Faith & Thought

What Makes Great Religious Art Is a Mystery, Like Faith

Anyone who reads this weekly column regularly knows that I am very interested in films, theater, and what I refer to as “Catholic Novels.” Recently my attention was called again to Shisaku Endo’s wonderful novel “Silence” and the cinematic masterpiece based on the novel. 

The film was directed by Martin Scorsese, who is probably the most talented among contemporary film directors. Thinking about the novel and the film, I began to reflect on how religion, and more specifically the mystery of God’s grace, is expressed in art, especially in novels, films, and plays. 

My interest in Scorsese’s work goes back more than 45 years when I saw his film “Mean Streets.” I knew I had seen the work of a very talented filmmaker whose Catholic background obviously influenced his work. 

Over the past 45 years, I have viewed all his films and followed his work closely. Approximately 20 years after I had seen “Mean Streets,” I learned that Scorsese very much wanted to make a film of Endo’s novel, but the project kept being delayed. It seemed as though other projects kept interfering and postponing work on “Silence.” 

Finally the film was made and I was fortunate enough to be invited to a private screening before the film was released for the general public. After the private screening ended, about 20 people involved in the creation of the film sat on the stage and discussed what they meant by religious faith. 

On the stage besides Martin were Liam Neeson, at least one other member of the cast, and the producer of the film. 

Each comment on religious faith was interesting. When the producer spoke, he said that he once questioned Scorsese whether he still wanted to make a film of Endo’s novel in spite of the many delays. 

The producer said that the way Scorsese answered, the producer knew that Scorsese had to make that film. Anyone who loves film and especially films that deal with the mystery of faith can rejoice that Scorsese made a masterpiece, perhaps the finest film the talented director has ever made. 

I am not going to reveal how the film ends, but I will say it has the most provocative ending of any film I have ever seen. 

I have no difficulty believing that creating the film was a labor of love and I am guessing an opportunity for Scorsese to reflect deeply on his own Catholic faith. I have heard that a recent visit with Pope Francis has motivated Martin to make a film about Christ. I hope he follows through on that project. 

That creating the film “Silence” was apparently such a deeply personal task for Scorsese has raised questions in my mind about what is required for an artist to create a religious masterpiece. 

I suspect that there are many sincere artists who might be people of faith, perhaps deep faith, but to produce a religious masterpiece some artistic talent is required. What I am wondering is whether someone with no religious faith, for example an atheist, can create a religious masterpiece. 

My first tendency would be to suspect that someone with no religious faith could not create a religious masterpiece. However, immediately I think my first tendency may lead to an excessively simplistic view. 

Perhaps before any attempt to answer if an atheist can produce a deeply religious work of art we have to decide what we mean by a deeply religious work of art. Which is more religious, a film that superficially deals with religious questions or a film that seriously and brilliantly raises and dramatizes religious questions but offers no solutions? 

I think immediately of the films of Ingmar Bergman, who created more than one cinematic masterpiece. Perhaps the greatest talent in the history of film, Bergman seemed obsessed with religious questions. If some of his brilliant films did not provide traditional answers to the questions they raised, does that disqualify them as religious films? 

Perhaps the best novel about a priest is Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” but the priest in the novel has fornicated and has come to be known as “the whiskey priest.” 

Greene was an incredibly talented writer, one of the great novelists of the 20th century, but I have no doubt that his Catholic faith played a key role in his writing “The Power and the Glory.” The more I reflect on what makes religious art and what gifts the creator of religious art must have, more and more questions enter my mind. 

I find all the questions fascinating but I am afraid that none of my answers will be adequate. All the questions are ultimately about mysteries: the mystery of a work of art, the mystery of the creative process, the mystery of religious faith. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.