Silence image

On his way to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum to get inspiration for his next novel, Shusaku Endo was diverted to the smaller, almost hidden, Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum nearby. There he first saw the fumi-e (“trampling pictures”)—brazen images of Jesus hanging on the cross or of Mary with her iconic cucumber (perhaps Eastern-styled as a lotus), representing purity even in the midst of swampy filth.

The unswervingly Buddhist 17th-century Shogunate commissioned these brazen images specifically to be desecrated as a public sign of apostasy, and Japanese peasants would step (or trample “if you prefer a more florid reading”) on the fumi-e as proof that they posed no threat to the order and solidarity of Buddhist Japan.

Then, about one hundred years before the United States dropped a second, often unremembered, atomic bomb and leveled Nagasaki—then and now Japan’s most Christian city—our black cloud warships played the harbinger of relief to thousands of hidden Christians by opening Japan to the West after 250 years of unrelenting persecution.

This, the arrival of America’s “diplomatic” warships and guns, coupled with the long shadow of China’s just-beginning “century of national humiliation” at the hands of half a dozen foreign powers, precipitated an abrupt about-face in Japan’s policy toward the West. Rather suddenly in the 1860s, Japan accepted the West with all her trappings and disfigurements—religious and otherwise.

But before then, for 250 years until the dissolution of the Shogunate, these fumi-e were used and abused—trampled by every villager in Nagasaki and elsewhere every New Year’s Day as a recommitment to apostasy.

And Shusako Endo—a Japanese Catholic whose very existence proved that Christianity had not been destroyed in Japan—saw one of these very same fumi-e, after all those years, hanging in a little martyr’s museum overshadowed by the Bomb, and he saw that the brazen features of Jesus, once so detailed and sympathetic, had become smooth as a well-worn stone, polished and rejected by the swamp-muddy feet of unobliging millions. And when Shusaku Endo looked on that fumi-e of Jesus on the cross—the most accurate portrait of Jesus that has ever been made—Endo knew immediately what he wanted to write about.

Scorsese’s Long Journey into Silence

About twenty years later, shortly after the mixed to negative reviews for The Last Temptation of Christ had rolled in, a quite troubled Martin Scorsese read a copy of Endo’s Silence in a train on his way to Kyoto to play Vincent Van Gogh in an Akira Kurosawa film. And the story spoke to his circumstance in much the same way that the fumi-e had spoken to Endo. As Paul Elie wrote for The New York Times:

In depicting Christ’s life as a doubt-ridden struggle between his human and divine natures, Scorsese had intended to make a film that was at once an act of doubt and an act of faith. In the novel he was reading, the priest was shown profaning an image of Christ, and yet the act was an act of faith.

The train slid past the mountains. Scorsese turned the pages. This novel spoke to him. All at once he saw it as a picture he would like to make.

Martin Scorsese struggled for more than two decades to wrestle Shusako Endo’s novel Silence onto the silver screen, and most of the film’s crew worked for the lowest rate their respective unions would allow. What could have compelled such dedication? And was it worth it?

I admit that when I first found out Scorsese planned to adapt and perhaps desecrate one of the rarest of literary commodities—a great modern “religious” novel—my first question was, “Wait. That Martin Scorsese?”

His last major film, Wolf of Wall Street, wallows in the most fantastical excesses of our debauched and corrupted culture. What a strange film to precede Silence, a meditation on self-denying faith ravaged by extraordinary suffering, deprivation, and doubt.

The first clue that Scorsese might actually be the right man for the job came when I read his foreword to the more recent editions of Silence. His heartfelt insight into both the novel and Christianity surprised me:

Christianity is based on faith, but if you study its history you see that it’s had to adapt itself over and over again, always with great difficulty, in order that faith might flourish. That’s a paradox, and it can be an extremely painful one: on the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe that they go hand in hand. One nourishes the other. Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it co-exists with faith – true faith, abiding faith – it can end in the most joyful sense of communion. It’s this painful, paradoxical passage – from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion – that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully and beautifully in Silence.

Up until I read those words, I had little idea that Scorsese even claimed to be a Christian. You wouldn’t know it from his movies would you? But would you? I thought about the sometimes cryptic Solomonic wisdom that ran through every one of his expositions of human vanity, the quite Roman Catholic emphasis on blood absolution—and not the merely symbolic blood we’re comfortable with in Protestant circles, no—the wet, crimson, gushing kind.

Silence and Me

My own journey with Silence began only a few months ago when the novel was brought to my attention by painter Makoto Fujimura, credited as a “Special Advisor” to Scorsese’s adaptation. In yet another entry in the long list of happy accidents that litter my life, I didn’t have to wait years, only a few months, for the movie adaptation to come to a theater near me. By the time it arrived, I had just recently finished first the novel then Fujimura’s commentary on it, Silence and Beauty—which book greatly enhanced my appreciation of the history and culture surrounding the narrative.

I love both Silence the movie and Silence the book, different as they may be, but I’ve had a hard time collecting my thoughts on them. They are both masterful works of their respective media, and their descriptions ring with vivid truth. Their prescriptions, on the other hand, sound uncertainly. The book bruised me viscerally. The movie left me unsettled. The history they both explore leaves me shattered. Here is where I try to collect my pieces.

But first, I need to quickly overview the story and some of its characters.

The Story of Silence [SPOILERS AHEAD]

Silence fictionalizes the history Endo meticulously researched to explore the struggles of two 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit missionary priests (Father Rodrigues—played by Andrew Garfield in the movie—and Father Garrpé—played by Adam Driver) who illegally immigrate to Japan to investigate news that their mentor (Father Ferreira—played by Liam Neeson) had apostatized from the faith. They also intend to minister to the scattered Japanese Christians, whose faith had been all but uprooted by the most intense persecutions imaginable.

When Rodrigues and Garrpé show up in Japan, their guide is the enigmatic drunkard Kichijiro—a Japanese fisherman with a real knack for apostatizing. Met with some initial successes in a local village, things for the Fathers eventually unravel when they are separated, betrayed by Kichijiro, and taken into the custody of the Shogunate, represented by Inquisitor Inoe—the mastermind behind the Shogunate’s persecutions.

Inoe believes that Christianity, because of its connections to hostile foreign powers, poses a grave danger to the Shogunate. He also believes that its foreign nature makes it ill-suited to the social and religious climate of Buddhist Japan. Inoe also recognizes that martyrdom only strengthened the Christian faith, so he focuses his efforts on eliciting public signs of apostasy from the Catholic fathers instead. He accomplishes this by torturing Japanese peasant Christians in the presence of the fathers and insisting that the fathers alone can relieve the peasants’ suffering by trampling upon the fumi-e and renouncing Christianity.

It was under such persecution that Father Ferreira apostatized and Father Garrpé died. In the end, Rodrigues is the only father left in Japan, and in his final trial, he hears what he believes to be the voice of Christ breaking the silence and encouraging him to “trample”:

Come ahead now. It’s all right. Step on Me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Step.

Rodrigues then apostatizes, saving the lives of a few tortured peasants, and goes on to live a publicly Buddhist life, marrying a Japanese woman and taking a Japanese name just like Father Ferreira, his mentor. Mocked daily as “Paul the Apostate,” his public testimony (represented in his letters to his Jesuit superior Father Valignano) comes to an end.

But Rodrigues’s private story is not yet over.

The Appendix to the book (which the movie lingers over) comes from captain’s logs and ship’s manifests—scraps of public information collected by Dutch traders at port, and the information contained in them seems trivial, their importance almost invisible (like the “begats” of the Old Testament). Yet in them, one discerns the shadow of Rodrigues’s (and even Kichijiro’s) abiding Christian faith. The movie fleshes out this shadow, making the takeaway far more explicit.

More Questions than Answers

Silence asks questions, but gives few if any answers. This is in direct opposition to the mode of most “Christian” movies today, and probably accounts for its lack of success at the box office. But, for my part, I find Silence’s approach bracing. Like many of the greatest works of literature by Christians (e.g., The Idiot), Silence falls into the category of a Holy Saturday meditation. Holy Saturday, that day between Christ’s death and his resurrection, stands in for seasons that all true Christians experience in their own lives, and that all true churches experience in their courses. We all have days, sometimes seasons, where we doubt what God has promised, perhaps even doubt that there is a God.

Consider what Jesus felt from the cross, or what the disciples felt seeing their Christ’s dead body taken down from it. Had you been a disciple looking on Jesus’ purpling body, would you not doubt his claims of divinity? No matter how shortly that reality endured, its moment feels like an eternity—a challenge to faith as abiding as the scars in Jesus’ hands and side. But as Scorsese points out in his foreword, passing through Holy Saturday doubts unintuitively increases the robustness, flexibility, discipline, and fortitude of true faith.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when you watch Silence is this: it is more description than prescription. Put another way, it is not necessarily recommending, excusing, or condoning apostasy. Instead, it invites you to see yourself in Father Rodrigues, and even in Kichijiro. They are portraits of you. And, having put yourself in their shoes and recognized your frailty (if you are at all honest), Silence invites you to glory in God’s condescension to all of us—his willingness to enter into our pain and through Christ’s suffering to save even the most wretched of us.

But all of us, of course, will leave this narrative with at least one question in common: If we were in Father Rodrigues’s shoes, what would we do? What is actually the right thing to do? Was it right for him to formally apostatize in order to save the lives of peasants and survive to secretly minister to them? Or should Rodrigues have let the Japanese sheep be tortured and killed and continued resisting until he himself received a martyr’s death?

“These Poor Signs of Faith”

Near the beginning of Father Rodrigues’s interaction with Japanese peasant Christians, he notes their inordinate hunger for the outlawed symbols of Christianity: rosaries, crucifixes, etc. As he is passing out individual beads from his rosary, which Japanese Christians receive with tears, Rodrigues narrates:

I worry they value these poor signs of faith more than faith itself. But how could we deny them?

In some ways, this exchange illuminates one of the central issues of the movie: how important are visible signs of faith? Is it possible to be silently and invisibly faithful? In this way the “silence” of the title does double duty: Is the movie speaking of God’s silence in the face of Christian persecution? Or is it speaking of the enigmatic and ambiguous public silence of the “hidden Christians”?

In Silence, the outward signs of Christian faith and the outward signs of God’s presence are the same. Through the sacraments (which would include confession/penance in the Catholic tradition), God outwardly displays his presence and grace to the Christian, but it is also through participation in the outward sacraments that Christians make visible their commitment to God.

So what happens to both God’s presence with us and our faith in him when those “poor signs of faith” are taken away from us?

I’ve talked to many Protestants about Silence, and all of them have this to say initially, in so many words:

Those graven images of Jesus are idolatrous and veneration of Mary is unbiblical, so I wouldn’t have any problem trampling on the fumi-e with a clear conscience.

Yet most of these same Protestants also make it clear that they think Rodrigues sinned greatly by stepping on the fumi-e. There is biblical warrant in this. Jesus himself said, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32–33). Which puts us in an odd place. If the sign of apostasy as understood by the Shogunate and the peasant Christians is a true sign of apostasy, then it would follow that the Catholic sacraments could be true signs of faith. Either those “poor signs of faith” are legitimate, and trampling on them really means something. Or those “poor signs of faith” do not touch on faith itself and trampling on them means nothing. In an odd reversal, Endo the Catholic has found a way to make even Protestants respect Catholic iconographic tradition. No small feat.

Yet, though Endo was a Catholic, he undermines the Catholic tradition as well. The peasants wonder about whether God hears their prayers even though they have no priests, no church, and no sacraments but baptism. Father Rodrigues assures them that God does hear them, but in reality, Rodrigues (and Endo) are basically saying that a person can be a Christian outside the Catholic tradition and church. In point of fact, the faith of the Japanese peasants looks a whole lot more like an iconoclastic Protestant faith than a Catholic one. They have no access to crucifixes, icons, rosaries, liturgy, penance, the Eucharist, or the like. Yet in the absence of the symbols and sacraments so central to the Catholic tradition, the Japanese Christians still pursue Jesus. And Endo implicitly endorses the authenticity of this faith, Catholic though he remains.

I think this is the scandal (in the Pauline sense) of Silence: it manages to challenge both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, as well as the Eastern and Western traditions, while holding peculiarly to the incarnational reality of Christ crucified for humankind—a reality which promises the reconciliation of all things.

A Narrative Undermining Both Signs and Reason

In 1 Corinthians 1:22–25, Paul modestly summarizes the two archetypical human approaches to the truth:

For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Endo’s Japan, perhaps even Japan herself, juxtaposes both a longing after signs and a commitment to reason. The Japanese upper class, the “gentles” of the Shogunate, have adopted a logical and purely naturalistic worldview. The signs they continue to incorporate (in both Buddhist temple and imperial palace) hold only pragmatic significance. For instance, they utilize an Emperor as a sign of government for the common people to obey, but the real power of the government rests elsewhere in the Daimyos of the Shogunate. To the 17th-century Japanese elite, religious signs were an opiate for the masses. True enlightenment was freedom from such illusions.

On the other hand, the Japanese peasantry had little else to hope for in their daily lives but the hope conferred on them by signs, superstitious as they might have been.

But Endo’s narrative, in its form as well as its content, subverts both signs and reason.

As to signs, Silence unfolds largely through letters and manifests. It has an appendix (an odd, almost clerical, thing for a novel to contain). It is a book of documents and evidence. For those seeking a miraculous sign among these documents, it does not give one. These characters and events are not symbols. They are people. They are history.

But, on the other hand, for those seeking reason, it proves them gullible. The characters and history contained in Silence signify more than you can deduct with your eyes and cold logic. By all outward appearances, Rodrigues is lost to God. But outward appearances do not hold the whole truth: “As to that, indeed, only God can answer.”

Both the sign-seeking Jew and the reason-loving Greek leave Silence empty-handed. Instead, like Paul, Silence points to the weakness and foolishness of God’s wisdom. The challenge of the story is the challenge of faith—will you see yourself and the world clearly, for what it actually is, and still trust the promises and presence of God?

Outsiders and the Hope of Reconciliation

The similarity between Paul and Endo continues deeper. Just as Paul could be a Jew of Jews that Jews still hated and a Gentile of Gentiles (born Roman citizen) rejected by Gentiles, so Endo was both a Japanese master whom his peers believed to be tainted by the foreign influence of Catholicism, and a Catholic deeply troubled by the Catholic history of imperialism and cultural arrogance.

Yet Endo, the Western Easterner (like Paul the Roman Jew), represented in himself the possibility of reconciliation. If all things cohere in Christ, Christians like Endo who can bridge seemingly antithetical communities are of particular importance in Christendom. We live in a fragmented and hardened world filled with echo chamber communities of inveterate and ever-narrowing tribal interests. So did Endo. Yet he had the courage, like Paul, to preach the foolishness that neither sign nor reason could attain—a foolishness rejected by both sides, yet alone capable of joining both sides together in community.

This begins to make sense of Scorsese’s decades-long attachment to Silence. A secret religious conservative in anti-Christian and “liberal” Hollywood. Is he not an Endo of sorts? He’s a Hollywood icon by now, yet the superb Silence was basically snubbed by the Academy. He’s a long-time Catholic, yet Catholics have long been troubled by his work and legacy.

And, further, is Scorsese not himself a Rodrigues, or even a Kichijiro? Turning from the priesthood in his youth, he tramples on the formalities of Christ to get along in the anti-Christian culture of Hollywood, but he hides a secret faith, one that subverts his external allegiance to the American dream and makes way for another dream. Rejected by Catholics for compromise, accepted by skeptics only if he remains silent, he still clings to “these poor signs of faith.”


And what, ultimately, does Scorsese’s and Endo’s Silence recommend to us? I think the main takeaway is this: You are Kichijiro more than you are Jesus. This is what Rodrigues had to learn. It’s what we all have to learn. It’s easy to sit in our comfortable seats in the theater, cold Coca-cola and hot-buttered popcorn at each hand, and in between mouthfuls and swallows, comfortably condemn Rodrigues’s apostasy and Kichijiro’s comic weakness. But we’re foolish to do so. Perhaps as foolish as Kichijiro.

We live in just such a time as Kichijiro dreamed of: a time in which he could live and die as a good Christian. But perhaps we quickly approach another time, and are perhaps already in it: where living as a Christian will become less and less convenient and finally, downright dangerous. And what place will there be for weak Kichijiros like us in such a world?

We have never experienced what Japanese Christians went through. Have you ever hung upside down, arms and legs bound, your head inches above a pit of refuse, offscourings, and offal, a small slit cut below your ear so a trickle of blood can relieve the pressure to your head and prolong your suffering? Can you really say with any degree of accuracy what you would do in such circumstances?

And contemporary American Christianity, that curious blend of nationalism and therapeutic moralism, has only ever proved that even the smallest threat of persecution can thwart us from faith. We really have no right to judge another’s faith. Instead, we should look to ourselves. Each of us betrays Jesus every day.

The question becomes, “Have you betrayed Jesus like Peter? Or are you more like Judas?” The cock that crows when Rodrigues tramples on the fumi-e and Rodrigues’s emphasis on Jesus’ command to the penitent Peter (“Feed my lambs”) indicate that Endo cast Rodrigues as a Peter figure. Perhaps even Kichijiro is a Peter more than a Judas: “[Kichijiro] is not worthy to be called evil.” But, whether we are more Peter or Judas, the point is we are all culpable and weak—we all need Christ’s compassion.

The hidden Christians in Japan recognized this. Their 250-year tradition, perhaps more than most Christian traditions, institutionalized their culpability in the sufferings of Jesus. They recognized that Jesus died for them, but they emphasized that he died because of them first. And, every New Year’s Day, when they stepped on the fumi-e, the closest they could come to a real Catholic icon, they saw it as their peculiar sacrament. Our hands break the sacramental bread—his body; their feet trampled the sacramental bronze—his body. In those moments, we are joined together—in common guilt first, but then in common hope:

He will not remain silent. He will not abandon us forever.