Why Have Christians Ignored ‘Silence?’

Tyler Huckabee, a writer from Nashville, Tennessee, wrote an insightful opinion piece for The Washington Post on January 19, essentially saying that Christians (and by extension Hollywood) largely ignore well-made movies dealing with faith.

You may have noticed that recently, Martin Scorsese released a film entitled, “Silence,” which stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson. The movie is an adaptation of a novel from Shusaku Endo, who published it in 1966. The film has not performed as well as other “hit” Christian movies like “God’s Not Dead.” Despite the $46.5 million price tag on making the film, it has only garnered slightly over $8.7 million in worldwide box office revenue.

One should sit back and ask why this movie — directed by an international superstar director — has not motivated people of faith to go and see it, especially since Christians constantly claim that Hollywood is against them.

Here is Huckabee:

In the same way that there is no one reason Trump won, there is no one reason “Silence” is underperforming. There’s no doubt that the film is a hefty commitment, clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes. And there was an unusual lack of advertising surrounding the release, with its first trailer dropping just one month before the film’s actual premiere.

And then there’s the limited release itself. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Silence” did good business in New York and Los Angeles, where it first opened. But a wider release to slightly smaller markets has found disastrously little traction so far. The question of whether the film would have done better numbers if it’d expanded into more rural communities where faith audiences are more centralized is one that will keep Paramount execs up. “Silence” had none of the heavy church marketing that accompanied films like “God’s Not Dead” or Mark Burnett’s “Son of God” (both 2014), but “Silence” is a wilder, woolier film than either of those. It is, frankly, a tough sell.

This is absolutely true. Scorsese has been talking about this film since 2007, just after “The Departed” was released in 2006. The acclaimed director has made movies that have included his lifelong search into Catholicism (one might argue that every movie has been part of that, but that’s another post). So why haven’t Christians come along for the ride?

There are two reasons, I think, why Christians didn’t go see the movie. The first is that there is still a very real divide between Catholicism and Protestantism that doesn’t get explored without the two sides blowing up. I listen and read much Catholic literature and programming, and many Catholics see Protestants as heretics. They are outside of the Church, despite their profession of faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Protestants say the same thing, and perhaps go a step further. It might be said of Catholics, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that they don’t see Protestants as completely out of the circle of salvation, but close to it. One might say, they “are not far from the kingdom,” and thus, aren’t headed straight to the pits. I’ve heard many Protestants say that Catholicism is a false gospel, and are therefore, as good, if not worse, than the other “false gospels” that include sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Catholicism has so much truth that people fall into the lie, they proclaim.

Perhaps this has contributed to this lack of fanfare for the movie. It’s similar to when I ask my fellow Protestants whether they’ve read (or heard of) any novels by Graham Greene. They respond by asking me who that is, and then I have to go into a long explanation. But when I ask about Karen Kingsbury, everyone has heard of her.

Another reason is that the movie is a message right at the heart of what many Christians didn’t want to hear after a contentious election cycle. The vast majority of evangelicals voted in favor of a strongman who will turn the country aright again. “Silence,” is not about that. It is not about power. It is about enduring suffering, apostasy, and martyrdom. It’s not about triumph. In fact, even today, there is only one percent of the Japanese population who say they are Christian, despite over 100 million people celebrating Easter in China, according to a BBC report from March 2016, and over half of the population in Korea professing themselves to be Christians. These sorts of themes aren’t marketable for many American evangelicals, who have the desire for America to once again be propped up as a global dominator.

But the Jesus of the Bible doesn’t come this way. He is a suffering servant. He doesn’t die and then restore the kingdom of Israel, and he won’t make America great again (hint: it was always suspect). What he will do is bring people from every tribe, every tongue back to him. That, he promises.

A Whimper, Not A Bang

I just read a small commentary on history books from Thomas E. Ricks on Foreign Policy, who gave an insightful reason why the first half of books are often better than the second.

Listen to what he wrote:

The writing of most books, I think, is a race between resources and understanding. As the author proceeds, his or her resources (energy, time, money) diminish, even as his or her understanding of the subject increases. The question is maintaining the resources long enough to finish at least a first draft. In many and perhaps most cases, fatigue overcomes the author, and so many books are weaker in their endings than in their beginnings. That is the way books end, not with a bang but a whimper.

Read the whole thing here. It’s short, but packs a punch.

Why You Are Fearful About Your Writing

You’ve got an idea and want to put it out there for the world to see. You visualize how it might serve other people, and think, “yes, that’s what I want to do.” Perhaps you’ve jotted a few ideas down in your trusty moleskin (does anybody else carry those?), or typed them in your Iphone’s note app.

But then when the time comes to put your ideas down on paper, you freeze. You pass the buck.

“Later. I will definitely do it later,” you say to yourself, closing your laptop and pressing the Netflix button on your home television controller.

Why does this happen?

There are a number of reasons why, but I’ve narrowed a few down for those of us who are not just writers in name, but in practice. That is, we are writers because we write, not because we tell other people we write.

This sort of fear isn’t the same thing as being afraid of heights. I would never fall out of an airplane 20,000 feet above the ground, and it has nothing to do with my own personal fears. I value my life and couldn’t risk even the .01 percent chance that I fall out of an airplane and my parachute fails to open.

The sort of fear I’m talking about as it pertains to writing is a type of paralysis of being known and revealing your flaws for other people to see. Here are three ways those flaws are manifested:

1. Opinions

It may be manifested in the thoughts you conceive, thoughts that are opinionated. Wherever there is an opinion, there is always a contrarian. Always. And that contrarian is looking to poke holes in an argument that we think we’ve fully thought out. Perhaps we haven’t.

Contrary to what we’ve heard during the political war epic of 2016, you are not your opinions. You are more than that. Thus, if you try to engage an issue, see that as a mark of courage, not dishonor. It doesn’t even matter that you got it wrong. We place a little too much emphasis in getting things “right,” which is as squishy a word as there ever was. Getting things wrong has value as well. You can learn from getting things wrong.

At the very least, writing will allow you to think through things differently, and that has value in itself.

2. Grammar Mistakes

It also may be manifested through grammar mistakes, which was something I struggled with early in my writing career. When someone found mistakes, I took them as an assault on me. I got defensive, looking to push back against any corrections.

Why did I do that?

I later realized that I wanted to skip the part of my writing life where I would do the art badly, and skip ahead to the end where I would be a master at the form. Nobody is a genius at the beginning. Nobody. I don’t care who you are. Because first you have to learn the sounds of language. Then the words. Then the phrases. Then the parts of speech. Then the structure of sentences. Then the paragraphs. Then the essays. So on and so forth.

I am still in the process of learning. I still make mistakes. How I view them, and how I view correction has radically changed.

3. Hasn’t someone else written this before?

A lot of writers feel like there work is derivative. That makes them throw the work they’ve done away. Or instead of continuing to refine it, they choose to stop in the middle of it. The cold, hard, truth: a lot of it is.

Again, this is something that happens to a lot of writers. We read Ernest Hemingway and want to follow his short, crisp prose, or we read Marylinne Robinson and want to co-opt her harrowing voice.

But we quickly realize that we aren’t those writers.

You are you. And there is no one who can write a story like you can.

In the coming days, I’ll answer each one of these fears that I dealt with. I’ll provide some balm for writing wounds. In the meantime, here is a video on writing that I find very inspirational by the author Neil Gaiman, who was featured on The Nerdist podcast.

Keep writing!