Monday, December 12, 2016

Silence: The Comfort of Disbelief

One might say that the Church's missionary efforts since Trent are a history of false starts and failed potential. What could have happened in Egypt and Ethiopia if not for the narrowness of the Portuguese? Or in Antioch if not for the politicking of the Greek patriarch? Or in Mexico if not for the colonialist aims of the Spanish? Or in China if not for the controversy over ancestor worship. And what would have happened to the thriving Catholic population of Japan if not for Fr. Ferreira's apostasy?

Secular humanism waged a relentless war of attrition against Christianity in the 19th century, tearing down familiar social structures in the country and replacing them with industrial rootlessness, uprooting the Altar & Throne governments and usurping order with democracy and social planning. Nationalism and eugenics seemed fine until two world wars brought much overdue disillusion. Marxian culture festered at universities while popular culture re-embraced a social Christianity that was very much the public practice of private religion, something Catholicism never was before. America enjoyed an Evangelical protestant revival akin to the "great awakening" spiritual movements of a century before hand; Evangelical protestants became a detested, protected right wing political class. And yet men like Dawkins reared their very angular faces into everyone's bookshelves with an aggressive anti-Theism backed by refined narratives of biological evolution and mediocre 19th century German Biblical scholarship that would reduce the Old Testament to a series of metaphors and myths (if they do not bear truth then Christ is the fulfillment of fantasy). Another generation of youth lost what little faith they had and now the irreligious are the largest single demographic in the United State of America.

Enter Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese's new film, Silence, is making the rounds in all the proper circles to win big at the Academy Awards next season and has gained unanimous critical praise. It may be a well written adaptation of an interesting book, it may be well acted, well shot, and have a fitting soundtrack. But its most singular benefit is that it is a religious movie for our day. The daily assault of Dawkins and Hawking has subsided. No one cares about Christian religion in the public sphere. Three decades ago Scorsese filmed The Last Temptation of Christ, which depicted Christ debating whether or not God the Father loved Him enough to let Him leave the Cross, marry the Magdalene, and live a life of natural happiness; Last Temptation generated outrage among the Moral Majority protected class and flopped. Silence is a different sort of movie.

Silence, based on a book of the same name, follows two Jesuits to Japan who seek the supposedly apostate missionary Christovao Ferreira. During this period of relentless persecution after a failed coup, Catholics are exposed when the authorities ask locals to trample upon the crucifix. After being found the priest is not tortured, but rather he would be forced to watch the faithful endure torture and ask himself whether he was selfishly clinging to his beliefs at the expense of others. If the priest trampled the cross and renounced Christ he would be asked to make a public confession of spying on behalf of Western aggressors and could then enjoy a comfortable life with a concubine in Nagasaki. So was the life of Fr. Ferreira, although he supposedly recanted and died a martyr's death at the end. In Silence one of the priests undergoes a brutal Dark Night of the Soul only to find his prayers answered with permission from Christ to trample on the cross.

Silence is a dangerous movie in a way The Last Temptation of Christ never could be. Last Temptation was a modernistic perversion of something holy, and anyone with a three digit IQ recognized that Scorsese's take on the crucifixion was an utter novelty that would interest only the non-believer and repel the devout. Silence is a very different sort of movie in our age. It is post-supernatural, even post-Christian. It perfectly accords with the uncertain remnant of the nominally religious, echoing familiar sentiments of "God loves you anyway, so just do [whatever objective sin is fashionable]". 

We may not live in a Japanese Shogunate and stand constant risk of a week in a blood-letting pit, but we daily face the temptation to heed the whisper. With the first yield we have lost Christ; with each following yield we step further and further from any innate sense of religious right and wrong until one day we find our devotion retrospectively amusing, but in the end it was not really that important. The real message of a movie like Silence is: "You believe that? Really. Okay, but really?"

Yes, we really believe it.

Let us re-double our Advent observances for both the increase of faith and fortitude in it. The Lord came once as a child, utterly benign to us in plaster crèche depictions, but He will one day return as He left us to judge the hearts of the quick and the dead. As one dislocated Advent hymn put it:

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!


  1. Just a little more than a month after you posted this, the Remnant condemns this film just because the Pope endorsed it and also the director's previous work!! This kind of Tradistani nonsensical overreaction I can definitely do without.

    1. Also, the TFP's review is so shallow I can't believe the Remnant used them in this case! I bet none of them have actually seen the film. I am glad there were some in the comments who took to task these false portrayals of the film in question.