One’s first encounter with Silence — whether reading the 1966 Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo or watching the 2016 Hollywood movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese — can be a challenging experience for several reasons. For one thing, the content of the story is challenging. Silence is about the persecution of Christians in seventeenth-century Japan, and it includes several harrowing scenes depicting the torture and execution of Japanese martyrs. (The film is rated R due to graphic violence.) The story builds to a devastating climactic dilemma in which a priest must choose between denying Christ or watching the Christians he serves be tortured to death. Worse, the way this scene plays out challenges orthodox theological views of apostasy. The scene seems to portray the voice of Christ Himself justifying apostasy in this case to save innocent lives. I don’t think this is in fact the best way to interpret the novel or the film. The reason it seems to make this error is that, beyond the challenging content, the form of the story — the way the story is told — is challenging as well.
A Difficult Story. The story follows two Roman Catholic missionaries from Portugal, Sebastian Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe (played in the film by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, respectively) who hear that their mentor Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson) has apostatized and publically renounced his faith. The two young priests cannot believe Ferreira would have denied Christ, because he had always had such a strong faith, even risking his life repeatedly as a missionary.
It is essential for viewers to keep in mind that the story is told mostly from Rodrigues’s perspective, and he is an unreliable narrator with whom we ought not always agree. His motives are ambiguous, perhaps even to himself. Silence is almost like a mystery novel. Endo drops subtle clues and ambiguous hints. He asks us to read closely and to think carefully. The problem is that, even at the end, Endo never comes out and tells us clearly “whodunit.” The novel remains mysterious, even opaque. This can be frustrating for those who like their stories to have black-and-white meanings. Scorsese’s film adaptation is slightly less opaque. He resolves a few of the story’s ambiguities, but not all of them. Scorsese still expects us to meet him half way. But, in my opinion, the effort is worth it. The film is challenging and unsettling, but ultimately devotional and even inspirational.
A Japanese Catholic Perspective. Behind Silence lurks Endo’s interest in historical questions about Japanese Christianity. Whereas today Japan is one of the most secular nations on earth, in the sixteenth century, European missionaries had great success in Japan, resulting in hundreds of thousands of conversions. Yet, a century later, Christianity was outlawed, and the Japanese government began to persecute and martyr Christians, both missionaries and their converts who were forced under threat of torture and death to renounce Christ publicly by stepping on an image of Jesus called a fumi-e. As a Japanese Catholic, Endo is exploring his own religious heritage and wrestling with the implications of this history for Japanese Christians today.
I read Silence as Endo’s response to a unique fact about Japanese church history. For centuries, there were thousands of Japanese Christians who renounced Christ publicly but who continued to believe privately. Endo is asking what this mass apostasy means for Japanese Christianity. Most importantly, he is asking whether his Japanese Christian ancestors’ secret faith was real. Or, more generally, what is the nature of authentic Christian faith?
Missionary Colonialism. As a Roman Catholic missionary, Rodrigues believes he is brining not only the Church to Japan but also Christ, whom Catholics believe the Church mediates. As Rodrigues says in the film, if he and Garrpe are martyred, then there will be no Catholic priests left in Japan — no one to hear confession and forgive sins — and therefore the Japanese Church itself will be dead. He sees Japan as a place of suffering and despair, calling the Japanese peasants he meets “wretched.” He believes Christianity brings to Japan for the first time the sense of God’s gracious love and the promise of an afterlife — things missing from Buddhism — the hope that the peasants’ “suffering will not end in nothingness.”
Evangelical viewers can applaud Rodrigues’s commitment to the universality of Christian truth. In a debate with the Japanese authorities, he rightly insists that if Christianity is true at all, then it must be true everywhere. But we should not miss the element of colonialism in the Portuguese mission to Japan. Rodrigues naively dismisses the Japanese governor’s political concerns about different Christian denominations’ competing national interests, though Rodrigues himself is not above using the language of the Crusades, as when he describes himself and Garrpe as “an army of two.” For the missionaries, the cross is a symbol of beauty and triumph, even conquest, rather than the symbol of horrific suffering and humiliation it would have been to Jesus.
The missionaries are prepared to suffer for those they minister to, but it never occurs to them that they might suffer with them. For example, at one point, Rodrigues advises the Japanese peasants to step on the fumi-e rather than be executed. It is not that he thinks it is okay. At that point in the story Rodrigues wouldn’t dream of apostatizing! But he treats the Japanese like children, incapable of the sort of heroic faith he reserves for himself. He has pity for the Japanese suffering, but not the kind of love that comes from empathy and identification. Thus Rodrigues sees himself as superior to the Japanese, a fault the local governor sees clearly. After imprisoning Rodrigues, the governor Inoue Masashige (played by Issey Ogata) accuses him of being “proud,” comparing him to a previous priest he had met who had “despised” the Japanese so much he refused to learn the local language and culture.
Inoue seems right about this. Throughout the film, Rodrigues sees himself as reenacting Christ’s suffering, being betrayed by a friend and handed over to the governor to be executed. He imagines himself as the Savior of the Japanese people, at one point even hallucinating his own reflection as the face of Jesus! Rodrigues seems to actively want to become a martyr. He quotes Tertullian’s famous saying that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” but Inoue sees through this. Far from being motivated by a desire to build the church, Rodrigues’s desire for martyrdom seems (perhaps subconsciously) motivated by a desire for fame within the church, even if that means bringing persecution on the Japanese people by his presence in the country. “The price of your glory is their suffering,” he tells Rodrigues.
An Insidious Dilemma. At this point the story reaches its most difficult scene — difficult to watch, difficult to square with Biblical teaching on apostasy, and difficult to interpret if we don’t remember that Rodrigues is an unreliable narrator. Rodrigues is imprisoned, and, though Inuoe treats him well, he is forced to listen to Japanese Christians being tortured. Inuoe promises to release the prisoners if Rodrigues will renounce his faith. Inuoe knows that he can’t uncover all the hidden Christians in Japan, so he focuses on the missionaries. He knows that the Catholic Church cannot exist without priests. So he creates a dilemma designed to destroy the priests spiritually, using their belief in self-sacrifice against them. As a Catholic priest, Rodrigues believes he mediates Christ to the Christians he serves, which would include giving his life to save them, just as Christ died to save us. But in this case giving his life would only cause more suffering. The only way to save those he serves is to renounce Christ. Thus Inuoe has constructed an insidious dilemma where faithfulness to Christ seems to require denying Christ!
Listening to the suffering of the martyrs, Rodrigues begins to hear Christ’s voice calling him to apostatize and to step on the fumi-e. “Act in love to save them,” Christ says. “Step on me. I was born to share their pain.” In response to this voice, Rodrigues does indeed step on the fumi-e, thus publically denying Christ. But it is not at all clear we are meant to believe this is truly the voice of Christ. It could be real, or it could be a hallucination, or even the voice of the Devil. The scene is open to multiple interpretations, which is why this is a great work of art but also hard to know what to make of. Given that Rodrigues earlier hallucinated his own reflection as the face of Jesus, it is likely that this voice is a hallucination as well. On my reading, Rodrigues imagines the voice telling him to apostatize in order to justify the choice he has already made in his heart.
To understand this scene, we have to accept Endo’s premise that Rodrigues harbors hidden pride. He wants to play the role of Savior to the Japanese. But as soon as he denies Christ, we hear a rooster crow, just like in the biblical story of Peter’s denial of Christ. Rodrigues thought stepping on the fumi-e was imitating Christ’s crucifixion, but actually he was imitating the one who betrayed Christ. He has sinned. Rodrigues has saved the Japanese Christians’ lives, but this is far from a triumph. Scorsese stages this scene as a defeat. Rodrigues is destroyed spiritually by denying Christ. Yet that is not the end of the story.
An Unlikely Saint. While Rodrigues is the protagonist of the story, another character is its hero. The first Japanese person Rodrigues meets at the beginning of the story is Kichijiro (played by Yosuke Kubozuka), a comically pitiful figure. An apostate who has renounced Christ out of fear and weakness, he agrees to guide Rodrigues to the hidden Christian communities. Throughout the story, Kichijiro repeatedly apostatizes, then repents, and then apostatizes again. The first time Kichijiro repents, Rodrigues is touched. “Your faith gives me strength,” he says. But Kichijiro increasingly disgusts Rodrigues; he doesn’t believe Kichijiro’s faith is real, because he keeps denying Christ. Yet in that first confession scene, Kichijiro says something interesting. He says, “My love for God is strong. Could that be the same as faith?”
Rodrigues says, “Yes.” It is enough to love God, even if you are too weak to remain faithful, because God is faithful when you are not.
Kichijiro laments that he happened to be born during a time of persecution. If he had been born a hundred years earlier, he notes, it would have been easy to be a Christian. Rodrigues wonders, “Where is the place for a weak man in a world like this?” But as Silence continues, we are reminded that the gospel is precisely that Jesus died for the weak and sinful, those who do not deserve forgiveness.
Toward the end of the film, after Rodrigues has renounced his faith, Kichijiro asks him to hear his confession and grant him absolution once again. But Rodrigues is broken spiritually, ashamed of his apostasy, and seemingly believes that Christ has abandoned him. Yet Kichijiro insists that even though Rodrigues is a fallen priest, he is still a priest. Rodrigues may not be a stronger Christian than the Japanese, but Christ can use him anyway. Kichijiro in effect absolves Rodrigues and restores him to the priesthood.
Kichijiro is an inspiration and model of faith — a saint — despite being unfaithful. Denying Christ is a sin. Jesus says, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33 ESV). But when Peter denied Christ after His arrest (Matt. 26:73–75), Jesus still forgave him (John 21:15–17). Just like Peter, Kichijiro denies Christ three times in the film. But each time he always confesses his sin and returns. Kichijiro seems to understand God better than the Europeans, because he understands that God loves him unconditionally and forgives him through faith and repentance. Neither Kichijiro nor Rodrigues’s apostasy can be excused, but neither does their denial of Christ put them beyond forgiveness any more than Peter’s denial of Christ did.
On my reading, Kichijiro’s faith inspires Rodrigues to resume his secret Christianity. In the film’s final scenes, Rodrigues takes a Japanese wife and lives as Japanese with Kichijiro as his servant. But there are signs that the two of them have maintained their faith privately. Kichijiro is caught with a Christian icon and taken away, never to be seen again, strongly implying that he has finally had the strength to die as a martyr after having been pastored by Rodrigues. Moreover, when Rodrigues dies, his wife secretly puts a small crucifix into his coffin at his funeral. Apparently Rodrigues has evangelized his Japanese wife! The church lives on. To outsiders, Rodrigues and Kichijiro may look like apostates. But despite their sinful denial of Christ, they have continued in the faith, even witnessing to others to build up the underground church in Japan. —John McAteer
John McAteer is associate professor at Ashford University where he serves as the chair of the liberal arts program. Before receiving his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Riverside, he earned a BA in film from Biola University and an MA in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology.
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith