Why is Japan so inhospitable to the gospel? Rodrigues insists officials are poisoning the soil. Inoue says the climate is simply not conducive to the growth of Christianity, as if one tried to plant an orange tree in Siberia. Late in the film one of the “fallen” priests suggests that the fruit of Japanese converts is false fruit. They believe in the “Sun God,” not the Son of God. They aren’t becoming martyrs for Christ, but for the missionaries, he argues. The film (and book) asks the audience to ponder for themselves the authenticity of the Japanese converts’ faith. Can Christianity survive in hidden form, even if publicly it is denounced? Can the Christian gospel be enacted in a particularly Japanese manner (even with some Buddhist-inspired touches) and still be the same Christian gospel?
While the missiological insights of Silence are manifold, a feature film is inherently unable to explore the full depths of Christianity in Japan. In his book Silence and Beauty, released earlier this year, Japanese American artist Makoto Fujimura contemplates the theological meaning of the fumi-e, the pieces of copper with the face of Christ that Japanese Christians were forced to step on as they apostatized. In the worn-smooth visage of Christ on these fumi-e, stepped on “by his enemies and friends alike,” Fujimura sees perhaps the truest, most enduring image of Christ, “the most unique presence in the history of humanity in that he led by giving his power away.”
The tragedy of fumi-e is also a triumph, then, because it captures the distinctive power of Christianity: power in weakness. The New Testament is full of this truth. Christians are called to imitate Christ, who emptied himself, took the form of a servant and humbled himself to the point of the cross (Phil. 2:7–8). The cross is a thing of folly but to those being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
The Subtle Power of Suffering
This offensive, upside-down formula is both a source of hard-heartedness toward Christianity and the cause of its longevity. At one point, Silence references the famous Tertullian quip that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” an idea Scorsese’s film both proves and complicates. One cannot help but be moved by the film’s depiction of faithful Christians being tortured and executed: burned on pyres, scalded with hot water, hung upside down, beheaded, drowned, hung on crosses on the beach and battered by high tide. As a Christian I wept through many of these scenes, seeing in them Christ and the hope of Matthew 16:25: “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Yet I wondered as I sat in the packed LA theater: How is this unapologetically Christian film landing on the many nonbelievers in the room? Do they see meaning in this suffering too, or just folly?
There is power in subtlety and silence. While many Christian films tend to convey impatience in getting their message across, Scorsese’s film is confident in its quietness and the delicate power of its images: dirty hands clasping a wooden cross, a secret church gathering to pray and take communion, a martyr looking upward to the sky and praying with his last breaths.