I rarely see a movie that really challenges my thoughts and perceptions. “Silence” directed by Martin Scorsese is just such a beautiful, horrific, and challenging movie. For me, part of its beauty is in its horror. I have not read the book, the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo. I rather judge a book than a movie, but done properly, a movie can still evoke much of what a book does. I believe this movie does this.
I am not going to talk about the plot here… you can find that out easily enough. It is about the “Apostate Priests” in 17th century Japan. But as one who teaches missions and sometimes theology, I see the movie as valuable for students for a number of reasons.
- Missions History. Although fictional, it discusses a historical period where Japan transitioned to a xenophobic view– particularly, although not exclusively, of Christianity. And this period mirrors similar ones that happened in China in at least two waves centuries before, and seems to be happening again in a few places in the world today. The pressure in some societies to conform culturally is hard for some from individualistic societies to grasp.
- Ethics. There is a lot of moral ambiguity in the movie. Is it okay to deny one’s faith publicly while maintaining faith privately? The Donatist controversy had similar concerns. Is it accurate that the Great Commandment, loving God and loving Man can lead to contradictions? The period was especially troubling since while Japan was doing this religious purging with the Grand Inquisitor, Some Christian countries in Europe were doing very much the same thing.
- Dialogue. What stance should one take in dialogue with another religion– argument? relativization of beliefs? something else? Could the Jesuit unwillingness to subtly negotiate in Japan create the problem, or not?
- Contextual Theology. Much as with the Chinese Rites controversy, what is the balance between holding onto traditional expressions of faith and embracing new expressions? What does one do as far as those who respond in faith and yet due to cultural gap, have misconceptions of faith that make the beliefs of those in the new culture very questionable. If faith in God transitions to faith in the symbols of God, or even faith in the symbolic objects themselves… what does that mean as far as the validity of their response? Does it mean the people are not believers? Or does it represent an understandable transition period from one faith to another?
- Perseverance. The story took place in the 1600s, but when Japan was opened up to the Western world in the 1800s, it was found that Catholic Christians had survived. This reminds me of the Thomasite Christians of India, and other groups that had survived despite great pressures to reject their faith. Of course, Christianity survived and even thrived in Egypt while fading away in much of the rest of North Africa. What makes one END while another ENDURE?
Like a good movie, it does not give a lot of answers… but does give a lot of good questions. We need good stories and good questions.