it has been known throughout the history of the church, is God’s primary communication to us. And from first to last, it is overflowing with stories of suffering, calls to persevere, visions of hope. From the mouth of Jesus himself:

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

– Matthew 5:11-12

Throughout the Bible there is the expectation of fierce persecution and opposition – of violence against Christians that leads to death. Moreover, this is also the refrain of the history of the church, and Father Rodrigues himself even references Tertullian’s famous quote “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.

Yet in Silence, again and again, there is the expectation of unmitigated surprise, horror, and anguish at the persecutions endured by the Japanese Christians. ‘Unmitigated‘ is the key word here. Of course, my wife and I were horrified at the graphic depictions of martyrdom. But as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians, ‘you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope’. There is grief at suffering, but also great joy. Compared to the anguish and terror that meets Father Rodrigues when he first encounters persecution, Jesus and the New Testament’s perspective on suffering and death is rather different:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ – Jesus, Sermon on the Mount

‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.’ – Peter, 1 Peter 4

‘We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.’ – Paul, in Romans 5

When Father Rodrigues calls out to God for some guidance amidst the brutality, he makes no indication of meditating or reflecting on any such passages – which is highly unusual for a Christian priest. But worse than that, it’s a disfigurement of the faith. As Tim Keller writes in the definitive book on suffering & God, the Bible has a wealth of teaching on the subject that provides a highly nuanced, rich and profound resource for sufferers:

“Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”

The first major failure of the film is that it conveys nothing of this biblical teaching. The priests neither voice nor portray any consolation in the midst of suffering. It somehow manages to portray a religion devoted to a suffering, crucified God, as being taken completely by surprise by persecution.

Contra Silence, death is not the worst thing; hopelessness is.

One of the most depressing examples of failing number 1 is in the complete absence of eternal hope. Paradise and heaven are mentioned just twice in the film – and both times, it is the Japanese Christians who raise the subject, whilst the priests seem rather to dismiss the subject altogether. Paradise is not a topic they either raise or contemplate.

This is a theological and practical catastrophe. The film even depicts this: in both cases, the Japanese Christians display a serenity and courage as they talk of Paradise, yet as soon as they hear the negative responses of the priests, their faces return to unease and disquiet. As Paul makes abundantly clear:

if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile… If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

The film makes the case for this. Because he does not take Paradise seriously, Father Rodrigues is utterly paralyzed by  the death and suffering around him. He has no way to process martyrdom. He commands his flock to apostatize to save their mortal lives – as if to die is the worst thing that can befall a man, while forgetting again the words of Jesus:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. – Matthew 10

At no point are the consolations of eternity preached, mentioned, or even thought of.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” – Revelation 21

– there is absolutely no mention of this, or any similar themes, in the film.

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Think of one of the most vivid scenes of the film: the ocean crucifixion. The faithful Christian martyrs – the brilliantly played Ichizo and Mokichi – commit themselves with great dignity to entering eternity and meeting their maker. The poignant singing of Mokichi, the calmness on their faces whilst the waves batter their bodies, the steadfastness of their faith even as they slip into eternity – this is all stupendously acted. However, the camera keeps cutting back to the faces of Father Rodrigues, Father Garrpe, and the other villagers – and they are the ones whose faces have drained of all hope. Where is the ‘rejoic[ing] that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus’ (Acts 5)? At the very least: where is the thanksgiving that these brothers had been ‘faithful unto death’ and would be receiving their promised crowns of life (Revelation 2)?

Maybe that’s too unrealistic and unrelatable; maybe they wanted to convey the tragedy of death and persecution. But any film can show the horror of suffering, and many have done it very well. Whereas the central uniqueness of Christianity is the stupendous claim that a dead man rose again for all mankind; that death has lost its sting; that resurrection is the final word. What a tragedy – or rather, a heresy – to have a purportedly Christian film without the hope of the resurrection animating its Christian characters. Without this hope, what really is left of Christian faith?

Despite Father Rodrigues’ skewed, resurrection-less perspective, the hope of the Japanese Christians shines through. They are not afraid to die. They place little value in their earthly lives – after all, there seems little worthwhile in their existence as rural farm workers in the ‘swamp’ of Japan. They eagerly received the hope of the world to come, a world without fear, without pain, without sickness and death. Yet Father Rodrigues’ misplaced compassion, encouraging them to apostatize instead of die, strips them of their convictions and this hope, until they are left squabbling amongst themselves, fearful of being found out. And then death comes to them nonetheless. Having traded their convictions for a continued earthly existence, the villagers are left broken.

Apostatizing, as Father Rodrigues commanded them to, has stripped them of their faith, hope and love. In their place Rodrigues leaves them to an empty, hollow existence. As Martin Luther King famously said,

If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.

The real tragedy of the film is not the persecution per se: the tragedy is that the Japanese Christians had discovered something – Someone – to die for; yet Father Rodrigues takes this away from the villagers, leaving them unfit to live.

Christ has been raised from the dead; living a life without the hope of resurrection is far worse than dying with it.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. – Hebrews 2

Contra Silence, ‘to trample or not to trample?’ – is not the question

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Seen from these lights, the central ‘climax’ of the film – whether Father Rodrigues should step on the image of Christ – loses much of its power. The issue isn’t whether Rodrigues should trample. It’s the much subtler question of what such trampling would achieve. The answer to this question is taken as obvious in the film, but in light of the Bible and eternity, it is much less so.

Firstly, God is not silent on the subject of apostasy. In fact, He is as clear as He could be. I earlier quoted Matthew 10, which ends as follows:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

Secondly, the lack of resurrection hope is what makes the dilemma so difficult. Once the eternal perspective is re-introduced, the dilemma loses much of its power.

The other apostates are suffering the torture of the pit because Rodrigues refuses to apostatize. But if, as the film implies, apostasy doesn’t ultimately matter, then ultimately they are bound, slowly but inexorably, to meet their maker in glory.

Nonetheless, as Matthew 10 makes clear, the marginalization of apostasy is a theologically problematic assumption. Let’s take it away. If apostasy does matter, then the apostates are headed for judgment before the Lord; yet if Rodrigues becomes an apostate too, he does not do anything to help their eternal situation, whilst jeopardising his own in the process. Indeed, he again simply releases them to a transient, hopeless, broken life without Christ.

But instead, in the film, no concern is shown for eternity, no thought is given to theology, nor to what apostasy might or might not truly achieve. Rodrigues just hears the cries of pain, and that moves him beyond such reflection.

Conclusion: a thoroughly modernist portrayal of faith

I watched Silence shortly after finishing the patristic classic On the Incarnation of the Word of God by Athanasius. The contrast was stark. Take how Athanasius describes his contemporary Christian attitudes to death:

In ancient times before the divine sojourn of the Savior took place, even to the saints death was terrible; all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Savior has raised his body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ trample on it as it were nothing and choose rather to die than deny their faith in Christ. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead

For Athanasius and the persecuted church in the early centuries of the church, the Resurrection was everything, and Christians trampled on death, not Christ nor their convictions. But fast forward two millenia, and Silence‘s apparent ‘dilemmas’ find a welcoming critical audience.

Silence feels like a film that reflects modernistic liberal Christianity: where Christianity has been stripped of the Resurrection (one third of clergy don’t believe in it any more); where faith is tolerated as long as it is silent and privatised; where strong religious convictions come across as suspicious, arrogant, and troublesome; where personal sentiment takes priority over historical convictions; where ending earthly suffering takes precedence over offering eternal hope. Father Rodrigues is an unwitting champion of such a version of Christianity: he values easing temporal pain at the cost of the eternal hope provided by his convictions, which he doesn’t seem to believe in anyway.

Yet in a strange way, Silence, whilst embodying many of these facets of liberal Christianity, offers a final (unintentional?) criticism of them. Post-apostasy, what good is Rodrigues’ life? He lives his privatized faith, with his privatized hope, whilst reporting faithful Christian traders trying to bring some signs of Christian hope into Japan. He is paraded before the masses as an example of the failure of Christianity. His apostasy undoubtedly destroys the eternal hope of many otherwise-faithful Christians across Japan – including the lives of those he apparently ‘saved’ by apostatising. At the moment of his apostasy he was desperate to end the suffering of those being tortured. Yet he spends the rest of his life offering no gospel for the guilty, no hope beyond death, no eternal comfort for the suffering.

Contrast that to what he could have done. He could have followed in Mokichi’s brave footsteps, encouraging the Japanese to trample upon death instead of Christ. Like Mokichi, he could have met the threats of the Japanese with irrepressible singing, unshakeable praise, and humble confidence. Even more, he could have followed in the well-worn footsteps of Christ, his suffering saviour and crucified God. Like Christ to the church in Smyrna, he could have preached comfort and hope to those who had witnessed great martyrdom. Like Christ to Peter, he could have preached grace and repentance to the apostates being tortured in the pit. Like Christ to the Pharisees, he could have preached repentance and judgment to the Japanese torturers.

The real silence of the film descends not from Christ, but rather Rodrigues.

 

UPDATE: One of my good friends, who has lived and attended theological college in Japan for a number of years, offers some important, real historical context:

I think you may be right about the film, but I take a different view to you on the moral/ethical question here, partly because I’m aware of the historical context, and partly because I’ve read the book (which Scorsese doesn’t entirely do justice to.) In the early years of persecution, both many Japanese Christians and the Jesuits willingly embraced martyrdom, with a certain hope of eternity with Christ. The problem was that by the time of the mid-17th century, the Japanese authorities realised that letting the Christians die for their faith was actually helping the Christian cause. So, in a very clever and profoundly evil change of policy, they decided not to let the captured priests (and Christian Japanese) die. Instead, they would torture and kill their NON-CHRISTIAN family members/ people around them until they renounced their faith. The film doesn’t show this properly (it just suggests that the ones being tortured were apostates, but it was more than that in reality and in the book – it was people who had nothing to do with the faith.) The Christians (especially the priests) at that time were in an “impossible” position. The Japanese would not actually kill them / let them die. Instead, they would command them to renounce their faith, on pain of seeing more “innocent” people (not Christians) tortured and killed. Someone in Fr. Rodrigues’ place didn’t have the choice to actually choose a martyr’s death. Instead, they were confronted with the choice – step on the “fumie” and save lives, or continue to hold out and watch hundreds and hundreds of NON-CHRISTIANS be tortured and killed. It was for the same reason that some of the priests eventually told their converts to “korobu” – not to save themselves but to save the shedding of blood. (Remember that in the early years of the persecution, many had willingly embraced death because of the eternal perspective – these people were not cowards!) In this case, the Japanese leaders knew that the moral dilemma was much more complicated, and I’m not at all sure that we can say clearly and definitively what the right thing was to do, or that those who trampled are condemned by God. That’s the ambiguity of the real historical situation. The pity of the film is that it doesn’t make this very real and agonising moral dilemma clear enough.

A real shame – and also quite indicative of the film – that this context is totally obscured and distorted.

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on Scorsese’s ‘Silence’

  1. I am a French Catholic Christian and I liked so much your article. Such movies makes me more depressed and emptier than after. I think there are simply not good for the soul. It’s better to have time for uplifting works of art.

    Liked by 1 person

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