“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) tells the magistrate and grand inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) in Martin Scorsese’s shattering adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s Silence.
Rodrigues is quoting, of course, the famous boast of the early Christian writer Tertullian, which epitomizes the Christian idealization of martyrdom, so near the center of Christian self-understanding.
This sensibility — often blending piety and defiance, inspiration and bravado, even self-sacrificing devotion and self-promoting PR — was rooted in pre-Christian Jewish memory as well as Christian experience of persecution, first under Jewish authorities and especially under pagan Rome. Above all, of course, it was rooted in the passion and crucifixion of Jesus.
The Christian cultus of martyrdom served Christianity well, not only during the sporadic persecutions of the early centuries, but throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern age. Stories of the early martyrs’ heroic example were both a source of comfort and hope for medieval Catholics and Orthodox living under Islamic rule and a point of pride for the faithful in Christendom.
Then Christianity went to Japan — and in Japan it encountered something new, for which even the rigors of the Diocletian persecution were no true preparation. When 17th-century Japanese authorities in the time of the Tokugawa shogunate found it necessary to send the colonial powers of Europe packing and their European Jesus with them, they didn’t just shatter the missionaries’ bodies. They shattered their narrative.
Endo, one of Japan’s greatest novelists and a Catholic (he’s been called a “Japanese Graham Greene,” which is about as useful, and as inexact, as most such analogies), explored this painful history in his 1966 novel Silence, generally regarded as his masterpiece. Scorsese read the book in Japan over a quarter century ago shortly after finishing The Last Temptation of Christ, and wanted to film it ever since.
While I am (to put it mildly) no fan of Last Temptation, I did note, writing about it 15 years ago, that it was a film I could only imagine a Catholic director making. Now Scorsese has made another intensely Catholic film — one that I find almost as difficult as Last Temptation, but which draws me in as powerfully as Last Temptation repels me.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.