Fri 03 Feb, 2017

Learning From ‘Silence’: Asking Difficult Questions

Guiding our audience well through dangerous ideas

Jonny Mellor / #faith, #film, #Martin Scorcese

Perhaps I’m not watching the right films, but I don’t remember ever seeing a film that did to me what Scorcese’s Silence did to me. Without trying to be clever, I can genuinely say that it brought me to silence.

But as anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not brilliant at keeping my mouth shut, so I thought, with a couple of weeks, a reading of Endo’s original book and a few good conversations with friends under my belt, it was about time I put down some thoughts here, particularly in regards to the impact this work has on us as Christian artists.

Scorcese has at least until recently described himself as a lapsed Catholic (although he may have had a delapse) but there was nothing lapsed about Endo. Though he wrote Silence, for which he is most remembered, while fighting a particularly nasty bout of tuberculosis, partly processing his own experience of the silence of God, he never stepped on the fumi-e himself, at least publicly anyway. While Scorcese’s spiritual journey is fascinating in its own right, I’d like to assess the film and the book together, as products of Endo’s faith filled imagination, and therefore as an example of exceptional art made by a Christian. This is a piece of art to be savoured (for this try, here), but it is also a fascinating picture of how to make exceptional art if you’re a Christian (and also a helpful heads up as to what may happen if you do).

Before I offer 4 lessons I’ve learnt through the book/film then, I’d better give the rather predictable spoiler alert. However, it’s not just that spoilers lurk in the following paragraphs, but that you will be doing yourself a major dissservice if you engage with ramshackle reflections like this one and miss out on the work itself. So, if you’ve not read the book or seen the film, I can think of at least two more constructive things to do than to read any further at this point.

Okay, with that out the way, what can we, as Christian artists, learn from Silence? I’ll start off today and finish my reflections next week.

We must be prepared to raise dangerous questions and guide our audiences through them

In one respect this is very obvious, but the power of Silence is surely in its ambiguity. Was Rodrigues right to tread on the fumi-e? Would Jesus really ever tell anyone to deny him, particularly as it led to many more denials and acts that actually betrayed other believers? Whose example should we value in this story? Whose should we reject? Should we side with the faithful peasant martyrs, although they may just have been sun worshippers who took Mass? What about the stoic, unflinching Garrupe- who submitted to death, but whose dogma seemed to trump his humanity? Or, of course, the proud, but ulitmately compassionate Rodrigues? And where should Kichijiro fit into our affections?

‘Should’ is probably the key word in that last paragraph. Is there a ‘should’ at all in how we should respond? By that I mean- was the creator of the work’s intention to drive us down any of these particular paths or just leave them all open to us and let us take our pick? This is where Scorcese’s adaptation becomes particularly interesting, as I wonder if the film and book have different approaches to how we ‘should’ respond. The film leaves us with the strong hint that Rodrigues’ faith had continued, not just in him but in his family, but the extent of this faith and the meaning of the events that we’d witnessed are left untouched. Endo however leaves us with something much more tangible. Just before the appendix, Endo depicts Rodrigues administering the sacrament to Kichijiro and the final paragraph leaves us in no doubt as to the final spiritual state of his protagonist:

…The priest had administered that 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 the land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.’ (p 257, Picador/2007)

For Endo then, Rodrigues is not an apostate at all, but someone who has found a deeper, more mature love of Jesus even through his apparent act(s) of apostasy. There may even be some quite firm theological convictions here about incarnational evangelism vs simple proclamation of the message.

However, with that said, by this point, the work has been done. My head was in such a spin from all the theological puzzles and overturned expectations that I left the book (just as I left the film) trying desperately to tie everything together, and this for me was where the power of Silence really kicked in.

By raising so many difficult questions, and then at best half answering them, I was forced to think through the places where my own zeal and conviction have been overshadowed by arrogance, what part my own desire for praise plays in even my most apparently selfless acts and whether I’d be prepared to be rejected by Christianity for Christ. Needless to say, these are deeply unsettling questions and I could imagine a work leading you to these in a very unhelpful way. However, in this case, it felt safe. It felt safe, because ultimately my journey was not guided by an unanchored seeker like Ferreira (or perhaps like Scorcese, although that may be a little unfair) but my guide was Endo- one who had heard God speak clearly in the silence and had endured tuberculosis and the rejection of the church and still came out trusting Jesus.

I think this gives us an excellent example of how to take people on these sorts of journeys through our work- how we can lead people down the path of difficult, even dangerous questions, while simultaneously acting as a light to guide them through to a firmer faith in the end.

Our lives help to interpret our work

To reiterate then, while Endo skilfully leads his reader away from the rocks of apostasy through his skill as a writer, the work is rooted not just by what we find in the text, but in what we find outside it- in the life of its author.

There would surely have been many people who stumbled into the cinema on a Saturday night in early January, expecting to see Wolf of Wall Street 2, and have left slightly bamboozled, but perhaps also with the opposite impression from the one I’ve laid out above. It would be quite possible to view this film as a condemnation of missionary activity and a declaration of the powerlessness of the Christian message. However, if you did even a little bit of homework, it would be impossible to hold on to this view for very long.

It may seem very simple, but it is important that Endo wrote this. A person of faith. A person who loved Jesus and worked through these questions positively in his own life. For us, as Christian artists, it is also important that our work is made by us, and therefore our lives should be considered as important interpretative tools of our work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the content of my work doesn’t matter. Far from it. However, it does mean that if I am following Jesus closely, trusting him in my own life and growing in faith in him, then I am much more able to raise difficult questions constructively in my work than I would be if I was a flaky Jesus-affiliated drifter.

Ultimately, powerful art raises powerful questions. On the other hand, ‘Christian art’ (as it has been perceived) has often laid out powerful answers, but done it in such a prescriptive way that almost all the power has been evaporated. We must buck this trend and make art that raises the kind of questions that real people are asking, and actually that we are asking. Even those we haven’t yet settled on the answers to.

We don’t want to cause anyone to stumble and we definitely don’t want to lead our brothers and sisters into sin, but actually I wonder if Christians have rushed to sanitise their work (and therefore often neuter it) because they’ve forgotten that their faithful lives are already interpreting their work for their audience.

Of course, this does require that as Christian artists, we hold fast to Jesus, but if we do this, I think we should resist the temptation to fill in all the gaps for people out of fear of being misunderstood. Our lives and our art work in tandem. Let’s aim to make both excellent!

In the next post, I’ll give some reflections on what we can learn from the response to this work, both in the church and outside it.

I rap. I write. I help run Sputnik. Yes yes y’all.

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