Religious Cinema In The Current Year

With religious identification on the decline in America and general religious knowledge and awareness at an abysmal nadir, especially among the elites who run the country, the antireligious and areligious refuse that dominates Hollywood and the entertainment industry is not particularly surprising.

While America is renowned as the most gauche western nation when it comes to its embrace and trumpeting of Christian religion, this is a somewhat dated characterization. Not only is explicit religious identification on the decline, but when you dig into the data looking for active religious faith, what you find is huge swaths of inactive, nominal belief–or even rank disbelief that still identifies as Christian. Expressions of Christian faith in the public square are rare and, where they exist, are mostly found at the cultural periphery; Christian bookstores, Christian music, televangelists and the like.

Even the phenomenon of Donald Trump's surprise ascendance to the presidency, fueled though it was by many white evangelicals, had a distinctly postreligious character.

With the aggressive secularist assault on religious conscience in the public square–from attempting to force Catholic nuns to participate in the provision of birth control and abortion to evangelical bakers being forced to bake cakes for homosexual "weddings"–this decline of religiosity can't solely be chalked up to the internal exhaustion of religious institutions and consciousness. That is happening, but so is active external opposition and suppression. And not only in America, as Christian populations are being decimated by violence and persecution in the Middle East.

It's in this milieu that two of Hollywood's most notorious filmmakers delivered a couple of big studio cinematic oddities, defending religious conscience, to cap off this year: Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge and Martin Scorsese's passion project Silence. No strangers to religious cinema, both Gibson and Scorsese have tackled the subject matter of Christ's life with the controversial Passion of the Christ and The Last Temptation of Christ, respectively. But even in the relatively brief number of years since the release of those films, the hostility and indifference (different but related phenomena) to Christian religion has reached new heights.

In Silence, Fr. Sebastian Rodriguez (portrayed superbly by Andrew Garfield), a Jesuit missionary to Japan in the 17th century during a time of fierce persecution of Christians, is psychologically tormented by the shogunate in an attempt to get him to apostatize. In Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss (also Andrew Garfield) is a 7th Day Adventist and pacifist whose religiously formed conscience tells him both that it's cowardly not to enlist for the war effort (World War II), and that it's impermissible for him to carry a weapon, receiving strong opposition from officers and fellow soldiers because of this.

These films don't merely lightly touch on matters of religion, they are thoroughly religious films by Roman Catholic directors, in high-profile studio releases, dealing explicitly with matters of religious conscience and hostile attempts to violate it. And both do so with unabashed, and even pious, sincerity.

Silence in particular also acts as an illuminating allegory of our own times. In the film, the inquisitor Inoue, leading the persecution of the Christians, knows the danger of making martyrs. He actually knows that, as Tertullian said (and as Rodriguez quotes), the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Especially when it comes to spiritual leaders. He avoids the mistake of making martyrs of priests, aiming solely for apostasy and refusing to give them martyrdom. It's not the lives of the Christian missionaries that he wants, but their souls. To achieve this the inquisitor deviously weaponizes a genuine Christian virtue against the priests: pity and sympathy for the suffering.

Our own secularist inquisitors take a similar approach. They don't want to physically harm the college-aged Christian son or daughter you send to university, they want their complete conversion to their godless leftism. Direct, explicit opposition–in religion or anything else–usually leads to hunkering down and strengthening of commitments, which is analogous to creating martyrs. Because they want to avoid this, the assault by our secular elite on religious conscience is generally oblique, and it also weaponizes genuine Christian commitments–sympathy for the poor and suffering, for instance–against the Christian God and faith in Him. If they can affirm and accentuate the Christian commitments of students to their fellow man, while simultaneously elevating this commitment above God, then–without even a direct assault on faith–God becomes superfluous, at best.

Inoue understands this too. "A real Christian would pity these suffering Japanese you have come to serve, who suffer because of you." He dangles the carrot of the opportunity to continue to serve the suffering Japanese people the priest came to serve, just not in the capacity of a Christian minister. A sinister ploy and one in smooth continuity with our modern secular inquisitors.

What can we make of these richly religious films in our largely post-Christian society? Do they represent cultural rumblings pointing to a turn toward more traditional religion? A reaction against secularist overreach in popular culture? Or are they mere outliers of a still very strong anti (or non) religious cultural norm? It's probably more the latter than anything, but the religious impulse is inextirpable in humans. While most Americans satisfy that impulse through non-religious substitutes–whether they be political, economic, or personal gods–their counterfeit nature eventually becomes apparent. There's nothing like the genuine article, and there are small but definite signs that the soy substitute religions of our secular-liberal elites are beginning to make us retch.