Christians Aren’t Embracing Scorsese’s Silence, Nor Should They

By Esther O'Reilly Published on February 1, 2017

When the trailer dropped for Silence, Martin Scorsese’s decades-gestating passion project, I was intrigued. I knew nothing about Shusaku Endo’s original novel, though I was wary of Scorsese based on his reputation for work like The Last Temptation of Christ. But this story about two young Jesuit missionaries in the heart of hostile 17th-century Japan looked like a gripping, albeit disturbing examination of martyrdom and persecution.

And it had a cracker-jack cast to boot: Andrew Garfield, turning in yet another stellar performance on the heels of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, Adam Driver flexing his dramatic muscles, and Liam Neeson, about whom little needs to be said. Needless to say, Silence immediately shot to the top of my must-see list.

Unfortunately, several early think-pieces spoiled the ending of the story before I had a chance to read the novel. Still, I read it anyway. The first half is grim but uplifting in equal measure, as we see peasant martyrs display an almost super-human courage in the face of unspeakable brutality. But I knew what was coming. And for that reason, interested as I still was in seeing the film, it no longer topped my must-see list.

It appears not to be topping anyone else’s lists either. It went wide at the beginning of 2017 after a listless promotion campaign and a too-late limited release at the end of the year kept it from generating much buzz with Oscar voters. It was almost completely shut out of the nominations, with the exception of a (well-deserved) cinematography nod. Meanwhile, it’s done about 4 million at the box office, a disastrous loss on a forty-million-dollar film whose actors already took significant pay cuts.

There are many reasons for this, some of which those critics who did see the film have pointed out. Like “Who exactly IS going to sit through a punishingly long, terminally bleak Catholic epic, even to watch Spider-Man and Kylo Ren search for Qui-Gon Jinn?”

Well, Christians, right? Supposedly? This is, after all, a film that dedicates itself in its opening credits to “Japanese Christians and their pastors.” But the evangelical church blocs who dominated entire theaters to see The Passion, God’s Not Dead and War Room are nowhere in sight.

What happened? Jared Wilson at The Gospel Coalition believes there are many contributing factors, but one “huge turn-off to evangelicals” is its “ambiguity.” He writes, “The narrative artistry found in books and movies like Silence are [sic] not suited for tastes accustomed to treacly inspirational music on the radio and the kinds of books found in the ECPA’s Top 100. There is a reason you don’t find literary novels in the Christian bookstore. It’s the same reason movies with Silence’s artistic pedigree don’t appeal.”

In the end, Silence does not represent “Christian values.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

Elsewhere, Wilson scolds, “Here’s perhaps America’s greatest filmmaker producing a movie that represents Christian values — and tells an historically important Christian story — and while we won’t go see it, we’ll go on complaining anyway that ‘Hollywood doesn’t represent our values.'”

That would be a nice lecture if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that in the end, Silence does not represent “Christian values.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

The focal point of the story is a terrible dilemma forced upon its protagonist, Father Rodrigues (Garfield). Knowing full well that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, the Japanese authorities have determined to break the church from the top down, by inducing its priests to apostatize. Like Fr. Ferreira, the mentor he came to seek, Rodrigues is forced to choose between trampling on a graven image of Christ and watching his beloved converts die slow, torturous deaths. “They’re not dying for Christ,” taunts the inquisitor. “They’re dying for you.”

His companion, Fr. Garrpe (Driver), is separately given the same choice but remains strong to the end, providing one of the book and film’s stand-out scenes. But this is ultimately Rodrigues’s story, and it reaches its climax when he makes his decision: Trample. This also marks the moment when the oppressive “silence” of God is dramatically broken. Unfortunately, it is broken in the worst possible way, as the Christ of the fumie — the image — audibly urges Rodrigues to trample on it.

In short, Silence excuses and affirms doing evil that good may come.

No relief is provided in the book’s bleak epilogue. Apostasy becomes a way of life for Rodrigues, as he cooperates with his old mentor to purge Japan of Christian articles and renews his own renunciation to the authorities on a daily basis. He takes a Japanese wife and lives out the rest of his days as a pawn of the state. Like his mentor before him, he puts his disavowal of his faith in writing.

One of the only places where book and film diverge is in Scorsese’s very last shot: As the camera zooms in on Rodrigues’s Buddhist funeral pyre, it shows a crucifix cupped in his hands, slipped there by his wife. However, this shot is in the spirit of the book, which shows by repeated divine affirmation and inner monologues that Rodrigues still secretly considers himself a follower of Christ, just not in a way the Church who has ostracized him will understand.

In short, Silence excuses and affirms doing evil that good may come. It puts words in Christ’s mouth that fly in the face of his explicit teachings. This is not merely “ambiguous.” It’s blasphemous.

Yes to Excellence, No to Blasphemy

It’s a shame, because there’s a grain of truth to what Wilson is saying. He’s right that there’s an artistic disconnect among many Christians. He’s right that too many evangelicals are like Remy’s brother in Ratatouille: so used to a steady diet of junk that they are incapable of appreciating gourmet food when it’s put in front of them. And he’s right that, consequently, a lot of fine Catholic art which deals more in suffering and sadness than in tidy happy endings is ignored by the wider Christian masses. This is a conversation worth having.

But Silence is the wrong conversation-starter. Literate, conservative Catholics, including Japanese Catholics, were rejecting this work long before there was such a thing as CCM music or a Christian movie industry. You’re not going to pin this one on Protestant evangelicals who loved God’s Not Dead. If Wilson wants to broaden their horizons, a murky apologetic for apostasy is not the place to start.

If the Church is ever to move the conversation about faith and art forward, we need more categories than bargain bin kitsch and well-made but pernicious distortions of the faith. We need to lose the snobbery that assumes you must be a fan of the one if you reject the other. We need a united coalition of Protestants and Catholics willing to say yes to excellence, no to blasphemy.

Is that too much to ask?

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