January 31, 2017 Alan Ehler

Silence is Deafening

A friend recommended I see the new Martin Scorcese film, Silence, set at the end of the era of Jesuit missions in Japan in the mid-16th Century. I have long been fascinated with what has been called Japan’s “Christian Century,” a period beginning with Francis Xavier’s arrival there in 1549. Through his efforts and the Catholic missionaries who followed him, more than 300,000 Japanese came to faith in Christ in the following decades. This level of missions success has never again been attained in that country in spite of over 160 years of dedicated Protestant and Catholic missions efforts since Japan reconnected with the West beginning with US Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853. Of course, my own daughter’s commitment to Japan and nearly four years of residence there also drove my curiosity to see a movie unashamedly dealing with tough issues of faith directed by an Academy award winning director who has often woven his Catholicism into movies filled with deep moral quandaries. The movie is based on a novel written by the late Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo and integrates much history with a lot of speculation.

Silence is loaded with theological elements, some very biblical, some very Catholic, and some far beyond either. Although there are some theological points the movie seeks to communicate I cannot endorse, it does convey others incredibly well. Scorcese effectively and powerfully puts the viewer into the mind and heart of the Jesuit priests and the Japanese Christians, each of whom is asked to renounce their faith in Christ or suffer. These people work through the options of confessing Christ and risking their own lives or the suffering of others, continuing to trust Christ secretly while pretending to follow Buddha, or giving in to the point of turning in other Christians for profit.

In that theater I felt the agony of their decisions and the great question that drives the title of the movie:

Why is God silent in such times?

My mind was immediately put to not only the tens of thousands of Christians who lost their lives in Japan between 1590 and 1650 but also the tens of millions of other martyrs throughout history from the Roman Empire in the time of Nero to Iran, Iraq, and Egypt today. The movie seeks to give an answer to that question to remedy the deep angst it produces, yet I am not sure this is the answer God himself would give.

The New Testament is filled with warnings that persecution would come to those who choose to follow Christ. Jesus in Matthew 24:9 said, “They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. In II Timothy 3:12, Paul wrote, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Peter warned in I Peter 4:12, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”  John’s Apocalypse is clearly written to Christians throughout the Roman Province of Asia facing severe persecution with the hope of ultimate deliverance.

Although Silence had the priests and believers quoting some scripture, it did not bring these warnings to help those suffering and wrestling with whether or not they would keep the faith in such trying circumstances. How much better would it have been to have them remember the Apostle Peter’s words to those suffering persecution in what is today Turkey: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (I Peter 5:10) The difference is the eternal perspective the Gospel can truly bring.

The pain of persecution is severe and real, but it is temporary.

The agonizing dilemma the priest Rodrigues faced at the climax of the film is whether or not to stop the severe but temporary suffering of the Japanese Christians by his renunciation of Christ. Although Scrocese tried to bring some hope to an otherwise very sad movie, this question did not drive Rodrigues’ decision. I believe it should have. If this Gospel is true, nothing matters more than eternity. How many others’ faith is impacted by such a decision? The biggest question of all for me that put me in tears more than once is what would I do in such a situation?

I am a Christian today because many in the chain of faith from the first apostles to me were willing to suffer and even die for Christ if necessary. Am I?

What the movie does not show is that after more than two hundred years of Japan being cut off from all Western contact and severe persecution, in the 1860’s thousands of Christian believers were discovered hiding throughout Japan having passed the Gospel down from generation to generation in secret. The Gospel prevails when people stand strong in Christ.

(All scripture is quoted from the English Standard Version)

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About the Author

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Alan Ehler Dr. Alan Ehler began serving as dean of the College of Christian Ministries and Religion at SEU in 2013. He earned a doctorate in ministry from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in 2007 while serving as a pastor in Washington. Dr. Ehler and his wife, Keira, are both avid cyclers.