Thoughts on “Silence”

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Spoilers below

When director Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island, Hugo, The Wolf on Wall Street) announced he was producing a movie adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel, Silence, there was much excitement among critics. Scorsese originally read the book in 1989, and has been talking and dreaming of making it into a movie ever since. He finally realized his dream when Silence was released in December 2016. The events of the movie closely follow the novel, written in 1966 by a Japanese Catholic author known for grappling with deep topics of faith.

Synopsis

The early half of the 17th century was a time of intense persecution of Christians in Japan. When discovered by authorities, Christians were forced to trample on a carved image of Christ, called a fumie, to prove that they had apostatized. If they refused, officials waited by with countless methods of torture, most of which led to martyrdom.

Garrpe and Rodriguez are Jesuit priests spurred to go to Japan in search of their former mentor, Father Ferreira, who has supposedly apostatized from his faith under torture from the Japanese. Distrusting these reports of their beloved priest, the two Portuguese missionaries risk their lives to travel across the world to bolster the persecuted Japanese church and to learn the truth about Ferreira. Rodriguez and Garrpe are thrown headlong into an environment of fear, secrecy, and suspicion. Led by a drunken, cowardly guide, Kichijiro (who claims he is not a Christian), the priests make their way to a Christian village, where they are ardently welcomed by the suffering community of believers. Rodriguez is initially encouraged by the faith of the Christians, and exhilarated by their reliance on him. He is even able to minister to Kichijiro, who was originally a Christian but apostatized under fear of torture years earlier and was forced to watch his entire family die for their faith.

However, officials soon get word of the Christians in hiding. Three men from the village are executed for their faith in an agonizing crucifixion scene. Kichijiro escapes a similar punishment by profaning Christ and the Virgin Mary. Soon after the villagers are martyred, Rodriguez and Garrpe flee separate ways in an attempt to preserve their lives and ministry. All the while, Rodriguez is haunted with consuming questions about the silence of God. Why does God silently allow so many faithful believers to be heinously tortured to death for their love of Him?

Rodriguez is soon after betrayed by Kichijiro for three-hundred pieces of silver in a manner intentionally reminiscent of Judas Iscariot. In prison, Rodriguez continues his inner questioning of God’s mercy and judgement. He cries out to God as he watches the suffering of the Japanese Christians intensify, but does not hear a response.

After some months in prison, the moment Rodriguez has longed for ever since entering Japan arrives: his captors lead him to Father Ferreira, and they are able to talk face-to-face. Rodriguez is shocked by his old teacher. Not only has Ferreira apostatized and taken a Japanese wife and name, but he is writing a book denouncing Christianity as a false religion. Ferreira confronts Rodriguez’s view of Japan. “Japan is a swamp,” he states cynically. “Christianity cannot grow here.” According to Ferreira, the Japanese martyrs did not die for the Christian God, but for a god of their own making, a strange blend of Catholicism and Buddhism. “The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God; and they never will.”

With this discouragement resounding in his ears, Rodriguez is led back to prison. That evening, five Christians are tortured outside his cell, despite having already apostatized. Rodriguez is told that they will be set free if he merely trample on the fumie. His pride, Ferreira tells him, is the only thing standing between those Christians and deliverance. “A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ,” Ferreira says pleadingly. “If Christ were here, he would certainly have apostatized for them.” Rodriguez, haunted by the screams of the martyrs, looks down on the fumie when he hears what is meant to be the voice of Christ speaking to him. “Trample! It was to be trampled by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” And so, eyes blinded with tears, Rodriguez steps on the fumie and denies his Lord.

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Thoughts

I went into watching the movie having just read the book for a World Literature class, so I was pleased that Martin Scorsese followed the book’s plot and message as perfectly as possible. While this made for a longer movie (2 hours and 40 minutes), I think Scorsese handled the material very well, and kept the movie from dragging on. The film successfully incorporated symbolism from the book, most notably in its use of silence. The absence of a musical score, unusual to our modern ears, highlighted the absence of an answer to Rodriguez’s questions. Additionally, while the movie is rated ‘R’ for violence, it is not an action movie, and except for one or two scenes avoids excessive gore. This careful handling of the text emphasizes the gravity of the questions posed by the story.

The story itself deals with a variety of issues, but doesn’t necessarily provide answers. For the most part, I think it is a masterful work of literature which asks questions many Christians wonder about. How far does God’s grace to sinners extend? Why is God silent when His people are persecuted? Do the ends of a situation justify sinful actions? How closely is Christianity linked with Imperialism? It’s unusual to see such important questions deeply dealt with in films, and it was exciting to watch a movie which grapples with tough themes.

Despite its strengths, however, the conclusions Silence comes to are flawed. Even if Protestant viewers are able to suspend disbelief and accept the Roman Catholic worldview of the author and characters, conservative Christians cannot agree with how the movie is resolved. Rodriguez’s apostasy is presented as a paradox. If he kept his faith, he would indirectly cause the death of innocent people. If he sinned and denied Christ, he would be the instrument of salvation for the dying Christians. It was a lose-lose situation. Who can judge Rodriguez for giving up his personal faith for the lives of others?

As it turns out, Jesus can.

“Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Matt. 10:33

Jesus spoke these words knowing full-well the persecution his followers would face. He personally called Christians to suffer for His sake, as He suffered for them. Rodriguez believed that suffering by forsaking his faith – and thus his position, authority as a priest, honor, and self-respect – was a truer form of sacrifice because it was true humiliation (such as Jesus suffered), rather than the glorification of a martyr’s death. While it is true that absolute sacrifice entails debasement, this cannot negate the fact that Jesus does not call us to follow Him by denying Him. We follow by obeying Him.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15

When it comes to sin, the ends don’t justify the means. God is sovereign, and we can trust Him when presented with apparently unsolvable moral conundrums. While it would be unimaginably difficult to be faced with Rodriguez’s situation, Christians still need to affirm the necessity of obeying Christ.

“Nowhere does the Christian change his character. There is one gospel, and the same Jesus, who will one day deny every one who denies, and acknowledge every one who acknowledges God—who will save, too, the life which has been lost for His sake; but, on the other hand, destroy that which for gain has been saved to His dishonour…A state of faith admits no plea of necessity; they are under no necessity to sin, whose one necessity is, that they do not sin. For if one is pressed to the offering of sacrifice and the sheer denial of Christ by the necessity of torture or of punishment, yet discipline does not connive even at that necessity; because there is a higher necessity to dread denying and to undergo martyrdom, than to escape from suffering, and to render the homage required.”
-Tertullian, De Corona, Chapter 11

A Facebook friend recently shared this quote from one of the church fathers. It is eminently applicable to many of the issues dealt with in Silence. Christ can and does forgive repentant Christians who have denied Him in the past, but grace does not justify sin.

Overall, moviegoers will leave the theater with more questions about Christianity than they came with. Believers whose faith is strong, however, may find the questions to be a helpful springboard into dealing with the silence of God from a more gospel-centric worldview. I recommend it for mature viewers who are willing to wrestle with complex themes and work hard to find Biblical answers.

Cautions: Rated R for disturbing violent content. Although the gore isn’t as extreme as many R-rated movies, the story is extremely intense and the human suffering depicted feels realistic. Partial male nudity in a non-sexual context.

 

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Whatever is Pure

“It is perilous to study the arts of the Enemy, for good or ill.”

Thus spoke Elrond, wisest of elf-lords in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was a grave situation – the great wizard Saruman had just been revealed as a traitor after declaring open war on his former friends, and indeed on all that was good in Middle Earth. The primary reason for his downfall, besides his pride?  According to Elrond, it was his intimate knowledge and study of evil. What had started as a noble pursuit to discover the weakness of the Enemy, ended in the temptation of power and lust of darkness overcoming Saruman.

While the Lord of the Rings is a fictional tale, Roman Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien intended his story to illustrate truth pertaining to real life – applicability, he called it. So is it perilous to study the arts of the Enemy? What even are the “arts of the enemy”, and how do we study them?

For my purposes, I will define the arts of the enemy simply as evil. Black magic, false worldviews, acts of evil such as murder or adultery: really any sin that is in this world. Obviously many of us are surrounded by gross sin every day of our lives – after all, we are sinners living in a sinful society. There is no escape from it. Yet perhaps because of the very ubiquitous nature of evil, we as Christians should purposely strive to avoid unnecessary interaction with sinful influences. We should avoid filling our mind with the things of this world, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1st John 2:16). I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk to sinful people – although spending a lot of time with ungodly friends can have a negative influence on a person – but that we need to evaluate how much of our life is spent immersed in the filth of sin, and how much is spent studying the things of God. As the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Is this the standard we have for our lives? When I sit down to watch a movie, do I stop to consider whether my film choice is pure or honorable? When I browse through the bookstore (or Amazon, as the case may be), do I pause and evaluate how true or lovely the book in my shopping cart is? And not only our entertainment. The choice of conversation can either be excellent and uplifting, or coarse and impure. As the Bible says in Ephesians 5:3-4:

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

These things must not even be named among us! Instead, there must be thanksgiving. For practical purposes, this requires us to be intentional with what things we fill our minds with. I would suggest that watching, say, an explicit or sexually graphic film would not be included in “whatever is honorable”. Profane music falls under “filthiness and foolish talk”, and is not healthy for a Christian to listen to on a regular basis. Even immersing oneself in fictional practices of dark magic falls under the “arts of the enemy” category (not to name any names here…)

I’m not trying to be legalistic. It is very important to realize that the Bible is not clear on where to draw the dividing line – at what point is it wrong to watch a sin-filled movie? How often is too often? How bad is too bad? After all, believers do have legitimate freedom of conscience. But what is the point of Christian liberty? The Westminster Confession of Faith explains that:

[T]he end of Christian liberty…. is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

We are set free from sin so that we can serve God, not so that we can flirt with evil and escape the consequences. Rather than using our freedom in Christ to do anything we want, we should focus on “serving the Lord… in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life”.

In conclusion, I would like to submit to you the following verse from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. (1st Corinthians 10:23)

If we really love God, we will love the things He loves and hate the things He hates. Next time you are presented with a choice of what to meditate on, ask yourself whether it will be helpful to your spiritual life or to the lives of others. And if the answer is “no”, don’t be discouraged. Rather, fill your mind with the things of God and “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:10) He is a beautiful God indeed, and it is beautiful to be His servant.

Gozo, paz, y alegria,

Rebecca Joy

Practical Hospitality in the Christian Life

“Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” ~ 1st Corinthians 10:24

In my last post I talked about the Biblical call to hospitality, and the importance of making it a priority in our lives. But what does it look like to show hospitality daily? And how and why do Christians fail in this others-focused life?

One of the most common reasons we fail in being hospitable is because of our own personal insecurities. For example, a few years ago a family at my church took in a young Asian girl as part of a foreign exchange program. She looked overwhelmed and lonely. A friend introduced us, and full of enthusiasm I said hello. But after that, I was too shy to keep up a conversation! I soon found myself avoiding her every Sunday, because it made me uncomfortable to feel shy. Continue reading “Practical Hospitality in the Christian Life”

A Call to Hospitality

Some good friends of mine were sharing stories of their time as missionaries visiting churches all around the United States. They recounted some of the more unfortunate and trying incidences of support raising. One such occurrence was when they were invited to speak at a church (both at the Sunday school and evening service) but were not provided dinner or a place to stay. On top of this, it was a small town and there were not any fast food restaurants in the area. Thus all seven of them spent Sunday afternoon stuck in their car in a parking lot down the street from the church. By the time evening service rolled around, everyone was rather hungry and extremely tired from being cooped up for so long.

Now, I am quite certain that church was not trying to be rude. Continue reading “A Call to Hospitality”

Nonsense Novels: A Book Review

It’s not often that I burst out laughing when reading quietly to myself. I think Dickens was the first author who instructed me how to laugh out loud from a book, just as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series taught me to weep disconsolately at the age of nine. But it is no surprise that the stories of Canadian author and humorist Stephen Leacock cause one to laugh frequently, at times even hysterically. Continue reading “Nonsense Novels: A Book Review”

Hymns of the Church: Irrelevant for Today? Part 2

“So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
When I think about the way He loves us…”

It’s probably not the worst song ever sung during a worship service, but I think everyone will agree it could be better, although it definitely has a catchy tune. This song was even nominated for a Dove Award for Rock/Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year in 2010. And yet, how good of a song is it for the corporate worship of God’s people? Does it lend itself to a large group singing together? Does it express deep truths, or will its sentimental style speak to some but not others? Continue reading “Hymns of the Church: Irrelevant for Today? Part 2”

Hymns of the Church: Irrelevant for Today?

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

I am sure that any American Christian will know the words of this classic hymn, Amazing Grace, written by John Newton in 1779. But for many Christians today, that and perhaps a few Christmas songs are the only hymns they know. In churches around the world hymns are being replaced with other forms of worship music, and a powerful Christian heritage is being lost. Continue reading “Hymns of the Church: Irrelevant for Today?”