It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord. Will we wait in the dangerous silence for who He truly is, or slowly grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf?
When I first heard Andrew Peterson’s song “The Silence of God,” I was stunned. It was so bare. I wondered if it was even heretical…
I’ve since read thoughts by theologians about the growth value of long spans in which God leaves us in silence, but if I remember correctly, the first time I ever encountered someone wrestling with the concept wasn’t in a book, but in Andrew’s song.
He was the first person I heard admit, “I can’t hear God’s voice right now, and that’s terrible and it’s scary.”
It’s enough to drive a man crazy
It’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder
If he’s been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort
From Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heavens’ only answer
Is the silence of God
And it’ll shake a man’s timbers
When he loses his heart
When he has to remember
What broke him apart
And this yoke may be easy
But this burden is not
And the crying fields are frozen
By the silence of God
If a man has got to listen
To the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes
Of all the happiness they’ve got
When they tell you all their troubles
Have been nailed up to that cross
What about the times when even
Followers get lost
‘Cause we all get lost sometimes
If you know this song, you know these last stanzas don’t finish it off. But even hearing this much, I felt a strange sort of relief wash over me. Until he verbalized it, I hadn’t realized that all those years of religious-speak, all those appeals for God to “show up” had made me feel pressure to find continual signs of His engagement.
I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear someone I trusted say, “When God is silent–and that’s often enough for me to write a song about it–I feel disappointed and lost.”
Martin Scorsese’s, Silence
Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, was another one of those moments for me. Among other things, this is a film about faith attempting to survive long expanses of Divine quiet. The film reveals how we expect God to show up, how He does show up instead, and the human weaknesses that appear in the massive gaps between those two realities.
Unlike Christian movies in which God provides some sort of “I have arrived” moment– God does not show up here with a new pickup truck, a much-desired pregnancy, or a restored marriage. The God of this film lets His children wrestle with years of suffering in relative silence. Because of this, we watch people who are trying to obey Him strain and grieve–desperate for confirmation during impossible times.
There are so many angles to this film, but I’m just going to focus on the one most personal to me in this post: the traumatic impact of an older follower of Christ who abandons his pure faith.
The film opens describing the work of Christovao Ferreira, a legendary Jesuit priest who has spent 15 years attempting to evangelize Japan. Ferreira was iconic to believers at the time. Your denomination’s equivalent might be N.T. Wright, Billy Graham, John Piper, or Francis Chan—but whoever that hero is, Ferreira was this sort of leader. He was so solid, so certain, so strong that every young priest knew that he would not sell out for any reason.
When news hits Portugal that Ferreira has apostasized, Rodrigues and a fellow priest believe the news is a dirty rumor. So, the two leave home to scour Japan in an attempt to dispel the disheartening story. It is a dangerous mission, likely to lead to death, but the two young men are idealistic and devoted, and they know how important it is to to the global church reclaim Ferreira’s reputation.
After arriving in Japan, the two young priests grieve to see believers tortured and slaughtered. As they experience emotional and spiritual torment, they stumble; they fail. But over and again, they rise up again in their faith to try to follow God once more.
When Rodrigues is captured by Japanese officials, his opponents try to break his faith repeatedly. The young priests heart crumbles, and he wavers on insanity, but he continues to hold fast. At last, the Japanese leaders bring his suffering to a climax — a meeting with Ferreira.
In this meeting, Rodrigues finds that Ferreira has truly apostasized. His hero is now a Buddhist, writing a book about the great lie of Christianity. His former hero begins to discourage Rodrigues from his own belief, arguing against the gospel and its ability to saturate Japan.
Ferreira urges Rodrigues to give up his faith, to compromise, to conform. Rodrigues is devastated, but he holds fast.
The Japanese could kill Rodrigues, but for strategic purposes, they want him to abandon his faith instead. So, they place Rodrigues in a holding cell where he can hear the gasps and wails of other believers being tortured. He is told that these Christians will be persecuted until Rodrigues denies his faith.
As he praying for strength and wisdom, he finds words of praise carved into his cell wall. Laudate Eum (Praise Him). He runs his fingers into the grooves and appeals desperately to the Lord for courage and fortitude. At this moment, Ferreira enters the cell and explains to Rodrigues that those praises were carved by himself before his denial of the faith.
It is a hellish scene of betrayal and temptation. Ferreira urges Rodrigues to see how selfish it is to maintain an idealistic belief that causes others to suffer. He urges Rodrigues to see that apostasy is altruistic. He builds a case for joining with the leaders of the world out of love of the masses.
Of all the torment Rodrigues endures, this betrayal of a former hero is the worst. This man who had once led him in steadfast belief is now leading him to abandon it. It is more than Rodrigues can bear.
Abandoned by Our Heroes
As I sat in the theater watching all of this, I was blown away. The timing was more than a little ironic.
Just a few moments before watching this film, I had been talking with a friend about how distraught we have felt this past year. So many people my age feel abandoned by our own older faith heroes. In dire national circumstances, we have watched several of our evangelical heroes abandon the ideals they have taught us–urging us to make alliances with forces hostile to our faith.
They have told us that this is loving. They have told us to do this for the good of the people.
Values they once encouraged us to embrace in the face of all opposition have now been discarded for what they now claim to be a greater cause. They mock us for being too committed to impractical standards. They tell us to wake up, to open our eyes, to give up our old, innocent way of looking at the world.
But before our very eyes, some of these men seem to have changed into different sorts of beings. We recognize their faces, but we no longer recognize their hearts. Their language is different, soured, horrifying. They twist the stories of our Scripture to suit their new causes.
Watching this has taken our knees out from under us.
I’m not going to get more specific than that, nor am I going to dig into what happens in the end of the film here. But I will say that this movie (among other things) helped me to understand why the last few months have broken my heart so deeply. Watching my heroes conform to the ideals of the world has been too much for my heart to bear.
These men ask us to “leave well enough alone” and move on. But we aren’t sulking. We aren’t pouting. We feel like we have watched people we trusted and imitated trample on the gospel. And we feel like they have called out and asked us to do the same.
So many people claim to know exactly what God is doing these days, but I will tell you the truth. I don’t. My perceptions might be all wrong…
Time will tell, I suppose.
I do know that I’m profoundly disappointed in some of my old heroes. I know that I no longer recognize our strange, new evangelical America. And even though scores of people around me believe that I am too sensitive, I think it is right to be disappointed. Watching your heroes distort truth is no small thing. God holds leaders to a higher standard because heroes falling creates aftershocks that can trickle through an entire generation of young believers.
Waiting on a Silent God
A huge lightning bolt of God’s appearance didn’t show up at the end of this film, but I left the theater feeling like I felt when I first heard Andrew Peterson’s lyric. I walked away affirmed that it was not wrong to be sincere, not wrong to be sad, and that it was even okay to sit alone in the quiet and wait for an honest manifestation of God’s presence instead of letting immediate needs force me to rush in to claim what He isn’t and what He hasn’t done.
God’s name is holy, even when He seems silent. In those expanses, I do not want to use it in vain. It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord, but I would rather wait in the dangerous quiet for what He truly is than grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf.
There’s a statue of Jesus
On a monestary knoll
In the hills of Kentucky
All quiet and cold
And He’s kneeling in the garden
Silent as a stone
And all His friends are sleeping
And He’s weeping all alone
And the man of all sorrows
He never forgot
What sorrow is carried
By the hearts that He bought
So when the questions dissolve
Into the silence of God
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo
Of the silence of God
“What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.” -Andrew Garfield
‘Grace Enough’ by Brendan Busse in America
People make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola for a variety of reasons. Preparing to play a featured role in a Martin Scorsese film is not one you hear often, but it’s probably not the worst reason. Men and women often make retreats to find some clarity about who they are or who they’re called to be. I suppose it was so for Andrew Garfield when he asked America’s James Martin, S.J., to guide him through the Exercises as he prepared to play the lead role in Mr. Scorsese’s new film, “Silence.”
Father Martin was hesitant at first. But Garfield was looking for something. Or someone. And that’s not a bad reason at all. In the end, it was enough for Jim. And more than enough for God.
Andrew Garfield was, for lack of a better word, successful in the Exercises. “There were so many things in the Exercises that changed me and transformed me, that showed me who I was…and where I believe God wants me to be,” he told me. That’s about as good a retreat outcome as one can hope for. And his success should not surprise us.
His training as an actor prepared him well for the dynamics of Ignatian prayer, whereby one imagines oneself within a series of biblical scenes in order to attain “interior knowledge” of God and to articulate that knowledge in a life of compassionate action and generous service. What was more surprising, what surprises him still, was falling in love.
When I asked what stood out in the Exercises, he fixed his eyes vaguely on a point in the near distance, wandering off into a place of memory. Then, as if the question had brought him back into the experience itself, he smiled widely and said: “What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.”
He fell silent at the thought of it, clearly moved to emotion. He clutched his chest, just below the sternum, somewhere between his gut and his heart, and what he said next came out through bursts of laughter: “God! That was the most remarkable thing—falling in love, and how easy it was to fall in love with Jesus.”
The experience of falling in love with Jesus was most surprising, perhaps, because Garfield, like many people, came to the Exercises asking for something else…
From Sausage Party to Silence, it was a banner year for religion onscreen.
by Alissa Wilkinson in Vox @firstname.lastname@example.org
I started 2016 as chief film critic at Christianity Today and ended it on staff here at Vox. Religion and pop culture has been my beat for a long while. So it’s not surprising I spot it around every corner.
But even by my heightened radar’s standards, 2016 feels like a banner year for onscreen treatments of religion. I don’t mean what we’ve come to consider “Christian movies,” though there were a few of those, most notably the moderately commercially successful God’s Not Dead 2 and the crashing box office failure Ben-Hur (executive produced, by the way, by Mark Burnett of The Apprentice). “Christian films” are made for a sizable but still niche market and bent to the tastes of that segment: biblical or inspirational tales, or (in the case of the God’s Not Dead franchise) legends of the culture wars. They’re meant to preach to — or shore up — the choir.
“Christian movies” had their most recent heyday in 2014 and 2015 and seem to be tapering off, at least in terms of box office returns. But 2016 belonged to a different kind of onscreen religion, aimed at mainstream audiences. In 2016, films and TV shows that portrayed religion — organized or not — were less interested in preaching or caricaturing and more in exploring how faith and (especially) doubt fit into the frameworks of people’s lives today.
Religion showed up onscreen in everything from dark, gritty dramas to dirty animated fables
2016 started with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar, a comedy about competing ideologies (Hollywood capitalism, Marxism, and Christian faith) that is explicitly modeled on a passion play.
And now the year is ending with Martin Scorsese’s Silence, perhaps the most stirring, perceptive film about belief and doubt in decades.
In A Quiet Passion (which played at festivals in 2016 and will open in theaters next year), Terence Davies uses Emily Dickinson’s life to plumb the space that might best be described as believing unbelief. The Witch artfully poses a conflict between stringent Puritan faith and witchcraft in colonial New England. Knight of Cups positioned its narrator on the road to faith (modeled explicitly on both tarot and Pilgrim’s Progress). The documentary The Illinois Parables reads the complicated matter of religion and historical conflict into the landscape of Illinois. In Queen of Katwe, a Christian missionary brings opportunity to illiterate children in the slums he came from.
Beyoncé’s magnum opus Lemonade explicitly drew on religious imagery in its proclamation of freedom for its creator and women like her. The Innocents, like Silence, grapples with faith cracked by doubt in the face of unthinkable violence to the bodies of the devout — in this case, the brutal rape of nuns.
That Christianity is the organized belief system of interest in most of these projects isn’t surprising. They’re mostly American productions, and Christianity is still the dominant religion practiced in America — though I suspect that onscreen organized religion will expand in the next few years to include a higher number of serious treatments of Judaism, Islam, and other religions.
Still, attentive moviegoers could have caught Under the Shadow, a stellar Iranian political horror film, which borrows on concepts from Islamic folklore to explore the fallout from the Iran-Iraq War. And Tikkun, an Israeli horror film, navigated the complexities of bodies and souls in contemporary Orthodox Judaism.
Meanwhile, on TV, Rectify (about guilt, forgiveness, and redemption in small-town America) and The Americans (about religion as a competitor to nationalist ideologies) topped critics’ lists, while The Path and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looked at the complicated reasons people enter, leave, remain in, and recover from oppressive systems of belief.
For a pretty goofy show, Lucifer featured a surprisingly nuanced account of evil and fate, while on Daredevil, Matt Murdock’s Catholicism is a central part of his character. Preachertook as its starting point the conflation of pastorly authority and possession by something evil. On bothJane the Virgin and The Jim Gaffigan Show, Catholic faith is also part of characters’ identities and influences the decisions they make.
This isn’t even an exhaustive list — that would be impossible to compile — and leaves out a lot of what’s happening in genres like horror and in independent and niche film. But as close watchers of the industry can attest, these certainly constitute an observable uptick in religiously oriented content for mainstream audiences.
Religion is part of characters’ identities in 2016, but not their only defining feature
It’s too early in this groundswell to sort out exactly why or how this happened in 2016. It can’t really be attributed to the US election — most of these movies and shows were finished or in development before the race even took shape. But there are some commonalities worth noting.
One notable trend is a growing interest in taking religious belief to be part of, but not the entirety of, a character’s identity. In other words, religious characters are growing more complex.
Religion has at times operated as a negative character-defining trait in onscreen stories: Sometimes the religious character’s faith is played off as just a quirk or an outright flaw, a writing shorthand for being bad, weak, hypocritical, or strange. (Think of Angela in the early seasons of The Office, Shirley Bennett on Community, or Vice President Sally Langston on Scandal.) But Rectify, The Americans, Daredevil, Jane the Virgin, The Night Of, Transparent, and The Jim Gaffigan Show, among others, all have characters who are religious, but who say and do lots of things that aren’t explicitly tied to their faith. They aren’t trotted on to be the token clergy or judgy friend; they’re just people who go to church and believe in God, and also have other interests, views, and friends. Their faith is one among many defining traits, but one that is ever-present (as opposed to, for instance, Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, whose Catholicism seemed to crop up only when it suited the story).
These sorts of characters can be hard to write for a mainstream audience, because fleshing them out often requires personal experience that busts up easy stereotypes. A sort of prototypical religious character, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s Harriet Hayes, was based on creator Aaron Sorkin’s real-life ex-girlfriend, the outspoken Christian Kristin Chenoweth; another Sorkin character, the very Catholic President Jed Bartlet from West Wing, also belongs to this category. We especially see this in TV — most writers’ rooms aren’t noted for their diversity, and sometimes religion has been pretty one-note on screen. And flatly written secondary characters have a way of standing out more starkly in TV’s longform storytelling.
But perhaps recognizing that a myopic view of religious people results in underwritten characters, many shows have developed the sense that, as with gender or race, a character’s religion is part of their identity, one in a series of overlapping layers. A white Southerner’s Christianity looks different from that of a Catholic comedian living in New York City or a black marketing executive in Southern California. Not all Muslims look like they do on Homeland. Religious people look, sound, and act differently from one another. Their political and social views may differ. Even if they belong to an organized religion, the way they express and live that faith is unique.
In her film The Innocents, French director Anne Fontaine elected to dramatize a spectrum of faith in characters that on first blush look very much alike: a group of Polish nuns who, during World War II, are raped by a group of passing Russian soldiers. When the film begins, a French Red Cross doctor (who is an avowed atheist, a fact that does not change throughout the film) is called to the convent, where she discovers that many of the nuns are in advanced stages of pregnancy.
It’s tempting to see a convent full of nuns as a homogeneous group: all Polish women, living together, having taken the same vows, following the same rituals together every day, professing the same belief, experiencing the same violence. But The Innocents recognizes that women have individual responses to severe trauma, and their responses are complex and different from one another. It’s a remarkable exploration of shades of belief and doubt rooted in the different ways that different people internalize and express faith.
Some religious storylines incorporate the supernatural, to great effect
Another striking trend in onscreen religion showed up in two places in 2016: Jeff Nichols’s film Midnight Special and the Hulu TV series The Path, something echoed in the HBO drama The Leftovers (which aired the final episodes of its second season in December 2015 and will premiere its third season in 2017)…
The mimetic model begins with human need – an inherent “lack” within an individual and the search to meet that need. When faced with an initial need or lack, the individual selects a model to imitate in order to gain what the individual requires. At this point, a person has two choices: to imitate God or to imitate another. Put plainly, why would a human choose to follow another human and not God in order to fill this void? Is this not a clear choice? Charles Bellinger gives a persuasive answer:
The deeper, truer, more mature form of selfhood is a possibility toward which God is always drawing the individual. But insofar as the individual is actively resisting the call of creation, he is existing in a state of inner conflict. He loves himself and seeks to maintain control over his own selfhood, and he hates the pressure that is being placed upon him to become a more mature person…. the sinful human being becomes immensely frustrated at his inability to prevent his creation. In his anger over his inability to kill his deeper self, he develops a need to kill other human beings. He subconsciously construes the other person as a representation of that which he is trying to kill within himself….To attack the Other, the Enemy, becomes a psychological need for the sinful person, as he seeks to avoid becoming another to himself, that is, a new self. The mostbasic root of ill will toward others is ill will toward the self that one is in the process ofbecoming.(See also, Bellinger’s The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight)
Humans are never completely formed, finished, and perfected. The path of humanity is one of growth and progress. Only Yahweh can say, “I AM.” The rest of us may only say, “I become.” How humans respond to their unformed nature determines their path. We may turn to God and allow God to form and shape us or we may turn to others and look for what they have that we have not in an effort to seek our own completion. If we choose to turn to another human as the model for the next step in our own personal evolution, we seek someone who seems to encompass what we lack. What remains is the question about our perception of our own lack – how do we know we are missing something?
Are these needs natural innate needs all humans share, or are these socially constructed “needs,” things that a human does not physiologically or emotionally need, but only perceives to need? Is the difference really significant? Perhaps there is a preliminary step required in which we examine how we perceive our needs, and how we distinguish between needs and wants. For now, let us simply begin with the observation that all humans have needs, and we may either choose to follow God and allow God to form us or we may turn to other humans and seek to obtain what they have that we have not. Beginning the mechanism at this point answers the question, “Why do we copy the desires of others?” The inner emptiness of each human inspires the mimetic process.
From Comparison to Rivalry
Mimesis is the awareness that someone else has something that I believe I need and begins with a game of comparison. I examine my situation and my state of being to assess what I believe is missing. I then see another person and compare her situation and my perception of her state of being, and assess what she has that I need. I will then take steps to obtain what she has or wants, and imitate her in some way in order to obtain it.
This portion of the theory describes the driving force behind the effectiveness of advertising and much of the social construction of trends, fashion, technology, education, romance, and friendships. If a famous and stylish celebrity is photographed carrying a designer lunchbox, one may be sure there will be a waiting list for that very lunchbox the next day. One needs only step in the halls of a local school or turn on the TV to see the mimetic desire at work.
Mimesis may be either positive or negative, depending on the being one imitates. If one chooses to imitate Jesus, mimetic desire may be very positive: “What Jesus advocates is mimetic desire. Imitate me, and imitate the father through me….the only way to avoid violence is to imitate me, and imitate the Father.” Girard declares that mimetic desire is a “pharmakon – a medicine and a poison” and can either create illness or cure it. When a person chooses another to imitate, he or she must choose wisely or come to ruin.
Two Types of Rivalry
When more than one person desires an object, a rivalry is born. This rivalry for the same object leads to envy, competition, and conflict. A mediator is the person with whom I am in mimetic relationship. This person, my rival, mediates reality to me. This makes us “interdividuals;” our identity is construed by the other or model, and we are a conglomerate of mimetic relationships.7
There are two types of rivalry at work here: internal and external. External mediation exists “when the distance is sufficient to eliminate any contact between the two spheres of possibilities of which the mediator and the subject occupy the respective centers.”8 External mediation exists when an eighth grade girl idolizes a pop star and copies the star’s wardrobe, haircut, and mannerisms. The possibilities for contact, or even actual awareness, between the girl and the star are minimal. Internal mediation exists when “this same distance is sufficiently reduced to allow these two spheres to penetrate each other more or less profoundly.”9
The closer the relationship between the people competing for the same object, the more potential exists for a violent outcome.
Brotherhood and Violence
In both secular and biblical literature, the theme of warring brothers or twins is rampant.10 Perhaps because the relationship is more intimate and has greater value for each participant, the dissolution of a close relationship would necessarily require greater violence. At some point in a relationship of this nature involved in a mimetic rivalry, the members must decide whether the object of their desire is more important than the relationship with the other. Perhaps this is the greatest act of violence – that break with the other and the replacement of an object where a person once stood. Girard goes on to clarify that “the distance between mediator and subject is primarily spiritual,”11 and while geography may be one factor, it is not the sole factor in rivalry. Expanding the relational dimension to the spiritual plane creates an even greater arena for rivalry – and introduces the concept of rivalry with one’s self.
Eventually, mimetic rivalry leads to acts of violence, and peace may only be restored through the use of a scapegoat. In a real rivalry, both sides are both aggressor and victim, and the violence escalates to become all-encompassing. In order to stem the cycle of violence, the rivals, be they individuals or communities, must find a victim to carry the responsibility of the conflict: a scapegoat. Girard describes the function of the scapegoat within the mimetic process as follows: “The desire to commit an act of violence on those near us cannot be suppressed without a conflict; we must divert that impulse, therefore, toward the sacrificial victim, the creature we can strike down without fear of reprisal, since he lacks a champion.”12 The scapegoat must exhibit some weakness or vulnerability, or bear some marker that sets him or her apart from the rest of the culture.
The sacrificial scapegoat has several functions within the rival communities, but primarily the scapegoat serves to “restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric.”13 The sacrifice must “quell violence within the community to prevent conflicts from erupting.”14 Through the use of a scapegoat, societal violence may be avoided because “the sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence; it prompts the community to choose victims from outside itself.”15 The community is united through the establishment of a common enemy.
The Innocent Victim
The actual guilt or innocence of the scapegoat is inconsequential. The community must perceive the victim as potentially guilty, and the community must remain ignorant of its establishment of a sacrificial victim. The community must believe that the scapegoat carries the responsibility for all the community conflicts so that the destruction of the scapegoat will bring peace. If members of the community recognized that they themselves were responsible for the conflict and violence as a result of mimetic desire, violence would overlap all Girard recognizes that the Bible reveals mimetic desire and scapegoating, and that God sides with the innocent victim. Satan is the scapegoat mechanism16 and serves as a skandalon,17 or stumbling block, an idea that will become critical later.
Jesus became God’s instrument against violence to save us from our own faulty system. Girard declares that “the Gospels tell us that to escape violence it is necessary to love one’s brother [sic] completely – to abandon the violent mimesis involved in the relationship of doubles.”18 Jesus is the only human who ever achieved this goal and was “the only man who has nothing to do with violence and its works.”19 Therefore, Jesus was not a sacrifice killed on the cross because a blood-thirsty God demanded death to appease God’s wrath. Instead, “Jesus has to die because continuing to live would mean a compromise with violence.”20 Mark Heim takes up this hopeful idea and further states,
Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or a price for God’s favor. Christ sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus’s death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our [humanity’s] equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us.21 The long-held misunderstanding of the wrathful violence of God and the victimization of humanity is corrected as the wrathful violence of humanity and the salvific victimization of God. It is not God’s blood-lust that must be appeased by sacrifice, it is ours. And only the Son of God can save us from ourselves.
Echoes of Girard in the films of Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese was born and raised in New York City to two Sicilian immigrants. Both parents worked in the garment district and raised their children surrounded by Italian American family and friends. The cohesion of family and community was of utmost importance, as was a shared faith through the Catholic Church.  Many elements of Scorsese’s childhood inspired his interest in film. In addition to his faith and community, primary among these early influences was his poor health and his lack of contact with books. 
Young Scorsese’s daily life involved gangs and gangsters, priests and nuns. This social situation created a specific foundation from which all of Scorsese’s movies would stem: “Growing up in this neighborhood exposed the young Scorsese to two different, indeed opposite, kinds of role models – that is, men who had power – whom he could strive to emulate: the petty criminals on one hand, and the priests, on the other.”  Scorsese saw two career options before him, “organized crime and the church.”  Scorsese chose the priesthood but flunked out of seminary after one year, disillusioned and frustrated by the hypocrisy, intolerance, dogma, and moral ambiguity he claims he experienced in the Catholic Church. 
Scorsese still declares himself a Christian, but one on a “quest for non-institutionalized religious experience.” He believes that “living the good life is practicing the tenets of Christianity through love, rather than making Mass on Sunday. You don’t make up for your sins in church, you make up for them in the street.” 27 Due to this formative environment, the themes of power, corruption, the outsider, the sacred, violence and redemption would permeate his films.
Martin Scorsese is a revisionist like the best directors, and he reworks preexisting themes with fresh insight.28 Intentional or not, the constructs of Rene Girard seem to occur frequently in the films of Scorsese. Indeed, “the value of Girard’s schema to Scorsese’s Italian American films is that their religious, social, and cultural values… provide an especially rich and dramatic breeding ground for the phenomena Girard describes.”29
While Girard and Scorsese share many themes, primary to this study are the portrayal of the social value of rituals and scapegoats, close brothers or twins, and mimetic violence. Girard describes the function of the ritual of sacrifice as “a collective action of the entire community, which purifies itself of its own disorder through the unanimous immolation of a victim, but this can only happen at the paroxysm of the ritual crisis.”30 For Girard, the ritual serves to temporarily reconcile and reorder the community, to “’trick’ violence into spending itself on victims whose death will provoke no reprisals,”31 but eventually the community will collapse back into mimetic rivalry and require another scapegoat.
Scorsese makes sure to draw distinctions between ritual mimetic violence and the church, often contrasting the sacred and the violent: “Mediated by priests, ritual is the controlled mimesis, in disguised form, of the crisis that issued in peace and harmony,”32 which in the end fails to control the spread of violence in the community.33 For both Girard and Scorsese, ritual is important for negotiating social order but in the end only serves to perpetuate the cycle of violence.
Girard and Scorsese both give emotional weight to the cost of mimetic violence through an examination of the motif of feuding brothers or twins:
The proliferation of enemy brothers in Greek myth and in dramatic adaptations of myth implies the continual presence of a sacrificial crisis, repeatedly alluded to in the same symbolic terms. The fraternal theme is no less ‘contagious’ qua theme for being buried deep within the text than is the malevolent violence that accompanies it. In fact, the theme itself is a form of violence.34
Again, a closer relationship between the rivals provides the opportunity for greater potential violence. “Enemy brothers” may be here a symbolic term for people in a close mimetic relationship such that “in their repetitive, unacknowledged imitation of each other, the rivals have unwittingly become each other’s doubles. As their envious rivalry intensifies, they forget the original objects of their desire and become absorbed in the mimetic conflict to the point of actual violence.”35 Scorsese examines this fraternal internal mediation in several films. To name a few, in Raging Bull there are Jake and Joey, in Mean Streets there are Tony, Michael and Charlie, and in Casino there are Ace and Nicky. Within the Scorsese collection, “these feuding fraternal ‘doubles’ symbolize the collapse of familial, social, and ritual order through undifferentiated violence.”36
Often, these fraternal groups are childhood friends if not actual relatives, and in more recent movies, such as The Departedand Shutter Island, Scorsese has begun to explore even more intimate conflicting doubles: dual identities, such as the conflict between the undercover cop embedded in the mob (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the police detective on the mob’s payroll (Matt Damon) in the The Departed clip below. (Warning: STRONG language.)
In almost all of his films, Scorsese asks very difficult questions about the nature of violence, and mimetic phenomena and undifferentiated violence are very common in Scorsese’s films:
As Lucifer challenged God, his model, for his possessions, so in Scorsese’s films those who pretend to god-like autonomy are bound to attract not only imitators but violent rivals. Just as the rivalry between God and Satan caused the angelic host to divide themselves into factions, so in Scorsese’s cinematic world such rivalries draw other people within their violent orbit…. With the spread of random undifferentiated violence, more and more people are endangered, formerly accepted limits and boundaries collapse, and a small scale example of sacrificial crisis, complete with doubles of violence, comes into being. This situation typifies the climactic moments of several of Scorsese’s films.37
A Scorsese film is ripe with violent rivalries and doubles, and the violence increases into ever-widening circles throughout the film until the climax where, finally, the violence is “resolved” in one final great act of violence. With the ease of cinema, this final act brings resolution to the cycle of violence, rolling the credits over the real-life consequence of an even greater violence coming to life in response: “Their (Scorsese films) essential rhythm is that of a world which, beginning in comparative order however precarious and threatened, gradually spins out of control through violence and desire.”  Because of this rhythm, one of Scorsese’s primary totems, among many, is the wheel or circle, representing this cycle of violence.  Other Scorsese symbols of violence include the mirror or reflective surfaces and twins or close brothers to point to the mimetic rivalry or double mediation. 
A Non-Girardian Conclusion
The gulf between Girard and Scorsese opens in this violent climactic moment of Scorsese films. In the Scorsese library, violence solves violence. There is good violence and bad violence, and the good drives out the bad.41 In some films, “when violence has been allowed to proliferate, its increasing scope and randomness paradoxically hold out the possibility that the next victim will be the last, and that the seemingly uncontrollable crisis will then miraculously come to a halt.”  The scapegoat in the film has served its purpose, for the time being, but once the cycle has begun, Scorsese illustrates that “expulsive violence of whatever type cannot pacify society in the long run, so that the violent cycles must begin again.” As Girard so clearly explains, “the culture born of violence must return to violence.”
It seems that Scorsese still believes in a blood-thirsty God who destroyed bad violence with good violence on the Cross and professes redemptive violence is the answer:
Violence can be redeemed from senselessness to purpose, and can have a redemptive effect on others, both the perpetrators and recipient. It does, and must, always function like a parable, to shock and subvert our preconceptions, not for mere effect, but to change our perceptions and reactions, in particular those which many religious traditions often offer us and leave is simply comfortable. 
Therefore, most of the Scorsese library includes a Christ-figure of some kind, who disrupts the cycle of violence, at least temporarily. Scorsese, a man fundamentally formed and surrounded by violence, does not understand the Girardian Christ: “To recognize Christ as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind. Violence is the controlling agent in every form of mythic or cultural structure, and Christ is the only agent who is capable of escaping from these structures and freeing us from their dominance.”46 For Scorsese, all are trapped in the cycle of violence, especially Jesus. The best we can hope for is for more good than bad violence.
Shutter Island (***Spolier Alert***)
While it is unlikely that Scorsese intentionally includes Girardian themes, it is reasonable to suggest that Girard and Scorsese drew their themes, tropes, and constructs from the same canon. In the opening scenes of Shutter Island,  one of the guards (John Carroll Lynch) describes the psychological and medical rituals on Shutter Island. Normally, the criminally insane are “treated” with shock therapy, sensory deprivation, lobotomy, pharmacology, and ice water baths. On Shutter Island however, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is trying something different. As the guard explains, Ashecliffe is unique, the “only facility like it in the world. We take the most damaged, dangerous patients. The ones no one else can manage. It’s a hospital for people our society normally thinks are beyond saving.”48
Dr. Cawley believes that where mental illness is concerned, what should be a last resort has become a first response. “I have this radical idea,” he explains to Marshalls Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Aule (Mark Ruffalo), “that if you treat a patient with respect, listen to him, and try to understand him, you might just reach him.”49 Therefore, the new rituals at Shutter Island surrounding the mentally disturbed include the prohibition of chains indoors, mandatory small group sessions and private therapy with a primary care giver, strict schedules, productive work assignments, and medication only when absolutely necessary. Also, staff and visitors are to address the residents as patients, not prisoners.
The End of Scapegoating
Dr. Cawley is trying to revolutionize psychological treatment for the criminally insane and is attempting to interrupt the scapegoating mechanism of larger society. Shutter Island is a three-fold community of scapegoats. Ashecliffe hospital is on an island about 11 miles from the mainland and is accessible only by one ferry controlled by the authorities on the island. The entire island is populated only by those who are too unsafe to mingle with the general population, those who are trying to cure them, and those who keep law and order on the island.
The island is an autonomous police state, where the warden is the supreme authority. Within Ashecliffe, there are three residences for the patients. Complex A is for the men, Complex B is for the women, and Complex C, an old military fort, is the home of the most violent offenders, who serve as scapegoats of this community. The patients in Complex C are the most violent among the violent, those who cannot be trusted within the limited larger populace of the facility, and therefore never leave their cells unless accompanied personally by a guard. The Complex C patients are those largely responsible for the dim reputation of Ashecliffe, and as the “worst” patients they experience the “worst” conditions. While Complexes A and B are a hospital, Complex C is a prison. Of these patients in Complex C, Teddy is the scapegoat of even these and is the most violent of all the patients who have ever visited Ashecliffe.
The Role Play to End All Role Plays
Because of this reason, the elaborate role play developed by Drs. Cowley and Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo) is Teddy’s last hope of survival. Drs. Cowley and Sheehan believe that Teddy is not a hopeless case because as Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) clarifies, Teddy is a man of violence, not a violent man. They are two very different things.  Teddy is a man of violence because of trauma he has experienced and witnessed, not because he enjoys violence. The trauma is Teddy’s fundamental wound, his “lack.” The initial events that wounded him occurred because he fell under the wheels of a violent cycle – war and mental disease. After watching the camp commandant at Dachau botch his own suicide and die slowly, Teddy killed the camp guards because he was ordered to. Teddy confesses that this act “wasn’t warfare, it was murder.”51
His wife killed their children by drowning them in a lake, so he killed her because she asked him to. He lacks peace and absolution, and he is so burdened by guilt and pain that he creates an elaborate fantasy to escape. Teddy’s reality clashes with his fantasy in his dreams, when he speaks with his dead wife and children, wet from lake water, and relives the liberation of Dachau. As Dr. Naehring, a German doctor at Ashecliffe, describes it:
“Did you know that the word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek for ‘wound’? Hm? And what is the German word for ‘dream’? Traum. Ein Traum. Wounds can create monsters, and you, you are wounded, Marshal.” 
Dr. Naehring believes Teddy is irredeemable, a monster who must be stopped, a monster whose death or immobilization will once again bring a measure of peace to Shutter Island, at least for the time being.
Dr. Naehring : “Do you believe in God?”
Teddy: “You ever seen a death camp?” 53
The intersection of the sacred and mimetic violence
The prison warden is the only person on the island who might be a match for Teddy. The warden (Ted Levine) is a menacing presence throughout the film but only has two minutes of dialogue, all in one scene. The “violence speech” of the warden is iconic and could be lifted out of Shutter Island and inserted into any number of Scorsese films with only minimal changes. The conversation between Teddy and the warden takes place after a hurricane hits Shutter Island and has apparently sent a tree into the warden’s living room. The warden finds Teddy walking down a road, having been missing from the facility over night and lost his partner, Marshall Chuck Aule, who is in reality Dr. Sheehan. I include the conversation in total here as it describes the intersection between the sacred and mimetic violence as a major theme not only for ShutterIsland but for Scorsese’s entire film collection as well:
Warden: Did you enjoy God’s latest gift?
Warden: God’s gift. Your violence. When I came downstairs in my home, and I saw that tree in my living room, it reached out for me… a divine hand. God loves violence.
Teddy: I… I hadn’t noticed.
Warden: Sure you have. Why else would there be so much of it? It’s in us. It’s what we are. We wage war, we burn sacrifices, and pillage and plunder and tear at the flesh of our brothers. And why? Because God gave us violence to wage in his honor.
Teddy: I thought God gave us moral order.
Warden: There’s no moral order as pure as this storm. There’s no moral order at all. There’s just this: can my violence conquer yours? You’re as violent as they come. I know this, because I’m as violent as they come. If the constraints of society were lifted, and I was all that stood between you and a meal, you would crack my skull with a rock and eat my meaty parts. Wouldn’t you? Cawley thinks you’re harmless and that you can be controlled, but I know different.
Teddy: You don’t know me.
Warden: Oh but I do. We’ve known each other for centuries. If I was to sink my teeth into your eye right now, would you be able to stop me before I blinded you?
Teddy: Give it a try.
Warden: That’s the spirit. 
Can Violence be Harnessed?
Because both the warden and Teddy have witnessed great violence and committed great acts of violence, they are men of great violence. Perhaps no one on Shutter Island can understand Teddy the way the warden can, but the warden has chosen the path of embracing his violence as a gift from God. Because the warden can be the most violent man in his community, he believes he is the most blessed man. This characterization calls to mind the gangsters and organized violence Scorsese was surrounded by as a child.55 Those who were the most violent had the most privileges and prestige.
But the warden does not recognize that he has become defined by his violent nature; he believes he has harnessed his violence to serve him. The warden is a violent man. Teddy is still struggling within this distinction set by Dr. Neuring and sees himself as only a man of violence. As Dr. Cowley describes it:
“In your story you’re not a murderer but a hero.Your crime is terrible. One you’ll never forgive yourself for, so you’ve invented another self.” 
Teddy is lacking absolution and forgiveness – this is what he seeks. The warden is no longer concerned with forgiveness as he has embraced his violence to the point of fundamental identity.
The mimesis then occurs because Teddy knows of no other way to function than through violence. Violence is his mimesis, which only leads to more violence. Because of his experienced trauma, Teddy labors in a cycle of centripetal violence that has finally turned in against himself in the dual identities he has created. In Shutter Island, the feuding brothers theory from Greek mythology has reached a point of extremes so that the dualities have collapsed in on themselves and have become feuding identities within one person. In his hatred of himself and the violence both he and his wife committed, he has created a twin, an alternate personality for both himself and his wife; Andrew Laeddis is an anagram of Edward Daniels, and Rachel Solando is an anagram of Dolores Chanal. In fact, Shutter Island is itself an anagram for Truth and Lies as well as Truths/Denials. Scorsese consistently points to these dualities by means of reflective surfaces – bodies of water, glass, and even a flask. Scorsese also keeps the air around Teddy full of objects for the first two thirds of the movie, with rain or dripping water, snow, ash, papers, and sparks, perhaps to reference the illusion within the cluttered, confused mind of Teddy.
Breaking the Cycle of Violence?
The cycle of violence is one of the guiding questions of the film – how does one break a cycle of violence? Can one break a cycle of violence? Who is the greatest victim of violence – the victim, the aggressor, or the witness? Was it only after the war, the liberation of Dachau, and the death of his family that Teddy began responding violently, or was he always like that? Is there transference of violence taking place within the close contact of evil? Mark Heim associates Satan with the “parasitic activity” of the evil of sacrifice and the “disease of human conflict.” 57 These images of Satan define how the cycle of violence is perpetuated among humans – it is contagious via mimetic desire. Evil can be transferred via contact with a violent act, however we define it. Teddy himself jokingly references this possibility when he first arrives on Shutter Island: “You act like insanity is catching.”58
Is Insanity is Contagious?
When Teddy witnessed the piles of frozen bodies at Dachau, the pure evil existing within the holocaust “rubbed off” on him, so that when he witnessed the deaths of his children at the hands of his wife, his response was to kill her. Would it have been possible for Teddy to witness such evil and to participate in such acts of violence but not become a violent person? It is no surprise that a human who has experienced violence in any respect will, thereafter, instinctively respond to threat or conflict violently. It becomes inherent – we catch the disease. Is this idea of vampiric violence universal and unavoidable? Heim believes there is another way:
Is evil automatically transferred (i.e., we become violent) whenever we are victims, perpetrators or observers of violence? All of these have powerful contagious effects, but they are not automatic or inevitable. There are powerful, contagious positive models and contagions also. Christ and the Holy Spirit are such. But without such countervailing forces, it is very easy to catch the disease.59
Teddy’s problem is that he has had so few counteracting positive forces. For many soldiers returning from a war, perhaps an intact, healthy family, or a strong faith community of some sort, would have been sufficient to fight this transference of evil. Teddy’s family failed to be a “positive contagious model” for him and therefore served only to push him further into the evil disease of violence.
Throughout the film, Dolores keeps appearing to Teddy in hallucinations and dreams, encouraging him to leave the island, to search for Laeddis, to search for Rachel, and to embrace the illusion he has created for himself. These actions are significant as Delores serves, in the Girardian sense, as Teddy’s skandalon in the film. Girard defines skandalon as a Greek word used in the Gospels often synonymous with Satan, or “the living obstacle that trips men up, the mimetic model insofar as it becomes a rival that lies across our path.”60 Girard goes on to say that “the skandalon designates a very common inability to walk away from mimetic rivalry which turns it into an addiction. The skandalon is anything that attracts us in proportion to the suffering or irritation that it causes us.”61 In almost every scene with Dolores and Teddy, Dolores is wet with lake water and begins to bleed from the stomach or burn into ashes, even as Teddy holds her and weeps over her loss.
As the person Teddy has loved the most, she is now the being who helps him the least, and keeps sending him back into the cycle of violence with instructions to kill Laeddis,62 to keep searching for Rachel,63 and to avoid the lighthouse64 (where the truth lies). Dolores’s power over Teddy is directly proportional to his love for her and his guilt over her death, and over his failure to help her with her own mental illness, which led to the deaths of their children. Teddy’s visions and dreams of Dolores are both wish fulfillment and penance, as it tortures him and appeases him to see her, even as she asks him to let her go.65
Remember us, for we too have lived, loved and laughed.
The penultimate scene of Shutter Island leaves us with hope that Teddy has recovered. He recognizes his real identity and can describe the world and personalities he has created. He asks for help, and confesses his crimes. But in the last scene, he is back to addressing Dr. Sheehan as Chuck, and declaring that something is amiss on Shutter Island and they must find out what it is. Sheehan turns to Drs. Cawley and Naehring and the warden, barely shaking his head, thus giving the signal for Teddy to receive a lobotomy. As the orderlies approach Dr. Sheehan and Teddy, Teddy turns to Dr. Sheehan and asks, “Which would be worse – to live as a monster? Or to die as a good man?”67
Scorsese leaves the possibility open that Teddy has chosen to sacrifice himself, thus casting Teddy as a sort of Scorsesian “Christ-figure” who sacrifices himself to save others, even if he is saving them from himself. Perhaps Scorsese would argue that this sacrifice is a form of “good violence,” which answers the warden’s question, “Can my violence conquer yours?” with a resounding “yes” as Teddy inflicts the violence upon himself. If this conclusion is in fact Scorsese’s position, then Scorsese is still missing Girard’s point that violence, particularly institutional violence, only satisfies society for a time and then begins the cycle again. Violence only begets violence. There are always more violent offenders.
Cari Myers received a BA in English Literature from Pepperdine University, an MA in Youth and Family Ministry from Abilene Christian University, and an MTS from Brite Divinity at Texas Christian University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Religion and Social Change at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology. Her research focus is in Latino/a studies, specifically in Latino/a youth culture. A version of this essay first appeared in The Journal of Religion and Film. Used by permission.
Bellinger, Charles. The Genealogy of Violence. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2001.
Casillo, Robert. Gangster Priest: The Italian Cinema of Martin Scorsese. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2006.
Girard, Rene. The Girard Reader. New York: Crossroad Herder, 1996.
Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
Graham, David John. “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese.” In Explorations in Theology and
Film: Movies and Meaning. ed. Clive Marsh, Gaye Williams Ortiz. 87-96. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.
Heim, Mark. Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.
Miliora, Maria. The Scorsese Psyche on Screen. Jefferson, N. Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004.
Shutter Island. DVD. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Hollywood: Paramount, 2010.
 Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977,) 145.
 Charles Bellinger, The Genealogy of Violence, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 67.
21 Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006) xi.
22 Maria Miliora, The Scorsese Psyche on Screen, (Jefferson, N. Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004) 12.
23 Robert Casillo, Gangster Priest: The Italian Cinema of Martin Scorsese, (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2006)
24 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 15.
25 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 93.
26 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 96-97.
27 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 97.
28 John David Graham, “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese,” In Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning, ed. Clive Marsh, Gaye Williams Ortiz (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 89.
29 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 108.
30 Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, 11.
31 Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 37-38.
32 Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 105.
33 Girard, Violence and the Sacred 212.
34 Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 64.
35 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 103-4.
36 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 254.
37 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 114.
38 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 120.
39 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 120.
40 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 118, 157, 254.
41 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 121.
42 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 121.
43 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 122.
44 Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, 150.
45 John David Graham, “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese,” 93.
46 Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, 193.
47 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
48 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
49 Shutter Island, “Scene 5”.
50 Shutter Island, “Scene 4”.
51 Shutter Island, “Scene 7”.
52 Shutter Island, “Scene 15”.
53 Shutter Island, “Scene 4”.
54 Shutter Island, “Scene 14”.
55 Miliora, The Scorsese Psyche on Screen, 15.
56 Shutter Island, “Scene 16”.
57 Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, 149.
58 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
59 Mark Heim, email response to author, July 27, 2011.