By: Charlotte O
*Vague spoilers below
Silence has been garnering a lot of buzz for the way it talks about faith and asks some of the hard questions: Where is God in suffering? Why does it so often feel like God is silent when we desperately want to hear him answer our prayers?
Christian media tends to get excited (in several senses of the word) when actors portray our faith on screen. There tends to be speculation about whether or not the actor “met Jesus” during filming. Maybe we are hoping for some “superstar convert” who will represent traditional values in Hollywood. Unfortunately, it does not typically go well for those that do, often being crucified first by members of the faith community. In some ways, you could say Hollywood today is very similar to the Japan portrayed in the film: a place where it is very difficult for faith to take root, and is largely rejected by the surrounding culture.
I work in Taiwan (and I must mention with pride that most of Silence was filmed here), and I live as a person of faith in a cross-cultural context. In fact, I conduct religious activities on a regular basis that are inviting people to experience a faith that is very different from the one they have grown up with. I don’t wear robes, or even a cross, and the Bible I carry around is in an app on my phone, but I have been called a missionary.
The history and perception of Christianity and missionaries in Taiwan is mostly positive, and tends to be associated with the building of schools and hospitals and the humanitarian work of those such as Canadian Presbyterian missionary George Leslie Mackay. This is very different from this story of Japan, but it easily could have been the same. After all, Taiwan was ruled by Japan for several decades. The persecution depicted in the movie was not unique to Japan either. There were periodic massacres of Christians that occurred in China throughout history, often in response to what was happening in the political sphere. (If you’re a history nerd who is interested in reading more, check out this biography of the Empress Dowager, a leader in China who was uncharacteristically friendly toward foreign presence at the time. Although the persecution portrayed in the movie Silence is brutal, I can see how it reveals the seriousness of the perceived threat Christianity posed to the authorities in Japan.
In Silence it is suggested that there is a larger imperialistic effort behind the seemingly benevolent European missions and it is stated over and over again that Christianity just isn’t suitable for Japan. Unfortunately, the former is absolutely true. Missions, particularly to Africa and Asia, was very closely tied with wanting to introduce western culture, and control both land and strategic trade routes, often in the guise of “opening a country to the gospel.”
Depending on where your sympathies lie, this could be anything from playing on the altruism of priests and missionaries to achieve more capitalistic ends, or outright power grabs by both the church and state. While missionaries did a lot of good, building schools and hospitals, taking care of orphans and so on, those good works did come in exchange for rejecting some aspects of one’s culture in order to reap the benefits. It was also often the case that people would “convert” in order to receive resources from the church.
In the end, some characters seemed to choose the greater good over the dogma they’d learned, and the movie implies that this may have led to a deepening of their faith even as they were labeled apostates. They were allowed to live as examples of the government’s power over even God, but the final scene seems to show that nothing can stamp out true faith.
One of the characters in the movie questions whether Japanese converts to Christianity even fully understand what it means, and suggests that they are following (and dying for) the foreigner rather than God himself. Two noteworthy challenges for missionaries today are avoiding the cult of personality and finding ways to share the freedom that Christ brings in a way that is culturally sensitive. We hope to invite others into an authentic faith that they continue to develop and take ownership of apart from the teachings of individuals or even the church. As for the question of whether Christianity is compatible or even “translatable” to other cultures, I do agree that it can be difficult to explain the gospel outside of one’s own context and background.
A neighbor asked me the other day while we were waiting for the garbage truck what Easter celebrates. I explained that Jesus died on a cross – he nodded at this familiar image. Then I told him that when Jesus’ friends went to “sweep his tomb” (a common cultural practice here) it was empty. My neighbor was pretty incredulous that this meant Jesus had returned from the dead – something many westerners take for granted as they’ve grown up celebrating Easter. My apologetics (there is a lot of evidence that it wasn’t a scam, especially since Jesus’ disciples went from hiding in fear to boldly proclaiming the risen Christ) had very little impact on someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Gospel story and the book of Acts. A more robust explanation would have taken much more time than we had before the garbage truck arrived. But hopefully he will keep thinking and maybe next time he’ll have more questions.
Today in Taiwan, Christianity is still seen as very much a western religion, which is a bit incongruous since it originated in the Middle East. Christianity may be practiced alongside (or in addition to) traditional eastern religions, especially Catholicism, whose use of icons doesn’t appear terribly different from traditional temple practices to many worshipers. I’ve personally seen homes where there are statues of Mary and Buddha together on the same mantle.
No one wants to be told that their ways of worshiping are wrong. But perhaps we can call or challenge them to something higher: to examine the desire for the divine behind religious practices and demonstrate how it is has changed our own lives. That’s why I think the gospel is best preached through relationships. If you invite someone to church, but then stop talking to them when they decline, they won’t be very curious about your community. But if you start to accept people where they are at, they will find themselves drawn to the God you commune with.
The values Jesus taught and modeled are at the very core both counter-cultural and transformative. However, we need to be careful to avoid presenting something that is simply our own view or culture glossed over with a Christian sheen. In many ways, being a Christian in Japan will look different from being a Christian in Canada. And yet my life is guided by the belief that knowing Jesus will ultimately bring peace, healing, and salvation to anyone who asks. Even though it may look different for each person, I’m invested in exploring how it can be lived out through my Taiwanese brothers and sisters. The better I can understand the language, culture and unique challenges facing believers here, the more ways I find to contribute to their lives and faith.
Charlotte is on the Editorial team at boldcupofcoffee.com and currently works with a non-profit organization in Taiwan where she teaches, leads English Bible studies, writes educational materials, trains teachers, poses for pictures, and a bunch of other stuff too. She is originally from Canada, spending significant amounts of time in all three westernmost provinces and the idea of home has become quite fluid. She has learned that life overseas is not as exotic as people may think, but life with God is a daily adventure.
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