Last night I went to the movies with Lori-Anne and our daughter, Caitlin, who is a big Martin Scorcese fan. She really wanted to see it, as did her fiancé Stephen. Unfortunately Stephen who currently resides in Tennessee is unable to see the film as it is not playing in his city. So the three of us went out for a movie night. I had looked forward to seeing this film, as I had studied the spread of Christianity in several of my courses of study for my theology degree.
I had read Endo’s book way back in those days, over 32 years ago, while a student taking a missiology course. I am the son of missionary parents. We even came to Canada from another “mission field” as missionaries to the province of Quebec. I have always loved missionary stories. I loved church history for that reason, the spreading of the message of the Gospel of Christ, by people who forsook all, to spread the message of love, grace and truth to those who had not yet heard of it.
The spread of the faith through the Jesuit Francis Xavier to Goa, and then Japan was an area of interest I had, as I had studied the writings of the Reformation and Counter Reformation and how the Jesuits became a fervent ambassador of the Roman Catholic faith and the “purity” of that faith in the nations where Catholicism had been proclaimed, persecuted and in some cases almost extinguished. I was fascinated back then, and to some extent even now with what defines authentic “Christian faith,” and what “denies the faith” or how do we define what “apostasy” is or “true religion” or even “right doctrine.” Are we saved by “what” we “believe” and “practice” and “confess”? Or are we saved by Who we worship in our hearts and minds and thoughts? Does belief even require outwards acts that are construed as “declarations of faith,” such as the “sign of the cross” or the speaking of particular “theological statements” such as “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” or in provoking the name of God or of Saints?
This film SILENCE (2016) adapted to the screen by Martin Scorsese, raises issues and questions on so many levels about the nature of faith, belief, and the practice of that faith in a foreign land, the joy and delight of seeing faith come alive in others, then seeing the anguish of persecution and apostasy, and then resilience and fortitude to the end.
The film is a solid adaptation of the book by the same name. Just as the book raises these questions, so does the film for the viewers. Is it apostasy to recant your faith in a public act, if it is to save the lives of people you love? This film is a great vehicle to explore the nature of belief and about finding God in the silence, even if in that silence God is there, but you cannot feel him or sense him. Can you hold to true faith in silence, without any kind of public expression, or act or sign? There are so many themes and thoughts to be explored by the viewer and especially so if that viewer is a seeker of truth. There is an incredible scene in he film where the main character Rodrigues is in dialog with the Shogun about what is “truth.” Incredible scene that is riveting and passionate all at once.
The power of love and love as a motive for life and living and intrinsic value is explored in the narrative of the characters in this story. Do you betray God if in your own suffering you deny God in a public act to save the ones who suffering for their faith? I loved the film. Both the book and film highlight how faith is experienced and expressed in the our lives and in the world in which we live, and how important it is to contextualize faith to the very ethnic community and people and in their own language.
A context for our own time
That is the problem I have had with both Roman Catholicism and Islam. Both are wedded to their own historical setting and evolution, including customs, rites, rituals and customs and language. All you have to do is look at the Western democracies that have embraced people from the Middle East, Arab nations and other Muslim dominated nations, who immigrate to our nations. The people who come to our countries, many have a difficult time assimilating and becoming like the rest of us. They retain their language, customs, rites and rituals, often isolating themselves to their religious sites, communities, apart from the rest of us, and as they do so, by being immersed in their Arabic culture and customs, it makes it difficult to interact and build trust and dialog and understanding. I could not but help to see and understand this problem for both Westerners and those people of Islamic faith who come to live in our nations. It has to be such a big challenge for them as it is for us. The fundamentalism that becomes radicalized through ideology and the use of “sacred violence” to justify both the protection and also the spread of the ideology can be seen and understood even more so through the lens of this film.
My own problem with identity and context
As a Protestant Evangelical, a son of missionaries who left the comfort of their own country to go to a foreign culture, and who was raised as an indigenous person within the new ethnic community I can appreciate the sacrifice to leave and to embrace a new people and language. My parents assimilated so that I could identify with the culture in which they ministered. Unlike other missionary families who sent their children away to mission schools, my family for financial and practical reasons could not do so, and nor did they want their children raised in a mission school. It was against their beliefs of what missionary families should be doing in living with and serving the people and community. In that process my father and mother made the decision to deny me and my siblings our own own heritage, culture and language for the sake of the indigenous community. I became more fully aware of what we sacrificed when we left France for Canada, and left French Canada (Quebec) for Ontario. When I learned at age 10 that I was born a Brit and I was not French, it sent my whole world into a tailspin. Just before entering my teens I was conflicted with identity issues, belonging and community. It has take me decades to get over that. So I get it. I understand it. I understand very well the issue of context in bringing the Gospel of Christ to another culture and the sacrifice that it is to those who forsake their own cultural and ethnic identity to love and serve another cultural community.
I was immersed as an outsider into a Roman Catholic subculture within a rising secular awakening in Quebec
Roman Catholicism still mystifies me and I view it with suspicion. In fact, in the past I viewed it with scorn and hostility. Being Protestant and Northern Irish, I have my own ethnic baggage and historical reasons for being skeptical about Roman Catholicism and what I viewed with great scorn as a pseudo-faith expression of Christianity. The use of what I viewed as graven images in worship as a form of idolatry, the rites and rituals done in Latin, and the power of celibate clergy, and the influence of the See of Rome on Catholics the world over, all this and more just reinforced my distain and suspicion of all things and all people who adhered to the Catholic Confession of faith. I only let most of that go after getting to know and befriending Catholics and discovering their deep devotion to Christ and to the Gospel. But that took time and engagement at all kinds of levels, including theological discourse and exploration of church history and the context in which the Christian faith evolved in the West. It took my personal investment, holding back my own historical biases and hostilities, in order for me to better understand.
In watching Silence, I also came to understand these same issues through the lens of the Japanese people and culture
I can well appreciate not only the Japanese culture but very much so the peoples’ hesitation, hostility and rejection of Christianity for it was parcelled together with the European empires and their conquest of “pagan” countries. The empires sent out the missionaries first, and then the soldiers and traders and commerce came after to finish off the conquest.
I understand suffering as we experienced it in varied forms
I grew up as a kid of Protestant missionaries to predominantly Catholic communities in France and Quebec, my family suffered for doing so. In both France and Quebec in the 1960’s it was cultural suicide to convert from Roman Catholicism to Protestant faith. It was viewed as an act of treason to God and to your ethnic cultural community. In the most secularized parts of France and Quebec, your faith was reduced to something practiced in private. As long as it was private, it did not offend the status quo.
When families converted, they were ostracized by their community
They could not even buy goods and services from certain merchants. When one family had all converted, all nine people were getting baptized at the church on a Sunday evening, the Roman Catholic priest led the people of the community to the home of the family and burned it to the ground. The mayor and city hall did nothing to prosecute the perpetrators. This was in 1964. In 1967 a family converted in Drummondville, Quebec, and their kids were kicked out of school and were forced to go to a Protestant school because they had recanted from the Catholic faith. The family was ostracized from their community and completely disenfranchised, all because of converting to a Protestant expression of faith. I understand what this does to families and children within those families. To this very day, I know some of those children as adults who have become French separatists and are strongly “anti-English” and yet it was their own community that ostracized them and kicked them out. This is the fallout when communities view those who are different as a threat.
Silence as a film as well as the book challenges us to examine our faith and how it is expressed in our lives and in our culture
Is our faith a threat to the status quo in the larger context of our society? If not why not? If so, how so? Are any of us fit to judge another who has been persecuted for their faith, and has been viewed as an apostate? Are we fit to be critical or judgmental of those who believe differently than we do? Are we fit to castigate and discard and ostracize those who do not believe or practice their Christian faith as we do? What of our common humanity? What of the core DNA of our Christian belief expressed through the love and service to another? I have personally experienced more of the love of Christ from people whom my more “orthodox Evangelical friends” would totally write off as being either “unsaved” or “not orthodox” than I have from the rigid and dogmatically inclined “Christian exclusivists.” Perhaps this is why to me, Silence is a timely film. Our faith and understanding of our Christian faith, evolves within a historical framework and context. Some of our beliefs evolve with time and get retuned or finely tuned as it is lived out in community and service. I have learned this truth that continues to wield chaos and upheaval in my life, and it is the agent of ongoing change and transformation. God is not as concerned with theological precision and accuracy and purity as we think He is. Those categories have been created by men as a means of conveying our understanding of God and His dealings with humanity.
God is concerned with the heart and what we do for others in His name and love and service to others, alleviating suffering with compassionate care and humility and dignity. Suffering in silence and being silent in our serving does not deny our faith. Our actions toward others and how we do so, only serve to confirm the true nature of our God transformed hearts and minds. What looks like apostasy to some, may only be a means and a door for the greater good, the deeper love, to manifest and bless another life.
As I said, Silence is a great film. It is now my new favourite Scorcese film.
Peace & grace.
~ Samuel M. Buick