I’ve heard a lot of sermons. And thus I’ve heard a lot of illustrations drawn from movies. Most of them have pointed to “Christ-figures”: the William Wallaces, the Eric Liddells, the patriotic battlefield heroes, the martyrs, and the rebels against our cultural “Matrix.”

But I wasn’t prepared, one Sunday morning, 15 years ago, when the pastor of my Presbyterian church referred to The Lord of the Rings in an unexpected way. “I see myself in Gollum!” he exclaimed.

Gollum! Not Frodo, the suffering hero. Not Samwise, his faithful friend. But Gollum—the jealous, scheming, miserable wretch!

It takes a humble heart to identify not with the hero of a story, but with the villain, a figure of moral weakness. I remain impressed by my pastor’s confession of sympathy for a power-hungry devil.

I remembered it again a few years later, when I first read Silence, that excruciatingly suspenseful novel about missionaries in Japan.

In Shūsaku Endō’s story, two Jesuit priests—Rodrigues and Garupe—travel into territory hostile toward Christianity. Fellow Jesuits have been persecuted and killed there, so they’re eager to see if their teacher, Father Ferreira, is still alive. Troubling rumors surround Father Ferreira’s disappearance. Some say he may have apostatized, meaning he might have collapsed under pressure and publicly abandoned Christian faith.

You may already sense this story’s resemblance to Heart of Darkness. (Call it Apocalypse Now II: The Jesuits.) Will these agents go undercover and find a genius who has turned traitor? Has he become the very monster he was sent to evangelize?

You will also hear echoes of The Lord of the Rings: Like a suffering ...

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