On Reading “Silence” by Shusaku Endo

Spoiler Alert!

If you haven’t read Silence by Shusaku Endo, then you might want to click away from this post and come back after reading it. If you arrived here through the randomness of the internet, then may I suggest you keep the randomness flowing and click here.

I’m currently in a brief break between this semester’s sub-terms, which means I have just over a week to read whatever I want. I’ve already banged out Sapiens and Homo Deus. And you can read my initial reaction to these books here.

I’ve also managed to finish Silence. But before I start telling you about that, I’m going to tell you the story of the roundabout way in which I came to read it.

My wife is not into books or book culture. It’s just not her thing. She has two college degrees, she’s completed our church’s highest level of lay youth leadership training, she holds a license (but does not currently practice) in nursing. She’s smart, talented, and educated.

But she just doesn’t get my overflowing bookshelf and the need — the need — to accumulate more books, write more essays, and engage the world of ideas. It’s just not her thing.

She does love a good story. And she loves movies. Not always the same movies as me, though.

On nights when I’m home and not working, and when I’m sufficiently caught up with all my schoolwork, we try to watch a movie before either one of us gets too tired to make the effort. The real difficulty lies not in staying awake but in choosing a movie we both want to watch. Getting to that point typically involves scrolling through tens, maybe even hundreds, of movies available on demand through our cable provider, Amazon Prime, or Netflix. Something will catch one of our eyes, we’ll play the trailer and make a decision.

I’m severely oversimplifying this process.

On one of these occasions a couple of months ago, my eye was caught by the movie Silence. It caught my eye because, on the cover image, I saw the face of Darth Vader’s grandson along with another Jedi, strong in the force. When I played the trailer, an equally compelling story of good and evil was introduced.

Two sixteenth-century Jesuit priests are anxious to travel to Japan in search of their former teacher who, it is believed, abandoned the faith under persecution. Who knows what challenges to their faith and resolve might await them in the Land of the Rising Sun?

My wife didn’t want to find out.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the meeting of a book discussion group that is based out of my local church. At the end of the meeting, possible candidates for our next book came up for discussion. Someone suggested Silence. Nobody knew what it was other than the one suggesting it, and a brief synopsis was provided and we moved on.

My memory of the rejected trailer was vague in my mind. The next day I looked the book up, connected it with the movie trailer I’d seen, and promptly bought it on my next trip to the bookstore. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be our next selection in the book discussion group, I’ll be ready when it comes.

Silence is a relatively easy, quick read, but that doesn’t mean it lacks in substance. In the forward of my edition, written by Martin Scorsese (who directed the movie and knows a thing or two about telling stories), the overarching theme of the book is identified as the silence of God. I think that’s largely correct, but what is the silence of God and what does it mean? Does one have to be a theist or a Christian in order to experience the silence of God?

The concept of God’s silence is revealed in the story of Rodrigues, one of the Portuguese Jesuits who travel to Japan in search of Ferreira, his teacher in the seminary. All contact with Ferreira has been cut off and reports of apostasy have made their way back to mission headquarters. Once Rodrigues arrives in Japan, his search and recovery mission is overtaken by what he witnesses among the Japanese Christian community.

By and large, the Japanese Christians are peasants. They live in hard, miserable conditions. And they must keep their faith secret and hidden out of fear for the persecution and punishment that will come from the nobility and samurai who rule Japan. Rodrigues is overcome with grief and doubt because of God’s apparent silence in light of the Christians’ suffering. Much of the suffering that he witnesses is a direct result of his and his partner’s presence in Japan. Their presence in certain communities exposes the Christians within those communities.

Rather than just killing the priests, punishing the Christians, and moving on, the territorial ruler — Inoue — forces Rodrigues to witness the suffering and torture of the Christians, all the while being treated with kindness. He is repeatedly told that the torture of Japanese Christians will stop if and when he, himself, apostatizes and renounces his faith. It is in this circumstance that he is introduced to Ferreira.

Ferreira tells Rodrigues that he did not apostatize under his own torture. Rather, he apostatized in order to stop the suffering of others. Ferreira ultimately convinces Rodrigues that the most Christian thing he can do is reject Christianity in order to stop the persecution of the Japanese believers.

As with any good piece of literature, there are so many layers and nuances to this story that they cannot be treated fairly in a blog post. At the end of my edition, there are a number of discussion questions provided. I’ll try to answer a couple of them here to illustrate, as briefly as possible, my reactions to the story.

Question #4: Rodrigues comes to regard Kichijiro [a character I did not cover in my synopsis above] as his Judas. Is this a fair comparison? Why can’t Rodrigues bring himself to love and forgive Kichijiro as he believes Jesus would?

My Answer: As Christians, we are most often taught, or at least intuit, that we should strive to be like Christ. This is neither incorrect nor wrong. I think we should strive to develop Christ-like characters within ourselves. Of course, it’s necessary to point out that, to whatever extent we do develop a Christ-like character, that is an act of grace on the part of God and not — as we are prone to assume — any sign of our own merit. And herein lies the fundamental flaw that is revealed in Rodrigues.

Rodrigues sees himself as a Christ figure. He identifies himself with Christ. Throughout the book, Rodrigues calls the face of Jesus to mind and reflects on how in love he is with that face. I think that the face Rodrigues constantly calls to mind is not the face of Jesus, but the face of Rodrigues. Rodrigues is not really in love with Jesus, he is in love with his image of Jesus. And his image of Jesus, whether he realizes it or not, is an image of himself.

It’s easy to do this as Christians. But not only as Christians, but as people. We all have our ideals, whether it’s the ideal of God provided by scripture or religion, or the ideal handed down to us by custom, culture, or mass media. We are quick to identify ourselves with that ideal without recognizing our own faults and shortcomings. We idolize the hero and see the hero in ourselves and ignore the coward that we really are, that we know deep down we really are.

Rodrigues also constantly reflects on Jesus telling Judas to “do what you’re going to do and do it quickly.” He cannot figure out how to reconcile this command with the love that he knows Jesus must have had for Judas. He connects this dilemma with his experiences with Kichijiro, seeing that man as his own Judas. What he cannot see, because he habitually identifies himself with Christ, is that he is Judas and not Jesus. This is ultimately what Ferreira makes him see, that an act of betrayal will bring salvation to others.

I don’t take that to mean, as a Christian, that I should be prepared to abandon my beliefs or convictions if I think doing so will help or benefit someone else. Rather, I see this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of failing to see within myself my own wretchedness and weakness because I’d rather dwell on how heroic or noble I am.

Question #6: Do you agree with Ferreira’s assertion that Jesus, during his time on earth, would have apostatized rather than allow the Japanese Christians to be tortured and martyred on his behalf?

My Answer: No. I do not agree. I think that Jesus would have suffered with the Japanese Christians. I approach this question, of course, as a Christian, so I cannot decouple any literary or philosophical analysis from my theological understanding of who Jesus is and what his actions accomplished.

Jesus did suffer and he suffered on behalf of all humanity. I’m a fan of Rene Girard’s analysis of the gospel story. Now is not the time nor place to go into a mimetic understanding of the crucifixion. Rather, I’ll simply offer this: The gospel story exposes the fact that a dedication to truth will always result in suffering. Our human stories would have us believe that suffering comes to those who deserve it. The gospel exposes this worldly lie and tells us that suffering comes to those who do not deserve it, because it comes to those who expose the lie of our human myths.

That’s an oversimplification of Girard, but I leave it to the reader to do their own research for now.

To place this idea in terms of the story in Silence, Rodrigues did not recognize suffering for what it was — both his and the Japanese Christians’. If Scorsese is right, and God’s silence is the overarching theme of the book, then I would say that Rodrigues got his religion all wrong. We interpret human suffering as the silence of God. Instead, what we should see is that suffering most often comes when God speaks. Would we rather know the truth or forestall suffering? The world will tell us the answer is to forestall suffering. Christianity tells us that it is to know the truth, even if knowing the truth causes our own suffering now to prevent suffering in the future.

In Silence, the prevention of suffering is to capitulate to an oppressive, persecuting, feudal system that seeks power. To suffer is to defy that power structure. I would assert that this is a lesson inherent in Christianity. Not to say that Christianity is some kind of revolutionary politic. Instead, to say that Christianity — properly understood — will always be in opposition to (in one way or another) worldly values of power.

I think that’s all I have time for now in reflecting on Silence. If I held your attention this far, I thank you, and I hope you’ll continue with me on the journey.

One thought on “On Reading “Silence” by Shusaku Endo

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