The Hero’s Journey
American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was renowned for his ability to compare ostensibly opposing worldviews, philosophies, and religions through the lens of mythology. What Campbell discovered was that the human experience could be reduced down to a single concept: the “monomyth.” In other words, all human traditions have an archetypal pattern with thousands of variations, which basically tell the same story: the hero’s journey.1
The hero’s journey involves as many as 17 stages and centers on a man or woman who goes on an adventure, is confronted with a crisis or resistance inevitably resulting in a decisive battle, and ensuing victory, which forever changes the hero(ine). At the conclusion of the hero’s journey, the audience is charged—through the power of the tale’s rhetoric—and implicitly beckoned to pursue their own personal quest. Once applying his method to various stories, movies, and books, one sees the merit of Campbell’s work and how the monomyth accurately portrays much of the common human experience.
And we Americans? We love the hero’s journey. We starve for it. It’s all around us. It’s part of the very fabric of our society. We are drawn to it, sing, it, celebrate it, and deep down in the inner recesses of our hearts, we ultimately want to be a hero.
Journey and Resistance
In Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo, Father Rodrigues learns that his mentor, Father Ferreira, has allegedly committed the egregious sin of apostasy. Though Christian persecution was pervasive in 17th century Japan in which the novel is set, Rodrigues and Garupe, Ferreira’s other mentee, could not possibly conceive of any scenario where their mentor could commit such an act of infidelity. Hence, they must depart immediately on their quest to investigate and (dis)prove any legitimacy of these claims.
Upon arriving in Japan, Father Rodrigues and Garupe realize that the persecution against Christians is much more severe than they had ever imagined. Yet, this will not stop our hero(es). The tandem duo is surreptitiously brought into a village full of Christians to whom they immediately minister in secret. At this point, we begin to notice that their mission—to recover or disprove the alleged news regarding Ferreira—is slightly modified and expanded: to tend to a desperate flock. To be sure, much is to be commended for their care amongst the despairing congregation; however, once the heat turns up, and the antagonist, The Inquisitor, discovers subversive Christian life in this village, a realization begins to surface: our hero’s quest has become extremely complicated and convoluted, and he has some cracks in his armor.
Without spoiling too much, I contend that characters in the biblical text begin to emerge in Rodrigues’ imagination: Pilate (the Inquisitor), Judas (Kichijiro), and Jesus (Rodrigues). Our hero develops a complex and compares his struggles and hardships with those of Christ. Without a doubt, trying to be like Jesus isn’t a bad thing. Imitatio Christi is good – yet we have limitation in our imitation. There are some things that were only intended for Jesus to undertake (e.g., die for the sins of the world). As Silence unfolds, Rodrigues’ romanticized illusion of martyrdom intensifies. Is he really the savior of this flock? Is he on a mission or a conquest?2
Legend has it that an aspiring disciple of the Way of the Tea, Sen no Rikyu, sought the tutelage of a tea-master, Takeeno Joo. First lesson? Tend the garden. Rikyu, with delicate precision, presented an immaculate garden before the tea master, but not before shaking a cherry tree, resulting in the perfect garden being scattered with a few random leaves.
In the 15th century an aesthetic and worldview in Japan began to manifest. Rikyu was revered as one who embodied its very essence. Wabi-sabi originated as a reaction against the popular lavish depictions of beauty in art at that time. In contrast to predominant forms of the day, wabi-sabi emphasized imperfection, impermanence, finitude, and authenticity.
A contemporary example might help us to understand. In the recent TV show The Man in the High Castle, there is an entire episode in which Nobusuke Tagomi (Trade Minister of the Pacific States) repairs a broken white coffee mug. We’d probably expect him to use some sort of white lacquer to distract any attention from previous cracks; however, he doesn’t do that. Instead, Tagomi uses what looks like a gold lacquer to highlight the imperfections (which is very wabi-sabi of Tagomi).
In Silence Rodrigues’ romantic vision of Christianity is one that exists as if there are no cracks. Filled by lofty propositional truths, and a God on a high and mighty throne, Rodrigues does his best to muster up strength to remain faultless. Continuing up the path of the hero, he repeatedly fails to recognize the cracks in his armor.
The Way of the Saint 4
Not all literary gurus agree that Campbell’s analysis of the monomyth—an all-encompassing existential metanarrative with variegated threads—is entirely accurate. In lieu of the monomyth, Frank J. Ambrosio has argued there are actually two paradigms: the way of the hero and the way of the saint. Whereas the hero is on the path towards the goal of achieving self-fulfillment and glorious honor, the saint is guided by love and a responsibility towards the other and one’s community. Both the hero and the saint are on the same quest—the meaning of life—but arrive at two different conclusions.
From Hero to Saint? (SPOILER)
At the dénouement of Silence, Rodrigues is brought face to face with his mentor, the alleged apostate Ferreira. Up to this point, Rodrigues had witnessed multiple Japanese Christians suffer torturous conditions and death. Doubt is at a fever pitch. Rodrigues even tells some of his flock to step on the fumi-e (image of Jesus) to escape this unbearable situation; our hero, however, would not concede.
Reminiscent of a stubborn athlete, our hero will not budge. And just like a coach (or person in charge) disciplining the stubborn player, by making the whole team suffer for the one who thinks they are in the right – paining the player to no end – likewise, the Inquisitor causes the village to suffer because of Rodrigues’ refusal to recant.
But the confrontation with Ferreira proves a formidable challenge. Despite Rodrigues’ stalwart attempts, Ferreira appears to be a goner.
Or is he? The once-priest tells him Japan is a swamp. The gospel will not take root in this land. The “Christians” there aren’t really Christians but syncretists (an aside which raises a host of questions regarding contextualization).
Later that night, our hero is presented with the greatest challenge. After complaining about the loud snoring, Rodrigues is informed that the sound is actually coming from the suffering of other Japanese Christians. This is the breaking point, and the most controversial scene in the movie. Ferreira invites Rodrigues to engage in the hardest act of love he will ever face—to trample the fumi-e—and thus end the torture. As declared by his opponents throughout, he is assured it will only be a “formality.”
As Rodrigues gazes upon the fumi-e, the silence is unbroken. The voice of Jesus whispers, “Go ahead now. It’s all right. Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Your life is with me now. Step.”
And so in deep despair, Rodrigues relinquishes the pursuit of victory – the hero’s journey— and accepts defeat for the sake of love. He steps on the fumi-e. Rodrigues undergoes a Christian version of wabi-sabi; through weakness, his armor is cracked and filled by the power of Christ. Effectually, he participates in the death of Christ, and begins his journey anew toward the way of the saint.
Or maybe that is my hope? I desire that in the end Rodrigues was faithful despite what appears to be apostasy. Could it have been just a matter of formality? What even is apostasy? Is it just a declaration, an assent? What about being a functional apostate in the day-to-day without publicizing it? Could it be just an example of “alternative facts”?
There are so many questions raised by this film, and ultimately I think what we desire is resolution and certitude. But only one thing is certain to me in this film (as I suspect in the book): it’s a shroud of mystery. The world of Silence isn’t clear-cut black and white, but full of grey and confusion. Maybe Rodrigues was a hero, a saint, or both?
The conclusion of the movie remains murky. One of the more heartbreaking consequences is that our (ex)hero-saint must spend the rest of his life exiled in Japan without the fellowship of other believers (even this statement can be scrutinized, for I suspect that a touching reunion and reconciliation with Kichijiro (“Judas”) in the final scene may suggest otherwise). With few exceptions, God ultimately calls, gathers, and sends Christians out together as the communion of the saints, not in isolation.
My one-year-old daughter and I try to walk to the park whenever it’s warm enough to go see the ducks at the pond. Yesterday we saw an aberration. After visiting the pond almost daily for the past three weeks, we saw a stranger to these parts: the heron. Sticking out like a sore thumb, this majestic bird immediately grabbed the attention of my daughter, but this time she didn’t say, “duck.” She knew it was different and mysterious. As we observed for a few minutes, we noticed that although the ducks, geese, and heron inhabited the same pond, it was clear that the heron wasn’t welcomed. A few geese even hissed at it. Staring quietly as mere bystanders, we watched the heron remain by itself, all alone, in the marshy-like terrain, and in that moment I was reminded of Rodrigues.
Viewer discretion advised. This film is rated R for violent content.
Click here to watch a conversation with Martin Scorsese on faith and film recently hosted by Fuller Theological Seminary.
- I first heard this concept from Pastor/Author, Tim Suttle: https://vimeo.com/133293651
- This blog was helpful in identifying these themes: https://contrarianravings.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/i-was-not-silent-i-suffered-beside-you/
- See J.R. Briggs Fail (Kindle location 1905)
- Suttle, ibid.