Silence – A Christian Movie Review

A Secular View of Christian Persecution

You don’t have to be Christian to be part of a great Christian movie.  Many of the quality faith based movies include artists who don’t follow Jesus.  They are actors, directors, and other film professionals faithfully telling a compelling story.  Christians in every role are not required.  But, if you want to tell a Christian story in a Christian film, it must be told through a God honoring worldview.  Christian topics, themes, and setting mean nothing if the creators impose secular viewpoints on faith issues.  This is the fatal problem with Martin Scorcese’s film, Silence. It is a very well produced movie as could be expected from such an accomplished filmmaker.  It is not really a Christian movie, though.  Rather, it lays out a Christian themed story through the lens of a world weary post-modernist viewpoint.  The result is a spiritual disaster.  I don’t recommend watching Silence.

There is No God in Silence

Silence is a movie that twists the message of Jesus in many ways, large and small.  It is hard to sift through all of the issue.  It hides these problems behind a veneer of faithfulness in order to cast aspersions at the nature of God.  It seems like Martin Scorcese learned from his prior movie on faith, The Last Temptation of Christ.  Silence is no less man focused and lacking in understanding.  It is even blasphemous at times.  It just doesn’t rub it in your face like the prior movie.  It is more subtle and philosophical in its accusations.

I am not a fan of this movie.

Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who set out for Imperial Japan during a time of intense persecution.  Christians in Japan are being brutally tortured and killed in the hundreds of thousands by the ruling warlords of the time.

The movie claims to be based on a true story.  Yet, it omits the important detail of a violent and bloody civil war in the region prior to the persecutions.  The Roman Catholic population supported the losing side in this terrible civil way and was being punished by the victors.  This does not minimize the suffering involved.  It does indicate there is much more going on at the time.  It seems this is strategically left out in order to point fingers at faith.

Not a Missionary Story

Christians love missionary stories.  We love tales of fearless men and women who have given their lives to bring Jesus to the world.  It seems, initially, like the young Jesuits of the movie are working from this holy motivation.  The horrific persecution they find in Japan on arrival seems to confirm the nobility of their cause.  It is tempting to get sucked into this narrative as presented by Silence. “It must be God’s work to go to Japan”, one of the Jesuits note in the movie.

This leads to the questions posed by the movie.

If the priests are risking their lives to bring Jesus to Japan, why are they suffering so much?  Isn’t that unfair? Is God being cruel?

Why doesn’t God Answer?

Yet, the priests in the story, played Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, are not venturing into a great mission field.  They do not seek to spread the Gospel or to minister to the saints.  Rather, they set out to find one guy from their order who may or may not have disclaimed Jesus.  They face great danger to find a Jesuit who is rumored to have apostatized.  They show lots of zeal but very little wisdom.  They want to prove that he did not desert God.  They even put the Japanese Christian peasants  in danger to find him.

They ask for strength from God to carry out their mission.  Yet, there is no indication that God is actually leading the charge into Japan.  The thousands of Christians who need ministering to would hold a higher priority if God were leading.  The millions of Japanese who need to hear the Gospel would take precedence over one Portuguese priest.  This is not a missionary story as a result.  The two Jesuits are acting like the accountants from headquarters who come and audit the books periodically.  They may be necessary in some ways for a human organization, but they are not advancing God’s work.

A Secular View of Christianity

The film’s view of Christianity is further revealed when the priests arrive in Japan.  They meet the impoverished, miserable and persecuted church of the small Japanese coastal villages around Nagasaki.  The Japanese peasant’s lives are depicted as nasty, brutish and short.  Christianity is painted as the reason for this terrible life.

A warlord comes upon the villages and kills a number of the Christians in tortuous ways.  The priests respond by being wracked with guilt over what they have done.  It is the faith they brought that caused the deaths not evil or the warlord.  There is a sort of reverse Colonialism in the priest viewpoint.  These two men get to decide what is best for the poor benighted peasants.

Much attention is also given to the suffering involved.  The Christians are tortured, forced to renounce their faith and killed.  The people are depicted as ignorant and dirty with rotting teeth in contrast to the well manicured, civilized and smiling soldiers and Japanese leaders.   The movie’s subtle message appears to be the Christian life is all suffering, poverty, and death for these people.  It would be better had they never heard of Jesus.  Even the strongest Christians in the movie eventually understands it is wiser and more loving to give up faith then continue the suffering.

This is not the message of Christ!  This not the 2,000 year history of the Church.

The Apostle Paul couldn’t decide which was better, to stay with the church or immediately die and go to Jesus.  The Christian Bible teaches death is just the start of God’s glory for you.   There is an eternity of joy, peace and God’s presence  waiting that more than rewards those who live in great pain.

Scorcese creates a bizarro world where the blame for horrifically torturing and killing people does not fall on the murderers.  The ones who are doing the crimes are a side show.  It is the missionaries who brought the Christian faith to Japan who are to blame.  He crafts a Christianity where the only question is how far your strength will last under persecution before denying the faith.  Even those who die for their Lord Jesus in the film are painted as if they died for very little.  An eternity in glory with their Creator is treated like an afterthought to the ever-present now.

There is no real God in Scorcese’s film, just icons and pain.

In short, Scorcese’s Christianity looks very little like the Christianity of the Bible.  It is nothing like the faith the changed the world for Jesus.  Scorcese’s is self-centered, man-powered and small.  It is focused on the now rather than on eternity.  The faith of Paul, Peter, Perpetua, and the martyrs throughout history never suffered from these problems.  It is likely a reflection of one man’s tragically flawed view of faith under pressure.

A Gross Misunderstanding of Faith

Silence seeks to be profound and deeply theological.  It presents God as silent throughout the ordeals.  God only speaks after the persecution is successful and Andrew Garfield’s priest character steps on an image of Christ.  God is pictured as consoling him stating that He, God, was with the priest the whole time.  This priest then lives out the rest of his life opposing the work of Christians in Japan and repeatedly denying the name of Jesus.  His wife slips a small cross in his hand before his body is burned in a Buddhist ceremony at death.

Was he really a believer?  Will he go to heaven?  These questions are supposed to be haunting and the message has caused controversy among Christians.  Could God forgive him? Oh the questions!

My response is, frankly, does it really matter? Do you want to take that chance?  Do you want to waste your walk in Jesus?

God’s direction is very clear.  To deny Jesus is a very bad thing.  Heaven or hell is on the line.  Then our order directly from Jesus is to go forth and make disciples.  There is no limitation of that order from the King to confine it to when it is not dangerous or painful.  Jesus promises that the reward is so much greater than any suffering we will face. The only real questions for a Christian is whether we believe Jesus and follow in obedience.

Can a 16th Century Portuguese priest get to heaven after denying his faith while having secret faith get to heaven? That one is up to God to answer.  Jesus could have hidden His faith in His Father and not go to the Cross but chose not to.  It is not a good bet.  But it is not really the point.

God is not there to bail us out when we try to gut out life in our own strength and fail.  He is not the insurance policy who pulls us out of the fire after a life of waste and self preservation.  Life is not about us.  This is not much of a life in Christ.  Scorcese’s faith completely misses the real Biblical faith as a result.

Silence is an extremely frustrating movie as a Christian.  It presents a very troubled view of Christianity that is so focused on the flesh that it entirely misses the point of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit is entirely absent.  The hope for eternity and Christ’s defeat of death are almost viewed as foolish.  It is secular humanism in a Christian package.  It gets a big thumbs down from me.

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3 thoughts on “Silence – A Christian Movie Review
  1. I read Silence in July. I haven’t watched the movie because I didn’t want to see the tremendous suffering and torture described in the book to be depicted on screen. The images I have in my mind from the descriptions in the book are bad enough. The movie would give me a second set of them. I can do without that.
    Nearly all of your statements about the movie can be said of the book. The book was written by Shusaku Endo in 1969 as a novel based on real events. The book attempts to piece together the evidence of the events after Francis Xavier stepped onto Japanese soil in 1549. The book has been problematic and controversial. I think Scorsese would have a tough time making the movie any more controversial than the book, although he has the ability to do it – I’m no fan.
    The translator’s introduction is vital in understanding the history, the story, and Endo himself. The movie doesn’t provide that. I don’t want this to be a long comment, so, in brief I’ll point out the following that may, or may not, have been clear in the movie:
    1. They were Catholic missionaries; therefore, the Latin makes perfect sense. The Mass was in Latin even when I was a boy. I didn’t understand any of it either.
    2. When the leader Hideyoshi heard from a Spanish pilot that the Portugese used missionaries to prepare the way for military invasion, the great persecution started and increased under his son, Ieyasu, and then Bakufu.
    3. The enforced poverty of the Christians was part of the overall strategy of persecution, recantment of faith or extermination.
    4. The dogged determination of the two missionaries to find Ferreira, determine his fate, and to verify whether or not he had committed apostasy, can be explained by understanding his importance. In short, from the Jesuit perspective, it would be the same as living in 1972 and hearing rumors that Billy Graham had converted to some other faith. If he had, it would undermine missionary zeal and potentially cause many to lose their faith.
    5. The intent of the book was to show how difficult it is for the Japanese/eastern culture/mindset to embrace Christianity. The low percentage of Christians in Japan’s population today may be a reflection, perhaps a better one than the movie, of this assumed inherent incompatibility.
    I don’t know if any other this helps, but there it is.

    Rob Oberto

    1. Hi Rob – thanks for the thoughtful comments and added perspective from the book. Historically, this is a fascinating time with a ton of different things going on that play a part in the persecution and cruelty that are frankly not covered in the movie. There are therefore many different ways that Scorcese could have handled the movie. He just chose to depict a very bleak, powerless, and self centered version of faith that was really unpleasant to watch. It seemed to be, in essence, an example of when someone doesn’t understand the Gospel and its message tries to make a religious movie.

      That said, Japan and its response to Christianity is also a fascinating subject. A society that comfortably committed all of the genocide and war crimes of the Nazi Germans without any moral objections and never really dealt with it has to have some serious issues. On an interesting note, one of the Doolitle bombers from WWII and one of the Pearl Harbor attack leaders teamed up after WWII and toured Japan preaching the Gospel, Jacob DeShazier and Mitsuo Fuchido.

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