For almost thirty years, one book has obsessed the movie director Martin Scorsese: Silence, the celebrated novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo.  Now, in a lavish $40 million production, Scorsese’s cherished project has come to fruition.

I wrote about Endo’s novel in my book Soul Survivor, and I admit to misgivings about how Endo’s classic work might be treated by the director of such films as Taxi Driver, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Wolf of Wall Street.  To my surprise, Scorsese played it straight, in an Oscar-worthy treatment that closely follows the plot of the novel.  That approach may not help him at the box office, for the average moviegoer may have limited tolerance for a long historical drama about Jesuit priests in Japan.  At the same time, Christians may balk at the honest portrayal of doubt, apostasy, and betrayal.

It would be sad, however, if Silence slips too quickly into the Neverland of Netflix and late-night cable.  Christianity Today called it “one of the best films about Christianity ever made.”  As Andy Crouch and Makoto Fujimura have argued in their respective books, Culture Making and Culture Care, Christians shouldn’t complain about popular culture unless they’re willing to create and to support good alternatives.  Silence presents such an alternative, one that every cinema-loving Christian should see.

Though it depicts events from four centuries ago, Silence seems startlingly relevant for our time.  Government officials crack down on followers of a foreign religion.  A nation turns inward by sealing its borders and embargoing trade.  Zealots behead, crucify, and torture Christians unless they recant.  That is the setting for Silence.

At one point in history Japan seemed the most fruitful mission field in Asia.  Francis Xavier, one of the seven original Jesuits, established a church there in 1549, and within a generation the number of Christians had swelled to 300,000.  As that century came to an end, though, the ruling shoguns’ suspicion of foreigners, exacerbated by the rivalry among missionary groups, led to a change in policy.  The warlords expelled the Jesuits and required that all Christians renounce their faith and register as Buddhists. The age of Japanese Christian martyrs had begun.

In an honor culture that exalts conformity, the fumie plaque—a bronze portrait of Jesus enclosed in a small wooden frame—became the ultimate test of faith.  Japanese who made a public display of stepping on the fumie were pronounced apostate Christians and set free.  Those who refused, the warlords hunted down and killed, in the most successful extermination attempt in church history.  In scenes graphic though not gratuitous, Scorsese’s movie depicts the various torture techniques.  Some believers were tied to stakes in the sea to await the high tides that would gradually drown them, while others were bound and tossed off rafts; some were scalded in boiling hot springs, and still others were hung upside down, their ears slit to ensure a slow death from bleeding.

“The blood of Christians is the seed of the church,” said Tertullian.  Not so in Japan, where the blood of the martyrs was nearly the annihilation of the church.  As the title intimates, the theme of silence pervades the novel.  Over one hundred times Rodrigues, the central character (played by Andrew Garfield in the movie), sees the haunting face of Jesus, a face he loves and serves.  Yet the face does not speak.  It remains silent when the priest is chained to a tree to watch the Christians die, silent when he asks for guidance on whether to step on the fumie to set them free, and silent when he prays alone in his cell at night.

Endo later complained that the publisher’s choice of title, Silence, was misleading.  In fact, God does speak in the novel.  Here is the decisive scene when silence is broken, at the very moment when the foreign priest contemplates whether to step on the fumie in order to save the Japanese converts. 

“It is only a formality.  What do formalities matter?”  The interpreter urges him on excitedly.  “Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.”

The priest raises his foot.  In it he feels a dull, heavy pain.  This is no mere formality.  He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the  dreams of man.  How his foot aches!  And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample!  Trample!  I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot.  Trample!  It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.  It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

 The priest placed his foot on the fumie.  Dawn broke.  And far in the distance the cock crew.

Endo speaks to the inner person, where lie buried the feelings of shame and rejection that the average Japanese must endure in a culture that prescribes proper external behavior regardless of one’s inner beliefs or feelings.  Ask any Japanese the difference between honne, what takes place on the inside, and tatemae, what others see on the outside, and they will nod knowingly.  Ask any American, for that matter, or any human still breathing.  Endo explores the crevices of failure and betrayal that we all live with, and often seek to hide.  In doing so, Endo sheds new light on the Christian faith—at once a harshly revealing light that exposes what we try to conceal, and also a healing light that dispels what lurks in shadow.

Silence centers on the secrets that all of us hide: pornography, casual cheating, lies, buried resentments, family conflicts, addictions.  It brings them into stark relief in a stunning tale of betrayal.  It reminds us of a Servant who suffered the ultimate betrayal and then founded his church on the backs of one such traitor, the apostle who swore he never knew him; and on another, a professional torturer of Christians, who became “the apostle to the Gentiles”; and who prayed for his murderers, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  In the end, Silence is about God’s grace for the undeserving, which includes us all.

The reviewer on RogerEbert.com gave the film four out of four stars, saying, “Silence is a monumental work, and a punishing one.  It puts you through hell with no promise of enlightenment, only a set of questions and propositions, sensations and experiences.…This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’  It’s a film that you experience and then live with.”

The movie raises many probing questions, and I suggest seeing it with friends and then scheduling some discussion time afterward.  I mentioned the artist Makoto Fujimura, who has written an excellent book, Silence and Beauty.  Mako also offers some introductory videos and a free discussion guide, which you can download from this website: silenceandbeauty.com.

If you are expecting a one-dimensional, happy-ending Christian story, save your money.  Perhaps it took a director like Scorsese, with his lurid body of work, to plumb the depths of grace.  Perhaps, just perhaps, in this sobering movie, the message of amazing grace might get through.

 

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13 responses to “Grace in Silence”

  1. David Graham says:

    Forgot to post this link for interested readers:

    http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/1996/janfeb/6b103b.html?paging=off

  2. David Graham says:

    I hope to be able to see the movie this year. I’ve read “Silence” and thought that Endo effectively portrayed the theme that humans have struggled with for eons: God’s silence. I wonder how many Christians in the Soviet Gulags that Solzhenitsyn wrote of struggled with this issue? Of course, these disturbing questions (“Is God unfair? Is God silent? Is God Hidden” as “Disappointment with God” phrased them) arise around the globe and down through the ages. I hope the movie will be just as provocative as Endo’s book was. Thanks for dedicating a blog to this book (and this theme).

  3. Don Allison says:

    Rev 14:9-12 jumped to my mind as I read Endo’s book. Is taking the “mark of the beast” similar to stepping on the fumie? Philip, I have learned so much about the beautiful grace of God from reading your books. If it is true that, “there is nothing that I can do to lose my salvation, b/c there was nothing I did to “earn” it”, how do you deal with this passage in Revelation?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I don’t equate the mark of the beast with the fumie. God judges the heart, and to me the movie makes clear that the priest had not forfeited his heart. As for the quote, “there is nothing…” I don’t believe that’s mine. –Philip

  4. Greg Denholm says:

    I saw the film on the strength of your recommendation, Philip, and have now re-read your blog post. I was devastated when Andrew Garfield’s character stepped on the plaque. So much more to say but I need time (and silence) to process it. Perhaps that’s why there are so few responses to this blog post?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      We should be disturbed–and yet how is Garfield’s character different from Peter and the other disciples? I sense grace underlying the betrayal, and the final scene seems to bear that out. I hope you spend some time on Mako Fujiumura’s site, silenceandbeauty.com. –Philip

      • Greg Denholm says:

        Wow, I love this! A thoughtful conversation with my favourite author ever, who just happens to be on the other side of the planet (I’m in Adelaide, Australia).

        I certainly do see a parallel between Peter’s betrayal and that of Garfield’s character, Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues. However, without wanting to question Jesus’ grace (of which I need plenty), I wonder whether the words ascribed to him in the film—he urges Sebastião to step on the plaque apparently as an expression of reliance rather than apostasy—ring true. When Peter denied knowing his Lord for the third time, Jesus looked straight at him, whereupon he ran away into the night in shame and bitterness of soul. There hadn’t been any re-framing of his denial. Though it was born of a very natural desire for self-preservation that we can all understand, it was nevertheless an act of disloyalty and cowardice that necessitated later restorative words from Jesus (John 21).

        In light of this, is it legitimate to cast Sebastião’s apparent repudiation of Jesus as an act of obedient faith—an admission of weakness and thus an opening of the way for Jesus’ power to be made perfect in him (2 Cor 12:9)? No one who saw Sebastião step on the plaque had his insight into its re-framed meaning, so it cannot have been an act of witness in its context. Moreover, the many Christians before Sebastião who suffered the torturous consequences of not stepping on the plaque might have appreciated a timely word from their Lord too.

  5. Rachel says:

    On a related note, Pastor Andrew Brunson, a Wheaton College alum, has been unjustly imprisoned in Turkey for months. If you feel compelled, please use your respected voice to spread awareness of this petition to ask for Pastor Brunson’s liberation.

  6. Ken Davis says:

    Philip, Your writing always challenges me to think more deeply. The dilemma of the priest reminded me of a book I must re-read in light of your reflections. As a friend and author you also challenge me to believe and trust more deeply.

  7. Dennis J. Hassell says:

    As further affirmation of the power of SILENCE, I’d encourage people to read the Christianity Today article ( based on AmericaMagazine.com interview) about this film’s central actor, Andrew Garfield, regarding his personal encounter with Christ through his job as an artist (“I fell in love with Jesus”). Every story teller who includes Christ in their story will likely get more than they bargained for.

    In Denys Arcand’s movie, JESUS OF MONTREAL, the title character is an actor studying his passion play character, Christ. He says to a librarian “I’m looking for Jesus”.

    The archivist replies, “Don’t worry. He’ll find you.”

  8. Steven Toshio Yamaguchi says:

    Thanks for this reflection.
    Here is an interview with Mr. Scorsese that shines light on his motives and the trajectory of his filmmaking.
    https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/conversation-martin-scorsese/?utm_campaign=scorsese-silence-qa&utm_medium=homepage-hero&utm_source=fuller-dot-edu&utm_content=fujimura-and-scorsese-and-callaway&utm_term=
    Looking forward to having you at Fuller this week for Culture Care!

  9. Steve Mittelstaedt says:

    I just saw this movie last night and it is a must see. Unfortunately it is currently a challenge to find anywhere but large urban markets.

    Most Christian art about suffering seems to be hagiography that transforms the unbearable into tidy glow-in-the-dark heroics. Or it some happy-clappy smothering of evil in an all-better-now ending.

    Silence, in contrast, looks suffering squarely in the face. And Christ steps into space and time and experienced it with us.

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