Silence, Shusaku Endo. New York: Taplinger, 1999 (Link is to an in-print edition from a different publisher).
Summary: Endo’s classic novel set in seventeenth century Japan during the persecution of Christian missionaries and converts.
This summer, I reviewed Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty, a reflection on Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s Silence, the history of Christian mission in Japan, and the challenge in the present day of bringing brokenness and beauty together in a message of hope. Reading Fujimura, and learning of Martin Scorsese’s upcoming release over the Christmas holidays of a film version of Silence, I decided to re-read this work, which I first encountered about fifteen years ago.
The novel is set in seventeenth century Japan. After a period of successful expansion under Francis Xavier, the church and Christian missions came under a period of severe persecution that nearly eradicated Christianity in Japan. The novel begins with reports that one of the Portuguese leaders of the mission for over 20 years, Father Ferreira, has apostatized, renouncing his faith. Two priests of his order, Rodrigues and Garrpe determine to try to enter Japan through Macao, and attempt to discover the truth about Ferreira as well as continue the missionary work. They work with a man, Kichijiro, who seems to have inside knowledge of Christian communities, even though he claims not to be (any longer) a Christian. Both priests are eventually betrayed as are the communities within which they work, bringing Rodrigues face to face both with Inoue, the feared governor of Nagasaki, and the apostate Ferreira. While Rodrigues alternates between isolation and interviews with these two men, indigenous Christians (and Garrpe) are persecuted and martyred, some before Rodrigues eyes. He learns that to save them, he must apostatize, stepping on a fumi-e, an image of Christ.
The novel explores the question of denying or renouncing Christ. We see two missionaries, at great sacrifice and personal risk, make the perilous sea journey from Portugal to Japan, then living underground on the island, finally taking flight, and being captured. There is a period where they think they will avoid capture and experience great satisfaction in their work. Then we have their encounters with Kichijiro, who continues to turn up throughout the book, repeatedly apostatizing, and then coming to confess and seek absolution. He comments that at another time, he would have made an exemplary Christian. It poses the question for many of us as well, are we ‘good Christians’ simply because of the time in which we live? And for Rodrigues, the question comes whether to deny Christ to save the lives of others, or to remain faithful, and let them die martyrs.
Perhaps a more profound question is the silence of God through this persecution. Why does God neither save the Japanese people nor rescue Rodrigues? Silence recurs throughout the book and poses the question of what it means to believe and act in faith in the times of God’s silence.
Finally, the question is raised in the debates between Rodrigues and both Inoue and Ferreira as to the legitimacy of cross-cultural mission. Which is more powerful, the transcendent truth Rodrigues brings, or the “swamp” which Ferreira says is Japan, where Christian teaching is syncretistically compromised in the minds of even professing believers?
Rodrigues faces all of these challenges. What we are given in the novel are not “answers” to the challenges but an exploration of whether one can continue in faith, and what that might look like, in the face of these daunting challenges. Reading Endo leaves us, especially those of us who claim belief in Christ, with searching questions of what that means when we are stripped of the supports we often enjoy that buttress our faith.
From what I understand, Scorsese’s film has been over two decades in the making, and perhaps one he considers his most important. I can venture that it won’t be light fare, not one to go to if you are looking for light holiday entertainment. Reading Silence, perhaps with a group of friends, as I did, may prepare you to enter more deeply into the questions I am sure the film will raise. They are not easy questions, but then, do we want an “easy” faith?