Silence in the Theaters… And in the Pews: Minor Spoilers

In honor of the 89th Academy Awards, let’s chat about movies.

Last week, I wrote a pseudo-syllabus for my series Imagination for Resistance. While I have this week classified as Minor Spoilers, I also hope this will be something more than a film review. Several weeks ago I saw Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, which was based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. The film, first announced by Scorsese in 2007, has been the director’s aspiration since he first read the book decades ago. A film adaptation from one of the most renowned filmmakers of our time of a novel about the persecution of Christians in feudal Japan, featuring a talented cast including Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, and Andrew Garfield, should be the makings of a cinematic success.

Certainly Christians alone should have turn out in the greatest droves since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which reflected the director’s tendency towards graphic violence more than it perpetuated the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yet the Christians in the U.S. were the ones who brought the silence. With a budget of over $40 million, Silence was a bust at the box office where it only grossed just shy of $6 million over the course of its limited release. So do Christians just not go to the movies?

If the release of a film like God is Not Dead is any indication, Christians will turn out to certain faith-oriented films. God is Not Dead grossed over $60 million! What’s happening here? Why did Christians not buy tickets for a film about the struggle of missionaries in feudal Japan, but seemed to pack theaters to watch a college freshman have a philosophical throw-down with the actor who is most famous for playing a B-rated Hercules?

Tyler Huckabee wrote an insightful article for The Washington Post concerning the irony (dare I say tragedy?) of conservative evangelicals insisting that Hollywood ignores them, while evidently ignoring a film like Silence.

However, my hope is to go beyond yet another sign of the futility of this secular-evangelical culture war.

My friends, Christians and non-Christians alike, I am convinced that this is a symptom of a far greater spiritual condition. Christians in the USA have spoken with their dollars, and they have shown the world of cinema that they do not want to engage with the complexities, ambiguities, and downright painful agonies of reality, let alone faith. God is Not Dead equates a spirited philosophical debate between a smug college professor and a faith-minded student with enduring persecution. U.S. Christians would rather watch that film than be immersed into a cinematic world that forces them to witness real persecution.

In doing so, we (as a church) ignore the reality of the cost of following Christ. Not only that, but we functionally refuse to engage with the very questions that ache in the secular world around us. Silence became so entrenched in Scorsese’s mind and imagination that the director of films such as Gangs of New York and Goodfellas struggled to adapt it to the big screen for over 25 years. Why did we not rush to the box office, desiring to grasp whatever was in this novel written by a Japanese Roman Catholic?

I think we have lost touch with the mystery of faith. When faced with the ever-present questions “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “If God is good, how can evil be permitted to exist?” our answers have become pithy idioms and bumpersticker slogans. They have become no more than cheap words that grate like sandpaper on the wounds of parents who slowly watch their child die of leukemia, or like gasoline on the fiery anger of a boy whose father was killed by a drunk driver.

When we ignore a film like Silence, we ignore the human experience of living and breathing, of merely existing in a hurting world. We ignore the very questions that an aching world is asking.

At the start of the film’s second act, Andrew Garfield’s character is writing to a priest back in Portugal about the torture he has watched the Japanese Christians endure in Christ’s name. He hears their prayers, their songs, and the gasps of agony. Concerning whether or not God hears them, he writes “You’ll say He heard their prayers, but did He hear their screams?”

Do we hear their screams? Can we hear our own screams clawing out of our souls for answers? Are we so afraid of mystery or of suffering that we dare not go see a film portraying the agony and crisis of faith in the face of pain and persecution?

Can we hear the screams within our own sacred text?

“Why have you forgotten us completely? 
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us, 
and are angry with us beyond measure.”
-Lamentations 5:20-22 (NRSV)
“Go on, pray. But pray with your eyes open.” Ft. Ferriera (as played by Liam Neeson).

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