Film buffs appalled by Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ may well have vowed to ignore anything else he does. But in the case of his latest epic film, Silence, this would be a mistake. It is clear that Scorsese, whatever bizarre personal take he has on the nature of the Christian gospel, has been bitten by the Hound of Heaven and understands well the difficulties Christian believers face in a secular, pluralistic world.
The film is the third adaptation of a novel by famed Japanese Christian writer Shûsaku Endô (1923-1996). Set in the 17th century, it tells the story of two Portuguese priests who persuade their superior to let them go to Japan to find their mentor, a missionary who is reported to have apostacized during the extreme wave of Buddhist and nationalist persecution of Christians taking place there. Once in Japan, they find the persecution far more extensive and terrible than imagined; one is killed, and the other discovers that their mentor has indeed left the faith and become a Buddhist scholar. The government Inquisitor has perceptively learned from experience that “martyrdom is the seed of the church” and now employs another method to stamp out Christianity: until a missionary recants, his flock are subjected, one by one, to horrible and excruciatingly painful deaths. The argument is presented: didn’t your Jesus do everything to save you—so you must recant your faith to save the remaining members of your flock. The young priest apparently does so recant, but seems to have remained a secret Christian, since a tiny crucifix is hidden on him as his body is burned in Buddhist fashion.
The theme of the novel and the film is particularly relevant today, when Christians around the world are being persecuted as never before—particularly by Muslim fundamentalism.
We offer seven—the perfect number— of lessons from the film:
- In the Western context today, Buddhism is presented—by way of the Dalai Lama, Christmas Humphreys, et al.—as a religion of sweetness and light, in stark contrast to supposedly persecutorial, imperialistic, missionizing western Christianity. The film illustrates the utter fallacy of such interpretations. Novelist Arthur Koestler, who flirted briefly with Eastern religions, rightly rejected Buddhism for its lack of any meaningful ethic (cf. the Buddhist kamikaze pilots in World War II).
- The film should finish off any naïveté that “all religions teach the same thing.” The horrible cruelties inflicted on the Christians by the Buddhist Inquisitor do not bother him at all. (The Roman Catholic inquisitions of the medieval period offer no analogy: they were contrary to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ and New Testement Christianity, whilst the Buddhist treatment of Christian missionaries could not be condemned by anything within that religious tradition.)
- The arguments of the apostate mentor and former missionary against Christian truth show just how silly such arguments are. He denies any genuine Japanese conversions to Christianity—the martyrs are not dying for Christ but out of commitment to the missionaries. He even denies the possibility of translating biblical truth into Japanese (Francis Xavier is supposed to have accepted a Japanese translation of “Son of God” that was actually “Sun of God”—so instead of Christ’s rising on the third day, he rises every morning).
- The young priest correctly asserts that “truth is universal”—so Christianity is as true in Japan as in Europe or anywhere else. The reason for its lack of success in Japan is not the “soil”—the Japanese character and culture—but the fact that the soil has been “poisoned”—by Buddhist and other false religious teaching and by the persecution conducted by the opponents of the gospel.
- Naturally, the Inquisitor sees the issues nationalistically and politically. He tells the story of a lord who had four mistresses who were continually fighting with each other—so he got rid of all of them and had peace. They represented European powers (Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, and England) wanting economic advantages in Japan. The young priest said: “We Christians are monogamous; the ruler should have just one wife.” The Inquisitior replied, “The Portuguese?” The priest: “Christianity.” The priest saw clearly that the problem—and the solution— was not political but religious.
- The indifference to cruelty on the part of the Inquisitor and his minions reminds one of the Eastern theatre in World War II. A non-Christian culture has no foundation for or respect for human rights. The Burma railway and the Japanese prisoner camps of the Second World War should remind us that what one believes directly influences what one does. Did generations without Christ create an inherently dangerous Japanese personality, particularly in the political realm where totalitarianism could easily be justified?
- The most difficult question posed in the film is surely the following: Is there ever a justification for apostasy—as here, where it was the only way to save lives? God is not going to intervene; He is going to remain silent (note the film and book title) in a world where we sinners have corrupted everything. So what is to be done when facing such an ethical dilemma?
Note that the problem is not the Corrie Ten Boom “hiding place” dilemma: it is not a question of lying to the Nazis to protect Jewish lives. The issue is the priest’s denying the faith publicly to save the lives of people who have already denied the faith or who must also deny it to survive.
As a lesser-of-evils situation, what is the greater evil—the loss of other people’s lives through horrible torture, or the public denial of Christianity by its representative, thus telling the world that the faith is not worth dying for? Of course, the ideal is a heroic martyr’s death on the part of all concerned, but suppose one simply does not have the personal strength to choose that route?
In general, the fundamental theological principle is that evangelism trumps all moral issues except right-to-life (the qualification is due to the fact that once people are dead neither evangelism nor moral values are relevant). Keeping the flock alive at least takes into account the possibility that the totalitarian Buddhist government may weaken and that returning to the faith may ultimately be possible.
More importantly, saving faith in Christ is a matter of one’s inner commitment. The Reformation theologians insisted that saving faith is present only if one goes beyond notitia (doctrinal knowedge) and assensus (public affirmation) so as to arrive at fiducia (personal, heart commitment). If assensus is no longer possible, surely fiducia is still an option. This seems to be the film’s lesson: In a world of sin, where believers do not always have the strength to withstand the individual and societal pressures of evil, outward conformity may sometimes be the lesser-of-evils. Faith in Christ should not properly exist only within the heart, but history has provided examples of such inner faith as the only humanly acceptable alternative.
John Warwick Montgomery
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The present issue of the Global Journal contains another fine piece by one of our regular contributors: Donald T. Williams obtained from his publisher permission to include a chapter from his just-published book on C. S. Lewis. Readers of the Global Journal will thus have the opportunity to revisit Lewis on the Holy Trinity—and will have no excuse for not obtaining the entire volume in which that essay originally appeared. Then, against the background of United Kingdom politics and BREXIT, Ross Maidment analyzes the pluses and the minuses of the late Margaret Thatcher’s individualistic, Methodistic take on Christian faith.