Does the Movie “Silence” Build or Undermine Faith?

Spoiler Alert: To adequately discuss the message of this movie, it’s necessary to know the plot and climax, which I divulge.

My favorite movies always include what my theater professor in college called “exaltation” – a character who remains true to his principles and therefore is exalted, even if he loses or dies. This is why Braveheart remains one of my favorite movies, despite the fact that I hate violence and rarely watch R-rated films. To this day, seeing Scottish Knight William Wallace (portrayed by Mel Gibson) endure torture and death for the freedom of his countrymen inspires me. Similarly, To End All Wars, which depicts the true story of a Christian P.O.W., crucified by his Japanese captors during World War II, deeply moves me too.

These stories remind me of the martyrs of the church, who chose to be burned at the stake or fed to wild animals rather than recant their faith. Their faithful witness caused the Church to flourish in the most inhospitable environments, and prompted second-Century theologian Tertullian to remark: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” As I watch these films, I can’t help but wonder if I would have the courage to follow in their footsteps. And they prompt me to pray that God would make me faithful.

Certainly the notion that Christ would condone apostasy to end someone else’s suffering is deeply problematic. Jesus left very clear instructions about renouncing Him, saying: “(W)hoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 10:33)

The new Martin Scorsese film Silence, which had a limited debut on Dec. 23 and fully releases on Friday, turns all of this on its head. Instead of exaltation, it climaxes with a priest committing apostasy – trampling on an image of Christ, allegedly because Jesus told him to do so.  Though the film certainly has important redeeming qualities, and is largely being praised by the Christian community, it also is deeply disturbing – and potentially hazardous to one’s spiritual health.

The movie, based on the historical novel by Shusaku Endo, tells the story of two 17th-Century Portugese priests, who willingly enter Japan during a time of intense persecution of the church. Their goal is to find their mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (based on the historical figure by the same name) who’s gone missing, and reportedly has renounced his faith. Once in Japan, the two priests find a remnant of faithful Christians and begin ministering to them in secret. Eventually though, they and their secret congregants are discovered by Japanese authorities and urged to do the unthinkable – apostatize (or renounce their faith) by trampling on a fumie, a crudely carved image of Christ.

One priest dies in custody. But the second, Father Rodrigues (based on the historical Giuseppe Chiara), is taken to Nagasaki where he reunites with his old mentor, Father Ferreire. To his horror, Rodrigues discovers that Ferreira has renounced his faith. He’s also become a Buddhist, taken a wife offered by Japanese authorities, and is writing a book refuting Christianity.

Disillusioned and confused, Rodrigues is then forced to watch Christians be tortured, and is told that the only way to end their suffering is to apostatize and trample on the fumie. Then Christ, who has been silent to this point, speaks: “Trample!” he says. “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Rodrigues tramples and then follows in the footsteps of his mentor, becoming a Buddhist, marrying, and serving as an informant for the Japanese government. However, the film hints that Rodrigues secretly maintained his faith during his apostate years, and at the end, shows him holding a cross as his dead body is ceremonially burned.

Certainly the notion that Christ would condone apostasy to end someone else’s suffering is deeply problematic. Jesus left very clear instructions about renouncing Him, saying: “(W)hoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 10:33) As believers, we know this verse, so the moral Catch-22 in Silence creates a great deal of inner emotional turmoil. We cannot accept the decision Rodrigues made, yet how can we not? This is what makes Silence so potentially treacherous.

Silence has disastrous potential. It raises a serious theological dilemma, but offers no solution – at least not a biblically viable one.

Catholic author and editor of Aletia, Daniel McInerny, suggests that Silence raises “the sinister possibility that Christian faith and love are internally conflicted, making a lack of integrity, at least in extreme circumstances, inevitable.” I agree with McInerny. The movie actually reminded me of a quiz my son was given by a public school teacher, which presented numerous no-win moral dilemmas and then required him to choose. The only purpose I could imagine for the quiz was to undermine a Judeo-Christian ethic, especially since it was given as part of a unit on the Salem Witch Trials.

Silence has this same disastrous potential. It raises a serious theological dilemma, but offers no solution – at least not a biblically viable one.

Silence also suggests that one can maintain his faith in complete private, and still be saved. Again, I say suggest because the film doesn’t settle issues; it merely raises them. But what is the viewer supposed to conclude about Rodrigues clutching a cross at the end?

I tend to agree with the historic church position that the sin of apostasy can be forgiven. But I am less willing to concede that someone who for decades suppressed his faith, and even colluded with persecutors of the church, would inherit the Kingdom of heaven. As James says, faith without works is dead, and: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that, and shudder.”

Given these troubling elements, it’s somewhat surprising how enthusiastically Silence has been received by Christians. Author Brett McCracken wrote in his review of the film for Christianity Today: “Silence presents a textured, realistic Christian faith, and has the potential to build the faith of the devout and the skeptical alike, bearing fruit in the church’s witness and mission in the world.” Similarly, the evangelical flagship, Wheaton College, has made the novel, Silence, a core text for its new Christ at the Core curriculum, and required reading for every incoming freshman. Even Pope Francis, who invited Scorsese to the Vatican to view the film, reportedly told the filmmaker: “I hope the story of the film, knowing the book, bears much fruit.”  

What McCracken especially likes about the film is its ability to teach the church about “cross-cultural missions and contextualization,” noting a scene revealing that the missionaries’ concept of God may have been lost in translation. When Ferreira and Rodrigues meet, Ferreira alleges that the Japanese had misinterpreted “Son of God” to mean “Sun of God.” As a result, they allegedly weren’t worshipping God at all, but the actual sun.

These are the kinds of challenges missionaries regularly face. And certainly, reminding Westerners of this possibility has merit.

But McCracken also contends that the film is missional. Though the image of Christ is repeatedly trampled throughout the film, this tragedy is also a triumph. “It captures the distinctive power of Christianity: power in weakness.”

Similarly, Wheaton College President Philip Ryken writes about Silence, “Endo’s Silence has a message for the church in every culture. . . . (Father Rodrigues’) vain ambition for missionary glory is chastised by disappointment, failure, and excruciating pain. At the same time, he moves from seeing the face of Jesus in perfect beauty to seeing it disfigured by suffering.” This, Ryken asserts, “is the authentic Jesus that every culture needs.”

I don’t think Silence presents a helpful spiritual message, but a potentially harmful one.

To my eyes, though, all Silence portrays is weakness. There is no triumph because triumph comes in enduring to the end. Jesus would not have triumphed had he gotten off the cross, knowing that his death and resurrection would eventually lead to the brutal execution of all but one of his apostles.

Jesus triumphed because he didn’t focus on the suffering. Instead, Hebrews 12 says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame. . .” Similarly, Hebrews urges us: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Though Silence is dedicated to “Japanese Christians and their pastors,” many Catholic churches in Japan actually banned the novel, Silence. The author Endo even reportedly lost a close friend, a French priest, due to the book’s publication. Though I don’t support book banning, I certainly can understand why the church and a priest would have that reaction.

I don’t think Silence presents a helpful spiritual message, but a potentially harmful one. Yes, it has redeeming qualities. And yes, the questions it raises are worth considering – but in the right context and among believers mature enough to handle its problematic themes. But as a feature film, it’s pretty depressing and potentially disillusioning. Rather than exaltation, it features capitulation. And rather than inspiring, it simply deflates and confuses.

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9 thoughts on “Does the Movie “Silence” Build or Undermine Faith?

  1. Juanita Bailey

    I saw the movie today, and found that it was not very Bible based. No scriptures to encourage the persecuted Japanese Christians from the priest, no mention of how the Apostles (Paul and Silas,Peter and John, and Stephen a disciple of Jesus) endured to the end. Their steadfastness was encouraging to other followers of Jesus. I agree with your assessment of the movie.

    • I found the movie’s two main priests lacking in basic Biblical approaches, including never reading or sharing the Bible with the believers; their focus was linked to trinkets, rosary and confession. I do think we should confess to God our daily failings, and to accountability partners, and to those we’ve harmed, so I’m not against the confession part, but never did the priest or the people ever verbally pray FOR their tormentors, as scripture guides us to do for those who persecute us. Nor did they praise God for the trials, as scripture instructs.

  2. Angie

    Haven’t seen it. Not sure if I will after reading this.. Just like when the movie Noah came out- not interested in Hollywood version of Christianity or the Bible. As the wife of a pastor with a congregation of believers to shepherd, we try to stay up to date on what’s out there though, in order to point others to the truth. I appreciate you ministry Julie.

  3. Anne M

    Really grateful for this review as I had been wondering if it was worth my time. After reading this, I understand the confusion it can bring to understanding true Christian doctrine.

  4. Dan

    My wife and I just returned from viewing Silence, and I immediately looked for reviews and was shocked that the only one discussing this film with a Biblical understanding was yours. The main point I get from the film was not what the film makers wanted, but here it is: We are living in an age when apostasy is deceptively portrayed as acceptable, and even laudable. Rejecting Christ is clearly spoken of in the Bible, and it is spiritually deadly. We can be assured that these kinds of attacks on historic Biblical faith will continue and worsen as we approach the return of Jesus, and staying close to Christ through prayer and the word will be our best defense.

  5. Dan

    I would also like to add, our present Christian climate here in the west is a form of what Silence preaches, namely, a Christian can pick and choose what Biblical commands will be followed, and which ones will be ignored, and still be considered a faithful Christian. We are witnessing a constant attack on Biblical Christianity, where Christian terms and language are used, but Christian practices consistant with the Bible are being rejected and replaced with “Love each other”. 2 Timothy 2:11-13 is a stark reminder of the high cost of decipleship and faithfulness to the Lordship of Christ. Films like “Silence” , though they tug on our emotions, must be seen for what they are, subtle (or blatant) attempts at undermining Biblical Christianity, and replacing it with a softer, gentler social gospel, that in the end leads to death.

  6. Fr. John Retar

    I suggest listening to a blog post for Bishop Robert Barron on regarding the movie Silence. He gives a compelling argument about the cultural deception in the movie, especially the final scene where Fr. Rodriguez is in his coffin holding a crucifix. The message is that he still privately believes. That is what the culture wants, privately held belief that “does not harm” nor offers a challenge. Apostasy has been with us since the beginning of the Church, just look at Judas Iscariot. Faith has been with us even more over the centuries as Christian Martyrdom racks up even more victims. The world hates it and thinks it is ugly. Being true to Christ and facing our fears is ugly business, but we keep our eyes not on this world but the world to come.

  7. Julie, I agree with your assessment “I don’t think Silence presents a helpful spiritual message, but a potentially harmful one,” and in fact would take it a step further. I would say not only is it potentially harmful, but it is a direct attack on the faith. For more on why I say that, see my take on the film here:
    “Silence” – A Review of Scorsese’s latest attack on the faith

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