Many Christian films released in the last two decades often pitch themselves as a means of evangelizing unbelievers and reassuring the faith of believers. This article uses the film God’s Not Dead as an example of the recent trend in Christian films and argues, using historical parallels, that these films undermine their stated purposes and are more likely to lead to unbelief than deepened faith. Part of this disconnect is because these films’ primary response to doubt is to build certainty based in empiricism rather than faith in God. Finally, this paper argues that films like Marin Scorsese’s Silence are a better model for encouraging a deep faith through film. Steven Vredenburgh is a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Over the last several years the Christian film industry has exploded in the United States. Despite being panned by critics,1 the 2014 film God’s Not Dead managed to gross over $60 million at the box office.2 A great deal of the film’s commercial success is because it was marketed directly to churches as a tool to help convert nonbelievers to Christianity.3 In addition to its evangelistic purposes, the film was also conceived as a means of reassuring Christians of the veracity of their faith. In the book God’s Not Dead, upon which the film was based, author Rice Broocks cites a study by the Pew Research center that shows a fifteen-point decrease over five years in the number of millennials who have said they have never doubted the existence of God.4 Broocks presents the arguments in the book in an effort to eliminate these doubts.

However, this paper argues that God’s Not Dead5 undermines its twin goals of faith-building and evangelism. Far from effectively eliminating doubts about God’s existence against the onslaughts of atheism, the film’s rhetoric sets up a belief system that is particularly vulnerable to sliding into unbelief. Further, the handling of theodicy in God’s Not Dead erects barriers that might prevent unbelievers from coming to faith.6

The key flaw of God’s Not Dead is its desire for certainty. A belief system that does not allow its adherents to doubt requires a god too small to handle the unbelievable circumstances of life. The God of the Bible, on the other hand, was present when wildfires destroyed Paradise, CA, when the car ignored a red light and hit my motorcycle,7 or when my grandmother was diagnosed and then succumbed to Alzheimer’s. When the unbelievable happens, we need a faith that can withstand uncertainty and doubt. Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence presents an alternative approach to faith on film that provides an opportunity for an encounter with God’s presence.

In Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism, Michael Buckley argues that over the course of history, when Christianity has relied too heavily on scientific evidence as a warrant for the existence of God, the outcome is often an increase in atheism rather than the unshakable faith that Broocks is seeking.8 The way science is embraced by God’s Not Dead mirrors the historical pattern identified by Buckley in Denying and Disclosing God in which Christianity is unintentionally undermined by the same people who try to strengthen it.

The problems in God’s Not Dead are exacerbated by the way the film depicts and addresses the suffering of its characters. Though one of the film’s stated purposes was to convert atheists, such a conversion is made difficult because of the at-best shallow responses given in God’s Not Dead for the suffering experienced by several of the characters in the film, many of which were atheists.

This paper begins with a brief historic overview of some of the philosophical and theological shifts in the eighteenth and nineteenth century leading up to the rise of atheism. To continue the examination of the rise of atheism in contemporary times, this paper will then explore the ways Christianity’s response to theodicy played a part in this phenomenon.

Having explored the historic rise of atheism in the first section, this paper will then demonstrate the ways the film God’s Not Dead fits into the pattern identified in Buckley’s book. By following this pattern, the film’s goals of building an unshakable faith are undermined by its own internal inconsistencies. Next, this paper looks at the film’s view of suffering and theodicy, and places it in conversation with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Here, too, the film follows historic patterns that erect barriers of belief to the unbeliever, ultimately defeating its evangelistic goals.9

Finally, this paper will articulate a possible way in which film can accomplish some of the goals of God’s Not Dead while avoiding its pitfalls. In this section, Buckley’s Denying and Disclosing God will be put into conversation with Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence. In this film, evidence for the existence of God is provided through the experience of the characters rather than through scientific proofs. Instead of avoiding doubt, Silence enters into doubt in a way that leads to greater faith. Finally, this film portrays suffering in a way that leaves room for the presence of God in the midst of suffering instead of articulating a theology that turns God into the enemy of humanity by making God responsible for suffering.

How to Become an Atheist: A Historical Model

Despite the prevalence of religiosity in contemporary America (nearly 71% still profess faith in Christianity according to the Pew Research Center), 22.8% of Americans claim no religious affiliation.10 This represents a dramatic shift from the near universal acceptance of Christianity throughout the development of Modern America. Charles Taylor describes the current era as “a secular age” in his book of the same name, arguing that Western society has made “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged, and, indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”11 The decrease in religious practice described by the Pew Research Center is an indication of this broader cultural shift.

There have been numerous attempts to explain the reasons for the shift towards a secular age. A common explanation for this shift is the suspected antagonism between religions and science which “refutes and hence crowds out religious belief.”12 However, both Taylor and Buckley argue that this is an overly simplistic explanation and focus their attention on more complex understandings of the process of secularization.

In Denying and Disclosing God, Buckley suggests that, contrary to the above secularization theory, “It was not because science was indifferent or antagonistic [to religion]; it was because it was too enthusiastically affirmative and comprehensively supportive that atheism emerged.”13 In addition to the overenthusiastic embrace of science, Charles Taylor argues that secularism emerged in Western society as a result of Christianity’s inadequate response to theodicy in the modern era. We will begin by taking a closer look at how Christianity came to embrace science and philosophy as the primary warrant for belief.

A Foundation on Science

According to Terry Eagleton,14 Michael Buckley,15 and Charles Taylor,16 in the turbulent period following the reformation, accusations of atheism were often leveled at one’s theological opponents, despite mutual claims of orthodoxy.17 Though atheism was rarely practiced at this time, many concerned clergy (such as Joseph Butler and Samuel Clarke) sought to defend Christianity against this perceived threat. In order to mount their defense, intellectuals turned to the neutral ground of philosophy in an attempt to “define a compact core of unquestioned belief.”18 However, in doing so they laid a philosophical groundwork that would eventually give rise to real atheism.

Religious philosophers were assisted in their efforts to defend Christianity by natural philosophers, especially Isaac Newton. Newton claimed that the universality of his mechanics provided a foundation not only for mathematics but also for religious belief.19 With this foundation, belief in God was argued using the scientific method by which evidence for God’s existence was supplied from the observable world.20 As a result, religion in parts of Europe and America moved from being a matter of faith found in the presence of God as encountered in history21 to a set of philosophical precepts inferred through scientific reasoning.22

It is in this embrace of science as proof of the existence of God that Buckley identifies a historical pattern in which atheism emerged from the very philosophy that was constructed to oppose atheism in the first place.23 While this pattern is by no means a certainty, Buckley suggests that it has reoccurred enough times to warrant a more detailed examination. To do this, he looks at three examples from history in which the embrace of science by religion eventually gave way to a rise in atheism. This paper will focus on the second of the three examples.

Buckley’s exploration of his pattern in America focuses on the eighteenth-century theologian Cotton Mather who used what he called “The Twofold Book of God,” that is, science (or nature) and scripture, to provide evidence for God’s existence. In his writing, Mather argued that the design of the universe inferred the existence of God.24 As with God’s Not Dead, Mather set out to protect religion from perceived attacks of atheists, heavily relying on science to achieve these ends.

The cozy relationship between science and religion lasted until the middle of the next century, when further scientific discoveries invalidated the claims Mather used as evidence for God. Though science had been used as evidence for God, the god it pointed to was a god of the gaps, who only existed where science had yet to offer an explanation. With Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859, the gaps into which Mather’s god fit began to disappear making God unnecessary for the explanation of creation from a scientific perspective. Buckley sums up the situation when he writes, “The religious assent was undermined when theologians excised the specifically religious and came to rely upon scientific evidence and procedure as foundational. The more that theologians insisted upon such a foundation, the more they discredited belief.”25

It is here that Buckley identifies the internal contradiction in religion that gave rise to atheism. The personal God experienced in worship had been exchanged for the impersonal god that could be rationally inferred from science. When science no longer required a god to explain creation, atheism became more rational than religious belief.

We Totally Understand What’s Going on Here

New scientific discoveries, Newton’s laws of motion in particular, helped to explain the ways the universe worked. In short, the world became less mysterious. Where once God, in God’s mysterious ways, ordered the cosmos,26 now physics provided the ordering principles needed to explain the functioning of the universe. In fact, the emphasis on reason in this era led some to eliminate mystery from the divine altogether.27

The apparent comprehension of the inner workings of the universe by humanity, when combined with Western Christianity’s embrace of science, led to the belief that we can understand what God intended with the creation of the world. Both God’s creation and providence were understood at this time almost exclusively in terms of human flourishing.28 These claims pose the problem of theodicy: if God’s desire is human flourishing, why is there suffering in the world?

With an understanding of the world in place, answering the question of suffering became a more serious threat to the Christian West. While the struggle of understanding suffering in relation to God was never absent from religious practice, the problem became amplified in the early Modern era because of the degree to which mystery was excised from Western Christians’ conception of the universe.

The philosophical shifts that occurred in the early 19th century remain barriers to belief today. Often, the religious response to theodicy makes belief more difficult, leading to a quicker turn to secularity/atheism.29 Taylor discusses the way some people try to avoid the problems of theodicy altogether instead of trying to provide an adequate response to suffering either by “proposing to compensate for the most terrible events in history in a future life; or else bowdlerizing in a covering up how terrible these events are.”30 It is no wonder such responses turn people away from religion: either their suffering is denied, or else their promised human flourishing is moved to a future era—an era that is increasingly difficult to believe in as secular humanism rises in prominence.

With these shifts in Western Christian methodology, atheism was given a foothold, not only to emerge, but to flourish. First, according to Buckley, Christian belief shifted from an experience of God to a philosophy in order to defend itself against accusations of atheism. Second, science joined in the philosophical project, becoming one of the main pillars of faith. However, this pillar collapsed when the gaps God once fit in were filled. Finally, the worldview centered on human flourishing created by the enlightenment erected a framework in which a response to theodicy became all but impossible to articulate given the theological trends of the day. Though there were other factors that contributed to the rise of atheism, these three positions not only played an important role in its rise, but are still active in religious circles today.

The Rise of Atheism in Contemporary Film

Having sketched a brief outline that attempts to chart some of the causes behind the rise of atheism today, this paper will now apply the pattern identified by Buckley and Taylor to contemporary Christian film. In doing so, this paper will argue that many of the internal contradictions that existed during the rise of atheism throughout Modernity are still present in the religious thought of today and reflected in the films produced by some Christian filmmakers. These contradictions must be attended to if these filmmakers wish to build up people’s faith instead of setting them up for a turn to atheism.

In order to attend to these contradictions, this paper will focus on the film God’s Not Dead by the Christian film production company Pure Flix. This film was chosen for several reasons: first, because of its explicitly stated intention of building Christians’ faith against the onslaught of atheism; and, second, because of its impact on American culture. While the breadth of the film’s influence is somewhat difficult to calculate, the fact that the film grossed over $60.7 million31 and spawned its own franchise32 indicates its impact has been fairly substantial.

God’s Not Dead, a Very Brief Overview

The film God’s Not Dead follows several characters whose arcs are intertwined with one another. The main plot focuses on college freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), who enrolls in an introduction to philosophy class taught by Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). In the first class session, Radisson asks all students to sign a paper saying “God is dead.” When Wheaton, an apparently devout Christian (he wears a cross necklace and a Newsboys t-shirt),33 refuses to sign, he is given the opportunity to defend the existence of God against the professor’s arguments for atheism. If he fails to persuade the rest of the class, he will receive a failing grade on that portion of the class, which threatens his chances of getting into law school. A second strand features Marc Shelley (Dean Cain), a wealthy businessman, and his girlfriend Amy (Trisha LaFache), a liberal blogger and vegetarian.34 When Amy informs Marc that she has cancer, he immediately ends their relationship. Another character arc centers around Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), the daughter of a devout Muslim man, but who is herself a secret Christian. When her dad discovers her faith, he violently throws her out of the house. The final thread follows Reverend Dave (David A. R. White) and a visiting missionary named Reverend Jude (Benjamin Onyango) who face repeated, and apparently divinely ordained, car trouble on their way to Disney World. These storylines come together at the end of the film when the characters meet at a Newsboys concert.

God’s Not Dead…Yet

As with the religious leaders, like Cotton Mather, discussed by Buckley, God’s Not Dead seeks to establish an unshakable faith that not only withstands the attacks of atheism, but lands a fatal blow of its own. In The Christian Philosopher, Cotton Mather writes that his project was to see that “Atheism is now forever chased and hissed out of the World.”35 Though less fiery in tone, Rice Broocks, author of the book God’s Not Dead, writes that the purpose of the book is for believer “to go on the offensive with the unbelieving world around them, demonstrating that God exists.”36 Unfortunately, God’s Not Dead ends up following its eighteenth-century counterpart, complete with the internal contradiction that Buckley argues lead to a rise in atheism.

Like the philosophers of the Early Modern period, God’s Not Dead sets its argument for the existence of God in explicitly philosophical terms. By staging the debate between the atheist professor and the Christian student in a philosophy classroom, the film takes the position that this is the appropriate arena for such a debate. Throughout the film, the existence of God is primarily argued for on the basis of external evidence, primarily based in science. In this way, the film mirrors the Early Modern period that Buckley writes about, in which “The demonstrations of the existence of God must proceed fromobvious sources, like those from design in nature.”37 Instead of arguing for the existence of God on different grounds, say, the lives of the saints (as Buckley discusses later in his book), the film engages with philosophy on its own terms.

As with Cotton Mather, God’s Not Dead’s protagonist Josh Wheaton uses scientific evidence to argue for the existence of God in his philosophy class. Wheaton makes three presentations to the class arguing for the existence of God. Two of his arguments use science to attempt to disprove his professor’s claim that God doesn’t exist.38 However, Wheaton’s arguments rely on gaps in science to provide evidence for God and as scientists continue to push the boundaries of human knowledge, the gaps that the “god of the gaps” lives in eventually disappear.

The first piece of evidence provided by the film God’s Not Dead is based on the origin of the universe. While the film accepts the big bang theory, inasmuch as it backs up the creation narrative in Genesis, it suggests this has to have been set in motion by God. To counter this claim, biologist and noted atheist Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion that an all-powerful being could not have created the universe, since, “the designer himself must be the end product of…a version of Darwinism in another universe.”39 This is because anything that existed at the beginning of the universe had to have been very simple. Granted there are biases at work on both sides of the argument, not the least of which is the film’s insistence in a God that has always existed and Dawkin’s denial that this is true. I do not wish to wade into this intractable debate. However, I address it because the question of why there is something instead of nothing is not the killing blow to atheism that the film had in mind. The film itself cites theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who thinks it may be possible that the universe created itself. While theists may see God in this gap, scientists are not content with this explanation and are still seeking—and may one day find—more compelling explanations than “God did it” for why something exists instead of nothing.

Secondly, the film brings up the argument that life appeared on the earth suddenly and not gradually. Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that life should have evolved gradually over the course of millions of years. However, according to the film, we see instead, “most major animal groups suddenly appear in the forms they currently hold.”40 Again, Dawkins addresses the Cambrian Explosion referenced here in the film, accusing creationists of having a god of the gaps. Dawkins argues that some things are more easily fossilized (bones) than others (soft tissues), and that just because something is not recorded in the fossil record does not mean that it did not happen. Dismissively, Dawkins writes that “if a new fossil discovery neatly bisects a ‘gap’, the creationist will declare that there are now twice as many gaps!”41 The apparent explosion of life that God’s Not Dead cites as evidence also appeals to the god of the gaps. This case seems to be particularly precarious in that these gaps seem to have already been filled.

Broocks, like Mather before him, uses science as a foundation for his belief. And though the two use different evidence for God’s existence, they are similar in the way they rely on a “god of the gaps”—in the way they “fit” God in as a way to explain the “gaps” left in our current scientific understanding of the universe. If, as Buckley argues, this methodology led to a rise in atheism when Mather employed it, it is likely to do the same for Broocks as well. While Mather lived in a time when it was difficult to be an atheist, Broocks does not. No longer does one have to break from the whole of society in order to reject theism. This is not to say such a shift is always easy for individuals, but in the current secular culture that Taylor describes, this move is much more accessible than it was in the eighteenth century. In short, the barrier for entry, moving from theist to atheist, is much lower, and therefore the “god of the gaps” foundation Broocks erects is much less stable.

God’s Not Dead (but He Might Kill You)

Building a foundation for belief based on science is not the only way God’s Not Dead undermines its own goals—its approach to theodicy does so as well. The response of God’s Not Dead to theodicy is closely tied to the ways the film promotes life after death to the detriment of life here and now. This is articulated most clearly in the book when Broocks writes, “At our core, we are spiritual beings who live in physical bodies. Though these bodies decay, the spiritual parts will live forever.”42 This attitude is reflected in Wheaton’s final argument for God’s existence and the manner in which the film kills off professor Radisson. Through its arguments and the treatment of its characters God’s Not Dead moves its concern for people to a future time and minimizes their suffering, which Taylor suggests led to a rise in atheism in the eighteenth century.

One of the arguments for God’s existence cited by the film is morality. In one of his presentations to the class, Josh says, “for Christians, the fixed point of morality, what constitutes right and wrong, is a straight line that leads directly back to God.”43 If God does not exist, he argues, there is nothing preventing us from seeking our own selfish interests. “Without God there is no real reason to be moral.”44 While the film does not expand on this claim, the book God’s Not Dead suggests that God gave us a moral law so that we can avoid causing pain in our lives and the lives of those around us.45 However, morality is not exclusively the domain of Christians or other theistic religions. Many atheist philosophers point out that the desire to avoid pain personally and socially is its own warrant for moral behavior.46

Though neither the book nor the film state this explicitly, it is strongly implied that humanity needs God to be moral because of the punishment/reward that is promised/threatened in the afterlife. In other words, “those who choose to love him freely will dwell with him in heaven free from the influence of evil.”47 Since evil had already been defined as not following the moral law of God, it follows that those who do not follow God’s moral law are not welcome in heaven.

If morality is based on God-given laws, then evil exists in the world because humans ignore these laws, or so argues the film. In the climactic debate between Professor Radisson and Josh Wheaton, Wheaton argues that God gives humanity free will and it is our disobedience that leads to suffering. However, someday Jesus will return and defeat evil once and for all. This does not sit well with Professor Radisson who responds to this dismissively by saying, “One day, God will get rid of all the evil in the world. But until then you just have to deal with all the wars and holocaust, tsunamis, poverty, starvation, and AIDS. Have a nice life.”48 Radisson’s rant implies a common question: if God can end suffering, why doesn’t God do so now? Further, how can this God be called good? Unfortunately, the film completely ignores Radisson’s concerns. Instead, the film changes topics to morality. Though spoken by the film’s antagonist, the film seems to offer no alternative to suffering except that viewers be content to “have a nice day” until Christ eventually defeats evil once and for all.

According to Charles Taylor’s historical analysis of theodicy, when God’s response to suffering is moved to a future era, as God’s Not Dead does, the result is likely to “lead to rebellion”49 against religion and its failure to provide any reasonable response to suffering. This is compounded by the fact that God’s response to evil in the film is only ever discussed in connection to human failure to follow God. God’s Not Dead provides no response to naturally occurring phenomena such as the tsunamis that Professor Radisson cites. This approach to suffering is the result of the film’s worldview in which life in the current era is significantly less important than the life to come—a view that is made more explicit in the way the film handles the death of Professor Radisson.

After the final debate between Josh and Professor Radisson, Radisson reads a letter from his mother who died when he was twelve years old. In the letter, she writes that she wished she could be alive to see the fulfillment of God’s plan for his life. After Radisson finishes reading the letter, he runs out the door to a Newsboys concert, and is hit by a car and killed. Before he passes away, Reverend Dave and his friend Reverend Jude are able to lead Radisson in the sinner’s prayer, accepting Jesus into his heart to be the Lord of his life. If the film’s view on God’s delayed elimination of evil violated Taylor’s first warning against religion’s response to suffering, Radisson’s death violates the second. By placing emphasis so heavily on the life to come, the film is “covering up how terrible these events are.”50 But the film goes a step further than merely covering up its character’s suffering. After Radisson dies, Reverend Jude declares “what happened here tonight is cause for celebration.”51 Jude might consider Radisson’s prayer to accept Jesus a cause for celebration, but in doing so the film appears to not only ignore, but applaud Radisson’s death. This is only the most egregious example of the ways God’s Not Dead papers over the suffering of its characters—of which, there are several others.

Most often, when a character encounters suffering in the film, they are placated by a Bible verse from one of the more devout characters. When Ayisha is violently thrown out of her house by her Muslim father for converting to Christianity, she seeks out Reverend Dave for advice. And, though Reverend Dave does not provide her with any tangible help, she leaves smiling because Dave reminds her that she “can do all things through Christ” (Phil. 4:13). When Amy, the blogger, tells the Newsboys she is dying of cancer, her mood is lifted when a band member quotes a few Bible verses to her and prays for God to be with her and cleanse her. This is not to say that prayer and scripture are unimportant and cannot be part of a meaningful response to suffering. However, the existential threats these women face are downplayed by suggesting that their problems can be solved without any tangible offers of assistance, such as a place to stay for Ayisha, or the offer of assistance as Amy goes through treatment for her cancer.52

If God’s Not Dead is truly attempting to build people’s faith, tackling suffering is important since it is a key part of true faith. Writing on the topic of the Christian response to suffering Yujin Nagasawa writes, “Faith does not offer easy or quick solutions to difficult problems. Avoiding the problem or pretending that it does not exist does not represent true religion.”53 Unfortunately, the film picks the wrong approach to suffering at just about every point. Instead of acknowledging the horror of its characters’ suffering, it disregards their current suffering in light of the elimination of suffering promised in the next life. Though the elimination of suffering in a future era is part of the hope for Christians, this hope is not a sufficient response on its own to experiences of suffering.

When compared with other historical examples, it is easy to see inherent contradictions in God’s Not Dead. Though its stated purpose is to build the faith of believers and to evangelize those who are not, it runs the risk of doing the opposite. In the first place, God’s Not Dead threatens a crisis of faith among those who accept its thesis of belief in the existence of God based on gaps in science. As these gaps are filled by advances in scientific understanding, the foundation of faith proposed by the film risks erosion that may eventually lead many to abandon faith entirely.54 This parallels the rise of Modern atheism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as illustrated by Cotton Mather. In the second place, the film’s approach to suffering places a barrier to the unbelieving. If film is to inspire a more resilient faith, a substantially different approach is needed.

Engaging Secularity: A Proposal

Instead of relying on certainty as a means of building faith, Buckley suggests the more uncertain realm of experience as a superior mode of cultural engagement. Buckley points out that one cannot

in an effort to justify, found, or confirm assertions of the reality of God … bracket or excise religious evidence and religious consciousness and the interpersonal that marks authentic religious experience … excise any of these, and the account of religious affirmations is seriously deficient.55

Just as experience was excised during the rise of atheism, so too has it been minimized in God’s Not Dead—especially the film adaptation. By ignoring the experiential aspects of Christianity, God’s Not Dead replicates the internal contradictions of religion in the eighteenth century that led to an increase in atheism. We will begin an exploration of these contradictions by taking a look at the failures that result from the elimination of experience.

Certainty vs. Faith

As demonstrated above, Christians often seek certainty in their beliefs through external evidence. This was seen in the 19th century with Cotton Mather and more recently in the movie God’s Not Dead. However, throughout history this search for certainty has repeatedly led people to atheism instead of deeper faith. Buckley rightly argues that this is partially because the grounding of belief primarily in philosophical principals is combined with the elimination of the experience of lives transformed by the presence of God as evidence for God. The end result is that Christianity loses its unique and attractive characteristics.

There is very little characteristic of Christianity in the way protagonist Josh Wheaton acts. While Josh and his professor go back and forth making arguments for and against the existence of God, the only way Josh comes out victorious in the debate is by exploiting the professor’s painful past. In a previous scene, Radisson tells Josh that he became an atheist because his mother died of cancer when he was a child. Josh then wins over the class by badgering Professor Radisson into admitting he is mad at God. And how could he be mad at God, Josh argues, if God does not exist? In other words, Josh does not win his debate with Radisson through superior reason or evidence of Christian love, but by cruelly attacking and exposing the weakness of his opponent. There is so little that is characteristic of Christianity in Josh’s story line, that the script could have him defending the Flying Spaghetti Monster56 instead of the God of Christianity with very few alterations.

Instead of seeking certainty of belief, a better approach is found in building faith despite uncertainty. The history of the people of God is filled with the story the saints wrestling with their uncertainty and remaining faithful. Indeed, the people chosen to be God’s people were named Israel (they wrestle with God)57 because of this struggle.

If Buckley is correct, then Christian films would be more effective if they were to portray the experience of Christianity instead of philosophical arguments. Contrary to what Broocks might hope, this experience is not one of unshakeable faith, but is the experience of wrestling with a faith that is repeatedly challenged by the obstacles of life.58 Embracing the experience of faith as a means of knowing God is key to Christian witness since it is precisely in the midst of the struggles of life that Broock’s propositional certainty falters. In his book, Patience With God, Tomáš Halík writes,

We don’t need faith when confronted with unshakable certainties accessible to our powers of reason, imagination, or sensory experience. We need faith precisely at those twilight moments when our lives and the world are full of uncertainty, during the cold night of God’s silence. And its function is not to allay our thirst for certainty and safety, but to teach us to live with mystery.59

Halík, as with Buckley, affirms the importance of mystery over certainty, and advocates for an embodied faith instead of philosophical propositions as a means of maintaining and sharing faith.

Embracing Mystery

If Christian filmmakers want their films to attract unbelievers and build the faith of those who already believe, we must begin by recognizing the mysterious nature of God. In Denying and Disclosing God, Buckley writes, “‘Mystery’ does not point to an insolvable problem or an enigma; it points to that which is inexhaustible in its fullness, and consequently cannot be comprehended.”60 If we are to take seriously the inexhaustible nature of God, we must admit that any attempt to systematize or explain God will necessarily fall short of capturing God in God’s fullness. Certainty in the face of this mysterious God becomes impossible since anything we might say about God describes only a small portion of who God is.

Ludwig Feuerbach, one of the earliest minds behind modern atheism, wrote that God is nothing more than a projection of humanity.61 To a certain extent, projection is unavoidable; the language a person uses to talk about God is determined, in large part, by her context. A person from America may understand God differently than a person from Japan because of the linguistic and cultural influences that shape her context. The problem becomes a crisis when we allow our culturally-conditioned understanding of God to define for us the totality of God. Drawing on the apophatic tradition, Buckley identifies this problem and offers a way through it when he writes, “What we grasp and what we long for is very much shaped and determined by our own preconceptions, appetites, concepts, and personality-set. If these are not disclosed and gradually transformed by grace…then there is no possibility of contemplation of anything but our own projections.”62 Embracing mystery forces us to come to terms with our projections onto God, recognize what these projections are, and move through them to better understand the true nature of God. Paradoxically, the best understanding of God one can have is the recognition of how little we are able to understand about God in light of God’s infinite presence.

In light of the inexhaustible, mysterious God, the best evidence for the existence of God is the experience of God. Buckley argues that the best way to respond to atheism is by recovering religious experience as grounds for belief. Buckley writes that “The lives of very ordinary people contain events that they assessed as marked by the influence or the presence of God….The person is drawn by some recognition to the disclosure of holiness, and such an encounter enables or draws a human being to assent to the reality of God.”63 These experiences, both in person and on screen, not only provide a better testimony to the existence of the mysterious God, but build a more enduring faith as well.

Embracing Experience

When confronted with the same Pew research statistics of Church decline, Kara Eckmann Powell and Chap Clark set out to study why young people do not stay in the church. Their research suggested that “The greatest gift you can give your children is to let them see you struggle and wrestle with how to live a lifetime of trust in God.”64 In other words, a vibrant, lasting faith is not built on certainty, but rather a doubting faith that can engage with what it means to be faithful in the midst of complex situations. While Powell and Clark’s research is directed toward parents so they can raise children who remain Christians, this kind of faith can also be depicted on film.

This kind of faith not only has an impact on an individual, but extends to others as well. Buckley argues that evidence of God’s existence may be seen as God is encountered in the midst of the messiness of life. “Among the highest categorical disclosures of God,” Buckley Writes, “are the lives of holiness that …are among the surest historical warrants for the reality of God.”65 Thankfully, Christian tradition is filled with examples of lives of holiness in the stories of the saints. Frequently, these stories are not of men and women with unquestioned belief, but of people who frequently and repeatedly questioned God in the midst of their struggles.

Though there are certainly many examples that may be given to illustrate this point, Buckley tells the story of how Jacques and Raïssa Maritain came to faith. In her autobiography, Raïssa Maritain wrote about how Léon Bloy discussed with the couple his own faith journey in relationship with saints and mystics. Buckley argues that the Maritains came to faith because Bloy “introduced this young couple not to argument and inference, but to narrative, to the life and the writings, i.e., to the experience and the holiness, of the saints.”66 Again and again in the lives and writings of the saints we read and see evidence of uncertain faith. Yet, it is precisely this faith, embodied in the lives of the saints, that brought the Maritains and countless others to a faith of their own.

Doubting Faith in Christian Films

The lives of saints have been presented in a variety of media including writing, stained glass windows, and the icons of the East and West. Though more recent, film provides a unique medium for depicting the embodied lives of the saints and their experiences with God. In contrast with writing, film provides visual depiction of saints, which better communicates their embodied experiences. Further, film presents a dynamic picture of a saint that windows or painted icons can only hint at. Though we can’t directly experience a saint’s encounter with God, a film can present it to the viewer in a mediated form. In “The Scene of the Screen,” Vivian Sobachak writes, “the cinematic exists as an objective performance of the perceptive and expressive structure of subjective lived-body experience.”67 If we are to embrace the experience of God as evidence for God’s existence, then film’s ability to present these experiences make it an ideal medium for sharing these embodied experiences with others.68

A powerful recent example of this is found in Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence, which is based on the book of the same name by Shūsaku Endō.69 Silence provides an excellent conversation partner for this paper because of the ways it provides the kind of embodied example of the wrestling with faith that Eckmann Powell and Clark identify as being critical for building an enduring faith. Secondly, Silence explores what it means to move from a certain faith to a doubting faith. Finally, the film explores suffering from a more nuanced perspective. In doing this, Silence provides an example of a film that is more likely to achieve the goals of evangelism and reinforced faith that God’s Not Dead attempts, but fails to achieve.70

Faith in Silence

Silence tells the story of the Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) who, along with Father Garupe (Adam Driver), travels to Japan to find his former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who reportedly apostatized during a period of intense persecution.71 The two Jesuits are brought to Japan by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a Japanese expatriate. For a while, Rodrigues and Garupe hide in a hut looking down on the people of a small village where they administer the sacraments. However, their presence in the country draws the attention of the Japanese authorities who torture and kill three of the Christians of the village. Eventually, Rodrigues himself is betrayed by Kichijiro and captured. But, instead of being tortured and martyred, as he expected (and hoped), he was treated kindly and with respect. The Japanese Christians on the other hand were tortured in grotesque ways that rivaled the methods of the Spanish inquisition.72 Rodrigues is told that their suffering will end if he apostatizes. Confronted with these options, he chooses to renounce his faith. Throughout the film, Rodrigues prays, asking God to explain why God allows these people to suffer, but hears only silence. It is not until the moment he is confronted with his choice to apostatize that Rodrigues hears what he believes to be the voice of God telling him to apostatize. Paradoxically, it is in this act of renouncing his faith that Rodrigues is found to most closely embody the sacrificial love of Christ.

Rodrigues begins the film as a man of certainty. Rodrigues was a well-educated man and his certainty is, in part, rooted in the soundness of his doctrine. However, his doctrine is influenced by his experiences as a Portuguese Jesuit which affect the way he sees Jesus and subsequently, the way he conducts himself in Japan. Throughout the film, Rodrigues’ certainty is challenged by his experiences of suffering, both his own and that of others. It is through his journey that the viewer is presented with an alternative vision of what it means to have faith, not simply certainty of belief.

As a Jesuit priest, Rodrigues would have received a robust education that included doctrinal training to help guide his work. While correct doctrine is important, at several points in the film Rodrigues engages with Christianity primarily through the lens of doctrinal concerns at the expense of pastoral concerns. This can be seen when the priests first arrive in Japan, the villagers are eager to receive symbols of faith such as the beads from the priest’s rosaries. Rodrigues expresses concern that the villagers’ sacramental faith emphasizes these symbols over genuine faith.73 Rodrigues’ confidence in his doctrine begins to crack when three of the villagers refuse to apostatize and are slowly and publicly executed via a combination of crucifixion and drowning. One of the villagers takes three days to die.

Rodrigues’ dependence on a doctrinal mode of engagement is also demonstrated during his debates with the Japanese officials. After Rodrigues is captured and taken to Nagasaki he is brought before a panel of Japanese officials who question his reasons for coming to Japan. Several of the Japanese officials argue that Christianity may be fine for Portugal but was unsuitable for Japan. In response, Rodrigues repeatedly argues for the universal truthfulness of Christian doctrine. During his interrogation, Rodrigues claims that it was because Christian doctrine is universal that Jesuit missionaries came to Japan in the first place.74 While Christ might be universally applicable, Silence makes the case that the Japanese officials were partially right and that the Jesuits’ doctrine was at least partially a projection from their context.

In his article on Silence, Ian DeWeese-Boyd writes that the Jesuits’ Spiritual exercises trained the members of that order to discover how they could best reflect the image of Jesus Christ.75 However, the image of Christ Rodrigues imagines in Silence is of El Greco’s The Veil of St. Veronica76 which depicts Jesus as a Caucasian man. Just before he is arrested by the Japanese authorities Rodrigues looks into a stream of water and sees the face of El Greco’s Christ reflected back. This suggests that while Rodrigues does reflect an image of Christ, that image is, at least partially, a projection of Rodrigues’ own Portuguese heritage.

During the seventeenth century, in which the film takes place, Portugal exerted a great deal of influence globally. Further, the political influence of Portugal often was done through or alongside the missionary efforts of the Roman Catholic Church.77 Thus, the triumph of Portugal was also reflected in Rodrigues’ triumphalist view of Christ.78 Just as Jesus triumphed over death upon his resurrection, so too did Rodrigues expect Christianity to be triumphant in Japan just as it had been in Portugal. Rodrigues is partially justified in his optimistic position since Christianity was flourishing before persecution began.

Rodrigues’ triumphalist expectations anticipated opposition but failed to adequately prepare for failure. In part, Rodrigues expected to become a martyr which would itself result in the flourishing of the church as it had under Roman persecution in the 1st century.79 However, unlike the Roman persecution, the goal of Japanese persecution wasn’t to kill Christians but to get them to renounce Christianity, which discredited their faith.80 Typically, in the act of apostacy Christians were asked to step on a relief image of Christ or the Virgin Mary called a fumie, a particularly difficult task for the sacramentally minded Roman Catholic Christians of Japan.81 As Christianity came under greater scrutiny, the Christians of Japan relied less on the triumphant Christ of Portugal and more heavily on a different aspect of Jesus: the suffering servant.82 Rodrigues’ inability to recognize these dynamics in Japan meant that he ended up contributing to the Japanese Christians’ suffering instead of helping it. Much of the tension in Silence comes from the disconnect between the suffering of the Japanese Christians and Rodrigues’ certainty of his beliefs. In his prayers, Rodrigues questions why God does not arrive and triumphantly end the suffering of the Japanese Christians.

The conflict between Rodrigues’ beliefs and his experiences in Japan culminate when he is finally presented with the opportunity to end the suffering of several Japanese Christians by apostatizing. Early in the film, Rodrigues articulates the Roman Catholic doctrine that to apostatize means eternal damnation. However, when he looks down at the fumie on the ground, all sound in the movie fades out and Rodrigues hears the voice of Jesus say to him “step on me.” With great reluctance and anguish Rodrigues steps on the fumie and the Christians’ torture is ended. As he does so, the audience is shown a brief glimpse of Jesus in El Greco’s The Veil of St. Veronica which quickly fades to black. This indicates visually the end of one phase of Rodrigues’ religious life and the beginning of a new one.83 Where once Rodrigues’ beliefs were previously constructed on projections of himself, the limits of these beliefs have been reached allowing room for something new to emerge.

Where his religious convictions were once based on the certainty of his beliefs, all certainty has been dissolved when confronted by the suffering he witnessed and experienced in Japan. Early in the film, Ichizo, the village elder, says to Rodrigues, “My love for God is strong. Is that the same as faith?” The priest answers in the affirmative. After stepping on the fumie Rodrigues’ religious convictions were based on faith in God because that was all that was left. From here his actions demonstrate concrete love of God and others. In particular, his apostacy is a sacrifice of humility on behalf of the Japanese Christians, an act described by Ferreira as “the most painful act of love.”

Rodrigues’ move from certainty of belief to a faith motivated by love can be seen in his interactions with Kichijiro. At two points in the film Kichijiro asks Rodrigues to hear his confession. The first time this happens, prior to his arrest, Rodrigues offers absolution seemingly out of obligation and perhaps with a sense of disdain for Kichijiro. The second time Kichijiro asks for forgiveness is after Rodrigues’ apostacy. Initially, the priest refuses because he has renounced Christianity but Kichijiro insists. Instead of going through the ritual of confession, Rodrigues tearfully embraces Kichijiro. It is also at this point Rodrigues hears the reassuring voice of Jesus for the second time.

One of the final shots of the film also indicates Rodrigues’ continued faith. After his apostacy, Rodrigues was given a Japanese name and wife. Upon his death, his wife carefully slips something into hands as his body lays in a coffin before cremation. The final shot of the film shows Rodrigues’ body being consumed by flames, a crude cross in his hands. This indicates his continued faith despite the fact his actions ran counter to the doctrine he once held to so firmly.84 This is not a faith of certainty but must be a faith through doubt.

God’s Presence in Suffering

In both God’s Not Dead and Silence, multiple characters experience suffering. However, the desire for certainty in God’s Not Dead versus the willingness to wrestle with the apparent hiddenness of God in Silence leads to dramatically different outcomes. As outlined above, the desire for building certainty in the existence of God in God’s Not Dead results in explanations for and solutions to suffering that at best ring hollow. At worst, the film’s explanations for suffering are perceived as evil.85 If a film wishes to build the faith of the viewer is must take a different approach than offering a solution for suffering. Instead, as Yujin Nagasawa argues, films like Silence succeed because they offer a response to suffering that generates hope.86

In contrast with God’s Not Dead, the physical suffering of the characters in Silence is taken seriously. The concern for suffering in Silence is demonstrated primarily in the way the Christian priests, particularly Fr. Rodrigues, respond to the suffering they encounter. Rodrigues doesn’t stand aloof to the suffering of the Japanese Christians but is brought to a crisis of faith by it. Finally, the way Silence addresses the hiddenness of God provides an avenue for hope in suffering without making God responsible for that suffering. By treating suffering as a serious concern, Silence provides viewers with a constructive way of responding to suffering when encountered in the world beyond the movie screen.

With the exception of the film’s prologue, Scorsese’s film takes Father Rodrigues’ perspective as its own.87 As a result, the only clear perspective on suffering the viewer is given is that of Rodrigues himself. In other words, the viewer is shown how the Japanese Christians suffer, but not their internal reflections on their suffering. The only reflections on suffering in Silence are those of Rodrigues both through his letters to his superior and his prayers to God. Certainly, the depictions of the Japanese Christians being burned, drowned, crucified, doused with boiling water, or some combination of these, convey the severity of the persecution. However, the intensity of this suffering is further conveyed through Rodrigues’ response to this suffering.

In God’s Not Dead, the characters that experience suffering are easily placated by simple platitudes from Christian ministers whose interest in the suffering of the people they encounter appears to extend only as long as it takes to offer a simple prayer or short Bible verse. In contrast, the suffering in Silence is treated as a serious concern for the ministers who attend to those who suffer. In both his writing and his actions, Rodrigues continually expresses concern for the physical well-being of the Japanese Christians. In letters to his superior, Rodrigues writes, “These people are the most devoted of God’s creatures on earth…But why must their trial be so terrible?”88 The poor living conditions and physical suffering of the Japanese Christians are a frequent theme in both Rodrigues’ letters and prayers. In addition, Rodrigues’ action show concern for the physical well-being of the Japanese Christians—beyond, perhaps, what may be expected for a Jesuit priest. When the villagers ask him what to do if they are asked to apostatize, Rodrigues tells them to trample on the image of Christ and outwardly renounce their faith. His hope is that if they trample on the fumie, these Christians will avoid a gruesome death. Unfortunately, three of the villagers are still executed despite the fact they step on the fumie.

The severity of the Japanese Christian’s suffering is also demonstrated in the way it triggers a crisis of faith in Rodrigues. This crisis of faith comes from a combination of witnessing the suffering of the Japanese Christians and the perceived silence of God in the midst of this suffering. For example, after Rodrigues flees persecution he prays, “The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray, but I am lost. Or, am I just praying to nothing. Nothing, because you are not there.”89 Rodrigues’ physical suffering was mild in comparison with that of the Japanese Christians but his existential suffering from the terrible silence of God in light of the suffering of others is also intense, though of a different variety.

The dissonance between what Rodrigues believes about God and the reality of God’s silence in the face of intense suffering makes the priest question the very existence of the God he was willing to die for at the beginning of the film. Rodrigues’ prayers clearly indicate an expectation that God would act to end the suffering of the Japanese Christians. When God did not act as expected, Rodrigues had to reconstruct his faith to make room for his new experience. This is not an easy process for Rodrigues but ultimately results in a new experience of God’s presence. After repeatedly denying his faith to both Japanese officials and Kichijiro, Rodrigues once again hears the voice of Jesus say, “I suffered beside you. I was never silent.”90 The assurance of God’s presence through suffering does not make light of the suffering but provides hope to endure suffering.

In 2005, in response to a deadly tsunami, then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote “Of Course This Make Us Doubt God’s Existence.”91 In this article Williams tries to come to terms with horrendous suffering and acknowledges in the title and throughout the article that suffering causes even the most devout Christians to doubt God. In Silence, Rodrigues experiences the same kind of doubt Williams describes. It is not until after his suffering has abated that Rodrigues hears the voice of God assuring him that God suffered with him.

Buckley suggests that the experience of the saints provides us with evidence of God’s existence.92 The story of the saints also provide us with examples of how to live in the midst of doubt. While Silence may not yield the certainty others seek, Ian DeWeese-Boyd writes that “the film itself might offer viewers, regardless of their religious commitments, the possibility of vicariously encountering the problem of divine absence in a productive way.”93 By journeying with Father Rodrigues in his suffering and through the silence of God, the viewer is invited to come through that silence to find hope.94 When we encounter suffering like that experienced by Father Rodrigues or described by Williams we may not be able to hear the voice of God in the midst of that suffering. When we see others, like Rodrigues, who experience suffering and come through it with a renewed faith, it provides us with hope that we too might emerge from suffering able to see the ways God has suffered with us despite the silence we currently endure.

Conclusion

My purpose in this paper has not been to invalidate the enterprise of Christian filmmaking. The critiques in this paper have been offered with the hope that Christian films will be better. To that end, I have offered an extended exploration of some of the possible, though unintended, consequences of God’s Not Dead and an alternative approach in Martin Scorsese’s Silence.

In its marketing and source material, God’s Not Dead billed itself as an opportunity to convert unbelievers and create in believers an antidote to doubt. This is not the first time Christians have attempted this task. In Denying and Disclosing God, Michael Buckley writes about three attempts throughout history in which religious leaders have used methods similar to that of God’s Not Dead to build faith impervious to doubt. In both God’s Not Dead and at several points throughout history, Christians have attempted to build certainty in the existence of God and the veracity of Christianity by appealing primarily to rational proof at the expense of existential proofs. The unfortunate consequence of these projects was that Christianity discredited itself, giving a foothold for unbelief to flourish.

There is comfort in certainty. But certainty is also deceptive. Often, the foundations upon which we have built our belief structures shift, crumble, or disappear, leaving us scrambling for some assurance of God’s presence. The unexpected death of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis, or the devastation from natural disasters can easily break our carefully constructed doctrines and defenses. As Nagasawa reminds us, when faced with this kind of suffering we don’t need well-articulated beliefs because our suffering is existential instead of intellectual.95

Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence explores the inadequacy of certainty when confronted with suffering and offers an alternative rooted in faith that allows doubt. At the beginning of the movie, Father Rodrigues is certain of his understanding of God, an understanding that is challenged over the course of the film. By the end of the film his certainty has faded away, leaving room for an encounter with God that provides assurance of God’s faithfulness. In other words, Rodrigues is given a whisper of God’s existence in response to his existential suffering.

Like so many great works of art, Silence leaves plenty of room for differing interpretations. By leaving this imaginative space for the viewer to interact with the film, Scorsese gives the viewer the opportunity to reconsider their faith alongside Father Rodrigues.96 If this happens, then the viewer, like Father Rodrigues is given hope grounded in the assurance of the presence of a faithful, loving God. It is this hope in God, not tenuous proofs of God, that helps us endure the suffering that we experience in life. After all, as Martin Scorsese wrote, “God never comes out of the shadows to lend a hand and clarify the situation for us. Which means that God is hidden in this film in the same way that God is hidden in life–forever immanent, provoking anxiety and inspiring hope.”97

Cite this article
Steven Vredenburgh, “Evangelizing Atheism: Missing the Mark in Recent Christian Film”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:1 , 61-84

Footnotes

  1. As of March 2017 the film had a paltry 16 out of a possible 100 on the film review aggregator, metacritic.com.
  2. “God’s Not Dead (2014) – IMDb,” accessed December 5, 2016, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2528814/?ref_=nv_sr_2.
  3. “Wanted…”God’s Not Dead” Ambassadors In Every Neighborhood, In Every Church Throughout America,” God’s Not Dead Blog, May 27, 2014, http://godsnotdead.com/blog/now-wanted-gods-not-dead-ambassadors-in-every-neighborhood-in-every-church-throughout-america/.
  4. Rice Broocks, God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), xv.
  5. While this paper will primarily focus on the film God’s Not Dead, it will, from time to time, refer to the book of the same name which presents the evidence used in the film. This will help explore in more detail some of the claims that the film makes, but does not develop.
  6. In exploring the theology of God’s Not Dead I will be employing a methodology of dialogue proposed by Robert K. Johnston in his book Reel Spirituality. Johnston proposes that when engaging theologically with a film, one must approach the film on its own terms first and then engage theologically. This is somewhat complicated by the fact Johnston is writing primarily about secular films rather than the explicitly religious, like God’s Not Dead. Nevertheless, by treating God’s Not Dead as any other film we are able to better able to determine if the film’s execution matches its stated goals. While this paper begins with a historical overview instead of film analysis, it does so in order to provide context for dialogue with the film. See Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, 2nd ed., Rev. and expanded, Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 64–69.
  7. Thankfully, only my foot was broken, though I’m still in physical therapy more than two years later.
  8. Michael J. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), xiii.
  9. Even though an article about God’s Not Dead at Christian Today spoke positively overall about the film, it too points out that it is “a film non-believers will love to hate.” This reaction seems to miss the intended mark if the film is pitched, in part, as a tool for evangelism. “God’s Not Dead Affirms the Hunger for Quality Christian Movies – but Can It Be Satisfied?,” www.christiantoday.com/article/gods.not.dead.affirms.the.hunger.for.quality.christian.movies.but.can.it.be.satisfied/36785.htm, (accessed June 30, 2017).
  10. “Religious Landscape Study,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, May 11, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/. Accessed December 2, 2016.
  11. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.
  12. Ibid., 4.
  13. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, 2. To be sure, this explanation is particularly relevant to the secularization of the North Atlantic region, which Buckley acknowledges in the preface to his book. Nevertheless, pulling on this particular thread is worthwhile since enthusiasm for science as a basis of religious belief is still a popular mode of apologetics, as both the film and book God’s Not Dead illustrate.
  14. Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (New Haven London: Yale University Press, 2015).
  15. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God.
  16. Taylor, A Secular Age.
  17. Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God, 6.
  18. Taylor, A Secular Age, 226.
  19. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, 18.
  20. Ibid., 37.
  21. Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God, 6.
  22. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, 36.
  23. Ibid., 28.
  24. Ibid., 39. It should be noted here that most of the arguments about the existence of God were fairly uninterested in which god was being argued for. It seems likely, given that America was historically Christian, that there might be an underlying assumption that the god of the philosophical religion was the God of the Bible. However, Buckley points out that this philosophical religion was open to the Muslims living in New England at the time as well as Christians. The somewhat generic nature of this religion is due in part to appeals to the work of pre-Christian philosophers, such as Cicero, in arguments for the existence of God (p. 30).
  25. Buckley, 42.
  26. Taylor, A Secular Age, 233.
  27. Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God, 35.
  28. Taylor, A Secular Age, 221.
  29. Yujin Nagasawa, “Silence, Evil, and Shusaku Endo,” in Hidden Divinity and Religious Belief: New Perspectives, eds. Adam Green and Eleonore Stump (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 253.
  30. Taylor, A Secular Age, 305.
  31. “God’s Not Dead (2014) – IMDb.”
  32. God’s Not Dead 2 was released in early 2016 and God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness came out on Easter weekend 2018.
  33. In her review of the film for the website Christ and Pop Culture, Marybeth Davis Baggett suggests the Christianity in the film “relies on surfacy tokens” instead of a “lovingkindness [that] better shows Christ’s relevance to this world.” The film’s failure to do this, she writes, “erects some real stumbling blocks for viewers.” Marybeth Davis Baggett, “Dubious Depictions of Faithfulness in ‘God’s Not Dead’,” Christ and Pop Culture, April 17, 2014, christandpopculture.com/dubious-depictions-faithfulness-gods-dead/, (accessed June 30, 2017).
  34. Her major character traits are revealed via an establishing shot of the bumper stickers on the back of her car.
  35. Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher (1721; reprint, Gainsville: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968), 249. Quoted in Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, 40.
  36. Broocks, God’s Not Dead, xv.
  37. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, 30.
  38. There are several other arguments in the book God’s Not Dead. Some rely on science, others choose different starting points.
  39. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2006), 156.
  40. Harold Cronk, God’s Not Dead, Drama, 2014.
  41. Dawkins, The God Delusion, 127.
  42. Broocks, God’s Not Dead, 58.
  43. Cronk, God’s Not Dead.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Broocks, God’s Not Dead, 5.
  46. See for example Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (London; New York: Verso, 2014).
  47. Cronk, God’s Not Dead.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Taylor, A Secular Age, 306.
  50. Ibid., 305.
  51. Cronk, God’s Not Dead.
  52. Writing for the A.V. Club, Emily VanDerWerff also highlights the indifference of the movie towards these characters and their suffering. Emily VanDerWerff, “God’s Not Dead is a Mess Even by Christian Film Standards,” March 24, 2014, www.avclub.com/review/gods-not-dead-mess-even-christian-film-standards-202571, (accessed June 30, 2017).
  53. Nagasawa, “Silence, Evil, and Shusaku Endo,” 257.
  54. Alternatively, believers might reject the claims of science that do not conform to their worldview, as seems to be common now, particularly with regard to global warming. With either response, belief in God is discredited.
  55. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, xv.
  56. “About « Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” accessed December 11, 2016, http://www.venganza.org/about/.
  57. Genesis 32 tells the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel and as a result being given the name Israel, “because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (v. 28).
  58. Writing for Birth Movies Death, Colin Biggs also compares God’s Not Dead with Silence, pointing out that “Doubt is human. Christian cinema should be nuanced enough to deal with that.” Colin Biggs, “SILENCE Will Be Forsaken,” Birth.Movies.Death., January 9, 2017, birthmoviesdeath.com/2017/01/09/silence-will-be-forsaken, (accessed June 30, 2017).
  59. Tomáš Halík, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us, 1st ed (New York: Doubleday, 2009). X.
  60. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, 110.
  61. Taylor, A Secular Age, 8–9.
  62. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, 114.
  63. Ibid., 129.
  64. Kara Eckmann Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 46.
  65. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, 130.
  66. Ibid., 129.
  67. Vivian Carol Sobchack, “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic ‘Presence,’” in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 101.
  68. DeWeese-Boyd compares the viewing experience of Silence to St. Ignatius’ exercises writing that, “Even a viewer, then, who has no antecedent opinion about the existence of God, may experience the doubt and despair endured by the characters by means of the simulation the cinematic situation generates.” Ian DeWeese-Boyd, “Scorsese’s Silence: Film as Practical Theodicy,” Journal of Religion & Film 21.2 (2017): 28.
  69. As with God’s Not Dead I will focus primarily on the film version of Silence but will draw on secondary sources written about the book when applicable. Scorsese’s film is faithful to its source material so insights about the book should also apply to the film if handled with care.
  70. I want to be clear that my purpose here is not to instrumentalize this film. Indeed, part of what makes Silence the work of art that it is is that it cannot be reduced to a tool for evangelism. Yet, no matter how paradoxical it may seem, it is also this irreducibility that makes Silence a more effective vehicle for evangelism and discipleship.
  71. The character of Fr. Ferreira is based on a historical figure who apostatized. Rodrigues and Garupe are not historical. While two separate Jesuit missions went to Japan they were immediately captured and none had a chance to interact with Japanese Christians as depicted in the movie. Haruko Nawata Ward, “Silence (2016),” Catholic Historical Review 103.1 (2017): 170.
  72. Nagasawa, “Silence, Evil, and Shusaku Endo,” 247.
  73. Caesar A. Montevecchio, “Silence,” Journal of Religion & Film 21.1 (2017): 1.
  74. Raymond Aaron Younis, “On Silence, Forgiveness, Faith and Reason,” Literature/Film Quarterly 46.4 (Fall 2018), https://lfq.salisbury.edu/_issues/46_2/on_silence_forgiveness_faith_and_reason.html.
  75. DeWeese-Boyd, “Scorsese’s Silence: Film as Practical Theodicy.”
  76. Paula Marvelly, “Shūsaku Endō: Silence,” The Culturium, February 12, 2017, www.theculturium.com/shusaku-endo-silence/. Accessed November 20, 2018.
  77. Fujimura points out that previous missionary efforts were “covert efforts to bring foreign goods and weapons into Japan. Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 44.
  78. Montevecchio, “Silence,” 3.
  79. Fujimura quotes St. Tertullian who wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seeds of the Church” Fujimura, Silence and Beauty, 65.
  80. Nagasawa, “Silence, Evil, and Shusaku Endo,” 248.
  81. Fujimura, Silence and Beauty, 29.
  82. Ward, “Silence (2016).,” 169.
  83. Nagasawa, “Silence, Evil, and Shusaku Endo,” 258. Also see DeWeese-Boyd, “Scorsese’s Silence: Film as Practical Theodicy.” DeWeese-Boyd writes that through his apostacy, Rodrigues is “paradoxically entering through this rejection into Christ’s mercy more deeply than ever before.”
  84. Younis, “On Silence, Forgiveness, Faith and Reason.”
  85. Nagasawa, “Silence, Evil, and Shusaku Endo,” 253.
  86. Nagasawa, 258.
  87. The prologue is a letter from Fr. Ferreira and depicts the earlier stages of persecution that he witnesses. As the letter ends the voiceover fades from Ferreira to Fr. Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) who is reading the letter to Rodrigues. The end of the film maintaining Rodrigues’ perspective is an interesting departure from the book. The appendix of the book recounts the post-apostate life of Rodrigues exclusively through the journal entries of a Dutch merchant in Japan. The film faithfully retains much of the merchant’s observations as voiceover. However, the accompanying images of the film stay with Rodrigues, giving a great deal more information than is in the book. As an interesting side note, the appendix of the book is derived from actual journals that Endo modified. Ward, “Silence (2016).,” 170.
  88. Martin Scorsese, Silence, Drama, History, 2017.
  89. Ibid.
  90. Ibid.
  91. Rowan Williams, “Of Course This Makes Us Doubt God’s Existence,” January 2, 2005, sec. Comment, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3613928/Of-course-this-makes-us-doubt-Gods-existence.html.
  92. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God, 130.
  93. DeWeese-Boyd, “Scorsese’s Silence: Film as Practical Theodicy,” 16.
  94. Nagasawa, “Silence, Evil, and Shusaku Endo,” 258.
  95. Nagasawa, 246.
  96. DeWeese-Boyd, “Scorsese’s Silence: Film as Practical Theodicy,” 28.
  97. Martin Scorsese, “Europa ’51,” in The Hidden God: Film and Faith, ed. Mary Lea Bandy, Antonio Monda, and Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) (New York: Museum of Modern Art ; Distributed in the United States and Canada by D.A.P, 2003), 77.

Steven Vredenburgh

Fuller Theological Seminary
Steven Vredenburgh is a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary.

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