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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

Scorsese's Silence

Few would argue that the greatest living film director is Martin Scorsese. And I might argue that his greatest film to date is the newly released and deeply spiritual Silence, a movie I would strongly recommend everyone see.

Yes, I know, Scorsese is responsible for the theological mess The Last Temptation of Christ. A sincere mess, perhaps, but a mess nonetheless. As a result, many Christians may write him off when it comes to any film dealing with spiritual themes.

Don’t.

The brilliance he has demonstrated as a director through the years (see Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas) has been matched only by his spiritual and moral curiosity (see Cape Fear, Gangs of New York, The Departed, Shutter Island, even The Wolf of Wall Street). Here the two are brought together in a stunning manner.

Yes, Scorsese remains spiritually provocative, but within a surprisingly orthodox context. The “silence” of the title refers to the seeming silence of God in the face of tragedy, and the necessity of raw, unfiltered faith to match it. Adding to the spiritual sinew is the exploration of the meaning of true apostasy.

The film is based on a 1966 novel by Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo about two Jesuit priests who secretly enter Japan during the 17th century. It is a time when the leaders of Japan are deeply hostile toward the Christian faith. Other Jesuits who have entered as missionaries have been persecuted, tortured and killed. 

The two priests – Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) – enter into this dangerous territory in search of their teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who had ventured into the island nation earlier, but then disappeared. They had heard disturbing rumors surrounding his vanishing, the most disturbing being that he committed apostasy while under torture. If so, he would not have been the first. 

The first two-thirds of the movie revolve around their arrival in Japan, building relationships with the secret communities of Christians who live there, and filling the role of (seemingly) the only remaining priests in the entire nation. They become eyewitnesses to the inquisition taking place that results in Christians being tortured and executed in ways that can only be called horrific. They are soon torn between their values as priests and how their presence is stirring up even greater levels of persecution as they are hunted.

Through it all is the theme the title of the movie suggests: silence. Where is God in the face of this suffering? Ironically, it is the priests who seemingly wrestle with this more than the indigenous Christians. 

The last third of the movie brings the spiritual conflict to a head in ways that I cannot share without spoiling the movie itself. But prepare yourself to wrestle with some of the deepest questions of the Christian faith including:

What is involved in bringing the gospel message to another culture?

What does it mean to truly commit apostasy?

Why does God seem strangely distant and silent during times when we would think He would be most present and real?

Is the heart of the Christian faith, and specifically faithfulness to the missionary task, dogma or piety? 

What constitutes authentic faith?

Is the blood of the martyrs truly the seed of the church?

But make no mistake, the unflinching question of God’s silence is the dominant challenge. 

And it is a challenge.

Few Christians have chronicled their struggle with God’s silence more poignantly than C.S. Lewis. The famed Christian author was deeply in love with his wife, Joy. Though they met and married late in life, few romances bloomed as theirs did. Not long after their relationship began, she was diagnosed with cancer. She endured a long and terrible season of illness before she died. First as a play, then brought to the screen as a BBC production, their story was eventually developed into an award-winning Hollywood film: Shadowlands.

Lewis wrote about his feelings following Joy’s death in a series of notebooks that were later published just before his own death in 1963. Lewis’ most telling observation? The silence of God.

Here are his words:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness... On the rebound one passes into tears and pathos. Maudlin tears. I almost prefer the moments of agony. These are at least clean and honest...

Meanwhile, where is God?... When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him... if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become...

Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?

The silence, however, is seldom permanent.

Lewis himself would later write these words: “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted... [I was like] the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs.” 

As Rodrigues realizes late in the film, in retrospect he did hear God in the silence. He heard His voice and felt His presence more clearly than at any other time in his life.

It reminds me of something I once read about what marks the master-teachers. It was from an article in the magazine Fast Company, which profiled the chess master and much sought-after mentor, Bruce Pandolfini. In the article, he talked about how he worked with his students:

“My lessons consist of a lot of silence. I listen to other teachers, and they’re always talking... I let my students think. If I do ask a question and I don’t get the right answer, I’ll rephrase the question – and wait. I never give the answer. Most of us really don’t appreciate the power of silence. Some of the most effective communication – between student and teacher, between master players – takes place during silent periods.”     

Could this be how God is mentoring us? Is the silence the work of a Master Teacher? When I go through seasons when God’s answers do not come quickly, or on the surface of things – when the way God interacts with my prayers draws me deeper into Him for guidance and trust, dependence and obedience – the answers I find radically transcend what I initially sought to find.

I get introduced to sin that I needed to confront;

... patterns of behavior I needed to break;

... insight into who I am that I didn’t have before;

... and depths of relationship with God that I never experienced.

Such revelations are worth the silence, for in such silence comes the voice of God.

This was certainly the thinking of the ancient “desert tradition” of Christianity. Though the sandy terrain was often literal for the early church fathers and mothers, Alan Jones writes of how they mostly entered the desert of the spirit – “a place of silence, waiting, and temptation,” which is also “a place of revelation, conversion, and transformation.” According to the desert tradition, such “empty” places were actually full, for it was out of the deadening silences that people were known to be reborn. 

This was certainly the experience of Jesus, who was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to begin His ministry, and then led into the desert again to end it. This was part of the roaring silence of the cross. The words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” speak not only to the separation within the Trinity at the moment the stain of the world’s sin was placed on the sacrificial Lamb of God, but also are a “silent” reminder to Jesus of the “deeper magic” (to borrow from Lewis’ imagery in the Narnia tales) that would cause death itself to work backwards.

As Larry Crabb notes, Jesus screamed in agony, “God, where are You?” God seemed to say nothing. But it was during that time that deep called to deep, and Jesus heard the voice of God in the Son reconciling the world to Himself.   

Such thoughts only scratch the surface of all that Scorsese quietly implants into our soul through his film. 

So go and see Silence.

And then be silent for a while after to think about it.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Watch the official trailer for Silence on YouTube.

Jeffrey Overstreet, “The Truth of Scorsese’s Faithless Characters,” Christianity Today, January 12, 2017, read online.

Brett McCracken, “Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ Asks What It Really Costs to Follow Jesus,” Christianity Today, December 16, 2016, read online.

James Emery White, Struggling with God (InterVarsity Press).

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.

Anna Muoio, “All the Right Moves,” Fast Company, April 30, 1999, read online.

Alan Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality.

Larry Crabb, Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy.

For additional insight, see Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering

 

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

I know some are still trying to catch up with Busters, or Generation X, or whatever we called those who followed the Boomers. Or maybe you leapfrogged over all that straight to Generation Y (Millennials), on whom marketers have been focused for at least a decade. I could tell you there are actually six living generations in America, but I don’t want to add to your stress.

Let me save you some time: Drop everything and start paying attention to Generation Z, who now constitute 25.9% of the U.S. population. That’s more than Millennials (24.5%). That’s more than Gen X (15.4%). Yes, that’s even more than Baby Boomers (23.6%). By 2020, they will account for 40% of all consumers. Generation Z will not simply influence American culture, as any generation would, they will constitute its culture.

So who falls into Generation Z? There’s still some debate on exact dates, but essentially it involves those who were born after Generation Y - so approximately 1995 to 2010. It is the generation that is now collectively under the age of 25.

Some would argue that everyone born from, say, 1980 to the early 2000s are one giant cohort known as Millennials. It’s true that such a grouping would be unified under a technology revolution, but as the research of Bruce Tulgan notes, “This time frame is simply too broad to define just one generation because the 1990s and the 2000s are two distinct eras.” To lump them together would be to link a 13-year-old with a 35-year-old. And even technologically, that would be hard to embrace. Much of the 90s was pre-internet except for very, very early adopters. And the smart phone? Non-existent. The ubiquitous nature of those two things alone would decisively divide any generation. “Growing up with a supercomputer in your pocket connected to most of the world’s population and knowledge,” writes David Pakman, “has created an irreversible pattern of behavior unlikely to revert to the ways of previous generations.” Or as an article in the New York Times noted, “A 14-year-old in 2015 really does inhabit a substantially different world than one of 2005.”

Intriguingly, some are calling Generation Z the last generation we will ever speak of. The speed of culture, where change can happen in a day, will make speaking of generations and their markings obsolete. “Tomorrow will be less about what a difference a generation makes, but more about what a difference a day makes.” All the more reason to make sure we know about which is probably the last, and arguably which will prove to be the most influential, generation in Western history.

So who is Generation Z? They grew up in a post 9/11 world during a recession. They’ve experienced radical changes in technology and understandings of family, sexuality and gender. They live in multi-generational households, and the fastest growing demographic within their age group is multi-racial. But there are five defining characteristics that everyone should know.

For those five and more, I’ll have to steer you toward my just-released book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World.

But make no mistake: Understanding and reaching this generation is the heart of understanding and reaching our post-Christian world.

James Emery White


Sources

James Emery White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World (Baker), available now.

Jill Novak, “The Six Living Generations in America,” The Marketing Teacher, read online.

Leonid Bershidsky, “Here Comes Generation Z,” Bloomberg View, June 18, 2014, read online.

Jeremy Finch, “What Is Generation Z, and What Does It Want?”, Fast Company, May 4, 2015, read online.

Bruce Tulgan, “Meet Generation Z: The Second Generation Within the Giant ‘Millennial’ Cohort,” Rainmaker Thinking, 2013, PDF here.

David Pakman, “May I Have Your Attention, Please?,” Medium.com, August 10, 2015, read online.

Alex Williams, “Move Over, Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z,” The New York Times, September 18, 2015, read online.

Sparks and Honey Culture Forecast, “Gen Z 2025: The Final Generation,” 2016, read online.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His new book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article recently titled, “10 Media and Advertising Predictions that Didn’t Come True in 2016.”

Examples included:

*TV advertising, like it always had, would help decide the election. Reality: Hillary Clinton dramatically outspent Donald Trump on TV ads, while Trump relied on a mix of free media (rallies and interviews) and an aggressive social media strategy. And just in case you’ve been in a coma for the last few weeks, Trump won.

*The NFL would continue humming with no issues. If there was one indisputable truth among media writers, it was that the NFL was immune to ratings pressures in TV. Yet in 2016 the league suffered a surprising decline in viewership. No one is quite sure why, with theories ranging from the national anthem protests to the interest in the presidential election. Nonetheless, though they have bounced up a bit of late, early on in the season ratings were down.

*Advertisers would pull back on digital or pull back on TV. Now that 2016 is in the books, we know that digital ad spending surged, but not at the expense of TV. Bottom line? Advertisers determined they needed both.

I don’t know if anyone put forward a similar list of predictions for the interplay of church and culture at the start of last year that have been proven false, but I know of more than a few that were heavily circulating through the corridors of conventional wisdom that we now know have not proven accurate:

*Younger Millennials and Generation Z would come around to church and faith just like earlier generations. We now know that instead of becoming more religious as they get older, they become less – and further removed from church involvement. This makes the challenge of reaching Generation Z more urgent and challenging than ever before, as they will not naturally turn back to any kind of faith from their youth. In fact, Generation Z is the first generation where the majority didn’t have a strong faith upbringing to begin with.

*Large, fast-growing churches are attracting crowds through the abandonment of orthodoxy. Patently not true. Study after study has confirmed that what marks large, fast-growing churches more than any other single factor is conservative theology. A major study out of Canada (that I recently blogged on here) revealed that what separates declining churches from growing churches is that declining churches are more liberal, while growing churches are more conservative.

*The church has moved past racism. If 2016 proved anything, it was how deep racial divides continue to be and how tone-deaf many in the white Christian community have been to the fissure lines. The most segregated hour in America continues to be Sunday mornings at 11 a.m., and most leaders have no idea how to build truly integrated church communities that would provide the beachhead needed to tackle racism in the larger world.

*We didn’t have to worry about the “rise of the nones” because we were just losing the nominals who weren’t a vibrant part of the church to begin with. Oh my, where to begin. Lest we forget, the nominal population, no matter how it was shaped historically, has always been America’s mission field. It’s who Wesley and Whitfield, Moody and Graham won to Christ. The so-called “nominals” who make up the rise of the nones have always been the prime evangelistic target. Its inhabitants are the ones who have historically been the most open; the ones who represent the fields white unto harvest. Nominals populating the rise of the nones simply means that our primary mission field has become a much tougher target. So rather than heave a huge sigh of relief that Evangelical faith may not be losing any ground in terms of percentage points, we must recognize that all that means is that we are, for now, holding our own. But “holding our own” isn’t exactly the mission. 

*The key to reaching Millennials is to go retro, traditional, liturgical, ancient-future, Anglo-Catholic. I’ve always found this one fascinating. The Christian publishing industry went through a phase where it couldn’t publish enough disaffected Christian Millennial memoirs. Many took those musings as a window into the unchurched Millennial soul and the key to developing ways to reach them for Christ. Um… you do remember these were Christian Millennials largely whining about their parents’ 1990s megachurch, right? What does that have to do with reaching non-Christian Millennials? Very little. Case in point: name one Evangelical church that has broken even the 1,000 attendance barrier with Millennials that has employed a strategy built around disaffected Christian Millennial memoir tastes. Exactly. That isn’t a swipe at small churches, just that this was never the key to reaching non-Christians. 

So what were your predictions for 2017 again?

James Emery White


Sources

Mike Shields, “10 Media and Advertising Predictions that Didn’t Come True in 2016,” The Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2016, read online.

James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).

James Emery White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World (Baker).


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His forthcoming book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available for pre-order on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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