William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Practitioner

Silence Plumbs the Depths of Suffering, Priesthood and Apostasy

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog.]

In his work, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a distinction between the spiritual posture of what he calls the “sick soul,” on the one hand, and “healthy-mindedness,” on the other. Neither label is necessarily positive or negative.silence-banner-e1483736562537

By “sick soul,” James means someone for whom human suffering and injustice tend to be an inescapable and overwhelming problem. There are no answers for it, and finding a state of “rest in God” can be very difficult for those with this disposition. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” person of faith is able to cultivate a deep sense of peace and trust that God is good, and all manner of things will be well. Evil for the healthy-minded is like a lie that poses no serious threat.

Of course, many of us probably oscillate between these two places from time to time, and certainly the latter is ultimately more desirable from a Christian point of view. But rush too quickly to healthy-minded religion, and we are sure to lose the prophetic heart of the biblical narrative. We see examples of both throughout Scripture, each one given legitimacy as a earnest stance before God — e.g., “How long Oh Lord?” (Psalm 13) vs. “I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Psalm 131). But the movie Silence, much like the book, does not make the still and quiet of healthy-mindedness very easy to come by.

I am no expert film critic, so I leave that job to others. (For reviews of the production and casting quality, see this write-up by my friend Rod Machen, or this excellent, more thorough one with spoilers.) Nor will I give a summary of the plot and characters here. My interest in Silence is more about the theological and existential themes that are developed throughout, and having just read the book, I was eager to see how Martin Scorsese would adapt the story.

No, I didn’t “like” the Movie…

There’s almost nothing “Hollywood” about Silence. It isn’t “entertaining,” and it doesn’t mean to be. As another reviewer commented, this is not the kind of movie you “like” or “don’t like.” It’s one that you “experience and then live with.”

Every scene makes you sit and watch longer than you want to, but without overindulging. The violence, though brutal, isn’t depicted in a sadistic or gory way. That would distract from what’s really going on. Scorsese wants to draw viewers in to the devastation of the story, not shock them with grotesque imagery.

The miserable condition in which the priests and peasants find themselves leads them to take comfort in the most vital and basic of things: sunlight, food of any kind, a smile, camaraderie, or even just simple religious icons. One feels both admiration for their courage and empathy for their plight. What appears to sustain these Christians, in addition to their faith, is the solidarity that each shares with the other in their suffering.

It will be no surprise to viewers to remember that Shusaku Endo wrote Silence in the 1960s. The “Death of God” movement of the day shows up in several of Padre Rodrigues’s (Andrew Garfield) inner monologues—he is the protagonist of the story. In some ways reminiscent of Elie Wiesel’s Night, written a decade earlier, the account could scarcely be imagined in the Western Judeo-Christian mind prior to the Holocaust.

Endo’s Silence, however, has a different feel to it than Wiesel’s Night. Whereas the Nazis sought to systematically exterminate an entire people group, the Samurai and Japanese ruling elite do not hate the Portuguese or even their fellow Japanese who have converted to Christianity. They merely want to root out Christianity itself. They claim to have studied it but determined that it is dangerous and threatening to their culture and way of life. This in no way excuses their cruel tactics, of course, but similar to how, say, the Gospel of John makes Pontius Pilate sound like a “reasonable” man, Silence manages to humanizes the Japanese persecutors despite their brutality.

Still, there are moments eliciting nothing but sheer anger and disgust at the sight of such terrible pain being inflicted upon the poor Japanese Christians. Even as a Christian, one can’t help but wonder, was it really necessary for these people to be converted? Was the salvation of Japanese peasants actually at stake if the gospel wasn’t brought to them in the first place? Couldn’t the God of Jesus Christ have mercy on them, regardless?

Doubt, Betrayal, and the end of “Healthy-Mindedness”

And this raises perhaps the most obvious and pressing theological predicament of the film. It’s the same one Rodrigues himself asks: “God heard their prayers, but did he hear their screams?” Such a incisive question could also call to mind Bonhoeffer’s famous line from his Letter and Papers: “Only a suffering God can help.”

Another probing provocation by Silence is about the role of a pastor or priest. There are a number of gut-wrenching scenes throughout the film that get directly at what it means to intercede or atone for someone else. If Jesus is the great high priest who substitutes himself to take away our sin, so too do Rodrigues and Garrpe (Adam Driver) yearn to mediate between their new Japanese brothers and sisters and the suffering imposed on them by the infamous Japanese “Inquisitor” named Inoue. In heartbreaking fulfillment of priestly duty, these good shepherds love and defend their sheep in the face of any harm.

But maybe the most difficult faith question of all comes when Rodriques is finally reunited with the fallen priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson)—his former Catholic teacher and confessor, who has now renounced the faith and become a Buddhist scholar. They even gave him a new name!

Ferreira didn’t initially commit apostasy because he doubted his Christian God. He did so to end the suffering of fellow Christians. Eventually, however, he learns Japanese and begins to think that many of the Japanese “Christians” weren’t genuine converts after all. They may have conflated Jesus-worship with worship of the sun (confusing the translation of “son” and “sun”). Ferreira argues with Rodrigues about this and insists that the Japanese cannot imagine a transcendent God that exists beyond nature itself. Ferreira contends that the martyrs died for priests like himself and Rodrigues, but not for Christ.

Rodrigues judges Ferreira’s words as blasphemous and disgraceful at first, but Scorsese concludes the movie with some creative license, departing in imaginative detail from the novel, and leaving the viewer to decide for herself whether Rodrigues remains a believer. Whatever his destination, there’s little doubt that Rodrigues’s journey disabuses him of any “healthy-minded” religious condition — one that for Rodrigues stemmed from his naive assurance that everything God wills or allows to happen is for the good. Rodrigues was ready for martyrdom, but not one like this.

So Silence is silent about many things: is renouncing one’s faith in order to save others from suffering merely a formality, as the Japanese interrogators suggest? Is the cost of faithfulness too great if someone else has to bear it? Would it have been better for the Jesuits never to have stepped foot on Japanese soil? It seems the Japanese political leaders figured out how to force a choice between the fidelity of betrayal and heretical orthodoxy. There is no resolution or solace either way.

No Answers in Silence

If you’re expecting a movie that will strengthen your faith, this may not be the one. I also suspect the film (and book) has its shortcomings. But you should still see it. Missional Christians have something important to learn from not only the trials and tribulations of the Catholic missionaries, but from both the resistance to and embrace of Christianity by the Japanese. What is the responsibility of the evangelist when the lines between syncretism, gospel contextualization and mere proselytization become so blurred? The movie doesn’t give answers. It only demands contemplation. Such is the holiness and ambiguity of Silence.

And yet, Scorsese still leaves room for faith. Jesus himself walked the path of Godforsakenness. Jesus himself came to be trampled on and renounced for our sake. What if Jesus himself is the one who breaks God’s “Silence”?

What We’re Missing When We Call Jesus “Teacher” or “Rescuer”

[This is a re-post from Missio Alliance.]

Recently I noticed a little twitter interaction between Tim Keller and Rachel Held Evans. Keller tweeted the following:

To which Evans replied:

Keller replied back:

Evans went on to make a number of other responses, when others chimed in, like:

Fully recognizing, of course, that banter on twitter hardly counts as real dialogue or theological discussion, this exchange is nonetheless revealing. Now, it could be dismissed as just a typical debate between two different streams of Christian thought, one evangelical and the other mainline Protestant. And some might want to criticize the way Evans responded to Keller’s tweet, like she was picking a fight (the snarkiness of “I’m one of those crazy people…”).

Still, I think her last tweet above actually gets at something very important. Evans’ point is not a liberal one. Nor is their disagreement necessarily about atonement theory—say, between penal substitution and moral influence. And I do not think Keller and others like him are dismissing Jesus’s teachings or the significance of following him, either.

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Passion for God’s Mission of Peace and Healing

[This sermon is based on Luke 10:1-11. The audio can be found here.]

Well we are in Week 3 this morning of our Advent series in which we are asking the question, “what gift can you bring?” We’ve talked about how we bring our whole selves before God, and how we bring our sacrifice of worship. And today we’re going to talking about offering the gift of passion for God’s mission and participation in that mission.

And when we think of the word “mission,” it’s one of those words that can mean many things to many different people, both good and bad. Companies have missions, the military has a mission, non-profits have a mission, churches have missions, and you may have even at one time or another crafted your own life-mission, which may be a good idea! Whitney and I have asked before, what is our family mission?

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The Prodigal Son: Bringing Ourselves Fully Before God

[This sermon is based on the the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32. The audio can be found here.]

For Advent this year, as you’ve been hearing, our theme is to ask, “What gift can you bring?” We all have many gifts and blessings that God has given us, that can be used and offered back to God and to the world in an act of gratitude for what we’ve been given.

And so part of what this theme and question should provoke is a kind of self-reflection and inventory where we look at our lives and ask: what do I have, what am I holding on to, that God may be asking me to hand over or to submit, to surrender for his purposes.

But the other thing that can happen when we ask the question, “What can I bring?” is that we get a little bit anxious or insecure. We might take the question the wrong way, maybe by excessively judging and doubting ourselves — or just comparing and competing with others based on what they have, and what they can bring that we can’t.

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Can Missional Evangelicals be Mystical? Another Way Forward After the Election

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog]

A week later, what has transpired with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is still stunning. It’s hard to imagine that the country could be more divided than it is right now. The division runs deep, and it is not just political. It is also spiritual.

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Freedom, Contingency and God’s Suffering Love in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Adequacy of the Analogy of Drama for Imagining the God-World Relationship

The following is a working draft of the presentation I will be making at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in the Open and Relational Theologies session on the topic, “A Wider View of Theodicy: The Place of Sufferers, Mourning, Love, and Lament in Theological and Philosophical Reasoning”:

“The Hegelian babble about the real being the true is therefore the same kind of confusion as when people assume that the words and actions of a poet’s dramatic characters are the poet’s own. We must, however, hold fast to the belief that when God—so to speak—decides to write a play, he does not do it simply in order to pass the time, as the pagans thought. No, no: indeed, the utterly serious point here is that loving and being loved is God’s passion. It is almost—infinite love!—as if he is bound to this passion, almost as if it were a weakness on his part; whereas in fact it is his strength, his almighty love: and in that respect his love is subject to no alteration of any kind. There is a staggering perversity in all the human categories that are applied to the God-man; for if we could speak in a completely human way about Christ we would have to say that the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” show a want of patience and a want of truth. Only if God says it, can it be true, i.e., even if the God-man says it. And since it is true, it is also truly the climax of pain. The relationship to God is evidently such a tremendous weight of blessedness that, once I have laid hold of it, it is absolute in the most absolute sense; by contrast, the worldly notion that my enemies are to be excluded from it would actually diminish this blessedness.”

The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, quoted in the preface of Theo-Drama Vol. 5: The Last Act, Hans Urs von Balthasar

“If God’s nature, theologically speaking, shows itself to be absolute love by giving itself away and allowing others to be, for no other reason than that this (motiveless) giving is good and full of meaning — and hence is, quite simply, beautiful and glorious — the same must apply to [God’s] “making room” for [God’s] free creatures.” – Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. II, 273

In this paper I’d like to propose that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “theo-dramatic” account of divine and human freedom, on the one hand, and divine experience in humanity’s suffering, on the other hand, can shed light on God’s love for an open and relational understanding of the doctrine of God. For Christian love — both of God and of neighbor — has not only an open and relational quality, but it is also dramatic in that it is embedded in a history the oscillates between freedom and contingency.

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The Persistent Widow: Faith and Prayer in the Storm

[The audio recording of this message can be found here.]

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” – Luke 18:1-18 (NIV)

You know there’s nothing really quite like a Hurricane to put into perspective for us just how much control we don’t really have over our lives.

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Tim Keller, Science Mike, and How We Believe – Missio Alliance

One of the biggest challenges for Christian mission today continues to be what I would just call the question of “how to believe.” Our church is running the Alpha Course right now, and one of the first few lessons was entitled “How can I have Faith?” Well, I’ve just read two new books that address … Continued

Source: Tim Keller, Science Mike, and How We Believe – Missio Alliance

Spiritual Poverty? The Rich Man and Lazarus

[The audio for this sermon can be heard here.]

Luke 16:19-31

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

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Called to Invite: What Difference does the Christian Faith Make?

Sermon Audio from September 4, 2016.

Matthew 4:12-20

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

One of the things that I’m always asking as a pastor is, what’s happening to the church today, and why? And I don’t mean just what’s happening to Saint Peter’s. I mean all Christian churches — at least in North America. And many of you have probably seen some of the statistics and talk about how the church is in both numerical and cultural decline.

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