For this father of two young kids, it is a rare luxury to see a movie in theaters. But fortune and available babysitting conspired to enable me to see Martin Scorsese’s new film “Silence’” with a friend of mine.
I hadn’t been to a theater in well over a year and was stunned to see that ours offered luxury leather seats, assigned to you upon purchase, that recline at the touch of a button. It is a bit like I imagine first-class must feel, but without the schadenfreude of getting to watch the chattel march past on their way to economy. The movie hadn’t started, but already I was impressed.
My friend had bought the tickets and in the rush to deliver the kids to the babysitter, neither of us had eaten dinner. As a form of repayment, and to stave off hunger, I purchased one of those office trashcan-sized buckets of popcorn and two sodas. We nestled into our seats to enjoy the film.
“Silence” is based on a historical novel by Shūsaku Endō about two young Jesuits trying to find their former teacher, who has disappeared after a great persecution of Christians broke out in Japan. Upon being smuggled to the island they are discovered by a village of scared Christian peasants and begin ministering to them.
The ministry expands into the next village, whose villagers have also preserved their faith, and we are led briefly to have hope for Christianity in Japan. Then the idealistic young missionaries meet the source of the villagers’ fears: the Inquisitor. The rest of the film is a set piece: the Inquisitor inquires, there is interesting dialogue, and Christians get tortured until the last remaining Jesuit, Rodrigues, renounces his faith and eventually converts to Buddhism.
Or does he? In the final shot of the film, of Rodrigues’ Buddhist burial, the camera zooms in on his casket and shows his hands crossed over his chest holding a tiny wooden cross. It is like an exclamation point and a question mark rolled into one. Viewers walk away not knowing exactly what to think.
The Main Question Isn’t Whether Rodrigues Lost His Faith
At least my friend and I didn’t. We traded initial takes as we raised the recliners and dusted the popcorn kernels from our sweaters. But we agreed “Silence” is a great film. The point-of-view cinematography forces viewers to identify with Rodrigues and overcomes the struggle some secular folks might have of sympathetically entering the story of a Christian missionary.
Scorsese masterfully generates a simmering dread. We can see the fear in the peasants’ eyes: they know that something terrible is going to happen while we and the Jesuits don’t. The generous, even heroic, depiction of peasant Christians singing hymns as they die for their faith is not the kind of film I’m used to from Hollywood!
Much of the film’s buzz has revolved around the key question: did Rodrigues apostatize, or not? Was it the right thing to do? Was it God’s voice that told him to apostatize in the climactic scene, or a demon speaking to him in the guise of God?
Upon reflection I think these questions rather miss the point. We ought to be asking something else. The film hints that the Japanese authorities learned in their initial persecution that merely killing the priests would not stamp out the faith. To accomplish that goal they needed something more. So the better question is this: What does it take to make the faithful apostatize?
Or, what is the recipe that the Inquisitor developed, the recipe which assured him that he would succeed where so many others failed, that he could convince faithful, courageous Jesuit missionaries to renounce their faith? How did he do it?
How to Torture People Into Anything
Food is the first ingredient. While the peasant Christians are all but starving, in captivity Rodrigues is fed well. Often this food is delivered to him within sight of the peasant Christians imprisoned alongside him.
The second ingredient: clean clothes. Repeatedly, Rodrigues is offered clean clothes, which vary from occasion to occasion (one outfit for traveling, one for sitting in the cell to pray). In one scene the head jailer points out that he is wearing the dignified clothes of a Buddhist priest. Meanwhile, the peasants wear the same rags from scene to scene, and Rodrigues in his role as narrator draws your attention to their filthiness, just in case you’re too thick to notice yourself.
Thirdly, if you’re trying to make an apostate, “Silence” tells us to offer your subject a place of honor and advancement. Rodrigues is told that he can end up with a home, wife, and child, perhaps become a public philosopher. He need only abandon his faith. He is shown a former mentor who has rejected Christianity and is now honored and spoken well of. He is even doing good work for the betterment of the lives of the people.
The final piece is the most insidious of all. Ensure that the apostate-to-be sees the pain his faith causes others. While in jail, Rodrigues is forced to watch the suffering of the poor Japanese Christian community. His captors regularly remark to him that if he leaves his faith, the peasants will all be spared.
The Seductive Wiles of Human Comfort
I am not one to point to the contemporary American church and cry “Persecution!” I’ve known a few men and women who have been tortured and driven from their homelands for their faith in Jesus, and knowing a few is enough to know not to use the term lightly. But note the four ingredients for apostasy. It is not persecution that convinces the Jesuits to renounce the faith. It is comfort. In this way, it becomes clear that Japan is a stand-in for modern secular America. As Brenda Salter McNeil says, the American church has been cursed with comfort.
We are extremely well-fed. We get new clothes rather than mend old ones. We are served a constant mental diet that teaches living out our faith, and teaching basic tenets of our faith, is offensive, oppressive even. Not convinced? Try asking your secular friends what they think about the teaching that one should remain celibate before and outside of marriage.
The culture also constantly hints that if we could just keep our faith to ourselves, held tightly like a little wooden cross, silent even into our graves, we too can be legitimate contributors in society, politics, and academia. Think of the good works we could accomplish! Is it any wonder that our Christian leaders are reduced to explaining the faith in terms of mere human flourishing?
The fact that “Silence” was snubbed at the Golden Globes then with only a single Oscar nomination stands as an almost too-perfect rebuttal to the film’s insipid ending. Even if you keep your faith subtle and private, modern secular America won’t spare you. Everyone is welcome to his or her closely held beliefs, but act on them in public, at work, in art or academia, and your career might be over. You can be sure there won’t be a #OscarSoSecular movement this year.
Well then, lesson learned. Here’s my counter-recipe. When you are offered seconds, politely decline and avoid the extra-large popcorn bin. When someone gives you a sweater for Christmas next year to replace the moth-bitten one, hand it off to Goodwill and pick up your sewing kit. When someone tells you that your faith is hurting them, ignore it.
The fight is not against flesh and blood. When you arrive at a banquet, avoid the seat of honor like your life depends on it. No, not your life—your soul. Whatever you do, don’t be silenced.