- Jake Harris American-Statesman Staff
“Silence,” Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the Japanese novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, opened in Austin last week. Long touted as Scorsese’s most passionate passion project, the nearly three-hour epic finds the director who once considered a life in the priesthood again examining age-old questions of faith and doubt.
The book it’s based on, written in 1966 and translated to English in 1969, is a tale of two Portuguese Jesuits — Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe — who venture to 17th-century Japan to find their mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira, rumored to have given up the faith under the crushing weight of Japan’s persecution of Christians.
The book has been considered a hallmark of religious fiction since its release and has sparked multiple stage and film adaptations besides Scorsese’s.
Darren Middleton, a professor of religion at Texas Christian University, has studied and taught Endo’s “Silence” at the college level for nearly 20 years and also routinely teaches classes on Jesus in fiction and film and theology and literature. When rumors about the long-gestating Scorsese adaptation became reality, he saw the opportunity to comment on a new phase of the novel’s life and put together an essay anthology.
“Approaching Silence: New Perspectives on Shusaku Endo,” edited by Middleton and Mark W. Dennis, was published in 2015 and features works from some of the most prominent scholars on Endo’s work. It even features an afterword from Scorsese.
“I wrote a book about ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ back in 2005 and I got (Scorsese) to do an afterword on that, so I figured he’d want to be involved in this one, too,” Middleton said.
“Endo’s novel confronts the mystery of Christian faith, and by extension the mystery of faith itself,” Scorsese writes in the afterword.
Middleton, himself a recent convert to Catholicism, says he thinks “Silence” continues to strike a chord as a subject because of its importance to Christians who are looking for an outlet that understands their faith as well as their doubt.
A key plot point in “Silence” is Rodrigues’ struggle with whether to renounce his faith and trample on a fumi-e, a bronze icon with the face of Christ or Mary on it, in order to save the lives of his parishioners who are being persecuted by the Japanese government.
“I think it endures because I think thoughtful Christians, those who ponder their faith seriously, can find a series of themes that are rooted in Catholic history but also call out to us from across the centuries, and they have applicability to our lives,” Middleton said. “When I can see a Jesus who is human, and a priest who is human, who is struggling with their faith, it gives me hope for my struggle. It makes me feel like I’m not alone. Now I know it’s OK to struggle with my faith. My faith is not meant to be perfect, and it can’t be this side of the grave.
“At its core, the book and the film are asking the question: What would Jesus do? In some ways, it’s a cliche, like those groovy little WWJD bracelets that people used to wear. But it’s the age-old question, what would Christ do in any given situation? The problem, of course, is that the answer is not clear-cut, and it’s never really been clear-cut.”
Scorsese’s “Silence” is the first film about religion to go into wide release in 2017, a year that will see the release of a film adaptation of “The Shack” and a biopic of famed Christian apologist Lee Strobel, among others. Middleton hasn’t seen the film yet, but he’s excited about what it might do for Christian theatergoers.
“I certainly understand the draw of ‘feel-good’ Christian movies,” he said. “They tend toward edification, for the most part, since they appear to give glory to God and because they seek to inspire the faithful.
“But, if Jesus the Christ challenges Christians to take up their cross and follow him, is it not instructive to see what this might look like, in the flesh-and-blood descriptive way that films offer, however arduous or difficult the movie is to watch? I think so.
“It’s important for Christians to see films, and to read novels, that challenge them instead of reinforcing their beliefs. …Try not to settle. Churchy echo chambers serve no one. Not really. And part of loving the Lord with all one’s mind involves considering those questions whose answers do not come easily, if they come at all.”