Silence. The new movie by Martin Scorsese – some 25 years in the making – has been billed by many as a “Christian” film. It is a “Christian” film in the same way The Lion King was a zoological film. It deals with broadly “Christian” artifacts (distinctly Roman Catholic of the Jesuit strain) but not with Biblical Christianity by any stretch. It is however a highly philosophical film with some definitely un-Christian messages. We’ll get to those in a moment, but first some boiler plate is fitting.
Scorsese’s Silence is in fact the 2nd attempt to cinematize Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name. The 1st iteration was Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 film again bearing the same name – Silence.
The plot is engaging enough, and raises some truly important questions for genuine Christians along the way. However, it is its subtle but pointed conclusions that make it so decidedly anti-Christian in the final analysis.
Set in the 1600’s, 2 Portuguese priests, played powerfully by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, set out to investigate the rumored apostasy of their former spiritual mentor Cristóvão Ferreira – played by Liam Neeson. Ferreira had become a missionary to Japan, and apparently had great success in seeing Catholicism expand rapidly there. But in the face of horrific persecution wherein Ferreira witnessed so many of his converts tortured and killed, he apostatizes in order to stem the savagery and save the lives of other threatened adherents. The “true believers” however have been driven underground and continue to thrive though in fear, abject poverty and the constant threat of exposure. 2 characters in the underground Church stand out. Ichizo played wonderfully by Yoshi Oida – the defacto leader of the church in his village, and his right arm Mokichi, also wonderfully portrayed by Shin’ya Tsukamoto. In fact there are 5 outstanding Japanese actors that turn in stellar performances: Oida, Tsukamoto, Yôsuke Kubozuka as the tragically weak repeat apostate Kichijiro, Tadanobu Asano as the Interpreter and above all – the most engaging and true star – Issei Ogata as the old samurai Inquisitor Inoue.
Garfield and Driver petition to go search for Neeson with confidence they’ll dispel the rumors of his apostasy. Once there and serving the underground church, they too begin to witness the horrific treatment of the professing Christians. They are eventually captured, and subjected to witness the same horrors Neeson witnessed upon his converts. The Inquisitor’s argument is that if they would only renounce their faith, the persecution would stop and they could save many more lives. If the Christian leadership denies Christ, then the adherents will follow and the torture and bloodshed will end.
The discussions between The Inquisitor, Garfield’s character, the Interpreter and eventually Neeson are subtle, fascinating, pernicious and ultimately break Garfield’s resolve as they previously did Neeson’s. At Neeson’s urging, Garfield too publicly renounces his faith – symbolized by putting his foot on an icon of Jesus, ostensibly to save the lives of the other Christians and serve as an example to them that persisting in a faith that Japan nationally rejects is folly of the worst kind.
Here is where it gets interesting. As the title of the film and novel imply, the issue for Garfield, and we would imagine for Neeson previously, is that in all of their holding on to the faith and watching scene after scene of the faithful being tortured and killed – God is…silent. He does not appear to hear their pleas, prayers or entreaties. There is nothing. And the non-response is too much to bear. Until. Until the moment when Garfield, at last totally broken by his own imprisonment, the Inquisitor’s logic and mind games, and the chance to save others from further torture – hears Jesus tell him in effect – it’s OK to deny Him, if it will serve the greater good of others. After all, He entered our suffering too. In other words, it is a highly stylized and sophisticated argument for ultimate situation ethics. The highest good, above even Biblical truth, is love to humanity as we understand it in the temporal realm – and thus even the open denial of Christ is the most noble and righteous thing to do at the right moment – sanctioned and blessed by Jesus Himself.
Diabolical and blasphemous.
Idolatry of mankind, fully endorsed by God Himself. There is a higher moral standard than God Himself reveals, and it emerges under such extreme circumstances.
This, I believe is the central message of the movie.
But there are some others messages, and in all honesty, ones that expose the fallacious brand of Christianity portrayed in the film. And these are worth noting.
For one, one sees just how tragic a “Christianity” is, that teaches people that they cannot have their sins forgiven, or have a right relationship with God, without priestly mediators. The Believers who have been driven underground and been so long without a priest cannot contain themselves that at last 2 have arrived on their shores, and can once again hear confessions and absolve them of their sins. What a horrible distortion traps so many in the world still under such un-Biblical doctrines that deny the reality “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, (1 Timothy 2:5 (ESV)) What bondage priest-craft imposes upon souls. This travesty is amply exposed.
Second, you cannot miss the example of how syncretism destroys Biblical Christianity at its root by tying people to icons, objects, and religious items that become little other than magic talismans. How the people had been taught to venerate crosses, crucifixes and even Rosary Beads so that without them, they thought they could not be faithful Christians or have a right relationship with God. It is not Christ and His atoning sacrifice that carries the day, nor the indwelling Spirit of Christ, but physical objects that tie us to God. It is pure paganism dressed up in religious garments, and is as soul-killing as any other false doctrine. This too is exposed. Endo is to be commended for seeing these travesties for what they are.
Thirdly, and lastly in order to keep this review from being as unbearably long as the movie itself – is a thought that emerges in the first conversation between Neeson and Garfield. In it, Neeson’s character makes the argument, that after all his years in Japan, seeing, learning and experiencing all he had – he’s come to the conclusion that human nature is what it is, and nothing can change it, even religion. And of course in this he is both absolutely correct, and tragically wrong. Human nature is so horribly fallen that it cannot be changed by any human effort or even the most aggressive religion. But it CAN be changed by the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. No, neither Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, nor even Protestantism can change the fallen soul and nature of man. As Paul by the inspiration of the Spirit would write in Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (ESV) The Gospel CAN do what no religion, philosophy or human invention of any kind can. It can change a lost sinner into a child of the living God.
This sadly, was not understood by Endo. Nor by his priestly characters. Nor by the brand of Christianity he portrayed. Nor probably by Scorsese either.
In closing, it is interesting to note an interview I saw last evening with Andrew Garfield and Stephen Colbert on The Late Show about the movie. Colbert is a professing devout Catholic. So he shows great interest in how this movie and preparing for it might have impacted Garfield spiritually. In it, Garfield tells of going on spiritual retreats and spending a year studying with a Roman Catholic priest in preparation for his role. He spoke of learning to practice the “Ignatian spiritual exercises”, and studying the history and theology of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The spiritual exercises Garfield calls “imaginative, meditative prayers” where one imagines themselves thrust into the events of the life of Jesus. They are meant to be “transformational.” Biblical, never enters the picture. In other words, self-generated, experience based theology. Through this he created a deep “relationship with Jesus Christ.” Not interacting with the revelation of Jesus in the Bible mind you, but in his imagination. He said that through this, he came to understand how the Jesuits were quite “pantheistic” in that they see God in everything and everyone. And then Garfield reveals his own resonance with the messages of this film when he states “certainty about anything is the most terrifying thing.” In classic Post-modern lockstep, he echoes both the mantra of our age, and one of the core messages of Silence – the only real unacceptable thing in life, is to claim one knows anything for certain. That someone is right about anything, and that that means someone else must be wrong.
And I had to chuckle to myself – Is he certain about that?
I cannot recommend Silence as a Christian movie. I can recommend it as a challenge to un-biblical Christianity. But a painful, long and difficult one to watch.