Martin Scorsese's Silence, and Our Strange New Evangelical America
- - - Spoilers about the film Silence below - - -
When I first heard Andrew Peterson's song “The Silence of God,” I was stunned. It was so bare. I wondered if it was even heretical.
I had never heard anything like that song because I had grown up in Southern Baptist churches singing lyrics that focused on moments of “feeling” God.
“Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” we harmonized together on hot summer nights. The last verse would be a cappella so that we could revel in our intimacy.
I would sometimes wear shorts to the evening services, and my bare, little kid legs would stick to the old varnish on the balcony pews. I remember peeling them off one at a time while shutting my eyes, trying to feel the “brush of angels’ wings,” trying “see glory on each face.”
I always assumed that glory was a sort of shimmery glow? Sometimes I would peek to scan the crowd and find an old, bald, fat man sweating, glistening and smiling, praising God, and I would guess this was close enough to count.
A middle-aged woman with a teased-out mass of hair sang about a garden in which the Lord walked with her. I knew about gardens. They were places of hot, hard, dirty work. You couldn't walk through them without twisting your ankles on mud clods.
I had worked rows of green beans while sweat bees stung the backs of my knees. I'd pinched tomato worms in half, and flicked spiders off my arms. I'd thrown half-rotted tomatoes that left my fingers smelling bad like grenades that exploded on the back of my little brother's t-shirt.
But the garden this woman sang about was different. She seemed to take easy walks there in the mornings while the dew was still on the roses. Jesus somehow walked and talked with people openly there, so I got the impression that the Lord must like manicured, Edenic gardens better than pragmatic rows of hairy okra and sweet corn. As she sang, her voice would shake with vibrato, and some of the old people would cry and nod their heads.
The pastor would pray, "Father God, just show up tonight, Father God. And Father God, be here among us."
I was confused by this because I knew God was supposed to be omnipresent. "Did He leave?" I thought. "Is he gone?"
Later in life, I found the phrase "all language is metaphorical" in a book--and I took a big sigh of relief to see someone name the gap between words and reality. But back then, I was troubled by the constant reaching of our descriptions--particularly in church.
I knew God was among us. These adults did too. But we were asking for the moment in which you see Him clearly, the electric flash of the transcendent, the confirmation of the Pillar of Fire. We were children crying out in the night to a parent because we needed to hear His voice again.
I knew those moments of confirmation existed because even as a child I had had a few experiences with what I believed to be God. People who don’t know Jesus will probably think I’m talking about a surge of animal joy hormone, but it wasn’t like that. I've had animal joy hormone surges.
This wasn’t just pleasure. When God showed up He gave a moment or two of clear wisdom. The emotion wasn't just happiness, it was a giddy, vibrant love of purity—not purity like we talk about purity--not just the stingy restraint of impulses. This was the completion of what all your impulses are trying to find in the first place.
This was "pure" in the same way refined metal is pure, a refined fullness (not a lack) and a merriment that has no small percentage of disappointment in it. We think of purity as forfeiting delight, but this was delight in full measure, packed down dense like brown sugar in a cup. Unlike those awful, boring images of fat cherubs sitting on dull clouds, I could see how whatever this was would draw me into adventures forever.
It was “There You are!” All as it was meant to be, just for a second or two.
I suppose that "You" was the Holy Spirit, but if it was--whatever the Holy Spirit was, I couldn’t seem to hold on to those moments in which He seemed so obvious.
Once they were over, my heart ached as if most of the color had gone out of the world. A ping of a pure note on a glass crystal, and then diminishment into the quiet, I couldn’t understand why that sensation had to cease. Why would He let us taste this, then disappear?
I’ve since read thoughts by theologians about the growth value of long spans in which God leaves us in silence, but if I remember correctly, the first time I ever encountered someone wrestling with the concept wasn't in a book, but in Andrew’s song.
He was the first person I heard admit, “I can’t hear God’s voice right now, and that's terrible and it's scary.”
It's enough to drive a man crazy
It'll break a man's faith
It's enough to make him wonder
If he's been sane
When he's bleating for comfort
From Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heavens' only answer
Is the silence of God
And it'll shake a man's timbers
When he loses his heart
When he has to remember
What broke him apart
And this yoke may be easy
But this burden is not
And the crying fields are frozen
By the silence of God
If a man has got to listen
To the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes
Of all the happiness they've got
When they tell you all their troubles
Have been nailed up to that cross
What about the times when even
Followers get lost
'Cause we all get lost sometimes
If you know this song, you know these last stanzas don't finish it off. But even hearing this much, I felt a strange sort of relief wash over me. Until he verbalized it, I hadn’t realized that all those years of religious-speak, all those appeals for God to "show up” had made me feel pressure to find continual signs of His engagement.
I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear someone I trusted say, “When God is silent--and that's often enough for me to write a song about it--I feel disappointed and lost.”
Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, was another one of those moments for me. Among other things, this is a film about faith attempting to survive long expanses of Divine quiet. The film reveals how we expect God to show up, how He does show up instead, and the human weaknesses that appear in the massive gaps between those two realities.
Unlike Christian movies in which God provides some sort of "I have arrived" moment-- God does not show up here with a new pickup truck, a much-desired pregnancy, or a restored marriage. The God of this film lets His children wrestle with years of suffering in relative silence. Because of this, we watch people who are trying to obey Him strain and grieve--desperate for confirmation during impossible times.
There are so many angles to this film, but I’m just going to focus on the one most personal to me in this post: the traumatic impact of an older follower of Christ who abandons his pure faith.
The film opens describing the work of Christovao Ferreira, a legendary Jesuit priest who has spent 15 years attempting to evangelize Japan. Ferreira was iconic to believers at the time. Your denomination’s equivalent might be N.T. Wright, Billy Graham, John Piper, or Francis Chan—but whoever that hero is, Ferreira was this sort of leader. He was so solid, so certain, so strong that every young priest knew that he would not sell out for any reason.
When news hits Portugal that Ferreira has apostasized, Rodrigues and a fellow priest believe the news is a dirty rumor. So, the two leave home to scour Japan in an attempt to dispel the disheartening story. It is a dangerous mission, likely to lead to death, but the two young men are idealistic and devoted, and they know how important it is to to the global church reclaim Ferreira's reputation.
After arriving in Japan, the two young priests grieve to see believers tortured and slaughtered. As they experience emotional and spiritual torment, they stumble; they fail. But over and again, they rise up again in their faith to try to follow God once more.
When Rodrigues is captured by Japanese officials, his opponents try to break his faith repeatedly. The young priests heart crumbles, and he wavers on insanity, but he continues to hold fast. At last, the Japanese leaders bring his suffering to a climax -- a meeting with Ferreira.
In this meeting, Rodrigues finds that Ferreira has truly apostasized. His hero is now a Buddhist, writing a book about the great lie of Christianity. His former hero begins to discourage Rodrigues from his own belief, arguing against the gospel and its ability to saturate Japan.
Ferreira urges Rodrigues to give up his faith, to compromise, to conform. Rodrigues is devastated, but he holds fast.
The Japanese could kill Rodrigues, but for strategic purposes, they want him to abandon his faith instead. So, they place Rodrigues in a holding cell where he can hear the gasps and wails of other believers being tortured. He is told that these Christians will be persecuted until Rodrigues denies his faith.
As he praying for strength and wisdom, he finds words of praise carved into his cell wall. Laudate Eum (Praise Him). He runs his fingers into the grooves and appeals desperately to the Lord for courage and fortitude. At this moment, Ferreira enters the cell and explains to Rodrigues that those praises were carved by himself before his denial of the faith.
It is a hellish scene of betrayal and temptation. Ferreira urges Rodrigues to see how selfish it is to maintain an idealistic belief that causes others to suffer. He urges Rodrigues to see that apostasy is altruistic. He builds a case for joining with the leaders of the world out of love of the masses.
Of all the torment Rodrigues endures, this betrayal of a former hero is the worst. This man who had once led him in steadfast belief is now leading him to abandon it. It is more than Rodrigues can bear.
As I sat in the theater watching all of this, I was blown away. The timing was more than a little ironic.
Just a few moments before watching this film, I had been talking with a friend about how distraught we have felt this past year. So many people my age feel abandoned by our own older faith heroes. In dire national circumstances, we have watched several of our evangelical heroes abandon the ideals they have taught us--urging us to make alliances with forces hostile to our faith.
They have told us that this is loving. They have told us to do this for the good of the people.
Values they once encouraged us to embrace in the face of all opposition have now been discarded for what they now claim to be a greater cause. They mock us for being too committed to impractical standards. They tell us to wake up, to open our eyes, to give up our old, innocent way of looking at the world.
But before our very eyes, some of these men seem to have changed into different sorts of beings. We recognize their faces, but we no longer recognize their hearts. Their language is different, soured, horrifying. They twist the stories of our Scripture to suit their new causes.
Watching this has taken our knees out from under us.
I’m not going to get more specific than that, nor am I going to dig into what happens in the end of the film here. But I will say that this movie (among other things) helped me to understand why the last few months have broken my heart so deeply. Watching my heroes conform to the ideals of the world has been too much for my heart to bear.
These men ask us to "leave well enough alone" and move on. But we aren't sulking. We aren't pouting. We feel like we have watched people we trusted and imitated trample on the gospel. And we feel like they have called out and asked us to do the same.
So many people claim to know exactly what God is doing these days, but I will tell you the truth. I don’t. My perceptions might be all wrong.
I don't know if God is being silent, or if I have misheard Him, or if He spoke through tears of grief at a rainy inauguration ceremony. Maybe those raindrops were a particular Divine blessing like Franklin Graham indicated. I think it's also possible that rain fell on our new President because of a weather front that had nothing to do with a change in national leadership. God's kindness falls on the just and the unjust alike.
Time will tell, I suppose.
I do know that I’m profoundly disappointed in some of my old heroes. I know that I no longer recognize our strange, new evangelical America. And even though scores of people around me believe that I am too sensitive, I think it is right to be disappointed. Watching your heroes distort truth is no small thing. God holds leaders to a higher standard because heroes falling creates aftershocks that can trickle through an entire generation of young believers.
A huge lightning bolt of God's appearance didn't show up at the end of this film, but I left the theater feeling like I felt when I first heard Andrew Peterson's lyric. I walked away affirmed that it was not wrong to be sincere, not wrong to be sad, and that it was even okay to sit alone in the quiet and wait for an honest manifestation of God's presence instead of letting immediate needs force me to rush in to claim what He isn't and what He hasn't done. (What was that brilliant line about realizing that God was actually all round and about us? I'm saving that angle for another essay, but it was beautiful)
God's name is holy, even when He seems silent. In those expanses, I do not want to use it in vain. It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord, but I would rather wait in the dangerous quiet for what He truly is than grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf.
There's a statue of Jesus
On a monestary knoll
In the hills of Kentucky
All quiet and cold
And He's kneeling in the garden
Silent as a stone
And all His friends are sleeping
And He's weeping all alone
And the man of all sorrows
He never forgot
What sorrow is carried
By the hearts that He bought
So when the questions dissolve
Into the silence of God
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo
Of the silence of God