Grace in Silence

Reflections on Martin Scorsese’s newest film

DIFW Series • Art, Culture, Theology
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A note from the blog editor:

In a recent New York Times article, Catholic writer Paul Elie said about the legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, “Scorsese approaches filmmaking as ‘a priestly avocation, a set of spiritual exercises embedded in technical problems.’”

Scoresese’s latest film Silence is based on the 1950s novel by Shusako Endo about 17th Jesuit missionaries in Japan. The film is the harrowing story of faith and doubt, suffering and redemption, and the seeming silence of God amidst persecution.
In this post, award-winning evangelical author Philip Yancey comments on Scorsese’s film adaptation, and where viewers might find a hidden message of grace.

I wrote about Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence in my book Soul Survivor, and I admit to misgivings about how Endo’s classic work might be treated by the director of such films as Taxi Driver, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Wolf of Wall Street.  

To my surprise, Scorsese played it straight, in an Oscar-worthy treatment that closely follows the plot of the novel. That approach may not help him at the box office, for the average moviegoer may have limited tolerance for a long historical drama about Jesuit priests in Japan. At the same time, Christians may balk at the honest portrayal of doubt, apostasy, and betrayal.

It would be sad, however, if Silence slips too quickly into the Neverland of Netflix and late-night cable. Christianity Today called it “one of the best films about Christianity ever made.” As Andy Crouch and Makoto Fujimura have argued in their respective books, Culture Making and Culture Care, Christians shouldn’t complain about popular culture unless they’re willing to create and to support good alternatives. Silence presents such an alternative, one that every cinema-loving Christian should see.

Though it depicts events from four centuries ago, Silence seems startlingly relevant for our time. Government officials crack down on followers of a foreign religion. A nation turns inward by sealing its borders and embargoing trade. Zealots behead, crucify, and torture Christians unless they recant. That is the setting for Silence.

At one point in history Japan seemed the most fruitful mission field in Asia. Francis Xavier, one of the seven original Jesuits, established a church there in 1549, and within a generation the number of Christians had swelled to 300,000. As that century came to an end, though, the ruling shoguns’ suspicion of foreigners, exacerbated by the rivalry among missionary groups, led to a change in policy. The warlords expelled the Jesuits and required that all Christians renounce their faith and register as Buddhists. The age of Japanese Christian martyrs had begun.

In an honor culture that exalts conformity, the fumie plaque — a bronze portrait of Jesus enclosed in a small wooden frame —became the ultimate test of faith. Japanese who made a public display of stepping on the fumie were pronounced apostate Christians and set free. Those who refused, the warlords hunted down and killed, in the most successful extermination attempt in church history. In scenes graphic though not gratuitous, Scorsese’s movie depicts the various torture techniques. Some believers were tied to stakes in the sea to await the high tides that would gradually drown them, while others were bound and tossed off rafts; some were scalded in boiling hot springs, and still others were hung upside down, their ears slit to ensure a slow death from bleeding.

“The blood of Christians is the seed of the church,” said Tertullian. Not so in Japan, where the blood of the martyrs was nearly the annihilation of the church. As the title intimates, the theme of silence pervades the novel. Over one hundred times Rodrigues, the central character (played by Andrew Garfield in the movie), sees the haunting face of Jesus, a face he loves and serves. Yet the face does not speak. It remains silent when the priest is chained to a tree to watch the Christians die, silent when he asks for guidance on whether to step on the fumie to set them free, and silent when he prays alone in his cell at night.

Endo later complained that the publisher’s choice of title, Silence, was misleading. In fact, God does speak in the novel. Here is the decisive scene when silence is broken, at the very moment when the foreign priest contemplates whether to step on the fumie in order to save the Japanese converts.

“It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?” The interpreter urges him on excitedly. “Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.”

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.

Endo speaks to the inner person, where lie buried the feelings of shame and rejection that the average Japanese must endure in a culture that prescribes proper external behavior regardless of one’s inner beliefs or feelings. Ask any Japanese the difference between honne, what takes place on the inside, and tatemae, what others see on the outside, and they will nod knowingly. Ask any American, for that matter, or any human still breathing. Endo explores the crevices of failure and betrayal that we all live with, and often seek to hide. In doing so, Endo sheds new light on the Christian faith — at once a harshly revealing light that exposes what we try to conceal, and also a healing light that dispels what lurks in shadow.

Silence centers on the secrets that all of us hide: pornography, casual cheating, lies, buried resentments, family conflicts, addictions. It brings them into stark relief in a stunning tale of betrayal. It reminds us of a Servant who suffered the ultimate betrayal and then founded his church on the backs of one such traitor, the apostle who swore he never knew him; and on another, a professional torturer of Christians, who became “the apostle to the Gentiles”; and who prayed for his murderers, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” In the end, Silence is about God’s grace for the undeserving, which includes us all.

The reviewer on RogerEbert.com gave the film four out of four stars, saying, “Silence is a monumental work, and a punishing one. It puts you through hell with no promise of enlightenment, only a set of questions and propositions, sensations and experiences…This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s a film that you experience and then live with.”

The movie raises many probing questions, and I suggest seeing it with friends and then scheduling some discussion time afterward. I mentioned the artist Makoto Fujimura, who has written an excellent book, Silence and Beauty. Mako also offers some introductory videos and a free discussion guide, which you can download from this website: silenceandbeauty.com.

If you are expecting a one-dimensional, happy-ending Christian story, save your money. Perhaps it took a director like Scorsese, with his lurid body of work, to plumb the depths of grace. Perhaps, just perhaps, in this sobering movie, the message of amazing grace might get through.