A Christian Wrestles With Scorsese's The Silence
The Silence is a complex complex dialogue within the Christian Church about what it is they truly believe and what really matters. Oh, it's also a huge downer of a movie.
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A Christian Wrestles With Scorsese’s The Silence

I’ve been talking about movies here on THinc. for years now. Like 7 years? 10 years? I left facebook because I just couldn’t deal with the inanity anymore and I went in search of a place to discuss things that were actually more interesting, more in depth, and more important. And stood this place up, and it sucked for years. Until I found my niche. Realized that I loved movies more than anything else in the world. And I loved talking about them in such extraordinary detail that most family and friends politely nod their heads and walk away.

But with this movie, I’m going to dump my normal format and instead just gut this thing like a fish… pig? Gut this thing like a water fowl? I have no idea how the saying goes right now. Anyway, I’m going to give you a very personal view of how I, as a Christian, view the complexities of this movie. Of which… there are many.

This one will have a lot of discussion about the Christian faith. If that isn’t your thing, expand your horizons, and read it anyway. Heck, if you decided to write a review of a movie from your own Agnostic, Atheist, Scientologist view point, I’d find that very interesting and would appreciate your sending me the link! Especially if the movie is about Scientologists… or what have you. Which this movie isn’t. BUT! It happens to be about Christians… which, I am one. And so this topic is very much in my wheelhouse.

I started this like three hour slug fest on my way to Cancun a couple weeks ago. And I finished it on my way to Haiti. The guy sitting next to me on the way to Haiti must have been extraordinarily confused as I fast forwarded through the first two thirds of the film. Anyway, if you’ve never heard of Scorsese’s The Silence – I’ll play this, and then you can exeunt. Capiche?

The Silence a High Level Walk Through

So here’s where I’ll dump the normalcy, and just tell you the high level overview of what Scorsese is going after here. Ok? Basically the plot recounts the story of two Jesuit priests who are searching for their Jesuit brother – Brother Ferreira, who they have been told has recanted. To recant, is to give up the faith. To walk away from God. They know for a fact that their brother couldn’t possibly have walked away as he was the most devout Christian they had met. And so they head into the throws of danger in order to figure out what really happened to him. The danger is that in 17th century Japan, Christians were hunted, tortured and killed for their faiths.

But along the way, before they find their brother, they watch as many many Christians get tortured to death, all because they are on this search for their brother. And to make matters worse? They are explicitly told, that to save these people, the priests just have to recant themselves. There is one particular Japanese Christian that is continually recanting. And continually coming back to the priest to give confession.

And as the movie heads towards its ending, we actually find the lost and recanted Jesuit brother, played by Liam Neeson, and learn he really has recanted. And not on that, but Father Rodrigues also recants in order to save other’s lives. As the movie ends, Rodrigues dies after living his life in Japan as a recanted Christian. And here is the complicated bit, when his body is burned, we see that he is holding a cross that his wife gave him.

Two Sides To A Complicated Story

This movie very realistically portrays the Christian walk. The good and the bad both. And it is telling in that this walkthrough is exceedingly difficult to write in a cogent and coherent way that non-Christians will be able to understand.

But first you must know, that theologically, there are two sides to this story feuding with one another. I’ll give a detailed view of each position so you can understand the fury bouncing around within the Christian community about this movie. Or, heck, maybe you didn’t even know! NEWS FLASH NEWS FLASH!! FURY BOUNCES AROUND XIAN COMMUNITY OVER SCORSESE’S MOVIE THE SILENCE!! GET YOUR PAPERS HERE!!

A Dog Returns To His Own Vomit Side of the Argument

The Christians definitely did not show up for this movie like they have many other movies in the last year or two. We all remember when Christians the world over came out for The Passion of the Christ and amount of money they can generate in support of a movie. But they definitely are not turning out for The Silence… but why? Why wouldn’t church leaders want to support a highbrow Christian movie for a change? (I mean, God’s Not Dead, by Steve Taylor… is anything but quality film making.)

Well, one reason might possibly be that Christians see this movie as completely heretical. Here’s the crux of the problem that the church has with this movie… most believe that if you recant your faith it’s bad. Like eternally bad, kind of bad. I don’t believe that the average Christian on the street really understands why, or could quote verses from the Bible to you as to why. But there is just this general feeling that it is about as bad as it gets. And even though, the modern Church believes in Grace and in forgiveness of sins through Christ, this is the one exception apparently.

That Grace May Abound Side of the Argument

But there are some Christians that are coming out in support of this film, and they all have a very grace based view of this movie and the world. They basically are positing that Christ came to the world to die for our sins. And that also includes screwing up while our feet are literally being held to the fire. I mean! If God can forgive me for killing someone, why couldn’t he forgive me for recanting? I mean really?!?

The Theology of Both Sides

If you are not a Christian, allow me to give a quick primer of what I believe Christianity is all about… just so we are all on the same page. When sin was introduced into the world, our DNA (literally) was infused with the repercussions of this evil. We were actually intended to be perfect sons and daughters of God, meant to live in communion with Him. But when we introduced sin into the world, the planet changed. Death was introduced. And we couldn’t just hang out with God like Adam and Eve did while they walked with Him in the cool of the morning. And that is because a Perfect God cannot commune with imperfection. Ok? So how do we mend that gap? Mend that which was rent from the beginning?

Well, in the Old Testament (or the Testament if you are Jewish) this was taken care of temporarily by the blood of animals. It covered over the blight, it allowed for forgiveness for a time. But it wasn’t the perfect solution to the problem of sin in the world. God had a bigger plan. And all of the Old Testament points in the direction of this perfect plan. But the permanent plan was for Christ to come and to live a perfect life… and then to die for our sins. Thus the perfect atonement that lasts forever, for everyone.

So, now… these Jesuit Priests are obviously Christians. They pray regularly and they really really struggle with knowing God’s will daily. So these Christians, who have been given God’s grace, and forgiveness, have been forgiven for all their past sins, and also future sins. They were, are, and will continue to be forgiven. Ok? So, forgiven, then what is the big hubbub all about then?

Great question. Really good. So good, I don’t know what side of this argument I fall on.

Let’s thought exercise this thing for a second. Let’s say that this blog post really pisses you off. And you do about 3 minutes of google searching, and find my house. You drag me out into my backyard and you begin to systematically torture me with baseball bats and knives. Welp, that didn’t work for you, because all throughout I am witnessing to you. I tell you that even if you were to cut me into little pieces, ever piece would scream out that God loves you.

But wait! You get the clever idea!! I have children. (Currently 3, but soon to be 5.) Oh! And a wife! And you hall them out, and say to me, that unless I recant, you are going to torture each one of my family members to death. Ah… now you have some serious leverage.

In my own mind I remember back to Paul in Romans when he says, “For I wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race.” Ok, that might not be clear to all of you. Basically he is saying, if he could become a non-Christian, and go to hell so that the rest of the Jews might believe, and be saved, he would do it. It’s a bit of hyperbole. But it’s still a verse that might spring to mind in the midst of you beating on my daughters.

There are also verses talking about the unpardonable sin, which could cause me pause. (This is really really complicated stuff I’m kinda just throwing out at you all, but I want you to have a full picture of the real complexities that go through Christians minds when they encounter movies that discuss those that recant.) The unpardonable sin is a widely debated topic throughout the Church for the last 2,000 years. And while there are 4 or 5 options as to what this unpardonable sin might be, one of the options is someone that basically says that Christ is not God then they will not be allowed God’s grace (It’s actually how I see this theological conundrum – which if you’d like to discuss this SOMEWHERE ELSE, like, I don’t know, the phone, or email, GREAT! But let’s not discuss this point here please.)

There are four or five scriptures that support this view, the most clear might be 2 Peter 2. Which basically says, if someone escapes the corruption of this world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and are again entangled in it they are worse off than they were at the beginning. That they would be better off to not have ever known the way of righteousness than to have turned their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. “As a dog returns to its vomit”…

Ok? Most Christians that I know disagree with me on this point though. Which, is fine. They believe that once a Christian is saved, they are sealed for all time, and nothing, not angels, not demons, not heights, not depths, nor anything else in all of creation can separate us from the love of God (I was just summarizing Romans 8 if you are interested.

But regardless of where I stand, or where other Christians stand, it’s not something to mess around with. So let’s head back to my back yard. I would tell my Children, and my wife, that God loves them so very much… and that He may just intervene on their behalf like he did on behalf of shaddrack, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown into a fiery furnace… BUT EVEN IF HE DOES NOT, God loves them, God loves them. Just like God loves you, my accoster. And then I’d let you kill them. And then hopefully you’d kill me soon after.

The Foolish Things Of This World

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1)  And with that I would die. And it is with this ‘foolishness’ that you see the problem of Scorsese’s The Silence. He is pushing a theological message which many Christians may accidentally agree with. (Again, most of my Christian friends disagree with me on that point about being able to walk away from God.) And yet, sociologically speaking, Christians just don’t mess with that theological question.

But why?

Well, why do Christians venerate the martyrs? Why do we have a book called Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, that retells the stories of the early church’s first martyrs? Why do we look back in amazement at Peter’s crucifixion upside down? Andrew’s scourging and crucifixion from where he preached to those passing by as he died? Thomas’ being run through by a spear?  By stonings. By skinning alive. Why? Because it speaks of their belief. It speaks of their commitment to what God has given to them.

Would another Christian recant in order to save their children? Yeah, maybe. Maybe many would. I really don’t know. And do I think they’d go to hell for doing so? Haha, I wouldn’t even venture a guess. That is 100% up to God, and I yield the floor completely. But personally, I wouldn’t want to even mess with the possibilities. But also, what impact would that have on you, my internet stalker, to see my children be chill with you going ape on them? What would it do to you to see me expressing my love for you, even in spite of your evilness?

Well, in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs there are several stories of Roman soldiers who were ordered to stand watch while Christians were stripped and sat naked on a frozen lake to die. And in these stories it tells of them listening to them sing and worship God. And then it tells of the Roman guards taking off their armor and joining them out on the ice. Damn. Now if that isn’t a witness, I don’t know what is. My own personal prayer is that my life can be a witness to those around me. Witness of God’s love. Witness of God’s forgiveness.

My Conclusions On The Silence

I literally didn’t know how I felt when I first started this review. Like, theologically how I felt about the movie. But it was as I wrote (and wrote and wrote) that I came to my own conclusions about the film. Which is that I personally would not have recanted to save the Japanese Christians being tortured. But who cares what I think theologically. The question really is all about why this movie flopped after it took Scorsese something like 30 years to make it. Well, this blog post should in and of itself tell you why it flopped. The theology of Christians being tortured and killed is complicated. Normally we see Christians silently dying for their faith in movies. But to see them give up their faith in God? Only to maybe get it back again at the end of their life? It definitely isn’t going to sell tickets outside of the small Christian Philosophical niche circles. (And I mean, who else really cares? I doubt many atheists or agnostics will make it this far (I am at 3,000 words pre-editing so far! hahah.) And if he didn’t hit his core demographic, who will he market this movie to instead? Liam Neeson Star Wars prequels fans?!? hahaha.

I personally enjoyed the movie in that it got me to think through this complicated theological problem. And it really got me thinking. What did you think of it?

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4 Responses

  1. Quinn

    Scorsese’s film is a loose adaptation of Shusako Endo’s book “Silence”. The 1971 movie directed by Masahiro Shinoda is also based on the book “Silence”; its plot was simpler, yet profound.

    Those things aside, Scorsese could’ve added a dark history lesson inasmuch as to present and inform movie goers of the real events which happened around 1633 (as told in movie’s narration).

    For instance, no mention about the dreaded, horrific Inquisition going on in those times the Portuguese started in 1536; the Spanish earlier in 1478. In one instance, 3,000 New Christians in 1506 were massacred in Lisbon.

    In contrast, Hideoyshi tortured and killed 26 Christians in 1587 as a warning after he had issued the first edict expelling Christian missionaries. History further shows the Japanese trying to prohibit Christianity in 1613 by expelling Christian missionaries. In 1624 the Spanish were expelled; in1638 Portuguese expelled.

    Being expelled, banished is a lot different than the barbaric trials, torture, and consequent death thousands faced during the many years of the Christian Catholic Inquisition. The Scorcese film’s story is fiction and makes the Japanese culture of that time period seem worse than the Inquisition and the Padre characters like sweet lambs of God.

    This film doesn’t adequately present how an advanced society, logical and polite, dealt with religious fanatics who came from their “dark age” civilization of the Inquisition and kept sneaking in to their country when asked to leave.

    Scorcese’s ending of the movie may seem like devout Christianity prevails but the viewer should question further. What did the viewer learn? What would the viewer choose? Adhering to strict vows to save souls no matter the challenges faced; or, denouncing strict vows to save lives? History shows it appears the Japanese took action against the true, merciless Inquisitors of those times other cultures hadn’t and they ended up massacred by the thousands for not proving themselves Christian enough.

    What the Spanish/Portuguese thought about and did to their New Christians:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Christian

    This link is from a Christian academy regarding Japanese culture, history time lines in brief:

    http://acad.depauw.edu/~mkfinney/teaching/Com227/culturalPortfolios/japan/worldview.htm

    Interesting history not presented in the film:

    http://peopleof.oureverydaylife.com/japanese-ruler-expelled-christian-missionaries-5573.html

    Reply
  2. Ryissa

    I liked this movie, although 30 minutes could have been cut out of it.

    I am not an expert on Christianity, etc. But some things I really liked:

    I think it depicted a how what most christians now view as more symbolic emblems of their faith were viewed as an actual physical embodiment of their faith. I’m not saying that blessed objects aren’t revered, but faith now for many revolves understanding the “message” and whether your own actions embody it, versus having a physical way to connect to your faith. I may be wrong, but I think many viewers didn’t connect because what’s the big deal about apostatizing? The focus now would be “Dude under duress you claimed to give up your faith and faked it to save others, not just yourself. But you held onto the belief where it counts, in your heart and never accepted another truth. God will get that.” But stomping on that symbol for many believers would have felt like physically stomping on God and in a time where actions held far more weight than intentions, this went beyond physical preservation. It would be accepting eternal damnation for disbelieving.

    I liked the brutal portrayal of a medieval existence. Whether you were scratching out a meager survival in Europe or Japan, if you were at the bottom of the food chain the hope that god when you die god would deliver you to paradise for your dogged faith was palpable. It’s a modern expectation to have a content life, few peasants expected not to have a life of struggle. Their understanding of Christianity was simplistic and shaped by their culture, but it was sincere. Perhaps a poke at how we want to cherry pick what we believe nowadays by contrast.

    Although I felt the portrayal of Japanese shogun class was too slanted the role of faith was clearly a more political issue. Their concern (understandably and rightly) was not what the peasants believed in, but who controlled that belief. At the time of this film the Catholic Church was in control of nearly every government in Europe. Although Japan was often a bunch of feuding states, it wouldn’t take too much intelligence to figure out these priests converting people represent a subversive effort to control your country. Watching your people stop respecting established religious and social structures, and thenstart supporting and financing this foreign philosophy you have good reason to fear the long range implications. One look at some of those Spanish/Portuguese ships would also tell you that this invader has pretty deep pockets. Your main card is you are an island and if you go all protectionist with your foreign policy you can probably maintain control.

    The pope and higher ranking church officials knew the church had to have political and financial control to survive. Lower ranking brothers like the ones in the movie probably were mostly blind to this overarching necessity. Their concerns were about recruiting followers and protecting the faith. In some ways the debates between the brother and the priest highlight this. The brother is continually trying to demonstrate strength of his faith and convince the inquisitor of the truth of Christianity. The inquisitor has a different theatre in mind. He knows what the brother actually believes is immaterial, but if he can make him appear to relinquish his faith that is going to put a dent in the invasion. Japan’s traditions to commoners will appear stronger than Rome’s. The inquisitor needs the brother to apostatize for propaganda reasons. Later setting him up with a home and wife is not a reward for behaving (at least not entirely), it’s theatre to show that the most faithful that Rome can send can be bent to embrace Japan.

    Perhaps because faith was as much (if not more so) a political game as spiritual, the church emphasized the importance of demonstrating your faith. Questioning faith and the churches part in that was not just a spiritual issue. If it lost control of its hold on people’s faith it lost control of Europe. This is not to say there wasn’t sincere belief in god at all levels. But if the church excommunicated a prince or king, that would result not just in spiritual damnation. It would also result in political isolation. When the reformation took hold, the church lost more than spiritual domination.

    This stranglehold on state business is why modern democracies demand separation of church from state. It’s not about what citizens believe (ergo freedom of religion), it’s who controls the country (overtly at least).

    But I’m wandering away from my point. My point being that it was the interest of the church to convince its followers that their outward expressions of faith mattered more than anything. Introspection was certainly good, so long as it kept your thinking aligned with church doctrine and control. This belief is why it was unthinkable to the brothers in the film that the most faithful man they knew could have apostatized even though they would have also known torture was involved. And public torture occurred in Europe, so what that involved likely wouldn’t shock them entirely.

    Finally our protagonist apostatizes. His handlers make sure he’s never in a situation where he can appear to still be faithful. He has a great job for public propaganda purposes of making sure religious symbols don’t make it into Japan. A job decently trained clerk could probably do just as efficiently, but it doesn’t send as strong of a message back to Rome.

    The only thing I didn’t like was the cross tucked into the waistband at the end. Maybe for me it was clear that in all likelihood he hadn’t given up his faith in truth because he didn’t apostatize in the first place because the logic presented to him rendered his faith meaningless. But now his outward expression of faith is silenced and he is a shell. He goes about his life robotically. If he had actually embraced Buddhism, some sign of him being born again thru that faith would have been portrayed. Instead every expression and reaction is one of simple conformity not spiritual enlightenment. Tucking a cross in his wasteband seemed like a pretty heavy handed touch, in an otherwise compelling movie meant to make you meditate on “what is faith”.

    Reply
    • Taylor Holmes

      Your last para is the most interesting bit. I believe you are right from top to bottom of your comment most specifically this last bit.

      But this is a visual medium problem. Right? So let’s say theologically, you are matching up with what Scorcese was trying to say (which is a leap, he might be saying more something about all roads lead to heaven, but we’ll go with your interpretation for now) that it’s actually a heart issue that really matters. In a movie, (heck even in life) how would one show a decidedly mind and heart decision? Usually a director and screenplay writer utilize external tokens of an internal truth. But its the external tokens that are a problem here. It’s this external token that he steps on. Its the external symbol that is the question!

      So here’s the question. Was the small crucifix the symbol that connoted an internal heart posturing? Or was the small crucifix there to denote exactly the thing… that he actually still revered the item, and it’s bigger role in his life? Do you get what I’m saying here? It’s complicated.

      I personally believe, if I recanted today externally, but not internally, that it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference in my relationship with God. The sin that I do each day is forgiven regardless. That was taken care of on the cross, I’m covered throughout my entire life. Should I sin that grace may abound? (to quote Paul) NO! But I’m forgiven. And I’m forgiven for the cowardly thing I do that denounces him externally. I wouldn’t denounce him even though I knew I could. But I wouldn’t (he says while comfortably sitting on his couch in his well heated front room)… I hope! hahah. Anyway, it’s complicated… but speaks to the failure in the movie to convey that deeper meaning. OR, maybe Scorcese communicated exactly what he intended, which was that the icon is what mattered. And I definitely don’t agree with that.

      Reply
  3. Ryissa

    Given the time this took to get to screen it was deliberate.

    Although I favor the idea that Scorsese said most of what he needed to say. When a strong film in my opinion shows us an easy answer I always figure some studio exec figures nobody can figure it out without the obvious line/visual at the end, especially a North American audience who are constantly spoiled with feel good tidy endings.

    Scorsese probably is “Meh” it’ll make the viewers who don’t get it in the first place happy. The rest can argue about it in film school.

    Some bits of this film remind me of “The Last Temptation of Christ”. If you like a redeemer who never faulters that film alienates you to the point of leading protests. If you like to meditate on what it would be like to be a fallible human burdened with being the son of god, it’s a mind blower.

    Another good watch if you’re an opera fan is the “Dialogue of the Carmelites”. Not many operas have rendered me stunned, but that one did it. (There is a video somewhere, but doubt it has the same impact of a live performance with music rattling your soul.)

    Reply

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