by Bonnie Anderson and Dan Webster
There are comparatively few popular films that are open about Christianity. In most movies, we have to look hard and listen very carefully to find God and even then, often God is found in the nuances and subtleties of film. At first glance, it looks like God is front and center in the new Martin Scorsese film “Silence”. But in truth, the film stars a brilliant imposter known as religion.
If you are “spiritual, but not religious,” or know someone who describes themselves that way, this film has the possibility of being quite meaningful to you. At face value, the film is about two Christian missionaries, Roman Catholic priests who are searching for their lost mentor in the hostile environment of 17th century Japan. They find themselves trying to survive while holding onto their faith as they are immersed ever deeper into a culture where Christianity is mortally punishable and priests are forbidden.
The film demonstrates the passion of religion and the determined commitment to beliefs that enable torture and murder as punishment for believers of differing religions. The kind of missionary evangelism portrayed in the film has been an accepted method for evangelists and priests to use to invite “conversion” to Christianity. However, in recent decades missionaries have taken a different approach and many evangelists today live among the people and look for examples of the Gospel already present in their lives.
In ‘Silence’ a Japanese official tells a captive priest that love is foundational to both Christianity and Buddhism. Had the 17th century missionaries looked for common ground the outcome may have been quite different. But the film takes us to a time when the sole escape for the priests, other than death, was to become “apostate priests” renouncing their faith by stepping on a stone with an icon of Jesus or Mary and then accepting the cultural ways and religious practices of the Japanese culture.
Today, some movie-goers have become numb to extreme violence, explicit sex, and abuse in one form or another. But for many of us, repeated, horrific torture in the name of religion is new and frightening to see. The beauty of the Japanese landscape, the simple architecture of buildings and the transformative night sounds placed in juxtaposition make the scenes of brutality even more alarming.
Although much of the film is underscored by the practices of Christianity and Buddhism, an attempt at understanding the faith of the “other” is given only a passing glance. The startling realities of this film are the battle of wills and the misuse of power, both of which are inspired by a lack of understanding of the largesse of God and the narrow interpretations of faith fueled by religion.
If you can parse out the spiritual aspects of the film as portrayed by the actors and separate them from the preoccupied focus upon religious dogma you will find poignant spiritual messages about incarnation, pride, humility and love.