Martin Scorcese’s “Silence” teaches one to question the containers (or forms) of his or her faith and consider more fully the content of his or her faith. It stretches our thinking about what it means to be proselytize in another culture. It moves us to think about the forms of such evangelism and what it means to be a Christian. It is a deep movie worth many viewings.
The movie follows the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues and Garupo, as they search for their mentor and leader Cristóvão Ferreira. As students of Christian history may know, Ferreira was a missionary to Japan who apostated. When Rodrigues and Garupo learn of this then rumor, they disbelieve it, and they go searching for their mentor, who has purportedly become Buddhist and gotten married. Along the way, the two priests have their faith tested in numerous capacities, by being tortured and threatened, and by having their followers tortured and tested as well. The ethical tension between “trampling” a fumi-e (that is stepping foot on it) to renounce one’s faith in order to protect one’s comrades, versus resolving to never deny Christ is an profound question. The movie wrestles with this very idea, and Rodrigues and Garupo are often on different ends of the debate.
The moving part of the film is not just that ethical dilemma, but searching for the presence of God in it. God remains painfully absent in many moments in the film, especially when liberation would solve the tension itself. But the forced problem is not just a simple teleological and deontological exercise. It is not just a religious example of the classic trolley problem. It is more than that.
In the dilemma, there are questions surrounding the importance of our words and material objects. For the Christian, then, they call into question confession and sacrament. These forms are filled with meaning, and the tension above allows one to wonder about how important the forms are. Put another way, how important is the container versus the content of the container.
This a theological question for Christians, since Jesus makes so such distinction about our bodies and the Gospel of John makes a strong polemical argument against Gnosticism while still affirming bodily resurrection (managing to counter both Jewish and Greek extremes of the philosophical spectrum). For Jesus, our bodies (what you might call our containers) are one and the same with our beliefs, our actions, our beings (what you might call our content). The body and the soul, to put it more bluntly, cannot be separated. Both are resurrected. Karl Barth calls this our bodies besouled and our souls embodied. I say this to note a specific distinction of Christianity, one I am not willing or ready to part with. But one that a Buddhist may be more ready to part with and there lies another dilemma of the movie. The film leads us to that tension time and again in many different instances.
Most clearly it does this in its primary problem. Does one actually renounce one’s faith
when he or she steps on a fumi-e? Of what metaphysical significance is the icon? This dilemma calls into question all of the sacraments, and even the elements of the Eucharist itself (which is held in the highest regard in the Jesuit tradition, as is the case). I admit that my theological vantage point, that of an Anabaptist, helps me make a rather quick decision on this matter. But rather than simply dismiss the dilemma because of my views on the elements of communion or sacraments in general, I appreciate the tension here, because one cannot divorce content and container so easily, and it is too ethically and philosophically convenient to do so.
At the moment when one does, the film challenges it. The people torturing the Japanese believers and the Portuguese priests are well aware that trampling alone is not a big enough punishment. They know that it is easier to trample on a fumi-e than it is to renounce one’s faith with words or do something more disrespectful. In one instance, when a convert readily tramples the image, the torturers ask him to then spit on the image of Jesus and declare the Virgin Mary a whore. This significantly intensifies an already intense situation, and the convert ends up being martyred because he refuses to do so. The container then has clearly some significance.
The film calls into question, as well, the content of martyrdom itself. That very idealistic Tertullian quote that notes that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church seems dubious by the film’s end. The idea that martyrdom would lead to more conversion (as opposed to less), could not be further from the truth, at least in the narrative of the film, and in fact, the history of Japan it seems. The terror that Christians experienced certainly lessened the effectiveness of the missionaries and their pursuit of a Christian Japan. In fact, it seems that Christianity is spread best through violent and imperialist means, rather than peaceful proselytizing (but that is a subject for another essay). Nevertheless, the film continues the deconstruction of content and container.
It climactically does it, when Rodrigues finally encounters his old mentor and teacher. Sure enough, he is in a different form himself. The question is whether his content is different. Ferreira dramatically apostates, but grows against his self-condemnation. He asks questions about his old faith and his old technique of evangelism. He dramatically convinces Rodrigues to follow in his footsteps too, in a scene where the sacrifice one who apostates makes is the preservation of the lives of other potential martyr victims. The sacrifice is in renouncing one’s faith. Rodrigues “hears” the voice of Jesus telling him the same thing. This, of course, is a complicated notion for a Christian, especially one who is accustomed to condemning Peter’s denial of Jesus (one that Jesus predicts, as well). One then wonders about the ethics of “strategic” renouncing, when it is more Christian to say one is not a Christian than it is to affirm one’s faith.
The deconstruction of Rodrigues’s moral superiority is not the only thing that Ferreira undoes. In fact, Ferreira finds shortcomings with the Christian faith and more hope in Buddhism, but he seems to have never lost his faith, when he utters such phrases as “our Lord” and “our faith” (which Rodrigues remarks on specifically). The movie leaves the question open as to whether or not Rodrigues loses his faith or holds on to it. And it asks the viewer such questions about the difference between assimilation and adaptation. How flexible are the forms of our faith? Can they be so deformed that they become lost faith or faith in a distinctively different religious philosophy?
This tension is not easily solved however, because in the moment that Ferreira leads Rodrigues to question how far he can stretch his ethics, Ferreira questions the form of Christianity itself and the expression of it in Japan. He concludes that it is indeed futile to plant seeds in the barren soil of Japan. He believes that Christianity will not ever bear fruit in that country and never has. Rodrigues tries to point out the times where it did, but he is mistaken, according to Ferreira. The people in Japan lack the vernacular to even sustain Christianity. He does not go so far as to say Christianity is simply a Western construction, which, I think, cheapens the point, since it is such a clichéd response, but it does pose an interesting problem about evangelism in general.
Effectively, Ferreira argues that the syncretism between Japanese Buddhism and Christianity created a new religion. It’s a religion where the Japanese have invented their own deity and even conception of Son of God. Ferreira points to the sun to show the vastly different understandings of theology. To the Japanese, the Son/sun rises daily, to the Jesuits, he rises on the third day. These distinctions make the rigid structure of the Catholic Church, the one that would make such things as trampling a fumi-e a non-negotiable absolute moral wrong. Rodrigues eventually apparently apostates, but the film leaves to question whether he held on to his faith in a new expression; whether the content remained the same while the container shifted.
This tension is, for me, what was most appealing and interesting about the movie. What is our faith? How can we express it? How can we adapt it so that it is more palatable to another culture? What is the content of our faith and are our doctrines simply another expression of its container? As I listed above, for me, there are significant theological implications to divorcing form and meaning. And there are Christological consequences for such a divorce. The Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon pained over this very issue, so I want to treat it with care before deconstructing it too much. However, in my opinion, the answers those Councils provided were for contextual questions. They are questions, of course, because Jesus seems to be ethereally available, and then not. Present sometimes, and other times silent. The very center of Christianity is the Incarnate Christ, who seems noncommittal in “Silence.” Perhaps he is less noncommittal, and simply differently available. Perhaps he was in Ferreira at the end, liberating Rodrigues from his cultural and intellectual prisons, trapping his faith into just a Jesuit tradition.
This is the trick for the missionary though, how we bring the Gospel into the present with great flexibility. The question for the Japanese missionary is wondering what it means to adapt our Gospel to Buddhists without losing it to Buddhism. Christianity is not purely a Western concept, on one hand, so evangelism is not necessarily imperialism. However, on the other hand, everything isn’t everything. Form is not totally meaningless, but without enough care in considering its limits and where it can flex, evangelism may be totally ineffective (in the case of the confusion that Ferreira describes) or simply the result of cultural imposition and violence (which would lead to it being outlawed if the authoritarians in power were threatened by it).
The film stretches the gap between content and container, maybe venturing too closely to Gnosticism, but it challenges the viewer to the point of discomfort. It calls into question the effectiveness of dying for one’s faith if its form is really what we are dying for, and it links it much more closely to a sort of patriotic, militaristic sacrifice. When we undo the form of our faith and link it more closely to cultural expression, it seemingly becomes a nationalist venture. Undoing it completely has consequences, but “Silence” treads the territory gently, piquing the interest of the viewer without offering an imposition. Put another way, it offers content and meaning, without constraining it to a form or container.