After watching and recommending the film “Silence” to several people to view, I’ve been confronted by several Christians who have said they felt the film was harmful in the way it portrayed Christianity, martyrdom, evangelism and God. I realized in response to my recommendation that it may be reckless to suggest viewing such a film without giving an account for why I feel it is, in fact, a “Christian” film, and how it affected me personally.
I say first that this is very much a personal interpretation - and while I feel many of these sentiments are all but plainly expressed by the film-makers, it is not definitive and I am not trying to speak on their behalf - only sharing what the film communicated to me. I have not read the novel and have only watched the film once at the time of this writing. I’m assuming the reader has watched the film, and won’t be providing a summary.
Most of the problems that Christians have with the film are generally as follows:
-Rodriguez isn’t faithful - he (the hero) denounces Christ: Many people cannot accept this as an ending because the best example of a true Christian in the film ultimately gives into the temptation to apostatize. The entirety of the film leading up to this point demonstrates the suffering and faithfulness of Rodriguez only to show that it ultimately results in ruin. This presents the Christian walk as one of ultimate hopelessness - the power of God is not strong enough to overcome the toughest challenges - God does not deliver ultimate “victory”.
I will say that while you can walk away from the film with this interpretation - I think you are missing some glaring clues that the film uses to point toward a different interpretation. I will break down my interpretation of the film as much as I can for those interested, but to really understand why I loved this film I have to explain something first:
Some Thoughts on Christian Films:
This interpretation of the film lies on one fateful presumption that I believe the film-makers go through pains to subvert: that Rodriguez is the hero of the film. In my Instagram post, I said that “Silence” is one of the most profoundly Christian films I have ever seen - I then made it a point to specify that it is not a film “for Christians” - it is a Christian film. The reason for this distinction is bound to the unfortunate cultural state we find ourselves in as Christians - that we have been targeted as a demographic for borderline-propaganda levels of commercially contrived entertainment - and that we have whole-heartedly embraced this as “Christian art”. The problem is just that it is not “Christian” - and it more often than not could barely pass as “art”. What we have is art (films) made “for Christians”.
You may already know that almost every story revolves around the “hero’s journey”. This is an incredibly useful narrative tool and has proven to resonate deeply with human beings for thousands of years. It goes more or less like this:
-The hero is established, and has a goal
-The hero encounters a problem in pursuit of their goal
-The hero comes across a guide that provides a solution for their problem
-The hero, through hardship, overcomes their problem via the solution
-The hero achieves his goal
The “tragic” alternative to this formula is something like:
-The hero is established, and has a goal
-The hero encounters a problem in pursuit of their goal
-The hero comes across a guide that provides a solution for their problem
-The guidance is ineffectual, or the hero doesn’t listen - the problem crushes the hero
-The hero is a fool
The former has been used commercially with great success in films and literature. In essence - you make the hero any target demographic you wish to capitalize on (teens, men, women, Christians, atheists, etc), you make the problem something this demographic can relate to, and you (essentially) act as the voice of the guide. This is how Nike sells you shoes. This is how Apple sells you phones. This is how many churches get you to service. You are presented as the hero - you have a goal - and if you only had the solution (awesome shoes, a better phone, some spiritual guidance) you could achieve your goal.
This is why - in every film for Christians - a Christian is the hero of the narrative. There is a problem we can relate to - our marriage is hard, the liberal media is silencing us, the team hasn’t won State in years. However, once we find God (the guide) we reach Spiritual stability and are peripherally able to fix our marriage, stump the professor and take the Team to the Finals. Christians feel good about this formula, because, while we’ve essentially celebrated and cemented ourselves as the central figure of the narrative - we’re able to thank God as the guide that helped us achieve our goals. Producers like this because it makes them lots of money.
The reason “Christian films” continue to prosper is because they are incredibly effective in winning their target demographic. However - this is the exact reason why they are ineffectual toward any other kind of viewer. This is what makes them “films for Christians” - not “Christian films”. “Films for Christians” are ego-centric forms of entertainment that represents the target viewer as the central protagonist, then so desperately tries to cram the Christian message into the contexts of the narrative that it completely ignores what made the narrative work in the first place - conviction, honesty, brutality, creativity, passion, beauty; in short - artistry. Without artistry the formula falls apart - we don’t engage with it - it feels contrived. This is not unique to Christian films only - it is evident in all kinds of films, always has been and always will. But the “Christian” genre is unique in that the vast majority of films produced for Christians suffers from this lack of artistry, and so it falls down in front of any viewer that can't project themselves as the "hero" of the narrative. So what is the problem? Are Christians just bad artists? Not exactly…
I think the systemic problem is due to the fact that Christians are bad art appreciators. Not only that - it is that as the Church has bought into this monetized propaganda machine - it has become over the years increasingly artistically illiterate, to the point that the Churches’ expectations of art and artists have nothing at all to do with the substance or function of art itself. It is a delusion of the Church to assume that artists are supposed to be preachers - artists are not supposed to be preachers. Preachers are supposed to be preachers. Artists are supposed to be artists. Preachers are indispensable to the church - as they ought to, among other things, constantly remind us of the context of the gospel. Artists are also indispensable to the church - as they ought to, among other things, constantly remind us of the beauty of the gospel. It could be said that if the gospel is “good news”, we need someone to tell us the news and we need to then see that it is, in fact, “good”. It is a possibility that in making art, someone preaches - just as it is a possibility that in preaching, someone is also being artistic, but the two are not the same. “Beauty” is not an imperative; it is not the statement of truth, but the impression of truth. It doesn’t operate in the realm of spiritual absolutes, it operates in the realm of emotional subjectivity. This is what makes it dangerous - but this is also what makes it effective. Art can not only make statements - it can ask questions. It can trick us. It can tease us. It can mock us. It can inspire us. It “sneaks in through the back door” of our minds, and can set our “mental house” in order or cast it into disarray. Yes - it can affirm and encourage us, and that is good, but it can also challenge us - and that is good too.
Andrew Fletcher, the famous Scottish writer and politician once said, “Let me write the songs of a nation! I don’t care who writes its laws.” Too often the church looks to artists to write its laws. When the Church is confronted with “Christian” art that is not operating with the sole motive to “affirm”, it shrieks away and declares the art and artist “non-Christian”. This ultimately leaves us with “Christian” film makers, musicians and songwriters that have only gone so far as to explain the context of the gospel in their art, often times without giving us any genuine impression of the beauty of the gospel through motivated artistry. This also leaves Christian artists that seek to challenge themselves and their fellow Christians discarded to the "secular" realm. Abandoned by the Church, they often slink away and become self-fulfilling prophecies, searching out truth in art without the Church's consideration or collaboration.
This is why “Silence” was such a refreshing film for me.
I talked about the “hero’s journey”. I think this is what most Christians who view Silence expect to see - it’s what I expected to see when I started viewing the film. In the character of Father Rodriguez lies the complete formula for the hero journey - he sets out to rescue his mentor, Father Farrera, and convert Japan for Christ, he confronts the problem of persecution, but after deep spiritual struggle God gives him the means to die a martyr and thereby both God and Rodriguez are glorified. This is how it starts - but the film quickly presents a kink in this formula: Martyrdom is not an option. Glory is not an option. There is not a solution. Rodriguez is trapped, but is not allowed to die. Japan, and thereby the film itself, is aware of the formula. Both know that this story will make Rodriguez a hero - and it intentionally disrupts this. This is when the film begins to say something more.
Those that think he should have had the strength to persevere in the faith, I think, have missed a crucial point of the film - that Rodriquez’ struggle is not against his own life or well being. Rodriguez does not struggle against hate - he struggles against love. He is not trying to overcome his fear of danger or the hatred of his enemies, he is trying to overcome his own convictions of Christian love. The Japanese pit him against his own faith - to love his neighbor as himself. It is against his own Christian love that Rodriguez struggles to apostatize - it is against his own God. This is what made the film so challenging for me, as a Christian. What does it look like to struggle with God? Most “films for Christians” might represent this as wanting your marriage to be better, but it’s not - and so we “struggle with God” in that things are not so great and we wish He would make them better. This falls flat. I don’t believe it - as a film maker or as a Christian. I struggle with God when his goodness looks to me like evil. I struggle with God like Abraham struggled - when he thrust his son down on the altar. Like Israel struggled when they traded the despair of Egypt for the despair of the desert. Like Jesus struggled when he cried from the cross, “Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani”. This is a struggle that is real to me, that is real in scripture - a struggle wholly unique to Christians - but has rarely been represented so poignantly and desperately on screen - especially in Christian films.
Ultimately, despite this, Rodriguez does persevere. He does not reject Christ until Christ himself, essentially, “blesses” his rejection. Here again - for good reason - Christians are hesitant. Let me say again first: I completely understand how this could be taken to mean the film is condoning the rejection of Christ - but again, I think if you accept that interpretation then you are ignoring the artistry around the context of the film. This could perhaps best be explained by what I see as “facts” the film establishes, all leading up to the crucial moment of Rodriguez’ denouncement. If you ignore these facts, then Rodriguez appears to be the protagonist who denounces Christ and is therefore a fool. If you are sensitive to the facts though, this moment yields a different truth: that Rodriguez is the problem and the goal; Christ is the protagonist.
Rodriguez and Garupe’s missionary efforts are stained with pride. This is manifested first in their rejection of authority’s council at the beginning of the film. Their failure to try to understand Japanese culture, and ultimately is recognized by his interpreter - “He’s arrogant. But he will fall like the others.” Theirs is a God of victory - and by God they will be victorious. This attribute of Rodriguez and Garupe is what the rest of the film takes the time to dismantle.
Kichijiro is presented as the helpless sinner in the film. He continues to reject Christ, then return to Rodriguez - “Bless me Father, for I have sinned”. Rodriguez grows increasingly disgusted with the man, but continues to offer forgiveness - even as he is beside himself in the jail cell, unable to fathom his cowardice, he makes the sign of the cross. This is a major feature in the film. Kichijiro, to me, is the Christian that we have not seen in Christian films. I immediately related to his pathetic situation - and I think many, many Christians - if they were honest, would agree. To continually come to God, having given in to temptation, and ask for forgiveness and blessing. Nevertheless, it is pathetic - and the film-makers make it obviously pathetic for good reason. The more Kichijiro continues to spit in the face of grace, the more we are disgusted by it. At first - we see him as a man searching for redemption - Rodriguez prays for him and we expect this to be a turning point for Kichijiro. As the film progresses though - we see that it isn’t. Every request for confession becomes more and more noxious to us - to Rodriguez. Grace becomes harder and harder for us to fathom - grace becomes less and less deserved. This is one of the most beautiful points that the film, through agonizing repetition, conveys: that grace is completely, entirely undeserved in the part of the receiver, and entirely dependent on the strength of the giver. This point reaches its full force when Rodriguez finally apostatizes - when he becomes Kichijiro.
This leads us to the apostasy. Why does he do it? Not because he’s lost the will to be obedient - because God tells him to do it. Because he continues to be obedient. This is where, understandably, most Christians check out. “If you deny me before men, I will deny you before the Father”. This is clear in Scripture - so why would Jesus do this? I don’t know. I only know that Jesus did do this. The Apostle Peter, after swearing allegiance to Christ (and also, by the way, after hearing this very teaching about denying Him before men) apostatized three times. It could be said that Peter had not been made aware of the complete gospel yet, and it could be said that Christ did not tell Peter to apostatize - both of which would be strictly true. But Scripture makes it clear that Peter knew what he was doing. His denouncing of Christ was full and complete. As complete as any could be. And yet - Christ made Peter the rock on which he built his church. I’m not saying that this part of the film is not challenging to me as a Christian - only that it is not nearly as challenging as Scripture itself. What does Christ do to redeem Peter? What does Christ say to Rodriguez?
“Go ahead now. It’s alright. Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Your life is with me now. Step.”
Rodriguez becomes Kichijiro, Christ becomes Rodriguez - but more, for he remains Christ. Rodriguez experiences the silence of God - he experiences pain - SO THAT Christ can say this to him. It could also be said, “You understand my pain.” Rodriguez’ journey has been the journey of God - in breaking Rodriguez. “Your life is with me now.” God has led Rodriguez to the understanding of grace - absolute and undeserved: “Step”. This is the last disgraceful act whereby Rodriguez voids himself of his claim to pride - of his claim to being the “hero”. All that is left is Christ and his grace - in beautiful, glorious potency. There is NO physical victory. There is no piety. His enemies are not defeated - they are "victorious". There are no delusions of holiness. There is only defeat for Rodriguez - and yet, in his utter, complete, and humiliating defeat - “Your life is with me now.” In his defeat, Christ is victorious. This is not a celebration of apostasy - this is a celebration of grace. Is it a full and complete gospel message to the believing Christian? No. But it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a reminder of the beauty of the gospel - the beauty of grace. Later, Rodriguez laments: “I have fought against your silence.” Christ responds: “I struggled beside you.” The suffering of Rodriguez throughout the film is transferred into the suffering of Christ. He has suffered with Rodriguez, but He has remained victorious - He carried the cross for this pain.
This is the moment that we see the protagonist of the film - not Rodriguez, but Christ himself. Those looking for a Christian protagonist will be disappointed. Those looking for Christ will be overwhelmed, as I was. I say again - it is not a film for Christians, it is a Christian film.
There is SO MUCH more to unpack with this film - which is one of the reasons I feel it is a masterpiece - but this brief (believe it or not, it is as brief as I could make it) explanation of my interpretation of the main controversy of the film will hopefully provide a clear view of my opinion. To me, in the end - when Rodriguez is burned with the cross - it is not just a representation of Rodriguez “holding on” to his faith over the years - it is representative of Christ holding onto him. There is much more that could be said - I’ll have to stop here for now.