The Quiet Messages of ‘Silence’

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I recently read Shusaku Endo’s great 1966 novel Silence, about the 17th-century persecution of Jesuit missionaries in Japan. I thought it was great. If you’re a regular reader here, you noticed I made it my top book for 2016. Here’s what I wrote then:

Silence is a brief but indelible reflection on faith, doubt, and the inscrutable mystery of God. Mixed into this heady philosophical stew are provocative musings on contextualization, cultural adaptation, and religious adaptability. This is a literary masterwork, but I’d recommend it to any Christian interested in a window into the persecuted church and the clarifying darkness of suffering. It’s also interesting, I think, to consider the book’s crucial philosophical conundrums through a Reformational Protestant lens, and I look forward to discussing that especially with the book club at Midwestern Seminary who are currently reading this great book.

Last week I finally managed to catch Martin Scorsese’s long-anticipated (and long-developed!) cinematic adaptation, along with some of my fellow seminary book clubbers. Below are some scattered thoughts on the film, along the lines of Alex Duke’s own recent “thinking aloud.”

Why isn’t the movie proving more popular with evangelical audiences? I’ve seen some wondering why folks aren’t getting out to support this film like they do other faith-based movies, especially since this one is ostensibly a much better faith-based film. Here’s perhaps America’s greatest filmmaker producing a movie that represents Christian values—and tells an historically important Christian story—and while we won’t go see it, we’ll go on complaining anyway that “Hollywood doesn’t represent our values.” Well, first, you should go see it. It’s a really good movie and a deep one. But second, I can think of a few reasons why evangelicals haven’t treated this movie the same way they did, say, The Passion of the Christ or, more recently, God’s Not Dead (or similar)—it didn’t have the marketing engine behind it. Mel Gibson’s The Passion stoked hunger for that film early and actively courted pastors, churches, and religious leaders. I am unaware of any such marketing blitz for Silence. Not to mention, the subject matter is really difficult to market. You can market a movie about Jesus to evangelicals really easyily. Evangelicals are experts in marketing Jesus. But Silence is about missionaries. In Japan. In the 1600s. This is not an easy sell to American evangelicals, even if you tried to sell it. Not to mention that the protagonists are Catholics.

Is the movie too Catholic? This is pretty much like complaining that Moby Dick talks about boats too much. But I can see evangelicals shying away because of the historical connection here to Rome. This was a frequent topic of conversation among our book club—not that we thought the book was too Catholic, but that we processed the demanded apostasy in the story through our own Protestant bias. For instance if you asked many Reformed evangelicals to step on an icon of Mary, or even of Jesus, they wouldn’t hesitate. That wouldn’t be apostasy at all. In fact, many would regard the icon itself as blasphemous and stepping on it as an act of Christian devotion. But of course we know that persecutors of Christians will find whatever they think will work. For the Jesuits and their converts, to step on an icon of the blessed virgin (the fumie) is akin to stepping on her very face.

The story’s central problems are too Catholic. The central tension of the novel and the film, though, has less to do with the plot devices related to the persecution and martyrdom and more to do with the crises of faith faced by the chief missionary protagonist Rodrigues (played excruciatingly well by Andrew Garfield) and the Japanese Christians he is seeking to shepherd. Rodrigues is plagued more painfully by God’s apparent silence over his ordeal than he is by the ordeal itself. Why won’t God say something? Again, as a good sola scriptura Protestant, I am compelled to mention that he has said something, he is saying something, and he does say something through his Word. Inappropriate or not, I confess I wondered throughout both the book’s and film’s depictions of this wrestling how a good evangelical understanding of revelation might have been a comfort. There is little evidence that Rodrigues’s familiarity with Scripture helps him sort out his theodicy, apart from the obvious recollections of the betrayals of Judas and—to a much lesser extent—of Peter.

And of course one’s belief about salvation is vitally connected to the crisis of faith in the story as well. Are we saved by faith alone or by our works? How might the doctrine of justification by faith affect the way one sorts through acts of apostasy, the choice between betraying one’s convictions and saving the lives of the suffering, and so on. Is it even possible to temporarily apostatize? If one has betrayed the faith, can he ever be restored? What if you’re just “going through the motions,” lying in order to save someone’s life? There is no strong sense among the missionaries that one of them may regain right standing with God once he’s made a public renunciation of his faith. At least, not until the cinematic coda, which I’ll get to in a minute.

There is also the notion of Christianity’s adaptation to Japan as a mission field. This is a central theme in the book, only referenced a few times in the movie. The contention is that Christianity doesn’t work in Japan, that Japan is a swamp in which the tree of Christianity cannot be planted, or at least, cannot grow and flourish. The interrogator Inoue and his men use this tack several times with Rodgrigues. And I wonder if perhaps they may be right, at least just a little bit. There are a lot of cultural trappings that come with Roman Catholicism’s version of Christianity. Perhaps it is not Christianity that cannot flourish in Japan but Roman Catholicism. Christianity, after all, is a faith given to contextualization, embraced by any culture around the world, precisely because it does not traffic mainly in outward conformity to cultural customs. Today there are approximately 509,000 Roman Catholics in Japan out of 1.9 million professing Christians. (Evangelicals, according to Operation World, make up about 600,000.) Is this telling? I don’t know, but perhaps it should be noted that the first Protestant/Anglican missionaries arrived in Japan 200 years after the Jesuits. I’d be curious to hear in the comments from you who are smarter on this stuff than I in am.

The best Christian in Silence is the worst one. Kichijiro. The wild-haired, wide-eyed drunken apostate who watched his family burn at the stake. He repeatedly betrays his shepherds. He repeatedly endangers the villagers. He is regarded by all as clearly a hell-bound heathen. Even Father Rodrigues eventually hears his confession as a matter of clerical obligation, not in order to dispense eager pardon. Kichijiro is perhaps the film’s “worst Christian.” But here’s why I suspect Kichijiro is the film’s best—he is the one most readily aware of his own sin and frailty. While the priests are so sure of themselves—”I would never betray my Redeemer”—Kichijiro is honest. He knows he would. He is convicted by it and accepts his life as an outcast for it. He lives under a constant shadow of his own guilt, in fear for his own soul. Unlike the fabled Father Ferrera and later Rodrigues who eventually seem to make peace with their abandonment of the faith. So, okay, Father Garupe is really the best Christian because he never apostatizes and actually dies trying to save one of the martyrs, but after him, Kichijiro.

Silence isn’t your typical faith-based film, until it is. As I mentioned above, evangelicals aren’t likely to flock to Silence, even after recent buzz from Christianity Today, World Magazine, and the like, mainly because it has everything going against it—historic and foreign settings, no obvious hero to root for, Catholic subject matter, and bladder-testing length. And let’s not forget a huge turn-off to evangelicals—ambiguity. The narrative artistry found in books and movies like Silence is not suited for tastes accustomed to treacly inspirational music on the radio and the kinds of books found in the ECPA’s Top 100. There is a reason you don’t find literary novels in the Christian bookstore. It’s the same reason movies with Silence‘s artistic pedigree don’t appeal.

But then there at the end, Scorsese adds a little something. It’s not in the book. The book is even more silent about the central narrative and theological tension. But the movie ends with that little visual addition, that clue about Rodrigues’s inner life that is meant, I suspect, to cue the audience to think there’s a neat resolution. On the one hand, I don’t care at all about this addition. I am not usually one to think film adaptations must follow their source; I judge the movies on their own, and if I fault a movie for departing from a book, it’s because the decision they made is worse, not because they didn’t treat the book like a sacred text. So I say all that to say, I don’t object to the inclusion of that final scene as a literary purist. It’s an interesting choice, and I know why Scorsese included it, and I can respect that. On the other hand, it plays very well into the dulled evangelical artistic—and theological—tastebuds. Evangelicals like resolution, they like happy endings. Scorsese (sort of) gave them one.

And evangelicals like the idea that they can be Christians without the world knowing it. They tend to believe they can pray a prayer or walk an aisle or sign a card and have that equal assurance. Once “saved,” always “saved.” The idea that you can inwardly be a believer while outwardly living however you want, is very much in keeping with the theological spirit of American evangelicalism. In that regard, Scorsese made a great choice. And a terrible one.

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