Sunday, January 29, 2017

My Review Of Martin Scorsese's "Silence" With Ample Historical And Theological Commentary

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Dear C,

"Silence" is 2 hours 41 minutes long. 

From the beginning it dislodges the viewer, innitially immersing "him" in 17th century Portugal before thrusting us -- with entrancing intensity -- into the immutable eternity of hardscrabble peasant life.

And finally, we are drenched in the sophisticated interplay between European and Japanese intelligentsia for whom the social (theological?) engineering of peasants (der volk?) is the over-riding concern.

Shusaku Endo's Novel, "Silence"

After the movie, while waiting for the only serviceable urinal to "come free" I spoke for 10 minutes with a black man who had been as captivated as I, and who, like me, wondered how we would eventually "come out of this time machine," both of us also eager to research the movie's historical and theological underpinnings.

"Silence" is embedded in two massive matrices: the cyclical suffering of dirt-poor peasants and how their suffering engenders the hopefulness of simple folk who, generally speaking, are the best and most generous of us all... and the calculating mind games (always engaged with "good reason") which continually preoccupy the "authorities" "in charge."

I am reminded of my recent John Steinbeck discovery, a quotation that took me back to my own late 60's immersion in peasant life about a decade before "progress" (and consquent substitution of "money" for "value") swept it away - at least in Latin America and probably in most other places.

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Like most human truths, validation of Steinbeck's insight can only be experienced, not proven through intellectual calesthenics.

Otherwise, Steinbeck's postulate of the unequaled "helpfulness of the poor" remains an abstract belief, or - more likely - just another bit of trash heaped on the midden of one's life according to each person's need to keep their (largely accidental) "identities" alive and well. (In general, there is no fate worse than the definitive dissolution of one's identity. Or so it seems while still clinging to our identities...)

The night we sang Christmas songs at your place I think I mentioned that one of the lyrics in "O Holy Night" is among my bedrock reasons for holding Christianity (at its best) in high regard. "He appeared and the soul knew its worth." 

My Dad believed that Christianity's singular gift to the world was "hope" and that antiquity prior to Jesus' birth was caught in the hopeless inescapability of life's cycles - the brutish work of grunting labor and - absent the miracles of modern medicine - the downward spiral of most afflictions. (Until 1750, half of all humanity died by age 8 and a typical human being suffered toothache for fully half his life. I was struck by Scorsese's odd-but-revealing emphasis on the rotten teeth of Japanese peasants.) 

In part, Christianity brought hope by being a historical religion rather than a "merely" moral or mystical one. 

And essential to history is a time-line along which human lives and human culture can actually improve. 

"Silence" emphasizes this "historic" sea change in the human psyche. 

Once humans have a time-line, and once "the masses" realize the radically democratic idea that everyone is a child of God and that God does not "play favorites," there is simultaneous upsurge in HOPE writ large, accompanied by the specific hope that "I am a co-equal child of God" and although the prevalent dominance-submission hierarchy of my culture is unbearably oppressive, I no longer need to accept The Official Story that Top Dogs are predestined to be Top Dogs and, co-relatedly, that I am destined to be their stinking, lice-ridden, rotten-tooth pawn who knows his "proper" place in The Great Chain Of Pre-Ordained Being.

Now, at last, "we" have word of God-Love's appearance and "His" assurance that I too am a child of God and that the existing order of cruelty-and-oppression is entirely wrong, indeed it is a damnable affront to the everlasting Will of God

And after "His" appearance by which the soul finally knew its worth, the good news continues:

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new glorious morn

Truly He taught us to love one another, 
His law is love and His gospel is peace. 
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. 
And in his name all oppression shall cease. 


Paralleling the movie's psycho-sociology is the theological (or value) substrate that enfolds and molds every culture and every person's psycho-sociology.

From the Christian point of view (embodied by the movie's Jesuit protagonist) the simplest way to cut through the sprawling complexity of Catholic theology is to view Frontline's "From Jesus to Christ" where we see the historical, theological and fundamentally human antecedents to the much-later, fully-developed theology of "Christ-God."

From Jesus To Christ: The First Christians
PBS Frontline

The eventual ratification of Christ-as-God was a theological position quite different from the first centuries of Christian belief when, for a couple hundred years, Christianity remained a sect within Judaism just as Jesus himself remained a practicing Jew throughout his life. (It bears mention that 25 of the 27 books in The New Testament were written by people who were practicing Jews at least until the Crucifixion. I should also mention that St. Paul of Tarsus, a Jewish tent-maker by profession, began adulthood hunting down "Christians" as a zealous participant in "a movement" that sought to exterminate Christians by killing them.)

It is also illuminating to know about The Ebionites, a Jewish-Christian sect often referred to as "the first Christians." Like all orthodox Jews who were contemporaries of Yeshua the Nazarene carpenter, Ebionites believed it was blasphemy to conceive The Messiah as anything other than a human being. Furthermore, identifying The Messiah with Yahweh-God was a cornerstone betrayal of Judaism -- and a moral calamity for anyone who subscribed to such theological travesty.

The Ebionites
Encyclopedia Britannica

The Jewish-Roman World Of Jesus: 
Nazarenes And Ebionites

But by the 17th century - more than a millennium after Jesus' transformation into God-Christ - we confront an inevitable consequence of Yeshua's deification, a consequence that quickly became fundamental to the world-view of those Christians -- both Portuguese and Japanese -- who inhabit "Silence."

No later than the 3rd century A.D., when Jesus became God-Christ, "substitutional atonement" also became the cornerstone of orthodox Christianity - whether the Christian in question was Catholic or "Protestant."

Don't be put off by the airy-fairy, multi-syllabic term "substitutional atonement" since the underlying reality must be understood in order to comprehend the blood-sweating quandaries that beset 17th century Jesuits who were obliged to assume the absolute validity of substitution theology if they hoped to maintain their identity as good, faithful Christians. 

Although St. Paul "got the ball rolling" by preaching that Jesus' death-on-the-cross unleashed the saving grace that forevermore guaranteed a believer's salvation, it took time for "Salvation by The Cross" to become the central Christian belief, displacing the previous Christian belief that what mattered most was participation in Christianity as a way of Life

Substitutional Atonement

Indeed, early Christians did not even call themselves "Christians" but "followers of The Way."

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"The Idea Of Christ Is Much Older Than Christianity." 
"The Soul Is By Nature Christian."
(Alan: This idea may seem offensive to non-Christians unless one can alter the saying so it reads, "The soul is by nature Love.")

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In the early "Christian" view, before Jesus had morphed into God -- the One, True God whose death on the cross was "The Perfect Sacrifice" which alone could redeem believers -- fidelity to Jesus meant following his Way. And by embarking The Way, early Christianity was much more a service-oriented matrix for living in Love than a verbal profession of faith. 

Pope Francis: What Happens When Jesus Is Identified As The Embodiment Of Love

"First Stone: It Is Not Enough To Do What Is Right..."
Sola Fide

To follow "The Way" was the work of a lifetime, requiring far more commitment (and kindness) than just "coming forward" at the end of a "Billy Graham Stadium Crusade" to proclaim the primacy of Jesus in one's life.

If Christianity is to be something more than a "magical spell" whose incantation -- "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior" -- is all one needs for "salvation assurance," then the alternative to presto-change-o Christianity Lite ("just add water!") is to engage the lifelong work of loving service suffused by compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

Saint Augustine of Hippo goes even farther, making love the-one-and-only touchstone of any meaningful epistemology: "We know to the extent we love.

Augustine (who also said, "Lord, make me chaste... but not yet") goes on to say: "Love, and do what you will."

Jesuit Tom Weston (my one-time confessor) describes the too-frequent alternative fate that afflicts those who do not root themselves in "The Way" of love-compassion-service-mercy-forgiveness: "You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do."

Pope Francis: The Horror Of Religious Fundamentalism And What's Wrong With Religion

There is also much that could be said to "redeem" "atonement theology." But without getting "into the weeds" of how "the Cross models salvation" by illustrating Christian willingness to be crucified for goodness' sake, I will simply mention it in passing.

Similarly, and without straying into the minutiae of how God is immanent-throughout-Universe so that we humans (like the rest of Paul's "groaning creation") always participate in The Divinity-That-IS, I will merely mention divine immanence and focus my conclusion on the straightforward declarative sentence in John's Epistle where we read that "God is love." 

The Way of Love, which is to say The Way into The Divine Milieu of Heaven-on-Earth, was uniquely embodied in the person of Jesus (and as I could also "argue," even in Jesus as "Christ-God"). 

When those who come to believe in the sine qua non centrality of Love decide to join The Way, they assume The Burden of Light and by believing that Love dwells at The Sacred Heart of All Things, they are -- as Paul himself says -- "like gods" for they have merged with the Incarnation of Love, an ongoing process that is its own "heavenly" reward.

And when an individual's life is done, I think "what comes next" is best left in the lap of the Magnum Mysterium - one of Christianity's many names for God.

Against this backdrop of irresolvable Mystery, I consider it wise (at least for Christians - and quite likely for everyone else) to look fondly on the last line of The Apostles Creed: "I believe in life everlasting." 


PS "Silence" makes frequent reference to Nagasaki, the second city where Uncle Sam - in direct contravention of Christianity's Just War Principles - chose to target a civilian population with an atomic bomb. Notably, Nagasaki has always been the epicenter of Japanese Christianity. To learn more about Christianity in Japan, a country which today is about 1% Christian, the following Wikipedia entry is informative.    

Christian "Just War Principles" Established c. 500 A.D. Vs. America's "just war" Tradition

PPS Collateral References:

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ: "Research As Adoration"

Since God Doesn't Heal Amputees, Humankind Will. The Future Of Christian Theology

"Theological Implications Of Ebola: Praying For A Cure? Creating A Scientific Cure"

"Just Thinking About Science Triggers Moral Behavior"
Scientific American

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