Damn, I miss going to the movie theater. Thankfully, my life has been relatively unaffected by the deadly virus currently ravaging the globe. I’m still employed, I’m able to work from home, and my favorite restaurants are still serving take-out. But not having my favorite hobby to comfort me has been less than ideal. Watching movies at home is fun, but it’s not the same experience.
Recently, as I was confronted with the paralyzing freedom of scrolling endlessly through the entire history of cinema, I decided to revisit a film that radically changed the way I view the world and brought me a surprising level of comfort in the process.
Martin Scorsese’s religious epic Silence released widely in early January 2017 at a low point in my spiritual and emotional health. Donald Trump had just won the presidency on the back of strong Christian support, and I was struggling to reconcile the tenets of the faith with the actions of its current hero.
How could the members of a religion that supposedly values love and compassion almost unanimously support a leader who is so joyfully bigoted, self-absorbed, and unqualified? How could so many people that I love vote for this man with such bald enthusiasm? More than three years later, these questions seem naive in retrospect, but they haunted my soul that winter.
I grew up in a conservative Christian household, and I was always an unwavering believer until I left the Baptist bubble of north Dallas to attend college in the godless capitol of hedonism 200 miles south on I-35. In Austin, I learned more about the world and politics, and I began to see things outside of the worldview I had always known.
I had begun to doubt my faith in the year or two leading up to Trump’s election, but that event pushed me over the edge. I understood doubt as weakness, and it filled me with unshakable guilt. The belief system I had clung to for the entirety of my existence had become woefully inadequate to explain the world in which I found myself. I was lost.
It was this broken, depressed version of myself that elected to skip church one fateful Sunday morning and instead walk into a nearly empty movie theater to undergo the strongest religious experience of my life.
Silence flew under the radar of both audiences and critics upon its release. The film only made $24 million at the box office worldwide, falling well short of its $46 million budget. Critics liked it, but it didn’t get a lot of buzz. The awards conversation that year was centered around Moonlight versus La La Land, and Silence was all but forgotten.
Silence is the harrowing tale of two Portuguese priests who travel to Japan in the mid-17th century in search of their former teacher who has reportedly apostatized. In an effort to preserve its culture and stave off Western colonization, the Japanese government tortures and kills anyone who professes belief in the Christian faith.
At its core, the film is about perspective. The Portuguese priests have almost no interest in learning the language and culture of the Japanese locals, despite expecting that exact thing from them. When the government captures Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, he engages in several philosophical discussions with Inoue, the leader of the effort to end Christianity in Japan.
Both men are singularly focused on winning each argument and have no ability to hear the other person. This approach puts the two at a standstill and stifles any chance that they might learn from each other. Rodrigues is determined to convince the Japanese to end Christian persecution or to die a glorious martyr’s death in the process. He arrogantly views himself as a Christ figure and is ready to take on the torture and death experienced by Jesus.
This inability to communicate is a foundational problem in today’s culture. Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives shout information at each other without any intention of listening to what the others have to say. Similarly, Atheists and Christians try to convert each other and fail to gain wisdom from the opposing viewpoint.
We all see our belief systems as irrefutably correct, and we tie them into our personal identity, making it extraordinarily difficult to admit any flaws in our understanding of the world. We are all entrenched inside our own perspectives, unwilling to emerge no matter the information presented before us.
As it becomes clear that Rodrigues’ opinion will not be swayed through oral argument, Inoue selects a shrewder method to shift his mindset. Rather than playing to Rodrigues’ ego by testing his limits of physical pain, he torments him emotionally by torturing and killing Japanese Christians in front of him until he renounces God. As the days and weeks pass, Rodrigues begins to doubt his faith. He prays and hears nothing but silence in return.
These feelings of doubt and loneliness were all too familiar to me at the time as I grappled with current events and the church’s role in them. I desperately sought answers and found nothing. The few liberal Christians in my social circles were as confused as I was. Trump-supporting Christians provided nothing more than generic Fox News talking points. And God responded with a deafening silence, if He was even there at all.
When Rodrigues finally hears God’s voice, it contradicts his fundamental understanding of Christianity. In the film’s emotional climax, God tells Rodrigues to give in to his oppressors and apostatize. This long-awaited answer to prayer allows him to let go of his pride and his view of himself as a savior figure to the Japanese people.
In a cruel twist of irony, Rodrigues realizes he must renounce his faith in order to demonstrate Christ’s love to his vulnerable, tortured followers. He rejects his rigid western form of Christianity in favor of a more selfless, compassionate version that looks outside the individual to assess how one’s faith impacts the larger community. He doesn’t give up his faith entirely. He learns to live it out in a radically different way.
When the credits rolled, I was filled with a sense of calm that I hadn’t felt in years. It would take me several weeks and a second viewing to process fully what I had just seen, but I came away with a revelation that immediately altered my perception of the world as I stepped out of the theater.
My doubt was not a weakness, but a strength. It was not a sign of decay but a sign of health. It was Rodrigues’ doubt in the predominant Western understanding of Christianity that allowed him to make the right decision and show compassion to the persecuted Japanese believers.
Doubt is a necessity. The moment you lose the capacity to doubt your worldview is the moment you lose the capacity to think critically. Learning becomes impossible. Self-improvement drifts out of reach. You harden into an unchanging rock, incapable of conversing with anyone who’s worldview doesn’t exactly align with yours.
A few days later, I came across the interview below with Andrew Garfield and Stephen Colbert. As Garfield discusses the themes of the film, he comments on the nature of doubt and certainty. “Certainty about anything is the most terrifying thing to me,” he remarks as Colbert stares back in confusion.
“A life of faith is not a life of certainty. A life of faith is a life of doubt, and I think it is so healthy to doubt. It’s so healthy to doubt oneself. It’s so healthy to doubt any assumption we make about how to live. What I mean when I say certainty scares me — certainty starts war. Certainty starts war on behalf of ideology. I know, and you don’t. That’s the scariest thing to me.”
In the months and years that followed, my newfound comfort in my own doubt reshaped my approach to life. As I became open to new perspectives, I began to question authority and my ingrained presuppositions. My political and religious views changed, and I grew more comfortable with ambiguity. Doubt can be unnerving at times, but it’s far superior to the alternative. It continually motivates me to learn and grow.
Seeing Martin Scorsese’s Silence for the first time was one of the defining experiences of my life. It introduced me to the transformational power of cinema. The most exciting aspect of watching a new film is to see life through that director’s perspective and to gain a new appreciation for the world that we share. I’ve never had more doubt in my worldview than I have right now, and I think that’s a good place to be.
Michael Dixon is a mild-mannered accountant by day and a mild-mannered movie-watcher by night. He will not do your taxes for you. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his lovely television and collection of fine whiskies. You can’t purchase his book anywhere because it doesn’t exist.