Note: This post will feature light spoilers.
“Silence,” the latest effort from Martin Scorsese is, first and foremost, a masterpiece. The filmmaker’s incredible skill for mining dramatic character moments is in full display here, as the story follows the story of two Jesuit priests on a mission to Japan. Their job isn’t primarily to share the gospel, but to find and retrieve their mentor, Father Ferreira, who they hear has apostatized from the faith. The film follows the harrowing journey of the two, Father Rodriguez and Gruppe, who find themselves amongst Japanese villagers who follow Christ in secret.
They worship at night, quietly, to avoid drawing the attention of the Japanese inquisitors, who ruthlessly hunt down Christians and brutally torture and murder them for their faith. Those who were willing to deny their faith in Jesus were compelled to step on a bronze image of the Christ, and to spit on crosses as an act of rejection. This is a fairly common occurence, until the arrival of the priests, whose presence draws the extra attention of the inquisitors. These Christian hunters eventually capture the priests, and punish the villagers mercilessly in front of them. They offered to spare the lives of these Japanese believers, only if the priests apostatize, and deny their Christ. The film depicts in graphic detail the emotional and spiritual struggle that these priests go through. It is a sobering story of the cost of faith, and the suffering that may come from persecution. There is one scene in this film that left me sobbing openly, the powerful images on the screen hitting very, very close to home for me, as a Christian.
Without delving too much more deeply into the plot, however, I wanted to point out some key questions the film asks. At what point should you deny your faith to save your followers/others? Will denying Christ by word not matter, if your heart still believes? Can one be forgiven if he denies Christ?
In attempting to answer this, I admit to needing so much grace to be able to live this out in my own life. I also need to give the assist to John Piper for this answer, and the double assist to my friend Luke, for sending me this article. Piper addresses the question of “if [you deny Jesus] to save our life, even though we don’t mean it, is it punishable?” He cites Matthew 10 here:
Jesus seems to make it very clear, here. When this situation plays out on film, Scorcese’s use of internal monologue and dialogue really emphasizes what a difficult question this is to answer. Essentially, the Father Rodriguez resists the call to deny Christ; this denial, however, directly correlates with the torture of his fellow Christians, right before his very eyes. They ask, would you not make the sacrifice, and deny your Jesus, to save the lives of your fellow Christians?
What does one do then?
No, it would appear that not even your own flesh and blood is more worthy than Jesus. To deny him may somehow save your earthly life, but would lead an even more fearful spiritual death.
In the film, there is a villager who denies Christ to save his life, only to repent and ask for forgiveness. But we see in the film that this initial decision to deny Christ follows him for the rest of his days, a never-ending specter that continues to haunt him.
I would propose that a denying of Christ is symptomatic of a heart that is proud. An overwhelming desire to live on, for family, for friends, to accomplish more in the world while alive, is to deny God his mysterious power. It is a self-facing decision: I am too important to die for Christ; I’m too important for my family to lose me.
Conversely, a life devoted to Christ fully may say this instead: I am not essential; only God can fully take care of my family, can do his work in spite of me and without me.
“Silence” invites viewers to sit closely to the idea of denying one’s faith. It is an utterly uncomfortable experience, by design. It delivers emotional gravitas to the decisions that the characters make. We are left feeling cathartic joy and sheer despondence all at once, as we witness the characters making their choices. I think that Christians who watch this film will not come away from the experience unchanged. I think that “Silence” is one of the most important films about Christianity and faith in a long, long time.