Can we sit with uncertainty? Can we accept reality, in all its shades of gray and unsightly cracks in the dark alleyways of our inner worlds and in the abyss of human frailty?
I know it’s much easier to live in a black and white world, one with easy answers and a blind eye turned toward any discomfort within myself or in the world. It’s an attitude that slithers into the various areas of my life, quietly, of course — even into the way I approach watching a film. And especially in the way I live my Christian faith.
Yep, Christians, today’s gut check is brought to you by Martin Scorsese.
Specifically “Silence.” And it’s definitely one of those stories that does not live in the black and white world; characters face (and make) choices that aren’t good, but if we let ourselves sit with the questions asked in this film, it can be really beneficial to our faith. The most difficult thing about watching this film, aside from watching martyrdom happen, is that the story that reveals our own weakness and confronts us with the reality of our own often-ignored doubt.
I’ve watched/read a lot of the commentary surrounding this film coming out of our comfortable little Christian circles, and mostly, I disagree with what most people are saying. Here’s why:
- This movie is a masterpiece in the art of filmmaking. Just needed to acknowledge that first. Now that that’s out of the way.
- Most people have been focusing on the morality of the characters’ actions in the story, which is an important thing to look at. (For those of you who are unfamiliar, the basic Spark Notes version of the plot: two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garrupe, go to Japan to find their fellow priest, Ferreira, who has apostatized in the face of torture amid the country’s greatest persecution. Watch the Trailer) Their questions center on, is apostasy being shown as praiseworthy? Morally acceptable? Heroic, even? I don’t want to get into these questions specifically because others already have; check out Bishop Robert Barron’s comments on this point.
- While we might not agree with characters’ actions (especially if they’re inherently wrong, like in this case), films like this can still be good. I think we too easily negate this film’s worth and potentially miss the real context of this story, the real questions it asks, and the meat of opportunity for ourselves watching it. However, real discernment is necessary – because the film leaves the questions and interpretations up to the viewer, it can easily be misconstrued.
- There are many, many layers to this film.
Below are some thoughts to consider on the movie’s message, or more accurately, questions — and what they actually mean for us.
1. What is the context?
One simple thing to remember watching this film is to acknowledge how different the eastern culture is from our western one. Watch this film with curiosity, rather than inserting our own understanding of the world into this experience. (Because this film is an experience and a work of art, not any ordinary weekend popcorn flick).
2. Is apostasy being condoned?
I don’t think the film glorifies apostasy. I think it presents the situation to us, and we can decide for ourselves – it’s offered as a question, not an answer. And the answer, of course, is that sinning, especially denying God, is always wrong, no matter the conditions.
However, while I can’t speak for the novel, it’s clear in the movie that the martyrs dying for their faith are the real heroes. Those scenes, though hard to watch, are the most beautiful and moving. Though Rodrigues is the main character (spoiler alert: he, too, apostatizes), he is not held up as a good example in the least.
However, I do think one point being made by the question of apostasy is external vs. internal faith.
To have faith, it necessary to both practice your faith externally and believe in one’s heart. In the film, when some characters face being forced to deny their faith, many of them deny it in word or deed, but their hearts still believe. So while the action of apostasy shown in the film is wrong, the other side of the coin shown here is that faith is more than just its external face. For most of us, we neglect the heart of faith and can easily get lost in the external practice. But we need both. This is so clear to us in the Japanese martyrs in the film.
3. What can we learn from Rodrigues vs. Kichijiro?
Thomas Harmon wrote a fantastic review of the film (I recommend you read it) highlighting this central theme in the story. Many view Kichijiro as the “Judas” character, the one who denies his faith and betrays. However, despite his repeated denials and gross weakness, he repents every time. He is the everyday Christian man. And because of this, he is really the “Peter” figure instead. Rodrigues, on the other hand, prides himself on resisting torture and holding firm to his faith; until he falls. Sure, the ending shows that he held on privately, and I’ll get to that — but the point here is that while Rodrigues is full of pride, Kichijiro knows his weakness and tries again. This is the kind of faith that we should emulate.
Weak faith is better than no faith at all, and humility in knowing our weakness allows us to actually find strength in God rather than ourselves, which was where Rodrigues fell.
It’s all too easy to become like Rodrigues who judges Kichijiro’s weakness while watching this film, determining what only God can see – the human heart. Let it simply be a question before your own – would you deny him? And if you did, what would you do?
4. Who is Jesus to you?
This is one of the main questions this film presented to me. In the face of a similar situation, being asked to deny my faith (even if my heart does not) to save other people, or to deny Christ in general, forces me to face who He really is. And where do we stand before him? If He is truly God, my Beloved, then I want to die for Him. But knowing my own weakness, I also know that not only would I probably fall in a similar situation relying on my own strength, but that I deny Him in little ways every day. My hope is that in the little daily questions of, “Do you know this man?” I can get up and try again when I fall like Kichijiro.
5. What is faith?
This is probably the question of the film, and I won’t be able to dive into the extensive layers of it in this little blog post. However, some thoughts.
Faith is not the belief that rests pretty when life makes sense. It is not the understanding that, when I feel good, God is good, exists and is present to me. If faith is real, it is being faced with doubt, with unbearable unknowing, with suffering, and choosing, despite those things, to believe that God exists, is good and loves me. This is what the martyrs show us.
Rodrigues’ weak faith contrasts with the faith of the martyrs. He projects onto God what he feels: life is hard, so God is silent. He’s not there. Life is good and I feel strong, and God is there and present and active.
It isn’t until the end of the film, near the end of his life, when he finally gets it. Despite having lived the remainder of his life holding his faith within his heart and not exteriorly, he understands: whether He was silent or not, “my whole life spoke of You.”
This is a pretty poignant point about faith. While our faith has an exterior life to it (and it’s an important part), it is not defined by the exterior; our faith’s primary life lives in our heart. It is chosen through testing and lived interiorly, not identifying itself simply by works. We need both. But we too easily fall into identifying faith as an external matter, working and doing, without simply being.
The most important thing to remember about evangelization
6. Can the Christian faith survive in a hostile environment?
This is one of the biggest questions both surrounding the film and asked within it.
Knowing simple history, obviously, the answer is yes.
However, the film asks us an important question about evangelization that follows from the above: can we force a faith on someone? (No). Can we expect that it will be well received if we don’t first seek to understand the background and current situation of the person we’re evangelizing? Don’t count on it.
The most important thing in evangelization is to love the person, people, country and culture we are speaking to. If we do not first seek to understand, to understand those we speak to, we cannot expect to be received. This doesn’t just go for Japan…this goes for our day to day interaction with the people around us.
7. Where is God in silence?
Although the novelist resisted this title for the book, Scorsese played up this theme quite a bit. There’s hardly any score to the film. We live this film primarily through Rodrigues’ eyes and through his mind, which feels keenly the silence of God in the face of suffering.
As I mentioned before, I found it interesting how Rodrigues reflected something we all do: projecting our own feelings and experience of life onto the person of God. Silence from God is a common experience and is a particularly painful one. “Where is God in the face of suffering?” is a question that might make sense to our head on our good days (read C.S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain” if you haven’t already), but on our bad days, our heart still cries it again.
That’s just the human experience. And like Rodrigues toward the end of the film, I’ve come to see that asking the question is good. It’s honest. It’s real.
And at the end of the day, the silence, what we experience as His absence, is actually the kind of love and faith that goes so deep that there are no words. It is God’s own reverence for our suffering; He came to suffer with us, and He still suffers beside us.
He chooses to be present with us even when we deny Him. And no matter how many times my own heart cries, “Where are you in this?” my hope is to rest in His strength and choose faith even when my questions feel unanswered, though they’re answered without His words — namely, with his presence.
I think I’d rather have His presence anyway.
Photo: Paramount Pictures | Silence Movie Website