The Disturbing Sound of Silence

I can only recall a few movies that have left me speechless. Silenceis one of them. The film makes you live up to its name while you are experiencing it because the intensity is overwhelming at times. When the action goes silent, the theater you are sitting in also feels like a tomb. No whispering. No shuffling of feet. No rustle of people moving in their seats. But it also leaves you in stunned silence days later when you can’t get it out of your mind. It is a movie that makes you contemplate some of life’s most serious questions. Is God out there? Does He know I exist? Why all the suffering?

Silence is a movie that doesn’t give answers to those questions; it only makes them more real. There are no clichés thrown around. No neatly wrapped conclusions. This movie will not make any religious believer feel better about the topic of doubt but it will make them less prone to dismiss it.

Without spoiling the plot, or trying to pontificate on the profound topics this film explores, here are some practical takeaways I think are worth mentioning

Stop Claiming Christians Are Being Persecuted in America

I have heard some Christians in America refer to some of the political nonsense we see going on around us as the “persecution” of Christians. When politicians call for the boycott of Chic-Fil-A, for instance. Or when the federal government attempts to punish Hobby Lobby for taking a moral position the government doesn’t like. Yes, these are actions that are uncalled for and that have no place in a pluralistic, tolerant society. But please do not even attempt to compare the legal and political inconvenience caused by incidents like these with the beheading of Coptic Christians on a beach in Egypt, or the murder of Christian children by feeding them into a bread machine in Syria.

If you are tempted to throw around the word “persecution” when referring to the intolerance you may face as a Christian in America, please rethink the language you use. Find a new word. Learn some history. Educate yourself on what other Christians around the world face as you claim to experience shock and awe from reading your social media news feed.

Either that, or go spend the ten dollars it will cost you to see Silence and get a glimpse of what persecution really is.

Understand The Meaning and Purpose of Religious Freedom

Though it is patently ridiculous to label events like those mentioned above as “persecution,” they do reveal a foreboding trend in contemporary America toward the destruction of religious liberty that we are supposed to have guaranteed by the Constitution. I won’t get into a discussion of the specific forces that are driving this movement in this post, but the simple fact is that these types of attacks on families and private businesses are also a direct attack on freedom of religion itself.

Remember, the First Amendment to the Constitution as it applies to this topic is very specific:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

Those who attack religious institutions based on a misdefined view of the “separation of church and state,” are quick to jump on the first half of the phrase, but everyone seems to forget or dismiss the second half. The “free exercise” of religion implies that you have the freedom to practice it, operate your business, or make your views heard in the marketplace of ideas. It means you cannot just hold whatever religious views you choose to hold, but that you can live them out. You are free to act on them without fear of the government denying you that God-given right. But the new trend in political rhetoric is to engage in what George Orwell would call, “Newspeak” — to change the language and thereby change the meaning of the original words. Today, this practice is manifested in the speech of those who say they are happy to allow us the freedom of worship. Writing in the Denver Catholic Register, theologian George Weigel said this about that:

Religious freedom, rightly understood, cannot be reduced to freedom of worship. Religious freedom includes the right to preach and evangelize, to make religiously informed moral arguments in the public square, and to conduct the affairs of one’s religious community without undue interference from the state. If religious freedom only involves the freedom to worship, then, as noted above, there is “religious freedom” in Saudi Arabia, where Bibles and evangelism are forbidden but expatriate Filipino laborers can attend Mass in the U.S. embassy compound in Riyadh.

Don’t miss the point. Those who promote freedom of worship are simply saying they will “allow” you the freedom to think whatever you want to think. How magnanimous of them. The hollowness in that view becomes obvious when you consider that people have always been afforded the privacy of their own thoughts, whether they died in the Soviet gulags or they currently scrape out some animalistic form of existence inside a North Korean prison camp. Thinking about your religious ideas and exercising them are two completely different things.

If you don’t believe that, go watch the movie Silence and get a graphic picture of how different those two things really are.

Deal With The Silence of God

Finally, this film should make thinking Christians question the validity of the idea that being a Christian means you should expect an ongoing, conversational relationship with God. It is not my intention to fully discuss this issue here. That’s not the point. I am simply saying that there are two clear facts about the nature of God’s communication with us:

1) That even a violent opponent of God’s people — a person who is fully committed to hunting down, torturing, and/or killing His followers — who is acting in complete rebellion against Him, will hear God’s voice if God wants him to hear it. Saul of Tarsus found that out on the road to Damascus. He heard God loudly and clearly. There was no denying it, and the man who became Paul spent the rest of his life turning the world upside down because of it.

2) That even the most devoted of God’s people — people who pray continuously and ask humbly for Him to show Himself to them — have spent a lifetime of suffering and misery getting only silence in return. But still they display active trust in Him and hold hope for their eternal future because they have other rational reasons to believe. Not hearing God may not assuage your human desires, but it places you in the company of spiritual giants.

That’s why I believe that those who insist that our ability to “hear God” requires deeper devotion on our part, or the development of some kind of extra-spiritual capacity to listen for His whispered messages, do not get that idea from any teaching in the Bible. It’s not in there. God can speak to His creatures anytime he pleases, but we should not be deluded into expecting to hear His voice on our terms.

If you don’t believe that, go see Silence and marvel at those whose faith does not require such a thing.

Silence tells an incredible story. From what I have gathered, the facts about its main characters may have been “Hollywood-ized” to make things more dramatic but the historical context is accurate. What I do know is that it is a powerful film. No matter where you are on the God-fearing spectrum it surely will not comfort you, but it will make you think about it long after you’ve left the theater.

 

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The late Chuck Colson on “freedom of worship.”

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