Silence: Hiddenness, Ambiguity, and Beauty in Faith
I watched the movie Silence with a few friends. It’s about two Jesuit priests who go to Japan as missionaries in the 1600s.
The story doesn’t end happy. Neither does it end conclusively. My friend James had said it was one of his favorite movies, so as the credits slid across the black screen I asked him, “Why is it your favorite movie?”
James is fourth generation Japanese-American, but I didn’t expect his Japanese-ness to effect the answer so much. He said he loved the themes of hiddenness, of ambiguity, of beauty.
Beauty? Where was beauty in Christians being tortured and priests being forced to apostatize to save their flock?
But I listened as he shared the hiddenness of Japanese culture, how Japanese have one face they show to the world and one face they show at home. He shared about the culture’s stubbornness, its resoluteness to see things through to perfection—completion. If a culture felt a religion was dangerous, it would go to colossal extremes to rid it from their home.
He shared how the cultural hiding exhibited itself in his own family. His great-grandparents had lived in United States internment camps during World War II. His great-grandparents never talked about it. It wasn’t that they lived in denial or ignored the pain of trauma. They just kept it hidden.
Like the priests and followers of Jesus in 1600s Japan kept their faith hidden—even as they publicly apostatize and worshiped in a Buddhist temple.
The ambiguity was in the inability to discern a right or wrong answer. As we asked one another what we would do if we found ourselves in the same situation, none of us could say how we would respond. Would we publicly renounce Christ and keep our faith secret? Would we die torturous deaths in the name of Christ?
Then James spoke about beauty. I don’t remember everything he said about this, but I do remember him saying he loved how beautiful the scenery of the film was. I hadn’t noticed it. Or at least, it had been subconscious. What a beautiful backdrop to a horrific world.
When I watched the film with my white, North American eyes, I didn’t know what to think. When I watched through the eyes of my Japanese-American friend, suddenly it was a powerful story, and one I didn’t need to make sense. The power was in the story itself—not the ending.
Is it a result of North American culture that we want happy endings? And don’t ever show what happens after? After the prince takes the princess home, do we know what their life is like? Do they fight over the kids and have to put up boundaries with their in-laws? Do they have money struggles or health issues? Do they get divorced?
I’ll admit I don’t always want to know. I like the image of horses riding in green fields, the capes of the prince and princess flowing behind them. The sun sets. The music plays. The credits roll.
The monsters are gone for good. They never come back.
In real life, there are always monsters. And they don’t always go away. Maybe they don’t torture you with boiling water while your family watches. But they force you to choose between hiding or dying.
Which poses the question, is hiding a form of dying?
The lack of one solid answer can drive a person mad—but for faith. The sort of faith that can’t be named or recorded or even explained. I think, it can only be captured in a story. A story like Silence that follows a man who struggles with God’s silence—his seeming absence in pain. The man asks repeatedly, as he sees person after person murdered horrifically, “Why do you make these people suffer this much?”
But I believe both American and Japanese cultures reveal a truth. While one lens can understand a world of suffering, where things go unexplained without conclusion, the other can understand a desire and pursuit of happiness.
Both are true. We live in a world where there is ambiguity, a world fraught with pain and sorrow that can’t be explained away. A world where trust in God’s faithfulness is often all that remains.
We also live in a world that longs for happy endings. Because a happy ending is coming someday—even if we don’t see it today. We live in a world that contains beauty and rest, even while we suffer.
Both are true.