(Spoiler Alert: This post contains depictions and stories from the film ‘Silence’.)
It has been some time since I was this hungry to see an upcoming film. For the last month I have been excitedly waiting for the movie ‘Silence’ to be released with more then an eager imagination to engage the story and dramatic scenes of cultural and religious reflection. With such an internal build up, it was ironic as we sat in the theatre following the show and I shared with my wife and friends that it was not at all what I had expected.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie was brilliant and it is easily one of my favourites to date. I can’t wait to be able to read the book this summer. But I had expected it to be an emotional rollercoaster for me and instead of pulling out the kleenex box I had tucked in my backpack (all while under the loving mockery of my wife), I found myself engrossed into theological intrigue and intellectual imaginative bliss!
Playing with the cultural dynamics of each of the characters and allowing my thoughts to focus on the themes and ritualistic scenes in the movie, my mind raced with questions, thoughts, imaginative metaphors and life like comparisons. What are sacraments and Holy Relics and what significances do they have in faith? Where does theosis or katharsis meet inner sanctification and authentic transformation? What is the gospel and how does it morph positively and negatively within time, space, and culture? What does it mean to be a “Christian” and how has its meaning changed since Jesus called his first disciples? Perhaps most of all, when and how do you embrace kenosis and the emptying of ones self for the sake of the other and what forms does it embrace?!
Perhaps in an ironic mirroring of characterization, I had become the Inquisitor?!
Sacramental Idolatry and Holy Relic Imagery
“It’s really only a formality.” These were the encouraging words the priest Rodrigues heard from his Interpreter, played by Tadanobu Asano, as he was challenged to publicly denounce his Christian faith and step onto the clay tablet bearing the image of Jesus. The internal horror and anguish of such a task was unbearably written on Rodrigues face and yet I found myself questioning, what power or authority does this image have over him?! (Psalm 115:4-8)
Throughout the film the image of the sacraments within priestly duties and the giving of Holy Relics were dramatically highlighted as Christian markers of identity. Perhaps most strikingly we can see it in a scene where Rodrigues narrated his role in bestowing religious elements upon the Japanese villagers and finding himself short of materials, began giving the beads of his Rosary away as though each bead encompassed a redeeming significance to the holder.
Since the early church, images like the cross, the fish, and artistic depictions of Jesus have been used to tell the story of the gospel and create a cultural narrative of belonging through worship. But we cannot allow these depictions and Holy Relics to become graven images and objects of our worship. (Ex. 20:3-5) The story of the gospel internally carries the sacraments and relics of its past, but it can also embrace the reflection of new forms in the cultural narrative it is contextually a part of and being introduced. The sacraments and relics of today can be found in cultural arts and contemporary elements such as shared meals with friends, family members, and strangers. Perhaps instead of a fish signifying a disciple, one might find the other in a holy hug embrace. Or, while the symbolic representation of the cross projects a spirit of forgiveness, a person might find the sharing of a family heirloom while seeking reconciliation just as spiritually impactful.
The Despisal Of The Mokichi In All Of Us
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned!” It had to be maddening for Rodrigues as Mokichi repeatedly over and over would come to him smelling of filth, wrecked with the lack of personal care, and begging for a seemingly shallow desire for repentance and restoration. It was probably around the third time he would, in Judas like fashion, betray his friends and family that I felt this burning anger of despisal against him. Why would Rodrigues waste his time with this shallow character and man of seemingly no virtue?!
Wrestling with this disgust of Mokichi and his character I realized something; despite our rejection of his lack of virtue, our anguish over his constant betrayal and life of self serving drunkenness and filth… Isn’t there a little of Mokichi in all of us? This self preserving pride of seeking personal pleasure apart from others? This mind set of, “Well, nobody can be perfect“, and so we give into the little temptations of justified failures? All the while quick to repent and cry out in there public revealing, “Forgive me! I am weak and in need of your grace!”
It is a belief that is captured in the early parts of the film that the Japanese people needed the priests so that they could impart the Word of God, present the sacraments of communion, and receive the confessions of the villagers so that forgiveness and restoration could then be given. The early church called this practice theosis or katharsis and while the outer actions of the priests were performed, it was believed the inner transformation would then take place.
Jesus uses a metaphor that dramatically reverses this process. While rebuking the Pharisees and Priests, Jesus tells them that they are cleaning the outside of the cup while leaving the inside still full of greed and self indulgence. Rather, they need to clean the inside of the cup so that the outside may also become clean. (Matt. 23:25-26)
Rodrigues would later not only forgive Mokichi, he would embrace him as part of his life and even thank him for always being there. By recognizing the Mokichi inside each of ourselves I ponder the journey of inner repentance, our wrestling with the self hatred and despisment of constant moral and practical failure, and our reliance for the need of our relationship with the Rodrigues’ in our life who grant mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Ironically you can almost see the reflective imagery that it is Jesus who becomes the priest that lastly embraces us, coarse and rough like the wood of the cross, and thanking us for always being there, always returning in the hopes that we might do better despite our weakness.
A Swampland Of Certain Glory & Kinds of Poisons
“The price for your glory is their suffering.” These words seemed to echo as Inquisitor Inoue spoke them to Rodrigues. He would go on to compare Japan to a swampland and Christianity to that of a poison. But what is the Christianity that he is speaking of and who’s glory is he really reflecting upon?
While the character of Inquisitor Inoue is fictional, the times depicted in the movie are not. During the early 1600’s there was a Japanese puritan movement where the War Lord’s of Japan were asking the question, “What is a pure Japanese?” Then, hoping to maintain that ideology, they began persecuting and eradicating anything considered not Japanese, particularly the Christian church. Tens of thousands of Japanese Christians would be killed during this time and it was extremely dangerous for missionaries to travel in the islands of Japan.
We might reverse the question of the Inquisitor however; what does it mean to be a pure Christian? While Rodrigues and the other Catholic priests that came to Japan brought a gospel proclaimed by the universal Christian church, it seemed rote with dogmatic doctrine and institutional teachings that were far from the words of justice, mercy, love, and forgiveness embodied in the story of Jesus. In many ways, the Christianity Rodrigues and the other priests brought was a movement of conquest driven by the pride of western self-righteousness and with the goal institutional glory.
Perhaps Rodrigues’ mentor and teacher, Father Ferreira, brought this point to the surface of his young protégé’s heart as he spoke the words to him, “I do because you are just like me. You see Jesus in Gethsemane and believe your trial is the same as His. Those five in the pit are suffering too, just like Jesus, but they don’t have your pride. They would never compare themselves to Jesus. Do you have the right to make them suffer? I heard the cries of suffering in this same cell. And I acted.”
In the same Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) It is intriguing to think that Jesus used the words of “laying down one’s life” as appose to “death” or “dying”. Far simpler to understand the martyrdom of giving ones self over to death for the sake of those you love then to imagine the complexities of laying down ones life, ones hopes and beliefs, ones very identity, for the sake of those you love!
I wonder, were it you in that cell, what decision might have you made? Or perhaps the better question would be, who would you love most?!
Apostatizing And Stepping Onto A Faith Of Kenosis
“Step on your Jesus! Apostatize yourself!” the Inquisitor Inoue challenges the priest Rodrigues. We’ve come full circle and now the words of the Interpreter rings out again, “It is really only a formality.” While the words of the Interpreter had us question the power and authority within the outer images and elements of the stone tablet, the words of the Inquisitor have us question the authority and power found within Rodrigues the individual.
To apostatize himself, Rodrigues would be publicly renouncing everything he stood for; not just his beliefs in Jesus, but his identity as a priest, his recognition of authority in and for the church, his western philosophical world views, and even ultimately, his own name! But just as we asked if the stone tablet that he was challenged to step on would have any authority or power over him, we can also ask, does any of the outer acts of renunciation he makes change the inner authority or power found within him?
The apostle Paul uses a word in Philippians 2 to describe a similar act; it is the word “kenosis“. It means to completely empty one self of all significance and meaning and he uses it in the depiction of the incarnation of Christ. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:1-11) It is as though God’s love for his creation was so great, he apostatized himself so that he might redeem us!
I found it so powerful to contemplate that all the time Rodrigues spent in the outer works of the Christian church he believed in, all the efforts and religious rituals he sacrificed himself too, and all the while in anguish over God’s seemingly silence to his labours; and yet it is in this moment of his public apostasy that the deafening voice of Christ speaks to him, “It is ok. I am here with you. It is for this moment that I died for you.” And then, without a sound Rodrigues seems to not step on the stone, but find himself on top of it.
It seems that the message of the movie ‘Silence‘ becomes heaviest when we are willing to contemplate that the authenticity of the Christian walk is not necessarily in the silence of our outer self serving institutional blind actions but in our willingness to apostatize ones self and step onto the deafening absolute complete submission of Christ’s authority and power through our own inner actions of kenosis for the sake of others!
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” ~ 2 Cor. 12:9