Originally posted February 2, 2017
Martin Scorsese recently released the film Silence which is based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō about the efforts of Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan during times of intense persecution. I was intrigued after having seen a few trailers for the movie because the recipe for a great film seemed obvious: Liam Neeson, Martin Scorsese, Spider-Man, Kylo Ren, missionaries, and martyrdom... I'm in! Admittedly, I am not much of a reader, although I wish I was, so I have never read the novel on which this movie is based. Because of that, I really didn't know what exactly I would be getting into by seeing Silence.
As a Christian, I knew that the idea of hard missionary work in the midst of violent persecution would intrigue me. I haven't seen many mainstream movies about this concept and I have longed to see a well-done picture of this subject matter for quite some time now. And as a Protestant, I was also interested to see exactly how much Roman Catholic doctrine would be presented in the movie and how much influence those doctrines would have over the overall plot.
My wife and I finally went to see the movie a few weeks ago. We got our popcorn and soda and nestled into some unusually uncomfortable seats at a theater we don't normally go to in preparation for some thought-provoking cinema for the next 3 hours. To be honest, this movie really does take your emotions for a ride. There are some funny scenes, some triumphant moments, and definitely spots filled with sadness. At the end, however, I was pretty conflicted and probably a little annoyed at the movie's conclusion which I will discuss below.
****IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE I SUGGEST YOU SCROLL NO FURTHER!!!****
The plot of the movie follows two Jesuit missionaries Rodrigues and Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, respectively, who want to travel into Japan to locate their mentor Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson. Word had come back to their home country of Portugal that Ferreira, who had been gone for some time, had apostascized, or given up his faith. Rodrigues and Garupe were convinced that the news had to be false and determined to go on mission to Japan themselves to further the work of the gospel and to find their friend.
Most of the rest of the movie is intriguing and well-done. We watch as Rodrigues and Garupe have to be smuggled into Japan and operate in secrecy lest they be discovered by the authorities and subsequently executed. They minister to an entire village of Japanese Christians which even resulted in the martyrdom of a few of them. Throughout the movie anyone caught speaking of Christ or wearing any Christian items were forced to denounce their faith at the risk of death for noncompliance. The method by which "The Inquisitor," the main antagonist, and his subordinates forced the Christians to apostacize was by stepping on images of Christ or Mary known as fumi-es so as to symbolize their lack of belief in the Christian religion. Those who refused were met with gruesome executions, all of which stirred emotions of sadness, anger, and even compassion directed toward Christians around the world who are faced with similar struggles.
But the movie concluded in much less intriguing fashion. After having been captured and forced to watch more Christians drown, be beheaded, and burned alive, Rodrigues is reunited with Ferreira and Ferreira had fully apostacized. He was now a Japanese citizen who had married a Japanese wife, fathered Japanese children, a was a practicing Buddhist who wrote refutations of the Christian faith and was now encouraging Rodrigues to do the same. Rodrigues gave in. In a dramatic moment he stepped on the fumi-e to save a number of Christians who he was told had already apostacized. By way of a little added touch, Scorsese even had Rodrigues hear the voice of Jesus in his own mind encourage him to step on the fumi-e because it was "only a picture". Finally, we see Rodrigues's body buried and burned years later. The camera zooms in as the fire engulfs his casket and we can see him holding a small cross that had been handed to him by his Japanese wife, seemingly signifying that he had quietly kept his faith all along. Foolery! This was a disappointing conclusion to say the least, and it prompted me to write this post to articulate a few reasons why:
1. Christianity Cannot Be Expressed in 'Silence'
To be a Christian means that you value Jesus Christ more than any other treasure in the world (Matthew 13:44-45). As a matter of fact, a Christian is someone who values the lovingkindness of God more than life itself (Psalm 63:3). A Christian is also someone who has been commanded to "go" and "make disciples of all nations" by Jesus, their Lord and Savior. Making disciples is impossible for a person who willfully chooses to remain silent for the purpose of saving one's own life or the life of others which he clearly values more than Jesus. In the words of Jesus himself: "So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 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." (Matthew 10:26-28)
2. There is Only One Mediator Between Man and God
"...there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus..." (1 Timothy 2:5).
I know, I know... this is a film about Jesuit missionaries, but this distinction that Christ alone is able to mediate for sinful men is very important for making a proper assessment of the moral dilemma presented in this film. The movie presents Rodrigues and Garupe as being essential to the salvation of the Japanese Christians, not Christ. Many of the believers to whom they ministered expressed a need for the mass and confession which could only be provided by ordained priests. They believed that dying with unconfessed sin and without regularly participating in Holy Communion would ensure eternal death. This, however, couldn't be further from the truth. The Bible calls us to confess our sins to Jesus, not to a priest. In confessing to Christ, that is the only method by which a sinners wrongs can be forgiven and eternal life can be received. A priest as no power in and of himself to hear prayers and forgive sins of any kind - Christ alone can do that. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9)
3. Idolatry Cannot Be Confused with Faith
"You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Silence is really a movie about idolatry and the dangers that result from it. This probably wasn't Scorsese's intention, but this is what he produced. The Christians in this movie are highly dependent upon the blessings that result from interaction with various relics and religious items such as crosses, rosaries, and not stomping on fumi-e's bearing the image of the Virgin Mary. Whether or not the individual Japanese Christians of this movie possessed true faith is debatable (then again, it's a fictional movie - can we really evaluate the inner person of any movie character?). They had been sold a religious system that promised to bring them eternal life, yet it was doing exactly the opposite. Throughout the movie we watch as the people venerate Rodrigues and Garupe along with the various images and relics - none of which have the power to save anyone. These are what the Bible calls idols and having nothing to do with biblical faith. Dying for an idol is not the same as dying for faith in Jesus Christ.
4. Personal Accountability Before Christ
"...Each of us will give an account of ourselves to God" (Romans 14:12). The climax of the movie in which Rodrigues finally apostacizes is a scene wrought with problematic theology. Besides the problems that arise from an audible Jesus who speaks words of encouragement to Rodrigues that helped him publicly denounce his faith, there is the whole issue of Rodrigues feeling personal responsibility for the death of his Japanese brothers in the faith. Ferreira's main argument to Rodrigues was that the Japanese had already apostacized and that they were dying for Rodrigues, their priest not Jesus, their God. As tragic as this may seem and as much as this may have weighed on Rodrigues's soul, those men and women were not dying because of him. Rather, they were dying because of the wickedness of the Inquisitor and the Japanese government and would stand to face God's judgment based on their own decisions in this life.
We all give an account before God about our own righteousness or lack thereof and only one of two possibilities will occur: 1) Either, we pay the eternal punishment for our own sins having never received forgiveness and face the just judgment for our many wrongs or 2) Jesus Christ and his righteous perfection stands on our behalf, having paid for our sins on the cross and this gift is applied to us by way of our own personal faith in him. In other words, no one can have faith for us nor can we lose faith on account of someone else. Either you are in Christ or you are not. Had Rodrigues taught the Japanese the authentic Christian faith that salvation happens by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone, as presented in the pages of the Bible alone, then the death of these men and women would be a vivid picture of their personal faith in Christ resulting in martyrdom - nothing for Rodrigues to fear or be ashamed of.
Overall, the movie does well to draw us into the difficult world of missionaries and persecution, well illustrating what the hardships of missionaries may look like. Many of the questions Rodrigues and Garupe wrestled with are questions common to the Christian faith. We experience moments of doubt and frustration, and those feelings are likely heightened in the midst of such severe persecution. Yet, the Scriptures teach that those who are in Christ are an entirely "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17) who have the "mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16) and desire to please him as a result of their new life. Jesus is a Christian's ultimate treasure and purpose for existing. Being our treasure he also promises his followers that times will inevitably get tough on account of him (Mark 13:13) but those who truly treasure him will persevere.
The questions this movie raises become problematic in its application of the answers. Silence takes questions that are sometimes okay to explore and turns them into definitive conclusions that go far beyond the faith and into the realm of heresy. Again, it is okay for a Christian to explore doubts as those questions should lead him to Scripture and then ultimately to a greater assurance of his faith. However, it is not okay for those doubts to conclude in the belief in the absence of God or in the pointlessness of missions and evangelism. It is okay to wrestle with fear in the midst of trials, especially trials as severe as the ones in this movie. But, it is not okay to outright deny the faith before men and publicly adhere to a false religion such as Buddhism. It is also okay to struggle at times with a public profession of your faith - it is even okay to worship in secret when the environment is as hostile as the environment in Silence. This is precisely the reality that many Christians must endure around the world. However, it is not okay to keep your faith so Silent that you actively work for an oppressive government in confiscating Christian items or pen treatises opposing the Christian faith. That is utter nonsense to believe that an authentic Christian could do that for any extended period of time.
My wife and I enjoyed Silence and the eye-opening reality of violent persecution around the world, but I wouldn't recommend it as good or even remotely accurate representation of true Christian faith. Our faith comes from the indwelling Holy Spirit who has saved us in reality and brought us out of spiritual darkness into Christ's marvelous light. Our faith is articulated clearly in the canon of the 66 books of the Bible and anything outside of that is heresy. I pray for the comfort and clear direction of all persecuted Christians around the world and sincerely hope that their love for Jesus would motivate them to not be silent no matter how difficult times become.