The Importance of Silence


released-photo-credit-kerry-brownSilence is Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the very famous book by Japanese author, Shusaku Endo. The book (and movie) deal with a period in Japan’s history when Jesuit missionaries from Portugal had been expelled or martyred. In the 17th century Japan was ruled piecemeal by hundreds of daimyos or feudal warlords. As power became consolodated under a central rule (soon to be a powerful Tokugawa shogunate) the influence of Christianity became increasingly seen as both foreign to Japan’s culture but also suspected of having a conflict of interest in commerce with Japan.

The story primarily deals with two Portuguese priests (Rodrigues and Garppe) who secretly travel to Japan to locate a priest (Ferreira), rumored to have denounced his faith. Endo, who was Catholic, wrote this semi-historical account using the backdrop of intense persecution Christians faced as local authorities saw Christianity as a threat to their traditions. The effort to eradicate the religion’s influence led to the formation of pockets of what came to be known as “hidden Christians” (kakure krishitan), many in the Nagasaki and Kyoto regions. The genesis of the book began in the 1950’s when Endo saw a fumi-e (fumee-eh) in a Nagasaki museum exhibit. Fumi-e was a Christian picture made out of brass that was placed on the ground for these captured hidden Christians to step on as a way to renounce their faith in Christ. As Endo saw the worn image of Christ he imagined the intense pressure countless amount of Christians must have experienced as they were forced to renounce their faith by trampling on the brass object saddled in the ground.

The film itself is stunningly beautiful yet jarring to the soul. For instance, much of the soundtrack in the film is ambient noise which served to create a kind of dissonance. Scorsese has done a masterful job in creating a film version that is very faithful to Endo’s book while visually  capturing the emphasis on simplicity and beauty, hallmarks of Japanese culture, yet disturbing in the best way possible. I found myself mesmerized by the story and while it unfolds slowly I was riveted the entire 160 minute time frame. My strongest suggestion is that you actually see it with friends then plan time afterwards to discuss themes and how you experienced the movie.

The importance of the movie goes far beyond a simple historical recounting of Christian persecution. Simon Chan in his book, Spiritual Theology, notes that the gospel is universal in the sense that it connects with every culture at every point in history. If that’s the case, Chan suggests we should expect to encounter ways of thinking about the God of the Bible and living/growing in our faith that are more in tune with an Asian rather than a western way of thinking. In fact, if the gospel is the inversion of many values we in the west hold dear, the best way to describe Silence is inversion. It takes our western categorical way of thinking and inserts a mysterious component where God deconstructs us by inverting the very things we think are precious and beautiful. It embraces a journey of sanctification where questions must be “unpacked” with others to get at the meaning under the surface as we journey together.

As I have thought about it over the years, one of the great purposes of art is to point us to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful (what the Ancients called, The Transcdentals). It does this through an aesthetic that draws us in along with others (art is meant to be shared with others) leading to conversation. That seems consistent with how philosophers think about one of the hallmarks of what true beauty does to us – we want to share it with others.  It gets us out of ourselves and our own little world to share with others something essential to real life as God has created it. The importance of a movie like Silence is not how many Christians want their religious movies today – a wholesome movie with some moral lesson that is neat and clean and arrived at as the story resolves neatly. Actually, Silence, in rattling our soul with jarring beauty, wakes us up out of our sleepwalk and comfort, what Søren Kierkegaard called, “gentleness” or being passively “nice”. Instead, it surgically implants questions about our own hearts that keep us honest with God, with others, and with ourselves.

Why is this necessary? Because one of our greatest temptations is to remove ambiguity from the Christian life, focusing solely on celebrating, expecting God to act in clear ways for those who are “good”, or wanting a consumeristic kind of faith that uses religion and God to receive some goods. Without the experience of silence, darkness, questions, and often times doubt, we are at risk of losing the depth of grace found solely in the gospel while becoming people filled with anger or despair. What the movie does so well is underscore grace in the midst of absence, not grace as some sort of cliched answer to absence. We remember the words of our Lord spoken to Paul in his weakness and desperation, “My grace is sufficient for your power is brought to an end in the midst of your weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9). We must resist the temptation to want to get to celebration too quickly skipping over or repressing the profundity of absence.

In this way, Silence is maybe more Christian than most “Christian” movies today. My friend, Sean, remarked to me afterwards, that the movie was more evangelical than the vast majority of movies released under the Christian banner and I wholeheartedly agree. If you are one of those people who is still keeping score, Martin Scorsese, who became infamous for his Last Temptation of Christ, has been on his own spiritual journey so it would be prudent to reconsider any grudge. The R rating is for the graphic portrayal of how Japanese Christians were systematically tortured for their faith so bringing children is not wise. For those interested, I will be posting some further thoughts on themes found in the movie, but I also have heard there will be discussion questions on Fuller Seminary’s site Culture Care, their collaboration with Mako Fujimura.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Silence

  1. I am rereading the book right now and hope to see the movie soon. Thank you for this well thought out introduction to the movie, Jon. It seems that Christianity was fairly influential and had a significant number of followers in Japan in the 1600’s. How do you think this compares to today? And would you agree that Christianity doesn’t seem to have a significant presence in Japan at this time? Why do you think that is? Why has Christianity become so widely accepted in South Korea but not Japan?

    • jonnitta

      I know Eric that your love for the Japanese people is deep in your heart so it was good to read your response. I think it’s pretty clear that the percentage of Christians in Japan is still about 1%. That’s the same as when you and I were there in 1987 (a memorable summer on so many levels). Makoto Fujimura has some interesting thoughts on it in his book Silence and Beauty which are his reflections on Endo, the movie, and Japan. He thinks that Japan is not a pagan culture but a Christ-hidden culture with much of the influence of Christianity still “under the surface”. Yet, the reason why Korea took off and Japan didn’t was in part (if not largely) due to Japanese people seeing their country as “isolated” or “confined”. This isolationist attitude translates to social networks, work, group think, etc. The churches in Korea coached people to form networks, trust others, while at the same time forging a healthy sense of individualism. When the church was banished from Japan that opportunity was lost. Now move to today. Fujimura thinks that this contributes to a form of Christianity that is very paternalistic – heavy dose of focusing on the Father. But if you think about the family structure in Japan today, the father is unemotionally loving, somewhat distant if not absent. How churches express this is exactly what we’ve seen – dispassionate, solemn, heavy influence of the pastor as father figure. He thinks that what should be focused on is the maternalistic picture of God – tender, caring, unwavering commitment in love, etc. I would wholeheartedly recommend Fujimura’s book to you as an accompaniment to seeing the movie. Blessings to you and your family Eric! Hope all is well!

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