“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28
On Friday, July 26th, the American Evangelical Christian community was shocked by the sudden announcement that one of the most influential pastors of the past two decades was walking away from his faith. Joshua Harris, the one-time acclaimed author of the massively successful book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, announced on Instagram he has “undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ and the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me there is a different way to practice faith, and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.”
The announcement was met with surprise by many Christians who read his book at a young age, like me. Some pastors have gone on record disreputing his stances and the negative effects his book has had on young Christians. Whatever you think of former Pastor Harris and his books, the tragedy is someone who once dedicated his entire life to Christ has fallen away deeply and may never return to the church.
Certainly, this isn’t the most turbulent thing that’s happened in the church of late. Just last year, the Catholic Church was exposed in yet another massive coverup of pedophilia. On the Protestant side, things aren’t any better. There are more regularly reported cases of abuse in Protestant churches than in Catholic Churches. Willow Creek church, one of the largest congregations in the United States, was revealed to have paid out over $3 million in settlements over child abuse by a church volunteer which resulted in the entire Elder staff resigning. If you want to know just how bad of a state the church is in, consider the most effective proselytizer for the church is the non-religious Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson whose psychological study of religion and modernity has led to thousands returning to faith. The church as we know it is in shambles.
Is it worth mourning over the loss of one pastor? If the angels in Heaven celebrate every soul saved, then it stands to reason they weep for every soul lost. We’re all immortal beings and our souls will outlast the Earth. It’s a tragedy when any soul leaves, but he was one that touched thousands of Christians and changed the way they looked at interacting with one another. For those who’ve read his book, it leaves those in his wake to reconsider the validity of his words and the subsequent decisions they made in their lives. It makes it easier to doubt the same faith we followed.
This leads us to the topic of this article: The testing of faith. Of all the stories I’ve read and watched, Silence, in both its book and film adaptation, may be one of the greatest stories ever told about the testing of faith. For those who aren’t familiar with the book, it’s often read in seminaries and concerns the fictional story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests as they set off on a journey to travel to 16th century Imperial Japan at a time when Catholics were being persecuted by the government.
As the story unfolds, we trace the inner monologue of one of the Priests as he performs rites for peasant Christians, is eventually captured by the government, and forced to publicly repent as to avoid making him a martyr. In order to break him, his faith is tested as he’s forced to watch dozens of peasant Christians tortured around him until he agrees to step on an image of Christ and convert to Buddism.
It’s easily the most powerful story of the failure of faith ever written, and it poses some of the most difficult questions of faith a Christian can ever ask himself. Why is God silent? Why is God testing me, specifically? Is it wrong to relinquish my faith for others to survive? Does a minor blasphemy damn my soul? When am I saved? Why are some people made to suffer more than others? Why does God leave entire cultures alienated from his word? All of these represent some of the greatest challenges to faith ever conceived, and as we see in the film, it can drive a man to desperation and failure.
The book was written by Japanese Christian Shusaku Endo, one of the greatest Japanese writers of the 20th century. His entire bibliography deals with similar themes of Christian identity, national identity, and faith. Being a Christian in Japan is, after all, a very lonely experience. The Christian population of the country is only 1% today. Historically, the Japanese government feared deeply how foreign colonial interference from European might damage Japanese culture and cut it off at the root for centuries until 1853.
The book happened to fall into the hands of director Martin Scorsese during the filming of Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams. When the legendary director handed him a copy of Endo’s book as a gift during his trip, his overwhelming reaction to the book set him on a three-decade journey to convince Hollywood to finance an adaptation. The movie finally hit theaters in late 2016 to a relative thud in the box office. Evidently, people want to see his movies when there is fast-paced sex and violence, but don’t want to endure three hours of existential musings. Those who did go out of their way to see it found what turned out to be one of the most spiritually challenging and engrossing films about Christianity ever made. That’s amazing considering it’s coming from the same director as The Last Temptation of Christ (which I was rebuked by a Christian friend for writing positively about).
What’s worth remembering about Martin Scorsese is he’s not a director who’s traditionally been well received by Christians. He’s always been a counter-cultural force. He makes movies about violent, sexualized criminals and psychopaths who curse and commit adultery. On the surface, it’s hard for Christians who prefer gentler dramas and faith-affirming movies to get behind. That said, Scorsese has never fully repudiated the culture he’s long been at odds with. To paraphrase Bob Chipman, if you could summarize his filmography in two words they’d be “Catholic guilt.” While his work has always been defined by an air of sex, drugs, and rock and roll (See: Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Wolf of Wallstreet), his work has always carried with it a moralistic vision charting the consequences of moral failure.
It’s not surprising then that something like Silence would mean so much to the director that he would spend the better part of three decades going out of his way to try and adapt it. It’s a story that captures a different kind of moral failure, but also captures a powerful internal monologue of one man’s struggle with human suffering. Scorsese’s film adaptation beautifully captures the scope and depth of the book while changing it enough to be a slightly different artistic statement.
While it cuts the book’s monologue down to make the story function on film, it also adds dialog and depth to its plethora of minor characters to add to the story’s setup and how it plays out. At times, some of these decisions come off as apocryphal, especially the film’s entirely original final shot which recontextualizes the fundamental questions of the story in strange, potentially blasphemous ways. While the stories do diverge at points, what’s important is the depth to which both versions respect the inherent questions of faith. Neither Shusaku Endo or Martin Scorsese are being flippant with their versions of the story. All throughout, it’s asking questions about our ability to endure the unendurable and make impossible moral decisions I’m thankful I’ll likely never be cursed to have to make. Yet the movie isn’t shy about the fact some people do have to make these decisions.
Maybe the most important inclusion in both stories is the side story of Kichijiiro, a foolish apostate who appears at multiple points in both versions of the story. At every point he’s pressured to, he publicly blasphemes the image of Christ to save his own life before running back to the priest begging forgiveness. It would be annoying if it hadn’t turned out he was one of the most tragic characters in the film. In one of his monologues, he exclaims he doesn’t understand why God has given him such difficult trials. He says if God had placed him in a peaceful time, he could’ve been a good Christian, but faced with torture and death, he’s incapable of standing for him. Is he not relatable to most of us?
The central conflict, of course, belongs to Father Rodriguez. His is the perspective that both the book and film follow. The conflicts the story manifests are all outgrowths of his inner journey from a man of God to a man forced to rebuke his faith. In some ways, that journey is quite artificial. He’s not inheriting moral quandaries so much as he is having them thrust upon him by cruel authoritarian forces. This could make it easy to dismiss the morality of such situations. But do we not fail such temptations regularly when lesser situations are put before us?
My life doesn’t involve regular choices with lives on the line, but I certainly sin regularly in ways I could choose not to, as we all do. As he journeys across Japan and eventually falls into the hands of his captors, he’s forced to confront the innate unfairness of the situations placed before the people around him. He watches peasants tortured, drowned, burned, and crucified all in the name of tracking him down. In the end, his persistence is fruitless. The Japanese inquisition understands Christianity enough to know how to break its proclaimers. They want to stop its spreading in Japan, and that means making its adherents admit they were liars. He’s finally placed in a situation where he has to decide between watching peasants die a horrific, slow death or step on an image of Christ. The inquisition even says it’s just a formality and he doesn’t have to mean it, but that isn’t true to him. To trample on the image publicly is a betrayal.
As Christ says, “…whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” -Matthew 10:33
In the end, Father Rodriguez’s mission fails and he is forced to live a life of quiet submission as a government agent sorting through Dutch trading posts looking for Christian contraband. Silence in both of its versions is one of the darkest stories about the Christian faith I’ve read and watched. It’s heartbreaking, existentially terrifying, and asks its viewers to stare down some of the most impenetrable questions of faith a person can ask. Yet it’s also a deeply inspiring story. I’ve met so many Christians who absolutely love Silence and totally embrace it because of its seriousness on the topic of faith. It doesn’t sugarcoat reality. It’s telling you the truth at every step and it’s asking you to imagine what you would’ve done. I’m not sure there was a way in which Father Rodriguez could’ve escaped and gone on to preach the gospel further. Maybe God forgave him in the end for his blasphemy. We don’t and can’t know.
As the Joshua Harris announcement dropped this past week, I slowly started making connections between his announcement and Silence. I’d been wanting to talk about it in Flawed Faith ever since I’d started this series last year, and I’d been holding off to coincide it with the release of Scorsese’s newest film The Irishman which is coming out on Netflix this fall. As this situation unfolded, I knew this was going to have to be the movie I talked about. Obviously, Pastor Harris hasn’t faced trials as difficult as those the Priests in Silence are facing (although he did resign from his church in 2014 when a volunteer at his church committed abuse).
In his public statements, he’s discussed several of his points of contention with the church such as his divorce and his frustration that the church is feeding a culture of bigotry against the LGBT community. Yet it’s not clear what specifically his loss of faith is stemming from. I can’t say for sure what burdens his soul, but if I had to guess, I would assume it’s the weight of his inability to reconcile some aspect of his faith with the world around him. It’s possible his faith merely took him down a path that put him at odds with traditional Christianity and he’s now realizing he no longer fits in with the church. In any case, it’s clear Christianity created a burden in him he had to cast off. Like Father Rodriguez, the weight of maintaining his faith was too great to bear in the face of human suffering.
As Christians, what should we make of this?
We mustn’t forget just how poorly this world is wired for us. Ours is a world we’re adapted too, but also one in which we are doomed to suffer and die. We may thrive in relative riches for a period, but in time we all succumb and are forced to handle our mortality. No one escapes it. It’s for this reason we seek hope in the next world. Yet that hope doesn’t come easily to us. We may understand and yearn for it, yet the questions remain. Why does God leave us to suffer for a lifetime?
Let’s turn to the Bible. If we want to directly engage with the reality of human suffering, no other book of the Bible more directly approaches the most difficult questions inherent in faith than the book of Job. At its core is the fundamental question that plagues all of religion: How does a just, loving God allow for horrific things to happen? In the book, we meet a righteous man named Job who we discover is blessed and wealthy. When Satan calls out God for accepting praise and worship from a man who has been blessed by him, God grants Satan the right to take away his wealth and test his faith. Using this, Satan does everything but kill the man. He destroys his family, workforce, and wealth, and leaves him heartbroken and confused. When this doesn’t break his faith, Satan further curses the man with an intense, painful illness. Job’s friends castigate God for abandoning a righteous man, and yet through all this, Job never curses God despite his anger and frustration. In the end, God appears to Job in the form of a whirlwind and answers to why he allowed his righteous servant to suffer. The answer he gives isn’t comforting. Instead of directly answering it, he reframes the question and asks Job what position he’s in to judge whether God is right.
“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” Job 38:2-4 NIV
God explains to Job that man cannot understand his place in the grand scheme of the universe. This isn’t a comforting answer. It’s infuriating to us as readers. It would be nice if God told us there was some direct quota of suffering we had to endure to receive our reward in heaven or we could escape it via good works. Instead, it’s clear good people suffer endemically and randomly. Yet this suffering is all inherent in the nature of the universe; preordained and part of a larger plan we cannot comprehend. It’s all part of God’s perfect design. For Job, he’s given a reward for his suffering as his wealth is returned to him. For the priests in Silence, however, there is no such reward. One of them is martyred, but the other is forced to rebuke his faith and live his life as a Buddhist, possibly abdicating his salvation (although that’s changed in the film version). Joshua Harris has publicly rebuked his faith, too. In this case, two very righteous souls (one fictional and one real) have failed where Job succeeded and have strayed from God.
In his recent debate with Professor Jordan Peterson, the atheist Hegelian professor Slavoj Zizek gave one of the most profound observations about Christ’s moments on the cross I’d ever heard. In his despair, as God turns his face away from the scene of the crucifixion, Christ yells out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To paraphrase Zizek, this is an expression of the full horror of the world. God himself screams at God asking why he was abandoned by him.
That’s a scary thought.
What should we Christians do with this knowledge that trials can slowly break down our faith? What should we do knowing God himself cried out in anger at its injustice?
We aren’t living in an easy time. As I’m writing this now, here in the United States, people are reeling from the aftermath of a pair of horrific mass shootings that left dozens dead and dozens more injured. Instead of grieving, people turned it into an excuse to otherize and lambast their neighbors. The zeitgeist is on fire. All tragedy becomes fuel for cynical people to lash out at their perceived enemies. It’s entirely horrific and almost unbearable to look at. Despite the fact everyone has publicly condemned these shooters and dozens of people have come forward in both towns to donate blood to help the survivors, there’s little good to be found in this situation. That’s just one of the ongoing horrific stories that regularly comes up in the news. In all of this chaos, our church is struggling to maintain its place in the culture. We’re racked with scandals and torn apart by sectarian bickering. In all this, God’s silence weighs heavily as we wait to finally stand before him and ask him the same questions Job once asked him. It’s okay to admit life is hard. It’s okay to be angry and confused. It’s okay to admit sometimes we don’t know the answers to life’s hardest questions. In all things, trust God. Do not curse his name. Move forward.
When my grandfather was put under the knife for cancer treatment decades ago, he sat in bed in fear for his life with his wife at his side and recited a single Bible verse in the face of his death:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” -Psalm 23
My grandfather survived his bout with cancer, brought two children into the world, and survives to this day.
This is the promise of God, and I think about it a lot. We aren’t given a fair or easy life, but we are given hope. Eventually, life is going to throw something at us we don’t know how to face and we’re going to have to deal with it. While we may never face the impossibility of a life or death scenario, we are faced with nigh impossible battles we must personally grapple with. Maybe it can even be as simple as being open about your faith with your friends or something as serious as an illness or addiction. Even doubt can crush us. These things test us and make our faith real or reveal it to be false. At the end of the day, we’re always moving toward eternity and we must be prepared to own it.
God may be silent, but he’s always beside us.