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silence

I recently read Shusaku Endo’s great 1966 novel Silence, about the 17th-century persecution of Jesuit missionaries in Japan. I thought it was great. If you’re a regular reader here, you noticed I made it my top book for 2016. Here’s what I wrote then:

Silence is a brief but indelible reflection on faith, doubt, and the inscrutable mystery of God. Mixed into this heady philosophical stew are provocative musings on contextualization, cultural adaptation, and religious adaptability. This is a literary masterwork, but I’d recommend it to any Christian interested in a window into the persecuted church and the clarifying darkness of suffering. It’s also interesting, I think, to consider the book’s crucial philosophical conundrums through a Reformational Protestant lens, and I look forward to discussing that especially with the book club at Midwestern Seminary who are currently reading this great book.

Last week I finally managed to catch Martin Scorsese’s long-anticipated (and long-developed!) cinematic adaptation, along with some of my fellow seminary book clubbers. Below are some scattered thoughts on the film, along the lines of Alex Duke’s own recent “thinking aloud.”

Why isn’t the movie proving more popular with evangelical audiences?
I’ve seen some wondering why folks aren’t getting out to support this film like they do other faith-based movies, especially since this one is ostensibly a much better faith-based film. 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.” Well, first, you should go see it. It’s a really good movie and a deep one. But second, I can think of a few reasons why evangelicals haven’t treated this movie the same way they did, say, The Passion of the Christ or, more recently, God’s Not Dead (or similar)—it didn’t have the marketing engine behind it. Mel Gibson’s The Passion stoked hunger for that film early and actively courted pastors, churches, and religious leaders. I am unaware of any such marketing blitz for Silence. Not to mention, the subject matter is really difficult to market. You can market a movie about Jesus to evangelicals really easyily. Evangelicals are experts in marketing Jesus. But Silence is about missionaries. In Japan. In the 1600s. This is not an easy sell to American evangelicals, even if you tried to sell it. Not to mention that the protagonists are Catholics.

Is the movie too Catholic?
This is pretty much like complaining that Moby Dick talks about boats too much. But I can see evangelicals shying away because of the historical connection here to Rome. This was a frequent topic of conversation among our book club—not that we thought the book was too Catholic, but that we processed the demanded apostasy in the story through our own Protestant bias. For instance if you asked many Reformed evangelicals to step on an icon of Mary, or even of Jesus, they wouldn’t hesitate. That wouldn’t be apostasy at all. In fact, many would regard the icon itself as blasphemous and stepping on it as an act of Christian devotion. But of course we know that persecutors of Christians will find whatever they think will work. For the Jesuits and their converts, to step on an icon of the blessed virgin (the fumie) is akin to stepping on her very face.

The story’s central problems are too Catholic.
The central tension of the novel and the film, though, has less to do with the plot devices related to the persecution and martyrdom and more to do with the crises of faith faced by the chief missionary protagonist Rodrigues (played excruciatingly well by Andrew Garfield) and the Japanese Christians he is seeking to shepherd. Rodrigues is plagued more painfully by God’s apparent silence over his ordeal than he is by the ordeal itself. Why won’t God say something? Again, as a good sola scriptura Protestant, I am compelled to mention that he has said something, he is saying something, and he does say something through his Word. Inappropriate or not, I confess I wondered throughout both the book’s and film’s depictions of this wrestling how a good evangelical understanding of revelation might have been a comfort. There is little evidence that Rodrigues’s familiarity with Scripture helps him sort out his theodicy, apart from the obvious recollections of the betrayals of Judas and—to a much lesser extent—of Peter.

And of course one’s belief about salvation is vitally connected to the crisis of faith in the story as well. Are we saved by faith alone or by our works? How might the doctrine of justification by faith affect the way one sorts through acts of apostasy, the choice between betraying one’s convictions and saving the lives of the suffering, and so on. Is it even possible to temporarily apostatize? If one has betrayed the faith, can he ever be restored? What if you’re just “going through the motions,” lying in order to save someone’s life? There is no strong sense among the missionaries that one of them may regain right standing with God once he’s made a public renunciation of his faith. At least, not until the cinematic coda, which I’ll get to in a minute.

There is also the notion of Christianity’s adaptation to Japan as a mission field. This is a central theme in the book, only referenced a few times in the movie. The contention is that Christianity doesn’t work in Japan, that Japan is a swamp in which the tree of Christianity cannot be planted, or at least, cannot grow and flourish. The interrogator Inoue and his men use this tack several times with Rodgrigues. And I wonder if perhaps they may be right, at least just a little bit. There are a lot of cultural trappings that come with Roman Catholicism’s version of Christianity. Perhaps it is not Christianity that cannot flourish in Japan but Roman Catholicism. Christianity, after all, is a faith given to contextualization, embraced by any culture around the world, precisely because it does not traffic mainly in outward conformity to cultural customs. Today there are approximately 509,000 Roman Catholics in Japan out of 1.9 million professing Christians. (Evangelicals, according to Operation World, make up about 600,000.) Is this telling? I don’t know, but perhaps it should be noted that the first Protestant/Anglican missionaries arrived in Japan 200 years after the Jesuits. I’d be curious to hear in the comments from you who are smarter on this stuff than I in am.

The best Christian in Silence is the worst one.
Kichijiro. The wild-haired, wide-eyed drunken apostate who watched his family burn at the stake. He repeatedly betrays his shepherds. He repeatedly endangers the villagers. He is regarded by all as clearly a hell-bound heathen. Even Father Rodrigues eventually hears his confession as a matter of clerical obligation, not in order to dispense eager pardon. Kichijiro is perhaps the film’s “worst Christian.” But here’s why I suspect Kichijiro is the film’s best—he is the one most readily aware of his own sin and frailty. While the priests are so sure of themselves—”I would never betray my Redeemer”—Kichijiro is honest. He knows he would. He is convicted by it and accepts his life as an outcast for it. He lives under a constant shadow of his own guilt, in fear for his own soul. Unlike the fabled Father Ferrera and later Rodrigues who eventually seem to make peace with their abandonment of the faith. So, okay, Father Garupe is really the best Christian because he never apostatizes and actually dies trying to save one of the martyrs, but after him, Kichijiro.

Silence isn’t your typical faith-based film, until it is.
As I mentioned above, evangelicals aren’t likely to flock to Silence, even after recent buzz from Christianity Today, World Magazine, and the like, mainly because it has everything going against it—historic and foreign settings, no obvious hero to root for, Catholic subject matter, and bladder-testing length. And let’s not forget a huge turn-off to evangelicals—ambiguity. The narrative artistry found in books and movies like Silence is 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.

But then there at the end, Scorsese adds a little something. It’s not in the book. The book is even more silent about the central narrative and theological tension. But the movie ends with that little visual addition, that clue about Rodrigues’s inner life that is meant, I suspect, to cue the audience to think there’s a neat resolution. On the one hand, I don’t care at all about this addition. I am not usually one to think film adaptations must follow their source; I judge the movies on their own, and if I fault a movie for departing from a book, it’s because the decision they made is worse, not because they didn’t treat the book like a sacred text. So I say all that to say, I don’t object to the inclusion of that final scene as a literary purist. It’s an interesting choice, and I know why Scorsese included it, and I can respect that. On the other hand, it plays very well into the dulled evangelical artistic—and theological—tastebuds. Evangelicals like resolution, they like happy endings. Scorsese (sort of) gave them one.

And evangelicals like the idea that they can be Christians without the world knowing it. They tend to believe they can pray a prayer or walk an aisle or sign a card and have that equal assurance. Once “saved,” always “saved.” The idea that you can inwardly be a believer while outwardly living however you want, is very much in keeping with the theological spirit of American evangelicalism. In that regard, Scorsese made a great choice. And a terrible one.


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17 thoughts on “The Quiet Messages of ‘Silence’”

  1. “For instance if you asked many Reformed evangelicals to step on an icon of Mary, or even of Jesus, they wouldn’t hesitate. That wouldn’t be apostasy at all. In fact, many would regard the icon itself as blasphemous and stepping on it as an act of Christian devotion.”

    You know, that may be so but I wonder if it is so? I’d be curious to know, for instance, how many who read this site would step on an icon of Jesus and consider it to be an act of devotion, their anti-icon stance notwithstanding. I’m a Southern Baptist pastor and the thought of trampling the image makes me wince. Especially in that context where you would know what was behind the Japanese authorities’ insistence that you do so. But, given the central conundrum of that moment, perhaps I would. I don’t know. Just thinking aloud.

    It truly is a beautiful story. My wife and I read Silence about ten years ago and I have now seen the movie twice. I’m taking my staff to see it today and I took six college students to see it last Sunday. I think it is the most profound take on theodicy, missiology, discipleship, and even Christology to show up on the big screen since The Mission. It is at least the most thought-provoking. The college kids in our group were deeply touched by it and it led to a great discussion.

    Lastly, I’m currently reading Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty which tells of the role that Endo’s novel played in his own life. It is very, very good.

    I appreciate the review.

    1. Jon says:

      After the movie, some friends were discussing the idea that for us stepping on an icon would not be troubling. But what if it was the Bible? Honestly, there was much more silence and hesitation before responding.

  2. Jacob Tilton says:

    Thank you for the beautiful and honest review. Kichijiro was by far my favorite character and the one that brought me tears.

    Thank you also for a new word for me, treacly. I just wish my mom knew it too.

  3. gk says:

    You won, Jared. Here is how it got posted on this papist’s FB: :)

    Voted ‘Finest Example of a Sentence by an Evangelical Contending with Paradox in the Catholic Imagination…Ever.’

    [Ed Note: Required Reading.]

    ” ‘Silence isn’t your typical faith-based film, until it is. ”

    We’ll try not to be so Catholic next time, unless we do. :) Very well done review.

  4. Mark says:

    I would still like to read something about reformed Christians who have undergone torture for their faith and perhaps survived to write about it. Anything out there?

    1. Coralie says:

      The Korean Pentecost by banner of truth trust is a good place to start.

    2. Matthew says:

      Most Reformed Christians that I can think of that were tortured for their faith ended up dying via execution. Men such as Guido de Bres, for example, come to the forefront of my mind. However, I cannot think of any that were tortured and lived to write about it.

  5. Sharon Frazier says:

    I don’t think I will see the movie, just because of the reviews I’ve seen that talk about the horrible scenes of torture.

  6. A. Kolb says:

    The movie is pure propaganda and on the same level of historicity as Last Samurai.

    The mission of the Jesuits was to conquer Japan and make it subject to the pope. Keep in mind that the pope had divided up the world among Catholic kings, even the parts that were not yet discovered, making Japan a subject of the pope by default. The Jesuits focused on the lords, with the goal to have the political power to push through their ideas of conquest, so this movie lies and is nothing but whitewashed propaganda. The Jesuits didn’t bugger around with the common folk. They were, and still are, the pope’s army. They went straight for those in power, most famously Oda Nobunaga, but mostly failed in their heavy handed approach.

    Is there any mention of the Franciscans? They were also there. The Franciscans were the ones focusing on the common people. They actually tried to help the people, while the Jesuits were too concerned with vying for power.

    What ultimately stopped all of them, and saved Japan from further war in the name of religion, was a Dutch ship that brought an English pilot (William Adams), who told the Tokugawa the truth about the Catholics. As result the Tokugawa banned Christianity (before that it wasn’t as clear, even Hideyoshi’s ban was never properly enforced), because it was a threat to the peace in the country, and the English were the ones ending up with the trade permission (they were eventually replaced by the Dutch.)

    The ban of Christianity in Japan saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented further devastation and war. It was one of the important steps towards over 250 years of peace in the country, something Christian Europe never achieved.

    Yes, it was an absolutist move, just like in European kingdoms, where the kings reigned in the same absolutist way.

    The Shimabara Rebellion from 1637 to 1638 was not religiously motivated, but rather had to do with the local administrator being a really nasty piece of garbage, plus the land was plagued by overtaxation and famine, so the peasants revolted.

    Also, keep in mind that by the time the Tokugawa had consolidated their power and had brought peace (the last, local engagements to challenge that were fought in 1615), Europe was ravaged by the Thirty Years War.

    The Tokugawa did the right thing, preserved unity, and saved the nation and her people.

  7. Jon says:

    As an evangelical who is also Japanese American, stories like Endo’s resonate deeply. Your thoughts on the movie are helpful, as I’ve seen it multiple times and read the book. I think my friend summed it up well when he said that as brilliant as the movie is and fairly true to Endo’s source material, in reality it’s inaccessible for most people for some of the very reasons you mentioned. However, it’s the inaccessibility that lends itself well to deeper questions that go beyond good/bad or an ending that ties everything up neatly. It demands that the viewer actually ask questions that are a bit disturbing. This is the brilliance of Endo’s book that makes it more applicable to our times than we realize and possibly reveals a thinness in our souls that we don’t have the capacity to reflect on deeper questions.

  8. Colin Noble says:

    “Today there are approximately 509,000 Roman Catholics in Japan out of 1.9 million professing Christians. (Evangelicals, according to Operation World, make up about 600,000.) Is this telling? I don’t know…”

    Not saying I have all the answers, but I lived in Japan for a number of years, wrote on Endo for a graduation thesis, and taught Japanese history and religion for a decade and a half.

    I once had a Japanese colleague in the Japanese bank I worked for confide that he was a Christian but beg me not to tell anyone. His attitude was symptomatic of one problem in Japan. That is, the sense that being a Christian is something of which to be ashamed. And that sense comes partly from the fact that being Christian and being Japanese have long been considered by many to be incompatible. The outstanding exception in the modern era has been Uchimura Kanzo, who was accused of lese majesty, but who famously declared his patriotism with the statement that he loved two “J”s – Japan and Jesus.

    So, why hasn’t Christianity thrived in Japan? Fear of social ostracism plays a role. Declaration of Christian faith has been considered unpatriotic. There is a clear contrast here with Korea, where protestant Christianity has flourished. In Korea, Christians were in the forefront of the nationalist movement in the early twentieth century, notably in opposing the Japanese annexation in 1905 and subsequent colonisation. In Japan, Christianity, like many other political/religious ideological movements, such as socialism, gained some degree of intellectual support amongst the educated elite when first introduced, but has tended to get bogged down in internecine intellectual discussion and never really been embraced by the population more broadly.

    For those interested in an academic discussion, albeit not from a Christian perspective, of the difficulty of sustaining a Christian identity in what Endo called the mudswamp of Japanese culture, see John Clammer, Sustaining otherness: Self, nature and ancestralism among contemporary Japanese Christians at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09555809708721593. For an academic discussion of the oscillating nature of the relationship between Christians and the government in Japan in the twentieth century, see Colin Noble, Christians and the State in Early Twentieth Century Japan: from confrontation to collaboration and back again at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10371390500067678?journalCode=cjst20. For one consideration of the notion of grace in the context of Japanese religious culture and history, see Colin Noble “Portraying Christian Grace: a response to the doctrine of grace in Shin Buddhism, in Asia Journal of Theology 11, no. 1 (April 1997): 54-71.

  9. Caleb says:

    First off, I should concede that I have not seen the movie adaptation of “Silence,” but merely read the book. Nonetheless I found its themes compelling, particularly as they revolved around God’s silence as a felt existential reality. Ironically, I found Endo’s absence of positing anything representing the theological doctrine of sola scriptura as deeply comforting. It is not as though I have any disbelief as to the reality that God has spoken in Scripture, but rather that this notion is not always lived existentially. In my opinion, Silence, offered a portrait of the extremes of human suffering. God is seemingly silent in abuse, trauma, and persecution. Nevertheless, at the pivotal moment in Silence, as Rodrigues tramples upon the Fumie, he finally understands God’s presence in suffering. He sees Christ suffering. This upends the entire novel, God is not silent out of neglect or judgement. Rather, God’s silence is actually a suffering with his people. Christ is not unable to sympathize with the weakness of Rodrigues. Suffering and silence often permeate our realities, I think Silence is a beautiful attempt to explore the response of God in the midst of extreme human suffering.

  10. Jennt TeGrotenhuis says:

    I think Rodrigues is far more complex than you give him credit for, and I think Scorsese does him justice. He is in a double bind. How to Love? How to serve God? Looks obvious. Until the breaking of the silence when God speaks the unexpected. Not the harsh voice of the church, but the message of compassion for the present suffering. Instead of torturous death, Rodrigues will live out his days in another form of torture – another form of silence. He won’t speak of the Christ who spoke to him. (I see your point that this is a nod to human weakness/modern American Christianity of convenience. okay.) But also – I disagree with your interpretation that this is what drives Rodrigues, while it may be what drives the audience. Your whole premise that we can or should find a “good” Christian example here is a bias of our naive and overly simplistic modern American Christianity, as well. Something of a Sunday School lesson approach. I appreciate the historical perspective of the previous commenter. This is a movie that needs to be seen through more complex lenses. Sorry.

  11. Mark Klitsie says:

    Jared—catalyzing article. We Christians need to replace the “faith based” movie descriptor. It is a misnomer as secularists too have “faith.” They too have their axioms, presuppositions and assumptions that cannot be proved.

  12. Joni says:

    I really enjoyed your thoughts about Silence, and I’d like to respond to some things that you said about the ending. I certainly agree, to my chagrin, that we evangelicals are addicted to treacly-sweet endings; beauty over truth as it were. I will, however, add this one thought in defense of the ending: The ending is what had me thinking about this movie all week. It’s what made the movie personal instead of just an historical period drama.

    Throughout the rest of the film, I was constantly thinking about what the characters could have or should have done, what choices others had made. The movie is long, it is arduous and hard to watch in many places. Before the ending, I would have just written it off as a long, sad movie where the character ends up losing his faith.

    But at the ending, everything changed for me. Suddenly the questions became real to this modern time, for our Christian faith. Not just “what should someone do if faced with death or someone else’s torture?” but “Is it possible to live as a Christian when no one knows?” “Is it right to live a secret faith to save someone else’s life?” and “What does contextualization of a Christian faith look like in Japan, or in any country where persecution is currently ongoing?” and “What is the value of martyrdom?”

    The very comfort that you said the ending would give Evangelicals became the thing to sit so uneasily with me that it keeps prompting me to ask questions. And isn’t that what we need, as we wrestle with the relevance of our faith every day?

  13. Eliza Huie says:

    I took my two of my kids (age 18 &19) to see it along with one of their friends. There were definitely times I was uncomfortable as I was not only trying to sort out story in my mind but also wondering how my kids were sorting it out. In the end I am glad I went to see it and that I saw it with them. The movie is deep and lends to great conversation. It is also slow. This may be seen as a critique but it actually a praise. Scorsese forces you to stay long in moments that we ought to stay long in. We move too fast from impacting realities of life and the movies are one place the speed is often lightening fast. It was appropriate to linger and consider many of the moments of the film. I did close my eyes at some of the torture but the scene stayed and so did my heart even if my eyes could not watch. Overall I came away with these questions…Do faith and love conflict? Is there ever a call to one that will force the abandonment of the other? The other thought I had was that apostasy, like faith is a condition of the heart. I was reminded of Peter’s denial of Christ. He said he never would yet faced with his life he denied. Yet that was the rock on which Christ built his church.

    I recommend the movie. It has many other things we should think about as Christians. Anyone feeling the call to minister in another country can learn much as well regarding the need to understand the culture of the land you will go to serve. Again- I recommend it. Thanks for the great review Jared.

  14. Richard Zhang says:

    Historically speaking, a big part of the reason why the Japanese government during that era was hostile to Christianity was due to political agendas behind many Jesuit missionaries. Eventually, the government viewed Christianity and missions as equivalent to invasion of a foreign culture, and Japanese converts as traitors to one’s country, perhaps at that point they were so hostile that they stopped trying to figure out what is true Christianity and what is loaded with political agenda.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

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