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Weekend at the Movies: Silence

Sunday, January 15, 2017

With most movies there are points at which you are supposed to laugh, or maybe even cheer.  Martin Scorsese's new movie Silence is not lacking for a few of those, even while being a very deep, theological work.  The problem is you have to be 'devout' in a sense to perceive them.  There were probably 50 or so people in the theater Saturday afternoon when my wife and I watched the movie.  At once place in particular - and then at a similar point later - we had to stifle our laughs because it just seemed the rest of the audience did not quite get the joke.

It will not spoil the movie for me to share the moment.  To most Christians - and certainly to devout Catholics - the practice of grace before a meal is simply part of the rhythm of life.  The two young Jesuit priests - the movie tells the story from their perspective - who beg to search out their mentor in Japan in the midst of the severe persecution of the early 1600's - have been taken in by underground Christians.  Their hosts offer what little food they have, and being hungry from the trip, the priests scarf it down - while the poor underground Christians pause, waiting for them to bless the food.  They quickly realize their faux pas, rush through the Sign of the Cross, and say grace.

My wife and I really had to stifle our laughter.  At our dinner table the game is on as we wait to see who will dig in before grace is said.  That person ends up being the one to say grace, and they are not allowed to wait until they finish their bite.  And then we light-heartedly mock the way they mumble through their prayer with their mouth full.  (Full disclosure: I am usually the one who 'loses' the game. Thank you Lord for good food and great company.  Amen.)

As a Christian with a formal educational background in theology and church history - especially the history of Christianity in Asia - Silence is an absolutely magnificent movie.  I imagine, though, that it will be hard to appreciate it for those not steeped in some of the traditions and history.  Here are a few places I liked most:

When the two Jesuit priests first encounter someone on the Japanese island they have been brought to from China there is a certain tension.  Will this person turn them in?  The tension is broken by the Sign of the Cross.  This is a beautiful enactment of actual history.  The 'Sign of the Cross' is observed by using right hand to touch the forehead, chest (heart), the left shoulder, then the right shoulder.  Today it is associated with prayer - at the beginning and end.  I also recall living in the Philippines, riding on a Jeepney being driven incredibly fast and rather recklessly.  I think every single passenger did the Sign of the Cross numerous times...  It has been handed down from the earliest Christians in the Roman Empire.  It was originally something of a 'secret handshake' they used to identify themselves to each other in passing, but in a way which avoided notice of others and the authorities.

The movie also shows something I have seen first hand; it is something that has always bothered me.

Whether it arise from Roman Catholic theology about the 'Real Presence' of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Eucharist - which can only be offered by a priest - or in the tendency of Protestant missionaries to use technology to impress and gather an audience, there is this sense that something is 'missing' when the priest/missionary is gone.  If anything, the history of Christianity in Asia teaches us the exact opposite.

In this period, roughly the 17th century, there was a rivalry between the Jesuit missionaries on one hand and the Franciscans and Dominicans on the other.  The rivalry is best documented in the controversy surrounding the mission of Matteo Ricci in China.  Instead of attempting to 'convert' the Chinese, Ricci took the time to learn the language and traditions. He was an astronomer and cartographer, and used the implements of these disciplines to bring something in which the Confucian intellectuals would find value.  As a result, Ricci discovered many aspects of Chinese thought which corresponded well to Christian thought.  Instead of coining foreign Latinism when translating the Bible, Ricci borrowed terms native to China and sought to fill them with new meaning.  The Franciscans and Dominicans - mainly in Japan - attempted the opposite.  The history of Christianity in Japan is very much a history of misunderstandings resulting from this choice.

Additionally, Ricci taught that reverence for deceased ancestors was not 'worship' in the sense understood by Christians, and as such was perfectly acceptable for a Chinese Christian.  Worship of 'God' for the Chinese was something the Emperor did on behalf of the people.  And in a figurative sense, the Chinese people were thought to be descendants of the Emperor.  For them, reverence of their forbears was 'worship by proxy' (my term) in a very hierarchical sense which worked up to the Emperor, who worshiped 'God'.

This matter of what kind of language would be used when translating Scripture and teaching, and the matter of reverence for deceased ancestors, was disputed between the Jesuits and Franciscans/Dominicans.  The dispute went all the way up to a number of different Popes.  Clement XI banned the use of native language in theology and rites for the dead in 1704, even though the Dominicans and Franciscans had come to agree with the Jesuits.

It is likely the Franciscans and Dominicans came to see things as did the Jesuits because of the persistent misunderstandings - and persecutions - experienced in Japan.  But the real story here is not what became of either China nor Japan.  The real story is what became of Christianity in Korea.

John Ross, a Protestant missionary in China, was the first to translate the New Testament into Korean.  Korea, much like Japan, was a closed society which highly prized self-reliance and development.  Ross was not able to gain entry into Korea, but was able to get his translation of the New Testament in.  When translating the New Testament, Ross used Ricci's approach and used native terms, trusting that time would allow new meanings to develop for those words.  On the Roman Catholic side, Korean Confucian intellectuals had received word of Matteo Ricci and his teachings on astronomy and cartography.  His maps of that part of the world were especially of interest, so they traveled to Peking to meet Ricci.  They returned with a very rudimentary understanding, and some implements, of the Catholic Mass.

Hundreds of years later, when French Catholic missionaries made it into Korea, they were shocked to discover the Mass already being celebrated - even if in a very rudimentary way.  Similarly, when Protestant missionaries arrived they were shocked to find the New Testament already well-known and some simple Christian communities already existing.  In Korea, because Christianity developed in the absence of foreign missionaries, it did not suffer from being viewed as a 'foreign' religion.  Indeed, in World War II under the efforts of Imperial Japan to "japanize" Korea, Christian churches and schools were considered guardians of Korean culture and language.  Today, the Korean church is considered a 'deposit' not only of faith, but of Korean patriotism.

In Silence, the two Jesuit priests are seeking their former mentor, who is believed to have abandoned the faith under persecution.  When they find him, the dialog which ensues is fascinating - but you have to know a little of the back story above to really appreciate it.

The central struggle of the movie is with the desire to 'hear' from God only to be met with 'silence'.  I'll try here to prepare the reader to appreciate how the movie grapples with this without giving it away.  There is a character in the movie who you will begin to ridicule.  Look for that character, because once you encounter him or her, then watch for how the answer to the conundrum of the silence of God emerges from that character toward the end of the movie.

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