How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
I read most of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel Silence on an evening flight from New York to Houston. Halfway through the book, the main character, a 17th-century Jesuit priest named Rodrigues, nearly crumbles amid the persecution surrounding his mission in Japan. Facing a government bent on exterminating Christianity from the island nation, he anguishes: “Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent…?”
About the time I finished those words, our aircraft cut through a pocket of turbulence. As the cabin lamps strobed, the rattling of the plane shook me into the window next to my seat. A young woman behind me wept. In front of me, a scream cut through the curtains separating business class and economy.
I can’t help but think this is what the divine silence Rodrigues describes sounds like. It’s a roaring monster of pain, suffering, and loss. It’s anything but quiet.
He’s never been a stranger to stories that swathe faith with all the blood and guts that accompany spiritual trauma, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that filmmaker Martin Scorsese took on the priestly mantle of translating Endō’s challenging work to screen. Through its dramatization of Christian eviction in 17th-century Japan, Scorsese’s resulting creation contains all the trademarks of his most personal films—depravity, faith, and spiritual ambiguity. Like Endō’s book, Silence is a bold artistic achievement that will make audiences squirm in the squares of their seats and rip at the tips of their shirttails; in the end, though, it’s precisely this commitment to authenticity and deep mental exploration that makes Silence a vital watch for all audiences—especially those who are religious.No one wants to be die a martyr’s death, but we often lust after the fantasy of martyrdom.
Silence begins with two Portuguese priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe, learning that their mentor may have committed apostasy while ministering in the closed nation of Japan. The youthful Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play up the Jesuits’ naïve shock at the thought of their former confessor, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), denying his faith. With good intentions and dreams of missionary glory, the priests are perhaps too eager to use the news of Ferreira as an excuse to begin their ministry abroad.
This passionate idealism seems all well and good until Rodriques and Garrpe begin to feel the full weight of their mission. While government officials are not afraid to kill Christians, they’ve quickly realized that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” By the time Rodrigues and Garrpe arrive, Christians are being encouraged to denounce their faith by stepping on a fumie—a metallic plaque featuring an image of Jesus (and sometimes the Virgin Mary). It doesn’t take long for death and destruction to start marking their ministry.
The clash of Japanese culture and Western religion in the film feels predestined. As Rodrigues and Garrpe settle into a small Japanese village, they’re introduced to a world lightyears from their own. Silence’s soundtrack accentuates the foreign terrain by immersing nearly every scene with wild sounds of crickets and flies rummaging through the layers of island humidity. Scorsese, always the one for world building, periodically cuts to Japanese landscapes as they settle into an almost mystical layer of haze and fog. At once, the space is both picturesque and mysteriously opposing.
Rodrigues functions as the film’s primary set of eyes, and his thoughts pepper the story via one of Scorsese’s favorite devices: the voiceover. As Silence lumbers from a mostly quiet first third to a raging sea of turmoil in the second and third, Rodrigues’s dispatches transition from optimism and hope to fear and almost complete despair at what seems like the gospel’s inability to flourish in Japan.
Using linguistic clues within the story’s dialogue, Scorsese shrewdly questions the Jesuits’ approach to cross-cultural evangelism. Throughout the film, one of the distinguishing marks of those close to Christianity (or a “padre”) is their ability to speak Rodrigues’s native tongue—which often feels like a prerequisite for saving faith—and while most of the film is in English, in one scene a character implies they’ve been speaking Portuguese (despite what’s been translated to film). Just as Scorsese used American (especially New York) accents in The Last Temptation of Christ to highlight the contemporary importance of Jesus’ story, his application of language in Silence illustrates how easy it is for dominant societies to stampede the cultural history of others in the name of God.
His mission’s broader cultural tensions also highlight Rodrigues’s own hidden feelings of superiority. The priest cares for his suffering flock, but often looks down on them in self-pride. He believes their faith to be genuine, even worth emulating, but he occasionally makes it a point to correct their transliterations of terms like paradise, preferring his native pronunciations instead. In many ways, he’s like what one government official says of an earlier missionary to Japan: “He taught, but did not learn.” Scorsese also uses the camera to highlight this disconnect by visually separating Rodrigues from the suffering of those around him. As individuals are tortured for their faith, the priest watches from on a hill, across a beach, or from behind the bars of a cage. He’s a compassionate observer, not an identifying empathizer.
While far subtler, Rodrigues experiences the same god-complex fantasy that plagued Scorsese characters like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Howard Hughes (The Aviator). In many ways, he views himself as a savior of sorts; at one point, Rodrigues even looks down at his reflection in a stream and sees the pale face of a European-looking Christ in his place. Rodrigues is genuinely compassionate and caring, but his faith heritage hasn’t instilled the importance of multi-ethnic incarnation.
Later, when faced with the thought of dying for his faith, Rodrigues almost relishes the opportunity—after all, to be like Christ is to also die at the hands of your enemies. His idealism draws blood, however, when Japanese officials explain that a priest’s apostasy will save the lives of other Christians who are being tortured: “The price for your glory is their suffering,” says a persecutor. Rodrigues has encouraged the Japanese to step on the fumie to save themselves and others—but how can he, a lofty priest, deny his Lord?
At times, watching Silence almost feels like peering through a kaleidoscope pointed at a mirror. When the movie does make its way to a gut-wrenching and mysterious finale—which I won’t spoil here—the experience is intrusive at a personal level. Just what are we to think of the nearly impossible choices these characters must make?
The questions Scorsese poses here are demanding, and the film doesn’t seek to answer them clearly. Silence, at its most basic level, explores what it means to live with the same love and compassion that characterized Jesus’ ministry. It’s not much of a stretch to argue that compassion dances within the U.S. church today, but Scorsese’s work forces audiences to consider the feelings of superiority that tango alongside as well. How often do we “compassionately” observe suffering from a distance rather than emulating the incarnation of Christ? When is compassion truly compassion, and when is it just a conduit for us to gloriously take up our personal cross?
Many will also be struck by Silence’s difficult depiction of spiritual martyrdom and sacrifice. Western Christian culture has the tendency to exalt persecution to the point that it at times invents it. It’s not uncommon for some to even speak, with nearly glowing terms, of hypothetical death via a madman who executes his victims if they acknowledge belief in God. There is an allure and security to believing that martyrdom, or at least mistreatment, weeds out the more faithful or righteous from the group. Internally, we often echo the early century church father Tertullian, when he wrote to martyrs: “Your blood is the key to Paradise.” (A statement penned during a time when a small minority of Christians willingly volunteered for martyrdom.) No one wants to die a martyr’s death, but we often lust after the fantasy of martyrdom to the point that it counterbalances the humility that should typify the Christian faith.
Rodrigues fancies himself like Jesus and sees martyrdom as a part of this vision. He even grows frustrated at one character, Kichijiro, who saves his own life by denying Christ at nearly every turn. But could it be that Rodrigues is less like Jesus and more like Kichijiro? Or Peter, the denier? Or even Judas? Who are we more like?
As a believer, I’m not so sure what to think of every part of Silence—but at the same time, I’m not sure what to think of every part of me. I did, however, walk out of the theater feeling a renewed sense of God’s glorious grace. And isn’t that what suffering often does? It very rarely contains answers—but if we listen to the roar with an open heart, it becomes a mechanism by which God not only speaks to us, but also makes us more like him in service to others…not a faux vision of what it means to be like Christ, but an authentic, primal embodiment that transcends the Jesus we’ve made in our image or in the image of our idols.
This, I’d argue, is what Silence is all about: not silence per se, but the whisper of Christ’s voice when the roars of trauma threaten to overcome our faith. This whisper may cause us to doubt our prior beliefs, but doubt is often a stop on the path to greater spiritual renewal. Or, as Scorsese writes in his forward to Endō’s book: “Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it coexists with faith—true faith, abiding faith—it can end in the most joyful sense of communion.”
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