As the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, so the denial of God is the height of foolishness. – R.C. Sproul
I’m glad for Christians who speak up when a wrong is done, whether a social injustice or an open blasphemy. But if we take time to rail against someone who gets it wrong, I hope we’ll also take time to commend that same person when he gets it right.
Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence is a case in point. His 1998 project The Last Temptation of Christ was as lewd as it was profane, generating widespread and well-deserved Christian condemnation. But this latest work of his is, to my thinking, one of the most thoughtful, respectful portrayals of Christian persecution and courage that I’ve ever seen Hollywood produce.
I’m hoping more believers will give it a shot and, if they’re as impressed as I was, I also hope they’ll find ways to communicate their appreciation to the same man we so vigorously criticized nearly three decades ago.
For sure, Silence is an imperfect film, making a few doctrinal points I’d quibble with, and one in particular which I roared against. So you may feel, as some do, that it’s neither a quality Christian movie nor a theologically correct one. But as secular efforts go, this story of two Catholic priests deliberately wading into the middle of Japan’s oppression of believers in the early 1600’s is worth a look.
It centers on the search of Father Rodriguez (played by Andrew Garfield fresh off his starring role in Mel Gibson’s awesome Hacksaw Ridge) and Father Garupe for their former mentor, Father Ferreira. (Liam Neeson , and I dare you not to be moved by Neeson’s tortured portrayal of a formerly devout man who’s now spiritually bankrupt.)
Ferreira is rumored to have apostatized – denied the faith entirely – after having spent years evangelizing in Japan and nurturing godly qualities in his protégées. As two young men who benefitted from Ferreira’s godly example, Rodriguez and Garupe are loathe to believe that godliness has now lapsed. Determined to either prove Ferreira was being maligned, or to bring him back to the truth, they set sail on what they know will be a hazardous mission.
Scorsese doesn’t let us flinch from the hazards. This is a time and place where Christians exist in underground churches, hunted down by the dreaded Inquisitor who, upon finding them, forces them to choose between stepping on a picture of Christ and openly denying the faith, or a prolonged death by drowning, burning, crucifixion, or bloodletting. It’s uncomfortable viewing; not gratuitous, but brutal.
Yet in this story, the faithful are The Faithful, huddling together for prayer and worship in the dark, refusing to deny Christ even in the face of sadism and death.
At least, that’s often the case. Examples are also shown of believers (some of whom are leaders you’d expect more from) stepping on the image and essentially spitting on the faith. But here I especially appreciated Scorsese’s portrayal of the high price lapsed Christians pay. After these characters disown the Lord, they’re shown as the walking dead, emotionally vacant, comatose creatures so void of life you’re led to believe they must have regretted the devil’s bargain, perhaps too late.
That theme – denying or confessing the faith under pressure – leaves you pondering critical questions by the time the credits roll. Can someone facing indescribable agonies say, like Peter, “I never knew Him,” then be restored? (I say “yes;” you might say “never.”) Can someone renounce the faith and ever find peace? (I say “never;” you might say “possibly.”) Can a person publicly deny Jesus in order to save a loved one from torture, yet still privately believe, as some in this film are shown doing? (I say probably not; you could rightfully say, “But Joe, you’ve never faced such a dilemma.”)
When I leave a movie arguing for hours about what it did or didn’t say, the movie must have been provocative, and Silence is nothing if not that. It’s limited to a Catholic viewpoint of the faith, and one scene in particular, in which an endangered priest hears Jesus giving him permission to deny Him, had me up in arms.
Either the priest was tormented to the point of hearing voices (my preferred interpretation) or Scorsese was daring to say Christ was just kidding when He said “Deny me before men and I’ll deny you before My Father.” (Matthew 10:33)
That alone is worth a few hours of heated debate, and I suspect Christians leaving the theater will have mixed feelings about the film’s content. But overall, I think Martin Scorsese, who enraged us in the 80’s by depicting a confused, lustful Messiah, has now delivered a story of faith under pressure and concluded it with, if not belief, then a least a profound respect for that belief, and for those who live
Silence isn’t for kids. But I’d say it’s for the rest of us. See it if you’re up for some serious soul searching.