Chewing on “Silence”

This is a reflection, not a review, of Scorsese’s “Silence,” and not Endo’s novel by the same name.[1] It is a reflection on a set of questions. I think Scorsese’s version evokes in us more sympathy for Sebastian Rodriguez than we might experience for that same-named man in the novel. Endo’s “Silence” seems to make the bitter point without as much use of art—that, at any rate, is my view. Ultimately Endo’s Rodriguez is a less sympathetic character and more a personality portrayed to prove a point. Yet the point is better communicated with a more sympathetic character, as Scorsese’s is. Sympathetic, yes, and not because he is a better recognized sinner. He is not. Scorsese’s “Silence” outruns Endo’s novel in several ways.

Some context: We are in seventeenth century Japan, where Christians are verboten. I do not think it fair to judge the culture a barbarous one, even if there is tremendous poverty among the people, and an apparent disregard for their wellbeing among patricians. It is a brutal culture for sure, but I cannot think why I should think it more brutal than our own. One of the movie’s main forceful questions seems to be this: “Can faith, too, look like this?” For we are asked to consider this question with regard to an act of apostasy. It is not an easy question and is indeed meant to make me feel uncomfortable; it is not meant, though, to make me disbelieving. Some of us may find it too difficult and may thus associate its difficulty with some cynic’s agenda. That would be a mistake. I have conversed since with a number of agnostics, atheists, anti-Christians, who all thought the movie an honest, attractive portrait of a life of faith. How can this be? In a way, I think a strong criticism of Christianity proceeds from that tendency we Christians sometimes have when we speak of the Christian life as though it is obvious and easy. I mean “easy,” not in the execution of an honorable act, but in the knowledge one has of the circumstances while in them. We may turn to the martyrs, and for good reason; but there, too, we will find, as in some early church accounts, pietistic and inane moralism. Is there such a thing as honest hagiography? Can encomium be written without forfeiting reality’s grime and dirt? I think of that account in the breviary that concerns Perpetua, Felicity, or some apparently extraordinary virgin, who is thrown to the savage cow, endures it stoically, or christianly, and is thus crowned. I don’t doubt her sanctity or sacrifice; I doubt the representation.

Let us think, though: the church, early or late, faces unimaginable persecution. Yet earlier on, along with persecution, came some wicked fear of the heretic Novatian—which is to say, an excessive rigidity and un-forgivingness toward sinners, an attitude completely irreconcilable with Christianity. In the movie “Silence,” something similar to Novatianism is explored and correctly contemned. One is not a Novatian to believe that there is a hell into which unrepentant sinners go; one is a kind of Novatian, however, to suspect that a life, whatever life it is, even one riddled with malice, is hell-bent. Do we really have those criteria? We do not have. But sure, by all means talk of God’s mercy for Rodriguez, and please talk of God’s mercy for me and you, too; but also ask yourself: “What, at the end, could he otherwise have done?” I do not say he could not have done otherwise; only, I ask, what otherwise could he have done? Ask that question, and consider possible and probable outcomes. Martyrdom, I think, must be something very dirty and difficult, and “Silence” is a dirty and difficult depiction of it.

Rodriguez, later on in the movie, calls Japan a swamp. Yet there is a little shrub, be it ever so sickly, belonging to Christianity, quite alive in this swamp. What to do? Durus est hic sermo, indeed. Do we keep alive this tree at all cost, or do we, to pluck a phrase from today’s currency, first “drain the swamp?” It is hard to say. Drainage could kill the tree; and yet, till the swamp is fecund soil, what real use is this earth for sowing? What a parable to consider! It is all yet another question this movie wants us to ruminate on. Ruminate, as in chew. For we really have to chew on it, taste the raw minerals in it, the earthiness and dirt in each question presented. The silence of God, yes the silence that follows the agony, that agony of utter sorrow, that agony for relief and that agony in waiting, which is to say, the waiting for some sure sign of reparation or atonement,—that silence, I regret to say, can only be made sense of by the sufferer himself. It may be perhaps the most ponderous of all silences, yet it is Rodriguez’s silence. Rodriguez hears an answer in his silence; he hears the answer and then he too is silent. The word he hears is not an easy one, but it gives some peace. At least, the silence of peace. I think, whatever our own circumstances, his word is a word worth chewing on, and being silent with.

[1] As it is a reflection it will contain spoilers.