People talk about faith like it’s a light, but sometimes it’s as black as night. Often in church you’ll hear a testimony that goes something like this: “I was doing bad things, but then Jesus showed me the light, and now I’m all better.”
But what happens when Jesus showed you the darkness? What happens when you came to faith expecting everything to be okay, that Jesus would make everything better, but it appears everything got worse?
Before practicing religion—and it is practice, after all—it was all about dollar daiquiri nights at Rum Runners or who would first talk to the girl in the black dress. It was all so fun. It was carefree and exciting.
After practicing religion, for several years it was utter confusion. I was questioning motives and the motives of motives and what exactly God wanted me to do with my life. I was trying to undo the damage inside my own soul, but I was inflicting it on everyone else.
And I thought going to seminary would sort out my spiritual and moral quandaries, when in fact it made them all worse. Life grew darker.
Once you clear out the drinking and the women, in other words, then you have to clear out your thoughts and intentions, digging deeper into your own soul. Sin lies ever closer to the human heart.
Oh Lord, is it wrong to be bored in church? Dear God, what does your voice sound like? In the dark pit into which Life throws us, is there even a “right” way out? What is a Christian supposed to do anyway?
This last question is what the movie Silence is about.
Spoiler alert: Some important plot points are coming up.
The Plot Thickens
The movie—I mean, the film—and its videography are beautiful, stunning, a work of art. The story is more complicated, and it’s taken me a few weeks to put my thoughts into words.
Set in mid-seventeenth-century Japan, Silence welcomes twenty-first-century observers into hell.
Two Jesuit priests go to Japan to find another priest. Japan in those days was merciless in its treatment of Christians. They were torturing, pillaging, and slaughtering anyone who was a Christian, but they found this ineffective.
If you’re a Christian, you feel sympathy for the protagonists. They’re “enduring to the end,” “suffering persecution,” “bleeding for the Name,” and you want them to stick it out. You don’t want them to turn their eyes away from Jesus and flee the faith. Come on! you almost shout.
And then you edge closer and closer to the end. The protagonist, Father Rodrigues, finally meets The Lost Priest, Father Ferreira, who tells Rodrigues that hope is lost, that the Japanese people never understood the gospel in the first place, and that he is now a Buddhist.
“Behold, the sun of God,” he says, motioning toward the heavens. “They cannot conceive of our idea of the Christian god.” He tells him about the brutal torture he endured. He tells him about innocent Christians tortured on his behalf, and that’s when the empathy snaps.
The Bible has many passages about suffering persecution—though, of course, we in the United States rarely suffer persecution like the Bible talks about—but what it doesn’t say is how to suffer persecution on behalf of someone else.
Over the years before the story of Silence, the Japanese leaders began torturing the people in front of the priests in order to get the priests to renounce their faith. If the priests apostatize, they thought, then the people will be more likely to renounce their faith. Cut off the head of the snake, and so on.
In one of the final scenes, Father Rodrigues is in a cage. A wild dog howls some yards away. Father Ferreira stands outside.
“Have you found the words on the wall?” he says. “‘Laudate Eum.’ ‘Praise him.’ I cut them there with a stone. When I was in this cell, like you. Do you think you are the only one who doubted? The only one who called on God’s help and love and got only silence in return?”
The howling isn’t from a dog, Rodrigues discovers. It’s moaning. Five Christians hang upside down, bleeding from a small cut in their necks, all because Rodrigues won’t renounce his faith.
“What would you do for them?” Ferreira continues. “Pray? And get what in return? Only more suffering. A suffering only you can end. Not God.”
“Go away from me!” Rodrigues sobs.
“I prayed too, Rodrigues. It doesn’t help. Go on. Pray. . . . But pray with your eyes open.”
At the end, Father Rodrigues stepped on the face of Jesus, and he never again practiced the faith. You never really figure out if he’s a Christian or not.
Hello, Darkness, my old friend
I said earlier that joining into the Christian life can produce darkness rather than light. This is often the case, but it doesn’t always last forever.
Many professional Christians struggle with the darkness of faith. Like watching Silence, we think we have it all figured out in the beginning, and we’re tinged with zeal to persevere to the end.
But the farther and farther we go along, the less we seem to understand. If you’ve ever heard an old man talk about his faith, it’s got this aged patina to it.
Religion isn’t that easy to explain. Aside from a few core doctrines, like the ones found in the Apostle’s Creed, we can get lost in the arguments.
For some, simply studying the complexities of theology develop a dark fog. For others, some hidden sin weighs them down into the deep. And still for others, there is no reason why the darkness comes. It just does.
In a recent interview with Martin Scorsese, the film’s director, the interviewer asks Scorsese what question we’re supposed to be asking ourselves as we walk away from the film, and Scorsese answers, “How does [a lay person] really express a true Christian life?”
This is the fundamental question we all ask ourselves. How do we do this?
Faith doesn’t make sense sometimes.
The silence of God during unimaginable horror does not make sense. And just as often, many of Christianity’s claims don’t make sense in everyday life, but that’s not why we came to Christianity.
Of course, there are some things we can know. Can we know with absolute certainty that Jesus Christ rose from the dead? There is some good evidence, but I wasn’t there. Can I know with absolute certainty that what Paul wrote is what we have preserved in our English Bibles today? There is some good evidence, but I wasn’t there.
And that’s not to get into how the persons of the Trinity interrelate, or how Christ is both God and man, or what exactly happens—spiritually or physically—during Communion.
We call it faith for a reason. I put my faith in something outside of myself. I put my hope in a God who is there, who is not silent, who is ready to receive me when I die. In the darkness of death we will find deliverance in a deity of love, grace, and rock solid truth.
His name is Jesus, the son of God.
I do not believe in God because I can understand him. I came to God because I needed someone to save me from myself, and that person is Jesus Christ. If there is a God and a heaven, in other words, I’m not good enough to get there, and I need God to get me there on my behalf.
Yet in the darkness of faith, during its silent, visible blackness, there can be a divine spark, a small and growing flame.
In a passage from Charles Spurgeon’s The Soul Winner, he points out what the Christian life is supposed to look like.
Christianity is far more a life than a creed. It is a creed, and it has its ceremonies, but it is mainly a life; it is a divine spark of heaven’s own flame which falls into the human bosom and burns within, consuming much that lies hidden in the soul, and then at last, as a heavenly life, flaming forth, so as to be seen and felt by those around. Under the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, a regenerate person becomes like that bush in Horeb, which was all aglow with Deity. The God within him makes him shine so that the place around him is holy ground, and those who look at him feel the power of his hallowed life.
Somewhere in this story of Silence, we can find that still, small spark of a faithful flame, one whose tiny power overcomes the darkness, if only a little.
Cover image by Michael Benz.