Monday, April 24, 2017

Silence: An Exercise in Film Criticism and Cultural Jeremiad

Note: Every possible kind of spoiler exists herein. Proceed at your own risk.

The elusive, controversial American Catholic filmmaker Martin Scorcese spent roughly thirty years trying to adapt Silence, a novel by the equally elusive and controversial Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo. After momentous efforts and many false starts, the film was finally released last year, to general bemusement and a box office take of roughly 16 million (on a 40 million budget). The film’s distributors, perhaps hoping to avoid controversy, promoted the film very little, and released it only in a heavily limited number of theaters for a very short run. The film was ignored by all major cinematic awards, garnering no Golden Globe nominations and only one Academy Award nomination (for best cinematography), which it did not win. Although it had its vociferous defenders, including most top film critics, it also garnered its share of controversy and vicious criticism, from a number of very different sources. For all intents and purposes, the film sank like a stone, leaving few ripples in its wake.

Still, I saw it, and I also followed the buzz surrounding the film fairly closely; and I found both the film and the responses it provoked almost equally fascinating. I read the novel the film is based on a number of years ago, and, as with Scorsese it has stayed with me ever since; and this in turn inspired me to read a moderate amount about the historical situations that inspired the novel, as well as other works of its author, Shusaku Endo. I also come at both film and novel from the perspective of a practicing Catholic who studies intellectual history academically and also (while by no means being an expert) reads a great deal of Catholic theology, present and (mostly) past. All this has given me, I think, a perspective on film and book different from the average American. It is my basic contention, then, that the film, being what it is, has a great deal to tell us about the perspectives and basic orientations of the people who watched it. And this in turn has a great deal to tell us about the current state of our society.

Religion and Religious Drama

Silence is in the first place an unrelenting, uncompromisingly religious film. It is by far the most religious film I have seen come out of Hollywood since perhaps A Man For All Seasons in the ‘60s. Even A Man For All Seasons, though, was religion filtered through the sensibilities and interests of its agnostic observer, Robert Bolt; Silence is religion straight up, unfiltered, and with few or any substitutions. There has not been anything quite like it in a long time.

Allow me to explain what I mean. There are certainly plenty of films that have been produced, and are being produced, that have religious themes, or that utilize religion in some way in their plots, or even films that operate (even in a low key way) on the assumption that Christianity (however conceived) is true. This latter category, of course, includes many of the films of the nascent “Christian film industry.” Still, Silence is religious on an entirely different level than all of these. It is a film whose basic drama and plot are entirely tied up with a religious, and indeed specifically Catholic, view of the world; apart from this fundamental basis, as many secular film critics intuited, its events have little or no meaning. Not only this, but almost all of the events of the film are driven, not just by a generalized piety or an abstract set of ideas, but by the actual, practical functioning of a religious system. The characters in the film are all either acting or reacting to this religious system, and the stuff of this religion, physical and sacramental and spiritual and intellectual, fills the screen at almost every moment, and drives the action of the plot at every turn. This is a work of art the likes of which has not been seen, perhaps, in centuries: a work of art that is soaked, drenched, as it were, in Catholicism. From its first frame (the heads of priests impaled on stakes) to its last (a dead man’s hands clutching a crucifix on a pyre), the film is concerned, not with humanity in general, or God in the abstract, but with the embodied, sacramental and spiritual landscape of the Catholic Church in history.

Impieties and Blasphemies

If there is one reason for the film’s failure to garner award nominations, it is certainly this. As an Oscar voter in Hollywood Reporter put it, “Silence had beautiful photography, but I hated that movie so much, with all the Christian stuff beating me over the head. I mean, come on, Marty!”

The film, in other words, was quite a bit too religious for modern Hollywood. This sentiment, coded or uncoded, veiled or unveiled, cropped up again and again in reviews and reactions to Silence. Although the film received generally positive notices, many reviews seemed, in effect, to damn the film with faint praise: they were forced to respect it for its obvious power and the clout of its director, but were also some combination of bemused and assaulted by its content. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the adjective “demanding” show up more often in reviews of a film. Some more honest critics admitted that they were some combination of exhausted and bored by the film.

For your average American contemporary American journalist, in other words, “Silence” was something like the trip up the river in “Apocalypse Now”; a journey into a strange and dangerous landscape, with few if any familiar landmarks.

This in itself is fairly understandable. Still, if there is a subtext to many of these “takes,” it is certainly prejudice. Prejudice, hatred, and contempt--for Christianity and Christians. Our safely anonymous Oscar voter is the tip of a much larger iceberg, lurking just below the surface, but still frequently visible.

This iceberg did not always stay submerged. The film also provoked a series of reactions that could best be summed up as accusations of blasphemy. For these critics (whom I will not dignify by linking to), Silence was an exercise in “Colonialism,” the “White Messiah Complex,” and other and sundry sacrileges against Truth, Justice, and the American Way. As is generally the case with religious fanatics, this led to some rather extreme results. One prominent film critic openly declared on Twitter that in watching the film, she sympathized entirely with the film’s Japanese authorities--authorities who spend the film, if you are not aware, brutalizing, murdering, and physically and psychologically torturing, not only foreign priests, but much more often ordinary Japanese peasants, all for nothing more than the crime of being Christian. In doing so, though, the Japanese authorities claim they are protecting their nation from this dangerous religion with its dangerous ideas--and their bloody acts of cruelty are really not their fault, but the fault of the foreign priest’s arrogance and pride in trying to spread Christianity in Japan in the first place. To quote another dangerous man with a Messiah complex: “Thou hast said it.”

Still, this was only one of a number of similar takes expressing discomfort or even open hatred for the film’s supposed racial and cultural insensitivity. Most of these seem to be little more than gut reactions to the fact that the film’s protagonist is a “white” Christian male who spends most of the film interacting with “Asians.”

Oddly enough, some of these hot takes seemed singularly unaware that the film is an adaptation of a novel by a Japanese author--indeed, one of the most acclaimed and respected Japanese novels of the last century. Scorcese’s film, in fact, was received rapturously in Japan itself, as well as (as far as I can tell) in most foreign presses. It was only in America itself, seemingly, that it provoked these reactions. Not only this, but I would argue that one of the marks of the film compared to the novel is the way in which it increases the agency of its central Japanese characters.

Still, on another level, it is not hard to see why contemporary Americans would react to the film in this way. For as I said, the film operates entirely on the basis of Catholicism; and consequently has little or no time for most of the conventional pieties of modern American progressives.

As the aforementioned critic put it, the film is most notable, not for what it includes, but for what it leaves out: economics, post-colonial theory, cultural relativism, and other and sundry forms of American pious discourse.

Not that these topics are wholly foreign to the film’s oevre. After all, Christianity’s entrance into Japan came in the context of the age of colonialism, with European countries extending their power across Asia through trade and force of arms alike. Likewise, Christianity itself spread within Japan largely among the downtrodden peasant classes; and prior to the events of the film, the influence of Christianity among the peasants was one cause that had brought about a large-scale peasant revolt. And in any event, Christianity itself was quite foreign to Japanese culture, which had (as Francis Xavier had recognized) no real concept of a transcendent deity prior to contact with Europeans.

Actually, all these topics (except the peasant revolt) are dealt with at one time or other in the film; mostly arising in the mouths of the Japanese authorities, or in the dialogue between them and our central priest character. In certain cases, they even play pivotal roles in the film’s plot. Still, contemporary American progressives might be forgiven for finding the film’s treatment of these topics somewhat impious. For these cultural-relativist ideas are always put into the mouths of Japanese authority figures who are most notable, as I have pointed out, for their brazen and continual brutality in murdering and torturing lower-class Japanese--or else, and perhaps more devastating, they are put into the mouth of Father Ferreira, a broken apostate priest who, when asked if he is happy in his new life, can barely muster up the energy to lie. Likewise, the film’s presentation of Catholicism is emphatically not in the primary terms of economics or politics or “race” (the broader context of European colonialism is only referred to occasionally and in passing), but almost entirely in religious terms. As the film makes tangibly clear, Catholicism is not, in the end, a mere means of cultural imperialism, or a dangerous foreign invader; it is a religious system that, in the end, and however imperfectly put into effect, does emphatically transcend both race and culture, and provide something of great value for those, Western or Japanese, who participate in it. One could be hard pressed to find a more horrifyingly blasphemous sentiment.

Silence the film is, in fact, perhaps most notable for the degree of seriousness and respect with which it views its Japanese peasant characters. If the film has heroes, it is certainly these. In this, however, it makes very clear that what Catholicism provides for them is not economic potential or cultural self-alienation, but a transcendent sense of meaning and dignity, a heroism of self-sacrificial love, that leads them to embrace a foreign faith, receive and hide and endanger themselves for its foreign priests, and finally give their lives for its God, who has become theirs. The most heroic characters in the film by far, the characters who are portrayed in the most positive light and whose actions and faces stay with the viewer longer than any other, are without question these Christian peasants. For much of the film, the foreign priests are little more than spectators to what is emphatically their drama. These parts of Silence can only really be understood in the terms of classical Catholic martyr-drama--as it has never, in fact, been portrayed in American cinema.

The film does certainly pose the question, frequently and insistently, of just what these Japanese are dying for (is it just the pride of these foreign priests?), as well as the allied one of just what they are actually receiving and understanding of recognizable European Catholicism. Has Christianity, as the broken Father Ferreira argues, been fundamentally changed in the “swamp” of Japan, turned into something unrecognizable and foreign? This is certainly a question posed by both book and film; and I will address it at length later on. Still, this can only be taken so far. The film ends, after all, with a dedication to the Japanese Christians and the phrase Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

If there is a reason why contemporary American intelligentsia are almost forced to hate this film, or at least broadly ignore it, it is precisely that it asks the right questions, but then gives all the wrong answers to them. Catholicism is presented, not as a background cultural presence adding color or flavor, or as an ultimately contemptible collection of non-threatening stereotypes: it is there, in the foreground, terribly real, demanding everything from its adherents, but giving in return transcendent meaning and morals--challenged, tortured, and even defeated, but still, somehow, alive.

It is really impossible to overemphasize the degree to which this film, and its basic values, present an act of unspeakable blasphemy against our society and most of what it believes in. It is clearly aware of all the things its critics are aware of, and engages with them on a substantive level; but it does not offer the proper worship to them, or perform the proper rites of expiation for its sins. Its values, its questions, its basic drama, are all expressed, ultimately, in terms of a rival system, a rival religion. So I do not, in the end, particularly blame the critics who did not like it. In some ways, they were much wiser than those who did.

Still, for all this, the question the film is really interested in is ultimately a rather different one. It can best be summed up with a quote from the Bible: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Ideology and Its Discontents

Still, if you have read thus far, you might be forgiven for having the idea that Silence is akin to Fireproof, War Room, or other products of the “Christian film industry”: a propagandistic work of art designed primarily to appeal to a certain kind of conservative Christian, successful in preaching to the choir, but consequently (and unavoidably) entirely unsuccessful with those not already in the fold. You would be quite incorrect.

In fact, within the world of American Christianity, Silence was received with a similar mix of bemusement and controversy as in the larger, secular world. It received no large crowds of movie-going Christians; although it was vociferously supported by most of the prominent Christian and especially Catholic film critics, it also received vicious criticism from other areas of the Christian and Catholic intelligentsia.

There are, naturally, reasons for this. Most of them are ideological, and have to do with the odd, almost unprecedented position of Christianity and the Catholic Church in the world of contemporary America.

The landscape of American Christianity as it exists today was born out of the failure and death of American Christianity fifty years earlier. When the mainline denominations liberalized and collapsed, when the Catholic Church in America started shedding priests, nuns, and layfolk by the tens of thousands, everything changed. The Sexual Revolution, no fault divorce, and abortion rights, combined with the contemporaneous failure of religious institutions across America, broke the spine of American religion as it had existed for the fifty to one hundred years prior.

As the mainline denominations fell into the abyss, and the Catholic Church struggled its way through decades of corruption and demographic collapse, a new, tougher brand of Christianity emerged from the ashes. This generation of Christians was defined by their first-hand experience of the failure of families, religious institutions, and secular communities. Their goal, broadly speaking, was to escape, retrench, and fight back.

Thus were born the dreaded Culture Wars, which are now over, the Christian Right having lost.

There are a number of reasons why they lost, but most have only tangential relevance to my argument here. The important point, which applies especially to understanding contemporary American Catholicism, is that throughout the 20th century, the Catholic Church in America has found itself alternately allied with two warring sides, neither of which has very little to do with Catholic culture or civilization.

On the one side, there is the dominant culture, a culture that is, fundamentally, both in its foundations and in its effects, inimical to Christianity, as well as meaning and community of any sort. Still, it is in certain ways much more influenced by Catholicism than its opposite number. Many of its leading lights were and are former Catholics of various sorts, and the effect shows.

On the other side was a broad, mostly inchoate movement to restore what had been lost: American Protestant culture and religion. On the basis of the commonalities of basic Christian belief, and a similar experience of cultural and familial and religious collapse, Protestants and Catholics found new, and indeed unprecedented, common cause in opposing the dominant ethos of the mass media and the intelligentsia. Still, this could hardly paper over the fundamental gap between American Protestantism and historical Catholicism, nor could the presence and leadership of individual Catholics make the movement as a whole anything but an essentially American and Protestant endeavor, in foundations, tactics, and goals.

It is important, then, to remember that American Catholics are practically always influenced primarily, not by any kind of Catholic history or culture, but by some combination of these two movements and traditions. This is most noticeable in the areas of culture and politics. Having never encountered a Christian culture, even its last vestiges, except in the form of the remnants of American Protestant culture--and having never encountered a Christian politics except in the form of the American Protestant Right or Left, American Catholics think of politics and culture, generally speaking, entirely in these terms. Even where theological literacy is high, this influence remains paramount.

This is not, in fact, an entirely negative situation; and the growing, though still relatively sequestered, presence of Hispanic Catholics in the American Church makes for a partial, though far from complete or lasting, exception to this picture.

Still, the thing to grasp is that American Catholics often form themselves into factions whose fundamental organizing principle and reason for existence is not religious, but ideological; and this, generally speaking, in the ideological terms, not of any kind of consistent Catholic position, but of either the American Protestant Right or the dominant progressive culture. The presence of the Internet, as it always does, exacerbates these divisions, and turns them frequently from meaningful human interactions into bizarre, ritualized interactions whose most basic forms are taunting interactions akin to playground bullying and group-exclusion in a form most akin to that practiced on unpopular highschool kids.

The chief battleground for the American Culture Wars was culture. This seems tautological, but it is nonetheless very historically idiosyncratic in a number of ways. The collapse of American Christian culture, and the destruction of the family and of religious institutions over the last fifty years, were in fact largely driven by mass media--not only by the general power of advertising and consumerism as a force of social dissolution, but more specifically by the effective control of mass media by a small class of like-minded people with few moral scruples and a profound sense of arrogance and contempt for the people whose lives they affected. Those affected reacted to this situation by quite naturally concluding that mass media was the enemy, and culture the primary zone of conflict. In this, a whole range of different forms of culture (music, film, television, print and television journalism, popular non-fiction, popular fiction, academic work, advertising) were conflated into one thing, and mass-media culture essentially synonymized with culture in general. Art of all kinds became seen as not just accidentally, but essentially, propagandistic; and this was, as always, aided profoundly by American Protestants' lack of an idea of the sacramental and of the analogical imagination that has always accompanied the works of Catholic culture. Protestantism was born as an iconoclastic movement within Catholicism, and retains to the present day a profound suspicion of idols or images as such.

Still, as we have seen, the resulting culture wars also included many Catholics as partisans, on both sides, even if its basic roots and ethos were non-Catholic.

The tactics pursued by the Christian partisans of the Culture Wars varied largely over time, and in the end failed entirely to achieve anything of note. Christians today, by and large, are even more thoroughly penetrated by mass-media culture than they were fifty years ago, and mass-media culture itself is, if anything, even more fundamentally contrary to Christianity in its most basic ethos.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that the reason that Silence, despite being without a doubt the most thoroughly religious work of cinema to be produced in America in decades, was either ignored or else outright rejected by most Christians and Catholics, is precisely because of the lingering effects of the Culture Wars and their effects on internal divisions within the Church.

In this case, there is one name that has obvious implications for how Silence has been received by American Christians en masse: Martin Scorsese, its director.

One of the fundamental pivot points in the American Culture Wars was, in fact, the controversy that erupted around the release of Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. This film (which I have never seen, for the record) was widely, and, based on all that I have read (including Steven Greydanus’ quite persuasive article on the question, which Robert Ebert was convinced by, and Martin Scorsese himself later read and appreciated), quite correctly seen as blasphemous for its incoherent jumbling of the Bible with contemporary American issues with sexuality. The film itself, however, was far less notable in itself than for the uproar that erupted against it across America, the result of the new power of the Religious Right in politics and culture. Overseas, as well, in more traditional Catholic countries, the film was also seen as blasphemous in intention and execution, and was frequently banned or condemned by religious leaders. Still, it was in America itself that the controversy burned brightest, with the most lasting effects. For both sides of the Culture War, it was seen as an important turning point--either, depending on one’s perspective, as the moment when the dominant culture finally moved to open blasphemy and denigration of the core images of Christianity itself, or as a defining moment in the Religious Right’s irresponsible and ignorant campaign of terror against culture and art.

For Martin Scorsese it was a turning point as well; though what it turned him towards was not either side of the culture war, but a more serious engagement with the religion of his upbringing. As he expressed it recently, it was in the aftermath of this controversy that he first read Silence, and decided to turn it into a film; but only after spending thirty years thinking about it, the Catholic Church, and his own life and career. In interviews surrounding the release of Silence, Scorsese expressed the sentiment that The Last Temptation of Christ was the product of the basic immaturity of his engagement with Catholicism at the time, and that though he had wanted to make Silence right away, it was only after decades that he felt that he was truly ready and capable of doing so. Take that for what it is worth.

Still, it should be no surprise that many American Christians would hardly return for a second take. Scorsese is still, for many people, and especially for most American Protestants, a persona non grata, and will always remain so. One of the reasons why Paramount, the film’s distribution company, failed to promote the film heavily, and especially failed to promote it to the religious audiences for which it was most naturally suited, was reportedly because of fears of a similar backlash as had greeted Scorsese’s last film on Christianity. In any event, Silence does not at all fit the accepted paradigm of “Christian film” in American Protestantism. Its protagonists are not suburban, middle-class American Evangelicals, but Portugese Jesuit priests. Its heroes do not triumph against odds while looking damn good in the process, but spend several hours getting starved, murdered, and psychologically tortured by powerful and in the end victorious enemies. Silence, in other words, is no God is Not Dead.

Within the American Catholic world itself, the film did not face exactly the same obstacles, though. Suspicion, certainly--but most American Catholic film and culture critics, at least, are quite used to dealing with non-Catholic and Christian works of art in constructive or sacramental terms. In these circles, in fact, the film found and continues to find wide acceptance, effusive praise, and strong and sustained engagement. Steven Greydanus, the author of the piece convicting The Last Temptation of blasphemy, has been and continues to be one of the film’s strongest supporters. Personally, I find it hard to imagine any Catholic watching the film and not being at least challenged and moved by it.

Still, in modern American Catholicism, it met with another form of resistance; one brought on by the divisions within American Catholicism itself. Put crudely, the problem with Silence for a lot of Catholics was that it was about Jesuits, screened publicly for the Jesuits in Rome after the film’s director met with Pope Francis, and produced with the close involvement of Father James Martin, SJ. Father James Martin, for the unaware, is an American Jesuit priest who, while a believer in good standing, tends to swing pretty heavily towards one end of the “American culture war” spectrum we talked about earlier. Even his mere presence as consultant and promoter for the film was enough to destroy it in the eyes of many “conservative” Catholics.

For a short time, in fact, the American Catholic internet-sphere was abuzz with controversy over Silence, most of it centering on the use of the film as various kinds of strained metaphor for current ecclesiastical and theological controversies. Silence became, in fact, at times a kind of litmus test for one’s membership in various sorts of factions. For some, it was a film about mercy, about the need for laxity over rigor, for “lived experience” over doctrine, the need for inculturation, and so forth; for others, it was the same, but for this reason dangerous and to be rejected.

Anyway, the result was that, far from engaging with the film seriously, many of the American Catholic intelligentsia related to it in a way that it would be charitable to call shallow. I cannot but regard this fact as deplorable.

Still, when all is said and done, even a relatively untouched and unbiased Catholic, coming to Silence, would find himself faced with events and ideas that are overwhelming, disturbing, and, in some cases, extremely confusing and hard to make sense of. To sustain our basic contention--that Silence is an essentially religious and indeed Catholic film--we will need to offer some response to the film’s events, and their various interpretations. To do that, though, we will have to take a brief detour into the book the movie was based on, its author, and the historical events from which both emerged.

“Let us forfeit all God’s mercy”--Martyrs, Apostates, and the Hidden Christians

Silence the novel is a work of art by a Japanese Catholic, about the unique history of the Catholic Church in his country. The Japanese Church began propitiously, in the 16th century, with the initial entrance of the Portugese into trade relations with Japan. Shortly thereafter, St. Francis Xavier--the greatest Christian missionary in the history of the Faith--arrived in Japan and began converting masses to his cause. Xavier, notably, loved the Japanese the best of all the Eastern peoples he came into contact with; for him, they were a civilized, noble people, whose journey towards the Faith would be consequently easier than for many other nations he had encountered. While his efforts did meet with some initial difficulties--most notably, upon realizing that the Japanese lacked any concept of a transcendent deity, he was forced to transpose the Latin word Deus (“God”) into Japanese as Deusu--events seemed to bear his belief out: under the care of Jesuit missionaries and native converts, Christianity spread like wildfire throughout Japan, becoming especially popular among the nation’s peasant population. Even feudal lords and Samurai, though, converted to the new faith, and, with this powerful support, seminaries were quickly set up to train natives as Jesuits and priests. The Catholic Church in Japan, backed by European learning and trade, and wildly popular with the general population of Japan, seemed poised to become a major, if not dominant, force in Japanese life.

Then, of course, it all went wrong.

What brought this about? To begin with, there was the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate, reversing a period of weak central government and replacing it with a powerful nationalist regime. Even before this, fears of European colonial influence and conquest had spurred anti-Christian edicts and even martyrdoms; but so long as the central government was weak, and feudal lords held the real power, these edicts could only be spottily enforced. Christian feudal lords could easily provide shelter for their coreligionists, and lobby to have such edicts reversed. With the Tokugawa Shogunate, however, Japan suddenly had perhaps the most efficient and powerful regime in the world at that time--a regime with the power to do whatever it pleased.

At the same time, there were the basic laws of Japanese social organization to take into account--a feudal system, with a downtrodden peasant population heavily exploited for taxation, a samurai class strictly trained in obedience to authority, and over them feudal lords and the Shogun himself. This was a strictly hierarchical society, schooled in obedience and submission, and kept in place by violence--and into this unstable society, Catholicism entered like a spark in a tinderbox. Buddhist priests, after all, could be counted on to keep the peasants in their place, and maintain the hierarchies of society; Catholic priests could not. Catholicism taught the infinite value of each person as loved by God, and the Counter-Reformation piety brought by the Jesuits heavily emphasized personal action and understanding on the part of all Christians, preaching repentance for sin, intense, emotive devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, and the importance of knowledge and education. Boiled down to its base, Catholicism taught the peasants to think of themselves as people every bit as valuable as their lords.

In the abstract, this might seem fairly harmless; but like our proverbial spark, it could and did have explosive consequences. In 1637, after Christianity had been officially banned for some time, the peasants of the Nagasaki region rose in open revolt against the Shogunate and their feudal lords. Although the revolt was brought on by the heavy taxation and poor treatment of the peasants by local nobles, it was composed almost entirely of Catholics and was led by a charismatic young man believed to have miraculous powers. The rebels carried Christian banners, destroyed Buddhist shrines, and demanded the cessation of the edict banning Christianity. Their request was not granted: in the end, with the aid of the Protestant Dutch, about 37,000 peasants were mercilessly massacred. This would be by far the bloodiest event in Japan prior to WWII; and it heralded centuries of domination by the central government. Still, this unprecedented revolt could not help but make the authorities nervous. One thing was clear: Christian peasants were different from non-Christian peasants.The latter could be counted on to accept their place and consequent ill-treatment with resignation; the latter were, to say the least, more unpredictable. They had a quite different idea of their place, in society and the cosmos alike.

Catholicism, then, was dangerous; and it had to go. With the strong encouragement of the Protestant Dutch, who hated Catholicism and wanted a monopoly on Japanese trade, the ban on Catholicism began to be strictly, brutally enforced. Not only this, but all foreigners were expelled from the country, and the government ceased all trade and contact with outsiders--except the Dutch, who were safely non-Catholic, and could be counted on to place profit before religion.

Still, it was not that Catholicism in Japan was persecuted that is notable; it was how it was persecuted. The Japanese were more effective at eliminating Christianity than almost any other government in history. They were, in fact, generally speaking far more effective than modern totalitarian regimes.

There are a number of reasons for this. To begin with, Japan was an island nation, geographically isolated and reachable only by sea. To be sure, England was this as well, and Jesuit priests had still managed to infiltrate the country periodically to bring aid to its persecuted Catholic population; yet England was a European nation, in constant trade and contact with the continent; and Japan had completely isolated itself from all foreigners. Also, unlike in England, European visitors in Japan could be readily distinguished from the native population simply by their appearance. Once the few Japanese priests and Jesuits had been hunted down and killed, every other priest entering the country could be easily identified on sight, in whatever clothing.

This alone, though, would not have gained the Japanese the results they wanted. The Japanese also were organized, with a strictly controlled, hierarchical society schooled in obedience, and perhaps the most effective state apparatus in the world at this time. Where other nations could persecute only sporadically, they could make persecution universal and pervasive, and could behave as brutally as they wished. They could kill as many peasants as they needed to get the job done.

Also, and most importantly, the Japanese were smart. They studied this new religion calmly, and identified its weak points with great insight; and they learned from their mistakes. At first, they indulged in public executions and crucifixions, a typically effective way to eliminate all opposition through humiliation and psychological warfare. Unfortunately, with Catholicism, this backfired--priests, even natives, showed a disconcerting pleasure at the prospect of crucifixion, and a disturbing amount of composure on the cross; and if anything, these sporadic displays seemed to embolden the Christian flock, and increase conversions. So such public displays stopped, replaced with more effective tactics.

In studying Catholicism, then, the Japanese eventually came to identify two key weak points: (1) the reliance of Catholicism on priests to provide Sacraments and leadership to the faithful, and (2) the strong emphasis on personal, individual adherence to the Faith, expressed in emotive devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary and in acts of public, social confession of the Faith. These things--the Sacraments and sacramentals of the body of the Church--were what gave Catholicism its strength; but reversed, they could become anti-Sacraments, means by which the body could be pried apart and then deprived of life.

So in the first instance, the Japanese authorities focused all their energy on catching every last priest in Japan. Rather than massacre peasants, in other words, they hunted priests. In doing so, they also sought, not just to kill priests, but as much as possible to break them, force them to apostatize from their faith. Priests were tortured again and again and again, taking great care to keep them alive, so as to deny them the status of martyr. New methods of torture were even invented in order to more effectively break their wills.

Public crucifixions might not demoralize Christians; but apostate priests certainly did. The central government consequently kept records of each and every instance of apostasy, however obtained, and highly publicized them, extracting the maximum psychological benefit from each case. Apostates, both priests and laymen, were often forced to participate in the persecution of their fellow Christians, acting as interpreters and the like for the government. Foreign priests were also sometimes forced to take on Japanese names and marry as a way of further breaking their self-respect, and as a spectacle to others. Some priests later recanted, and were killed; others remained in confinement until their deaths.

The most famous of these priests, of course, was Christovao Ferreira--one of the central figures in the novel and film Silence. Ferreira was a noted and respected Jesuit, and, following the martyrdom of all his superiors, finally the senior Jesuit in Japan, acting-Provincial for what remained of the flock. Then, of course, he and his companions were captured, and, after being tortured for hours, he apostatized. The Japanese authorities greeted this event with glee, as Ferreira was by far the most famous and respected priest in Japan at this time--and as a result, they extracted from this happy event the maximum amount of effect. Ferreira was forced to take a Japanese name, and to marry a Japanese wife--and in the middle of Kyoto, he lived under virtual house arrest for decades, a spectacle to the whole population of Japan. He, along with several other apostate priests, was forced to take an active role in the persecution of his fellow Christians; and periodically, he was forced to sign an oath of apostasy, affirming his perpetual estrangement from the Church and God.

A copy of a similar document of apostasy is preserved in the historical record. It is a remarkable document in many ways; it shows an almost perverse knowledge of Christianity, and applies this knowledge for maximum devastation:

“We hereby witness this statement in writing before you, worshipful magistrate. Hereafter we shall never revoke our apostasy, not even in the secret places of the heart. Should we even entertain the slightest thought thereof, then let us be punished by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, St. Mary, and all the Angels and Saints. Let us forfeit all God’s mercy, and all hope like Judas Iscariot, and become a laughing-stock to all men, without thereby arousing the slightest pity, and finally die a violent death and suffer all the torments of Hell without hope of salvation. This is our Christian Oath.”

This copy of the oath, applied in this rare instance to laypeople, is endorsed with the signatures of apostate priests, including Ferraira, giving their word that “a true revocation of apostasy is quite impossible without the mediation of a priest.” Through this means, Christians were brought to utterly despair of their salvation, and became pliable tools for the government.

As in Silence, several groups of priests were sent to Japan specifically to find Ferraira; most of these apostatized, and some were similarly confined until their deaths.

Ferraira also had a hand in the production of an anti-Christian tract, Disclosure of Falsehoods-- which systematically explained and refuted Christianity from a Japanese perspective--as well as other scientific works intended for a Japanese audience.

In the end, after resisting numerous exhortations by fellow Catholics to repent and be saved, Ferraira died in 1652 at the age of 80. In Europe, it was widely reported, on the basis of second-hand accounts, that, just prior to his death, he had recanted his apostasy and been tortured to death by the authorities. These reports may or may not be true; it is effectively impossible to prove a case conclusively one way or the other.

Still, if priests could be caught and tortured and broken, wiped clean from the map of Japan, Catholic peasants and laypeople were significantly harder to eliminate. There were, quite simply, too many of them, and their taxes were necessary to sustain the state. So the Japanese exploited another important aspect of Catholicism: the emphasis on personal responsibility, conscience, and intense, emotive devotion towards Christ and Mary. And they set out to break this as well.

Over the course of the persecutions, Japanese authorities gradually began instituting the practice of fumi-e. This was a “stepping-on picture,” an image of Christ or (more commonly) the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus (Japanese Catholics had and have a special devotion to the Virgin and Child), specially manufactured by the authorities for this purpose. In a public ceremony, every man, woman, or child of a village was brought forward and commanded to step on or otherwise mistreat the image. Everyone who refused or hesitated was killed. Those who obeyed promptly were permitted to go on living.

At first, use of the fumi-e was sporadic; but in time, especially in areas of strong Christian presence, it became a regular ritual. Every year, each inhabitant of the village was brought to the local Buddhist temple and forced to practice fumi-e.

This was a brilliant move on the part of the authorities; for unlike many forms of persecution, it did not focus on the mere name of Christian. This victims were allowed to keep; and neither subterfuge nor denial gained them anything. What the fumi-e targeted instead was the joining point between each and every Christian and his identity, personal and social and supernatural. Telling an inquisitor that you are not a Christian is one thing--stepping on the face of your beloved Savior while all your neighbors and friends watch is quite another. The one was only words, and could be easily forgotten--the other was a tangible, visible act of the body, and so impossible to escape. Like a sacrament, it effected what it signified.

Christians who could easily lie for Christ could not so easily step on his face. And those who did would be broken, shamed, and so unlikely to cause further trouble.

Christians, in other words, could continue being Christians in their heart, if they wished; but anyone who did more than this would be met with death. Those who remained, the weak and the corrupt, were quite harmless; with no priests to forgive their sins, they would carry on as broken,  ineffectual Christians, ashamed and obedient, until their deaths.

Between these two practices, the Japanese largely succeeded in exterminating Catholicism from their nation. For hundreds of years, no Mass was celebrated in the country; no priest was ordained; and in every visible way, the Church vanished.

Still, something remained.

Over the centuries, rumors repeatedly surfaced of continuing Christian presence in Japan; rumors given reality by occasional, brutal persecutions of so-called “Hidden Christians” by the government. When Japan was at last opened up to foreign trade in the 19th century, and the first Catholic Church in centuries constructed again in Nagasaki (to serve French visitors), its new priests arrived in the country eager to follow these rumors to their source. What they found stunned, not just the priests, but the entire Catholic Church. Not just a few, but thirty thousand Christians revealed themselves, with most immediately rejoining the Catholic Church. On the basis of this, the modern Japanese Catholic Church reconstituted itself overnight--the same Church which was later to receive a young Shusaku Endo into its fold.

How had these Christians survived all this time, all these persecutions, without either churches or priests? The answer was both astounding--declared a “miracle” by Pope Pius IX--and, with more thought, quite troubling: they had hidden.

In the absence of priests or any kind of Church organization, the Japanese Catholics had set up new systems of their own, based on the confraternity systems taught to them by their priests. Although these differed widely across time and space, they had certain basic things in common. At the heart of each community was the practice of baptism, scrupulously adhered to and employing the correct Latin sacramental words, memorized and handed down orally and in secret from generation to generation. Typically, a “water-man” in each community was tasked with ensuring the ritual was correctly carried out, faithfully learning the Latin formula from his predecessor and handing it on in turn. Other offices were also set up (based on those found within Catholic confraternities) to care for other aspects of the community--such as a “calendar-man,” whose job it was to memorize the Catholic church calendar, with all of its principal feasts, and ensure that they were celebrated at the right times. Christians memorized Latin prayers and devotions, and developed rituals employing them; and bodies of oral teaching and catechesis on the stories and doctrines of Christianity went along with them, composed in Japanese and passed down from generation to generation.

All of this, though, was carried out in the utmost secrecy. Each and every practice of the community was defined by secrecy, by the utmost necessity of maintaining, at every point, the pretense that Christians were nothing more than ordinary Japanese Buddhists.

For instance, in some communities, funeral rites were carried out in a strange, dual fashion. Upon the death of a Christian, the local Buddhist priest was duly summoned to carry out the proper Buddhist rituals. While he was praying and performing his rites, however, the local Christians would gather in secret, sometimes in an adjoining room, and pray Christian prayers in Latin. After the body was prepared in a Buddhist style, a Christian would be tasked with secretly removing the Buddhist emblems and replacing them with Christian ones. Then the body would be buried.

And, of course, once a year, every Christian went to the local temple and stepped on the face of God.

This was, in a sense, the real secret of the Hidden Christians. They had survived by submitting, not just to the government, but to the fumi-e.

The strong Christians, the ones who could not bring themselves to step on an image of Christ, were without exception killed, martyred and then celebrated in the prayers and rituals of the Hidden Christians, and now throughout the whole Catholic Church. The weak Christians, the ones who submitted to the indignity of practicing their faith in secret, the ones who submitted to the even greater indignity of the fumi-e--these were the ones who survived, and passed on the Faith.

This fact should challenge Catholics, and indeed Christians, of all stripes. The Faith is by its nature a public thing, a thing to be shared and made known to the world--and Christ himself said that anyone who denied him before men would be denied by him before the angels of God. Yet the Hidden Christians practiced their Faith entirely in secret, passing down from generation to generation the message that the last missionaries had given them before their own deaths--The Faith would one day return to Japan. When it did, they would recognize it by certain signs, which they must memorize and pass on to their descendants. Until that day, though, they must hold on to all they could of the Faith, and wait.

The Hidden Christians, whose lives were defined by the example of their heroic ancestors and the teaching of the missionaries, could not help but be aware of the strangeness, the profound indignity, of their situation. Most of all, they were painfully aware of the horror and the shame of the fumi-e, the act by which, year after year, they proved to the Japanese government that they were no threat at all to them, that they were not strong Christians after all.

The ritual of the fumi-e loomed large in the lives and the imaginations of the Hidden Christians. Over time, it was interpreted in different ways in different communities. For many, it was “the great sin,” a yearly stain on their calendar followed, like clockwork, by months of penance begging God’s forgiveness. For others, it was reinterpreted as a ritual of homage to Christ, an act of covert adoration in the face of the world. For all, though, it was, without a doubt, among their most significant encounters with the God they worshiped, the God they loved. With no Eucharist and no Confession, and their few Christian images disguised as Buddhas or otherwise hidden, the ritual of the fumi-e could hardly help but dominate and define their faith, their religion.

Who is your god? He is the god of the fumi-e, the man with his face beneath my feet.

Of course, in the end it worked--or nearly. When the Catholic Church returned to Japan, the illiterate peasants of Nagasaki immediately recognized it by the signs they had learned from their ancestors: the priest was celibate, he obeyed the Pope in Rome, and he had an image of the Virgin and Child in his Church. A Protestant pastor was approached first--but when he introduced them to his wife, the Japanese left and never returned. They had no interest in the faith of the Dutch, who had instigated and aided in their persecutions for the sake of sectarian hatred and their own profit margins.

With the aid of the French priests they found in Nagasaki, though, thousands of peasants soon declared themselves Catholic once again; and at long last, after centuries of waiting, they confessed their sins, were absolved, and received Christ in the Eucharist--then were promptly persecuted once again by the Japanese authorities, receiving torture and martyrdom as reward for their efforts. Still, after this last and most bitter persecution, religious freedom was finally granted to them at the instigation of the European powers: and the Catholic Church in Japan began to rebuild.

Still, there was one more, rather significant problem. While the majority of the Hidden Christians declared themselves immediately and rejoined the Church, many communities did not. To them, the Faith of the Catholics was a dangerous thing. Their religion was by nature one of secrecy; open practice of the Faith could only invite persecution. For some of these communities, too, the meaning of the rites they practiced, and the secrecy they maintained so strictly, had long ago lost the meanings they had once held. Their religion had become a different thing altogether. Christian teaching, passed down for generations, had slowly been distorted into unrecognizable forms. The hybrid rituals they had known all their lives had become the central thing--not the religion they had lost centuries ago. Latin prayers would continue to be prayed in secret, and baptisms performed; but the Mass, Confession, and all the other rituals practiced by the French and Japanese Catholics were entirely foreign. These were not their rituals, or their religion.

So this is the complex, confusing legacy of the Hidden Christians of Japan. On the one hand, the Japanese Catholic Church. On the other, a dwindling population, lingering now only in the most remote villages, practicing a strange body of rituals in distorted Latin, and staying hidden forever.

It is only when all this complex history is fully grasped, though, that we can really understand Silence, as both a novel and a film.

Shusaku Endo and the Miserable Weaklings

By the time he died, Shusaku Endo was by far the most acclaimed and respected Japanese novelist of his generation. This fact, though, has it’s share of ironies; for Endo’s life and work is defined, at every stage, by the experience of alienation and failure, the perspective of the outcast.

Endo was not baptized as a Catholic until the age of eleven, when his mother, having just experienced a bitter divorce, became gradually drawn to the intense practice of what was, at this time, seen by most Japanese as a strange, alien religion. His own father, though--with whom he lived following the early death of his mother--had nothing but contempt for the religion and everything religious, and actively sought to discourage him from practicing it. Still, Endo retained, until the day of his death, an overwhelming fascination with his adopted religion. Practically every work he wrote shows the indelible mark of it--when they are not, like Silence, active outgrowths of it. Still, for all his popularity, Endo’s Catholicism was an alien thing to most Japanese--when it was not an active cause of prejudice and hatred, as during WWII. Endo, a sensitive and perceptive man, was clearly, even painfully aware of this--from the hatred of his father to the lack of comprehension of his peers, he knew that his religion would always cut him off from the mainstream of his culture, and make him a foreigner in the eyes of his people.

Still, even Endo’s relationship with Catholicism itself was not without complications. When his mother had become Catholic, she had done so under the attraction of a handsome, foreign priest--a former soldier whose approach to the Faith was masculine and assured, if at times a bit brusque. While this priest led his mother to a deep and abiding faith, her young child, Endo, was a bit more of a problem. He was physically weak, afflicted with frequent illnesses, and without the kind of heroic faith that drove this priest to do the impossible. Unfortunately, so much did his mother admire this priest that she ultimately sent Endo to a boarding school run by him--where Endo proved an unmitigated disaster. Unable to keep up with the other children, or endure the austere regime imposed by his mother’s mentor, Endo grew sullen, resentful, and rebellious. The priest, in turn, refused to believe that Endo’s physical weakness was the true cause of his lack of ability--for him, Endo’s ill-health was only an excuse, his failures the indelible sign of a weak moral nature.

For his childhood, then, one of Endo’s primary experiences of the Faith was by way of a priest who embodied strength--someone who had nothing but contempt for Endo’s physical and moral weakness. From this, Endo internalized a deep sense of himself as (to use his term) a “miserable weakling,” someone basically, perhaps constitutionally incapable of living up to his religion and the example of the strong people around him.

In the end, though, Endo grew into a man, and the priest apostatized. After having an affair with a parishioner, he was ejected from the priesthood in disgrace, married the woman, and spent the rest of his life in the secular world. Endo never quite recovered from the shock of this. The man who had, for him, embodied moral and spiritual strength, had fallen, never to rise. Not only this, but in doing so he had looked Endo directly in the face and lied to him.

In one of his short stories (“Shadows”), Endo admits that he had tried for years to work out exactly what this priest meant to him, to understand why he had fallen and what it meant. Sometimes he tried to imagine the apostasy as an act of heroism or faith on the priest’s part. Sometimes, he tried to imagine the priest’s failure as the result of some hidden character flaw, of his approach to the Faith. Sometimes, he merely felt angry and betrayed.

Somewhere in this time, Endo traveled to France to study--there, he fell in love with Catholic culture; but also faced yet more prejudice and alienation. His Catholicism might make him a foreigner in Japan--but equally, his Japaneseness made him a foreigner in the Catholic West.

Everywhere he went, it seemed, Endo found himself in the position of the weakling, the outcast, the foreigner.

Based on this set of fascinations and this set of experiences, the plot of Silence emerged. As Endo himself acknowledged, the central quest of Father Rodrigues in the novel--to find his mentor Ferraira and discover why he apostatized--was in a sense a proxy for his own desire to understand why his mentor had betrayed his priestly vows. Likewise, the central conflict of the novel--between Catholicism and Japan--was a conflict Endo had experienced firsthand in his own life.

At the heart of Silence, as a novel, is this obsession with weakness, with failure, with isolation. For in examining the history of the Faith in his own land, Endo was met with one, insistent question: what about the miserable weaklings?

Like all Japanese Catholics, Endo lived in an environment defined by the tales and memories of the heroic Japanese martyrs, the ancestors of his Faith. During the long years of Hidden Christianity, these had been honored and venerated unceasingly, their stories told and retold and embroidered. These people were heroes, examples held up for everyone to emulate.

Yet Endo knew that there had also been many other Christians who lived at the same time and place--Christians who had stepped on the fumi-e, Christians who had apostatized not just once, but again and again and again. And he also knew that it was these Christians, the weak, who would go on, ultimately, to hand on the Faith he now possessed.

Also, there were those apostate priests.

The Swamp of the Heart

At the heart of the novel Silence is the tension, the divide, between weakness and strength. It is this, far more than any cultural question, that defines the novel’s point of view on religion and the world.

Many people, it seems, regard the main point of the novel as being some idea that Japanese culture is inherently incompatible with Catholicism. For these critics, the moral of Silence is that delivered by its central villain, the historical breaker of priests Inquisitor Inoue: Japan is a swamp where Christianity cannot survive, because the cultural divide between Europe and Japan is simply too great.

Certainly, Endo is interested, deeply, in the relationship between Japan and the Catholic Faith. He is deeply aware of the casual arrogance and prejudice of European culture, as well as of the brutality, rejection of individual conscience and dignity, and absence of transcendent meaning that so frightened him in the Japan of his own day and the past. But all of this is, in the final balance, only one instance of a much more basic, and much more fundamental, issue--one that is entirely human and personal. Silence is not, in the last judgment, a book about colonialism or Imperialism or even culture shock. It is, in the end, a novel about grace, sin, and failure.

In the last pages of the novel, Endo expresses this with a simple juxtaposition. The brilliant, conscienceless torturer Inoue--representative of all those aspects of Japanese culture that Endo most feared--gives one interpretation of Rodrigues’ suffering and apostasy. Rodrigues himself, though, has quite another, and it is his voice that is allowed to stand:

“‘I’ve told you. The country of Japan is not suited to the teaching of Christianity. Christianity simply cannot put down roots here.’

The priest remembered how Ferreira had said exactly the same thing at Saishoji.

‘Father, you were not defeated by me.’ The Lord of Chikugo looked straight into the ashes of the brazier as he spoke. ‘You were defeated by this swamp of Japan.’ 

‘No, no…’ Unconsciously the priest raised his voice as he spoke. ‘My struggle was with Christianity in my own heart.’”

Endo was not a Western post-colonial academic or journalist. He was a Japanese Catholic. Silence is a work written not from outside of Catholicism, looking at it as a foreign thing, an invader, as something merely cultural and human; it is written from within Catholicism, accepting it as divine, and its God as real. This reality is conditioned, as it were, by the radical rejection and hatred that Endo had seen in his culture towards that Faith--as well as the all-too-human arrogance and disdain he felt from European Catholics. It is a work made possible by the conflicting strains of his Japaneseness and his Catholicism.

But the ‘swamp’ of Japan is, in the end, just one instance of a much less congenial environment--the heart of the individual believer, caught between sin and failure on the one hand, and divine faith and mercy on the other. This heart is pulled back and forth, twisted, abandoned, tortured, and burned to ashes--but it does not, for all that, cease to believe that the Faith is truly divine, or its God is real. It is branded with the marks of its own fallibility, laziness, pride, ignorance, weakness--but also by the marks of grace.

This, and no other, is the central conflict in Silence--not Christianity and Japan, but abandonment and faith, pride and grace, human misery and divine mercy. Any interpretation of Silence, novel or film, that does not take this into account misses the point entirely.

The Weak and the Strong

At the heart of the novel, then, and Endo’s conception of the world, is this division between the weak and the strong, the unfortunate and the fortunate of this world--and the strange mercy of God that claims to reach across all these divisions.

For decades, Christianity in Japan had thrived and spread like wildfire--for decades, Christians had lived in peace. Then, through a series of very unlikely coincidences, it was ground into the dust for centuries. Every Christian in Japan, in a sense, was the victim of very bad luck, the unfortunate chances of this world--Japan’s geographical isolation, the rise of the Shogunate, the rebellion and its failure, the collusion of the Dutch, the exquisite intelligence and monumental cruelty of the inquisitors. To be a Christian in Japan during the time of persecution was to be among the world’s least fortunate souls--living one’s life and practicing one’s Faith in the face not only of death, but of the cruelest forms of torture known to man, without the consolation of either priest or sacrament. It is this monumental unfairness of which Endo is deeply, profoundly aware.

Among the Christian communities of Japan, there were some strong people--strong in their Faith, through supernatural help, or else just morally stronger in their basic nature--who were martyred and held up for veneration for all ages--and then the vast masses of the weak, those Christians who had bent their necks and pressed down with their feet, and survived. These latter, before the persecutions, would have lived out their lives and their Christian faiths in perfect peace--many, perhaps, could even have become saints, after years of the quiet, steady rhythm of sacramental life and practice in the Church of Christ. Instead, their faith was, seemingly, strangled in its cradle, its back broken by forced denial and shame.

Still, these latter had, in the end, held on to something. They had continued as Christians in secret, and passed down the Faith.

But what did God think of them, and why had he abandoned them to such a fate?

Could God really love these unfortunate weaklings?

In Silence, this set of ideas is depicted and encapsulated by the character of Kichijiro: a weak, fearful man who apostatizes again and again and again, whenever and however the threat of force is applied--but also a man who keeps returning, again and again and again, to the priest Rodrigues, to confess his sins and be absolved. Faced with the opprobrium of his Christian community, faced with his own shame, Kichijiro cannot, seemingly, either persevere in his faith as he should, or totally and finally abandon it. He is caught up in a cycle of sin and repentance that is seemingly unbreakable.

Still, he has something to say for himself, as he continually follows and harasses our Portugese priest, begging for forgiveness and understanding:

“ ‘Father!’ His voice was like the whining of a dog. ‘Father, listen to me!’
The entreating voice continued like that of a child pleading with its mother. 
‘Won’t you listen to me, father? I’ve kept deceiving you. Since you rebuked me I began to hate you and all the Christians. Yes, it is true that I trod on the holy image. Mokichi and Ichizo were strong. I can’t be strong like them.’

The guards, unable to bear it any longer, came out with sticks; and Kichijiro fled away, screaming as he ran.

‘But I have my cause to plead! One who has trod on the sacred image has his say too. Do you think I trampled on it willingly? My feet ached with the pain. God asks me to imitate the strong, even though he made me weak. Isn’t this unreasonable?’

Sometimes there would be a lull; then angry voices and the pleading cry and tears. 

‘Father, father!’ Seeing that the priest had come to the prison, Kichijiro was again pleading in the darkness. ‘Let me confess my sins and repent!’
‘Listen to me, father,’ Kichijiro whimpered in a voice that the other Christians could hear. ‘I am an apostate; but if I had died ten years ago I might have gone to paradise as a good Christian, not despised as an apostate. Merely because I live in a time of persecution….I am sorry.’ 

‘But do you still believe?’ asked the priest, doing his best to put up with the foul stench of the other’s breath. ‘I will give you absolution, but I cannot trust you. I cannot understand why you have come here.’”

Father Rodrigues, on the other hand, the main character of our novel and film, is in most ways the opposite of this. He is a Portuguese Jesuit--someone who had all the advantages of growing up in a Catholic society, educated in the Faith, raised in the Sacraments, trained and taught with painstaking care to be a priest and a Jesuit. He volunteers to come to Japan, essentially, for the sake of his own curiosity, to learn why his mentor had apostatized--and what he finds there is not so much an alien culture inimical to Christianity as it is Kichijiro the Hidden Christian, a twisted mirror image of his own strength and faith.

Something in the novel Silence that does not translate as fully to the film is Rodrigues’ subtle arrogance and disdain for much of what he finds in the Japanese Christians--and certainly for Kichijiro. Rodrigues is not portrayed as a colonial aggressor, exactly, but he does have his human reactions to the squalor and foreignness he encounters in Japan. Despite this, he is remarkably faithful in ministering to his Japanese flock, even over his ingrained human prejudices and reactions. In all of this, the priest’s Catholicism is, again and again, portrayed not as a force of aggressive colonialism, but as something that consistently takes him beyond his merely human prejudices and helps him to see and love his neighbor.

But for all of this, everything that is human in him seems to revolt against the human weakness, ugliness, and cruelty he finds in Japan and in Kichijiro--and Rodrigues wonders, insistently, how to reconcile all this with the beauty of Christ, and his own humanity:

“The priest had no right to refuse the sacrament of penance to anyone. If a person asked for the sacrament, it was not for him to concede or refuse according to his own feelings. He raised his hand in blessing, uttered dutifully the prescribed prayer and put his ear close to the other. As the foul breath was wafted into his face, there in the darkness the vision of the yellow teeth and the crafty look floated before his eyes.
Heaving a deep sigh and searching for words of explanation, Kichijiro shifted and shuffled. The stench of his filth and sweat was wafted towards the priest. Could it be possible that Christ loved and searched after this dirtiest of men? In evil there remained that strength and beauty of evil; but this Kichijiro was not even worthy to be called evil. He was thin and dirty like the tattered rags he wore. Suppressing his disgust, the priest recited the final words of absolution, and then, following the established custom, he whispered ‘Go in peace.’ With all possible speed getting away from the stench of that mouth and that body, he returned to where the Christians were.

No, no. Our Lord had searched out the ragged and the dirty. Thus he reflected as he lay in bed. Among the people who appeared in the pages of the Scripture, those whom Christ had searched after in love were the woman of Capernaum with the issue of blood, the woman taken in adultery whom men had wanted to stone--people with no attraction, no beauty. Anyone could be attracted to the beautiful and the charming. But could such attraction be called love? True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters. Theoretically the priest knew all this; but still he could not forgive Kichijiro. Once again near his face came the face of Christ, wet with tears. When the gentle eyes looked straight into his, the priest was filled with shame.”

More than this, though, Rodrigues wonders at the silence of God. In seeing the courage and faith of the Japanese martyrs, he comes to have real and profound reverence for them--but in seeing them suffer, and in suffering himself, the abject cruelty of the Japanese state, he comes to ask many of the same questions as Kichijiro.

Why were these people so unlucky? How could God love the Japanese Christians, and yet abandon them to such a fate? How could God love him, and yet leave him helpless and defenseless before the tender attentions and clever, patient tortures of the Japanese inquisitors?

In a sense, both the film and the movie Silence are extended accounts of physical and psychological torture--the breaking of Father Rodrigues. The Japanese inquisitor Inoue and his associates are portrayed, as they seem to have been in reality, as preternaturally incisive in their slow, meticulous unraveling of Rodrigues’ self-respect and dignity, a little bit at a time. In this, just as in reality, they are assisted by Father Ferraira, who, like so many victims of abuse, seems to seek some twisted satisfaction in inflicting that abuse on others, justifying it and forcing them to accept it in their turn.

And in the end, just like the real priests on which he is based, Rodrigues breaks, and puts his foot on the face of Christ.

The Death of Judas

This is, of course, the most controversial aspect of Silence--the reason why many faithful Christians and Catholics regard both book and film as a dangerous, harmful work of fiction, an “apology for apostasy.” By getting us to identify with Rodrigues, and then showing him apostatizing, it is argued, Silence justifies apostasy, says that it is the right thing, the moral thing to do.

After all, Rodrigues is brought to apostatize, finally, not when his own life is threatened, when he is tortured physically--but when his flock is. The Japanese hang peasant Christians in the pit, torture them exquisitely--and they say that only if Rodrigues apostatizes will they be released.

And, of course, Father Ferraira is there, arguing furiously to justify the act and get Rodrigues to bend. By apostatizing, Rodrigues will be saving lives. The act itself is meaningless--just a formality. Not apostatizing is nothing more than act of pride:

“ ‘You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say that you will apostatize, those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering. And you refuse to do so. It’s because you dread to betray the Church. You dread to be the dregs of the Church, like me.’ Until now, Ferreira’s words has burst out as a single breath of anger, but now his voice gradually weakened as he said: ‘Yet I was the same as you. On that cold, black night, I, too, was as you are now. And yet is your way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here…’

For a moment Ferreira remained silent; then he suddenly broke out in a strong voice: ‘Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.’” 

As many interpret it, this is the crux of both film and novel. Ferreira is right; apostasy in this instance is, in fact, the right thing to do. When others are threatened, it is right to apostatize.

This is certainly an obvious conclusion, in its own way. Nevertheless, I cannot state strongly enough how wrong, and how widely off the mark, this is as an interpretation of Silence.

Ferreira, to put it mildly, is not a positive character--certainly, the Japanese inquisitors are not.

Yet many prominent interpretations of Silence rely, essentially, on taking both of them at their word, seeing them as right, at least in the novel’s terms, in their interpretation of the moral and theological nature of these events. In this, negative Catholic interpretations and negative secular-colonialist interpretations are essentially in agreement.

This should strike us a bit absurd. It is like taking Darth Vader’s word about the dangers of Rebellion, and using it as an interpretative framework for understanding Star Wars. Certainly, Silence is a more complex tale than Star Wars--and, in the end, Rodrigues apostatizes while Luke stands strong and beats the evil Empire. But for all that, the underlying reality is the same.

Ferreira is, as both novel and film make clear, a broken man, a wretched, pitiable tool of those who broke him. He has given in entirely, and has little left except but to reenact his own failure again and again, imposing it on others in turn. He is not right about the fumi-e, anymore than he is about the supposedly unbridgeable gap between Christianity and Japan. If anything is certain about Silence, it is this.

Still, the question remains of how the ending of Silence ought to be interpreted. To understand this, though, we have to understand one of the novel’s central thrusts, the question pondered by Rodrigues throughout his time in Japan: did Christ love Judas?

Again and again, Rodrigues remembers the passage in Scripture where Judas, about to betray Christ to his death, is given this as his parting words from Christ: “Go, what thou dost do quickly.” (John 13:27). Rodrigues wonders how to interpret these words, how to reconcile them with Christ’s love and mercy. As he himself is betrayed by Kichijiro, as he is challenged by Ferreira, as he is brutalized again and again, he places himself in the position of Christ--what do the words mean?

Certainly, what Judas was about to do was wrong, horribly wrong, something for which Christ said it was better for Judas to have never been born--yet just as certainly, Christ would have wished to save Judas. Or did he, really? If he had, wouldn’t he have done something else, wouldn’t he have stopped him somehow?

At times, Rodrigues sees the words as a cold abandonment of Judas. Christ does not try to save him--he leaves him to his fate, not lifting a finger to prevent his deed or its consequences. At other times, he sees the words as spoken in anger, in contempt, for the man who was betraying him to his death. Still, the question nags at him as he wanders through the hellish world of Japanese persecution, making him question God’s love. Perhaps God does not really love everyone. Some are strong, and some weak--some are lucky, and some unlucky. Some are faithful to Christ, and some betray him. Surely God loves the former, and hates the latter.

In the end, of course, Rodrigues finds himself in the place of Judas. And just when, broken and tormented by the Satanic whispers of Ferreira, he finds himself face-to-face with the fumi-e, ready to trample--he too hears words from Christ:

“The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideas and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in the bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! 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.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumi-e. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

Like Judas, Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ, seemingly urging him to betray him. Like Peter, his betrayal is met by the crowing of a rooster.

In the aftermath of his apostasy, Rodrigues is, like Ferreira, a broken man. He goes along with everything required of him as in a daze, in self-loathing and shame. He lives a shadow life in Nagasaki, occupied with identifying Christian images smuggled into the country. He is even present, we are told, at the interrogation of a Christian household.

When we return to him again, he is clearly a broken man, a double for Ferreira:

“His feelings for Ferreira were not only of contempt and hatred: there was also a sense of pity, a common feeling of self-pity of two men who shared the same fate. Yes, they were just like two ugly twins, he suddenly reflected as once he looked at Ferreira’s back. They hated one another’s ugliness; they despised one another; but that’s what they were--two inseparable twins.”

If Rodrigues’ apostasy was perfectly justified, if Ferreira’s, then how does any of this make sense?

In fact, what is going on here is much more subtle--for the novel does not, in the end, leave Rodrigues in this state. After an account of his life in Nagasaki for a few months (delivered through the diary of a Dutch trader), we return again to Rodrigues to see him meeting with Inoue, his triumphant torturer. Inoue has heard of the supposed voice of Christ--and he does not believe in it in the least:

“A cynical smile passed over Inoue’s face. ‘I have been told that you said to Ferreira that the Christ of the fumie told you to trample--and that that was why you did so. But isn’t this just your self-deception? Just a cloak of your weakness? I, Inoue, cannot believe that these are truly Christian words.’”

Indeed, Inoue argues, the voice of Christ makes little sense except as a psychological projection of Rodrigues himself, with his mind at the point of breaking. Rodrigues has failed as a priest, as a Christian, he has betrayed Christ and the Church--God is not loving him, or speaking to him.

All this is very much in keeping with the historical apostasy oath I quoted above, which also referenced the betrayal of Judas to deprive apostates of their hope: “Hereafter we shall never revoke our apostasy, not even in the secret places of the heart. Should we even entertain the slightest thought thereof, then let us be punished by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, St. Mary, and all the Angels and Saints. Let us forfeit all God’s mercy, and all hope like Judas Iscariot, and become a laughing-stock to all men, without thereby arousing the slightest pity, and finally die a violent death and suffer all the torments of Hell without hope of salvation. This is our Christian Oath.”

The victory of the Japanese was precisely in the eternal damnation of apostates. It was this--this certain knowledge that they were damned, beyond all reach of the mercy of God, that was used to keep the apostates loyal, pliable, and obedient tools of the State. Seeing themselves as Judas Iscariot, helpless thralls of the Devil doomed to Hell, there was little the apostates could not be brought to do.

All of this is, of course, the real concern of Endo as author as well. In contemplating the apostate priests, in contemplating the Hidden Christians who yearly trampled on the fumi-e, Endo naturally wondered--why? Why, Lord? Did you really love these people--or did you hate them, send them to their fates like Judas, far beyond the reach of your mercy?

Yet in the end, God does come to Rodrigues--but when he does, it is in the ungainly form of Kichijiro the weakling. Kichijiro, desperate to be forgiven once again, seeks out the apostate priest, and begs him to hear his confession. He is, perhaps, the only man in Japan who still respects and reveres Rodrigues’ priesthood--because he needs it, no matter the sins of the one who bears it. Whether or not Rodrigues is an apostate, Kichijiro believes he has the power to forgive sins--and this is what he wants, what he desperately needs.

It is here, too, I believe, that Endo himself begins to provide his own, tentative answers to the questions posed by his narrative:

“ ‘Father, father…’ With sunken eyes he looked toward the door as he heard a voice that was somehow familiar. ‘Father, father. It’s Kichijiro.’

‘I’m no longer “father,”’ answered the priest in a low voice, as he clasped his knees with his hands. ‘Go away quickly. You’ll pay for it if they find you here.’
‘Please hear my confession. If even the Apostate Paul has the power to hear confessions, please give me absolution for my sins.’

It is not man who judges. God knows our weakness more than anyone, reflected the priest. 

‘Father, I betrayed you. I trampled on the picture of Christ,’ said Kichijiro with tears. ‘In this world are the strong and the weak. The strong never yield to torture, and they go to Paradise; but what about those who, like myself, were born weak, those who, when tortured and ordered to trample on the sacred image…’

I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was on the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and most beautiful face that any man can ever know, on the face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with the eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. ‘Trample!’ said those compassionate eyes. ‘Trample! Your foot suffers pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.’

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’

‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

‘But you told Judas to go away: what thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?’

‘I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now.’

He had lowered his foot on to the plaque, sticky with dirt and blood. His five toes had pressed upon the face of one he loved. Yet he could not understand the tremendous onrush of joy that came over him at that moment. 

‘There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?’ The priest spoke rapidly, facing the entrance. ‘Since in this country there is no one else to hear your confession, I will do it...say the prayers after confession. Go in peace!’

Kichijiro wept softly; then he left the house. The priest had administered the sacrament that only the priest can administer. No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege; but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. 
‘Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken to him.’ “

All this requires some unpacking. To begin with, Rodrigues actions here are, in fact, perfectly correct in terms of Catholic canon law (though Endo may not have been aware of this). In danger of death, even an excommunicated priest without faculties is not only able to validly and licitly absolve, but is even required to do so; and as the only priest left in a country where Christians were regularly punished with death, Rodrigues would certainly be justified in hearing Kichijiro’s confession.

Still, Rodrigues’ final dialogue with Christ is, perhaps, somewhat confusing to the ordinary reader. This is understandable; for in it, Endo is trying, haltingly perhaps, to answer the questions posed not only by his novel, but by the whole saga of the Hidden Christians of Japan.

This dialogue is structured as an answer to the question of Christ’s words to Rodrigues, and his words to Judas. Christ is neither abandoning the two men to their fate in coldness, nor is he condemning them in hate--he is, in fact, extending mercy to them both. He knows what they are about to do, what their own weakness and their own pride is about to lead them to do. And so he offers them, at least, his acquiescence to their betrayal, and his understanding of their pain. This is not necessarily to justify the deed--indeed, one could argue that this presumes, in a real way, that the deed is wrong. But it is to reach out to the one who does it, to lessen his guilt, and to promise mercy once the deed is done. In this, Endo makes Rodrigues’ act analogous also to the betrayal of Christ by Peter, where Christ predicts it beforehand and then is present once it is over to restore Peter to grace.

Again, much of this has to be seen as a reflection on the experience of the Hidden Christians. Many of these had stepped on the fumi-e yearly, and then spent months begging Christ for forgiveness--others had even come to see the fumi-e as an act of covert worship and adoration for Christ. Endo’s concern above all else is to affirm the essential presence of Christ with these Hidden Christians. As they were tortured, broken, succumbed--as they committed fumi-e--Christ was with them, and suffered alongside them. He reached out to them in love even as they trampled on his face. And when, year after year after year, they raised themselves up and continued to pass on the Faith in secret, he was with them too.

This much is clear to Endo. How guilty the Hidden Christians really were--how much their fumi-e could ever be taken as an act of homage, adoration, and love--is less clear. It seems to me that Endo does see the fumi-e as essentially a sin, a betrayal--at the very least for Rodrigues himself, if not also, perhaps, for later generations of Hidden Christians. But sin or not, the fumi-e itself is still a true image of Christ, through which he works his mercy for those who touch him in love. In the end, all Endo really cares to affirm is the presence of God in the Hidden Christians’ midst--to affirm, against the Japanese inquisitors, that neither the Hidden Christians nor even the apostate priests were truly beyond the mercy of God. The Hidden Christians were indeed Christians--their faith was a true faith.

Likewise, for Endo himself, we might say, this is an affirmation of a rather different sort--that the unbending strength of the priest of his youth, the soldier who would not understand weakness, was not the final word on the Faith. Christ’s mercy extends, not only to the strong, but to the weak--it extends even to fallen apostates like this priest. This much Endo can affirm--God’s mercy.

It is this mercy that Rodrigues comes to know through his experiences--and it is for this reason that his entire story, and all his sufferings, are worthwhile. Even if he is guilty, they are worthwhile. Even if he is a failure, at the very least his life and his story is not meaningless--they are a sign of God's mercy, a word in the silence.

This is almost the end of the novel--the very end is given in the form of a Japanese soldier’s journal, distancing us from events somewhat. Now, things are different--Rodrigues’ household has become, it seems a virtual hotbed for suspected Christian activity, with Kichijiro and others caught with Christian symbols and objects, and the authorities are increasingly suspicious. Still, in the end, nothing can be proved about Rodrigues himself--and he dies and is buried in a Buddhist ceremony.

This is not nearly as ambiguous as it seems to a casual reader--at least if we are familiar with the existence and practices of the Hidden Christians. The details are subtle, but unmistakeable--all very much as we would expect, down to the astronomical calendar possessed by one captured Christian of Rodrigues’ household. The implication of all of this is, in fact, very clear: Rodrigues has become a Hidden Christian, the center of one such group of many--and in the end, he dies as one.

In this, the film Silence adds one, final detail--one that removes a certain amount of ambiguity, but is nonetheless very much in keeping with the novel’s presentation: the last image of Rodrigues’ hand, on his funeral pyre, clutching a cross. This is not nearly as novel as it might appear--for this was, as we have seen, standard practice for Hidden Christian funerals: to have a Buddhist funeral for public show, but secretly place Christian symbols in the deceased’s coffin prior to burial or burning.

Of course, all this cannot help but partake of the essential ambiguity of the Hidden Christians’ status; nor does this ambiguity, necessarily, have to be immediately resolved. In the end, we all, like Endo, must leave these real people, apostate priests and Hidden Christians, to the judgment and mercy of God.

Through all this, though, we can see how off-base most critiques of Silence really are. Endo’s concerns have nothing at all to do with the question of whether the torture of one’s flock makes it alright for priests to apostatize; they have nothing at all to do with justifying Rodrigues or presenting him as a hero to be revered or emulated; they have nothing to do with a supposedly unbridgeable cultural divide between Japan and Catholicism. Taken together, they do not at all add up to an “apology for apostasy.”

They come, in the end, to a simple affirmation of the mercy and providence of God, at work in the lives of the Hidden Christians of Japan.

Throughout the novel, Endo argues, God used all the weakness of man, and all the unluckiness of the world, and even the sinfulness of his servants, to lead Rodrigues to a knowledge of the depths of his mercy. He used the weakness and sins of the Hidden Christians to pass on the Faith that would one day be revived in Japan, and be given as a gift to Endo. God was not silent--he was present, and suffered alongside all those unfortunate weaklings.

This could certainly be taken in many directions that would be theological problematic--certainly, God does not deceive, and does not command sin, though none of this necessarily indicates either. Perhaps Endo himself believed problematically, then or later in his life--after all, Silence is one of his earliest novels, in a career spanning decades, and from the little I know of it, his final novel seems rather more unorthodox and syncretistic. Certainly, there are things in the novel that could be taken in theologically problematic directions--in fact, many such things, stated by very different characters at very different times.

Silence, though, is not a work of theology--it is a novel. Most of the theological details are not presented ambiguously--they are simply not presented at all. And the basic facts of Silence are simply those of history.

Silence and Culture

Why does all of this matter? Why have I chosen to write an absurdly long essay about an obscure Japanese novel and its failed American adaptation?

Because I believe that how we react to Silence does, in fact, tell us a lot about ourselves--that, right or wrong, both film and movie have a lot to teach us spiritually, especially in this day and age, and especially in our current cultural moment.

What we are facing in our society now is not so much an open assault of evil as it is the final victory of moral and intellectual childishness. The Internet does not so much connect people as it does fundamentally alter their connections, their ways of communicating, knowing, and thinking. All too often, it breaks down the basic intellectual and moral virtues that govern human interaction and thought, and replaces them with facile substitutes. It gives people narratives and ways of living that are not just harmful, but shallow.

In this, profound, serious art is of the greatest importance. For what art, at its best, gives us is a window into what reality is in itself--not as digested into our preferred networks and narratives. It confronts us with those realities that we would all prefer to hide from.

Silence is, I believe, emphatically one such work of art. And the reaction of so many people to this film and book, from so many different “sides” of our intellectual and moral debates, represents not so much a sustained engagement as an active retreat. Silence is, in its essence, a profoundly challenging work of art. It is not facile propaganda of any sort--it does not fit into any of our glib political and intellectual narratives. It challenges us, instead, with reality--the reality of the Catholic Faith, the reality of demonic persecution, the reality of human weakness and failure.

This essay has been necessarily didactic; but Silence is not a didactic film. It is a film whose visual palette is largely taken up with loving images of the beauty of the Faith--crosses and rosary beads pressed into hands, gifts taken and offered in love. It loves, it venerates, the Incarnate reality of Catholicism, from the humble kneeling bodies of Japanese fishermen to the Latin phrases muttered by the Portuguese priests celebrating Mass.

Yet it also shows humanity at its worst--the sneering arguments of the Japanese inquisitors, the human pride and confusion of men broken by torture, the ugly laughableness of Kichijiro as he runs back, again and again and again, to confession and absolution and failure.

But our culture has no time for such reality. It has no time for human faith, or for human failure.

On the Internet, we are all gods, and our chief operation is to take in and digest the bodies and souls of human beings, past and present, as images and little lines of text for our consumption. We all accept the right to order the world, the cosmos, as we see fit. We all have our intellectual narratives, our dishonest and disincarnate public personas. None of this is real.

Many people Catholic and non-Catholic reacted to Silence with confusion and fear; they let it fade away as quickly as possible, so they would no longer have to think about it. Inasmuch as it represented a challenge, they did not accept it. I do not think we should let them get away with it.

The great temptation of the world in our time is to forget the truth and power of the Faith--to forget that for which so many gave their lives and souls, that which built our civilization. Sterile hatred for the Church is the bread and butter of our intellectual classes--and it is good to be reminded of the demonic hatred and cruelty that lurks just behind such hatred. It is good for our intellectuals and our experts to remember what the Faith is, and the beauty and love it brings, and just why it was that so many, Western and non-Western, died and die in agony for it to this day--and why so many, Western and non-Western, have hated it and hate it still. No film I have ever seen does this so well as Silence. In all this, it is very far from an acquiescence to the world--it is a challenge to it, as its reception makes deadly clear.

Likewise, the temptation for Catholics in our day is twofold. On the one hand, there is the temptation to accept the Faith only as an easy comfort, something light and facile and unserious, not calling for fidelity--the temptation to accept the world as it is, and to hold our allegiance to this world above our allegiance to the Church and to Christ. Against this, Silence shows us peasants tortured to death for the Faith, and men travelling with broken feet over land and sea to find a single priest to hear their confessions--and the demonic hatred of the world for the Faith, with all its intellectual cleverness and all its deeper cruelty, that lurks just behind the eyes of our culture. This same hatred can be found all over the world--in the many martyrs of our age, killed by a hatred every bit as great that drove the Japanese martyrs to their slaughter--and yet too often we ignore this, forget the great value of what we Christ offers us, in favor of our own comfort and security and peace. Above all else, Silence shows that Christianity is a religion of martyrs. It shows, with incredible clarity, the profound preciousness and value of the Faith, with its vulnerable sacraments and its fallible priests. If the Japanese could endure so much for the sake of their Faith, how can we endure so little?

Some modern Catholics have taken Silence, essentially, as an apologia for the ordinary, unfaithful American Catholic--but this is a double-edged sword, at best. The Hidden Christians bent to the threat of torture, and clung to the Faith with tenacity, even in the face of Hell itself. Yet too often, we do not so much deny Christ as forget about him, letting go of him for the sake of a little comfort. In this, the example of the Japanese Catholics is a challenge, not an assurance.

The other chief temptation for contemporary Catholics, though, is in some ways greater, as it is the more insidious--to turn Christianity into an ideology, to individualize it, to make it a tool for personal or collective pride and self-aggrandizement. This was the danger Endo saw as a young boy, in the proud, strong soldier-priest of his youth--the man who would not bend, who could not understand weakness, but fell all the harder for that. Too many Catholics now are fundamentally individualists--people who have little patience for human weakness, little care for ambiguity or doubt, little respect for sinners and the poor and the weak. Their faith is a faith for the strong, and for the lucky.

In our day and age, when Christianity is threatened in so many ways, it is very easy to build fortresses, and fight culture wars. Holding the line, maintaining one’s own intellectual programme, one’s own cultural barriers, can come to take precedence over all else.

Yet in truth, this is so often nothing other than one more manifestation of our culture’s individualism, its factionalism, its pervasive lack of humility, charity, and obedience. Every Catholic becomes their own priest, prophet, and Pope--every Catholic labors to build up a literature, a project, a kingdom of their own, on the Internet or in bookstores or merely in their own mind; and for the sake of that kingdom, we all make war on each other. Factionalism is a principal sin of our time because factionalism is simply what happens when people use the Internet. On the Internet, everything is an image, and every person a corporation. We all promote our brand, advertise our product, and establish our dogmas--and anything and anyone that does not fit with these sacred things we curse and excommunicate, with far more rancor and finality than the corporate Church on earth has ever shown.

But there is only one Pope, and one God--and each one of us is, in the last balance, nothing more than a human being and a sinner. And what will become of us when we, like all men, fail and fall? What will become of us when we are broken? All strong men who trust in their own strength inevitably fall--and when they do, they become like Ferreira. It is far, far, far better to be Kichijiro--ignorant, weak, and ugly, failing and dragging oneself back to Confession again and again--than like Ferreira--a hollow shell, inflicting on others one’s own shame and weakness, hating oneself in others and others in oneself. Yet how much of the Internet, how much even of the Catholic Internet, is filled with all this, full to the bursting with people who cover our own weakness and failure with long words and elaborate images and pretensions of strength, shielded and comforted by bitterness and rancor towards our enemies?

It is very good for Catholics to be humiliated--it is very good for us to be challenged. We all need to be faced with our own sinfulness, our own weakness, our own ultimate failure and lack--and to accept it, for the love of God. We must trust, in the end, in God’s mercy, and not in our own strength. For as lucky as we are, as strong as we may be, it is not enough. Even our natural fortune and strength is a grace of God--which can be taken away.

If we can live past that moment when we are ultimate failures, when we are ultimately guilty, when we are nothing, then we will be able to be faithful. If we cannot, then we are only apostates waiting to happen. This is what Silence teaches us. This is why it is important.

It is far too easy to condemn the Hidden Christians of Japan, who lived their lives in insecurity, clinging to the Faith against all odds. They stepped on the fumi-e once a year, with great love and unutterable shame, and atoned for it with months of weeping. Yet all too often we step on the face of Christ daily, hourly, without either fear or regret--and do we weep for it?

Silence is, I believe, a great novel, and a great film--yet it is a story, and not a work of theology. It does not teach dogmas, but presents reality; and it does so with both honesty and beauty. It ought to be received in the same spirit. In any Catholic society, I have to believe, it would be received with profound respect and great consideration. We do not live in such a society--and consequently, it has been torn to shreds by ideologues and buried. Well, so be it.

Still, art, inasmuch as it is good and true and beautiful, will endure--and our society certainly will not.

In the end, it matters little whether Silence is received fairly or not, or whether it is remembered; but it matters a great deal how we respond to it, how we react to the challenges it brings us. It matters for the sake of our society, and for the sake of our souls. Hence this long and rambling collection of observations and criticisms.

Of course, all this is simply the opinion of one more guy on the Internet with a blog, and no particular authority over anyone--and it should not be taken as more than such.

May God have mercy on us all.

N.B: The quotations from Silence are from the English translation by William Johnston. Most of the information about Christovao Ferreira, as well as the English translation of the apostasy oath, are from an article by Hubert Cieslik, S.J., "The Case of Christovao Ferreira," which can be found online here.

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