Shusaku Endo’s “Silence”: A Review

Over the past week, I have been reading Shusaku Endo’s historical novel Silence. The story takes place in eighteenth-century Japan and follows the journey of a Catholic missionary named Father Rodrigues who sneaks into the country to minister to the underground Christians. At this time Japan had very recently been viewed as the most promising mission field in the world until the government ceased its policy of tolerance toward Christianity and economically and diplomatically cut itself off from the world.

As the story progresses, the Christian community that Father Rodrigues and companion is discovered and taken captive. Father Rodrigues is soon dsicovered as well and is taken to a prison where he expects the worst imaginable horrors and is surprised to find the place to be rather slack in its treatment of the prisoners. However, the man leading the persecution of Japanese Christians, a man named Inoue, is famous for bringing Christians and even Catholic priests to apostacize and this period of tranquil captivity is the beginning of a long and terrible campaign to break Father Rodrigues’ very soul.

The really unique thing about this book is that it is not about the Christians who chose to die for their beliefs but rather the ones that chose to renounce their faith. If this were a story of the former type, the main character would not have been Father Rodrigues who eventually apostacizes but instead his companion, Father Garrpe, who died chasing after his flock. Throughout the story we also see this emphasis in the form of a character named Kichijiro who repeatedly apostacizes and returns to the priest asking for his weakness to be forgiven. Kichijiro is also interposed with the Biblical character of Judas as Father Rodrigues continually comes back to the question of what Christ meant when He told him to “go and do what you must do.”

See also  William Wordsworth's The Prelude

Silence is written about by Christian author Phillip Yancey in The Jesus I Never Knew and Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church, in which Yancey comments on how the novel convey’s Endo’s own rediscovery of his faith. Growing up as a Japanese Christian, Endo was a target of bullying and ridicule for his adherence to a Western religion and when later on in life he went to Europe he was a victim of racism. According to Yancey, what Endo discovered in his journey to Europe and his revisiting of the Gospels was the simple fact that his constant ridicule made him more like Christ than any of those who ridiculed him, whether they were from the East or the West. What Endo ultimately discovered through this journey was that, at its heart, Christianity was not a religion of power, was in fact a religion that preached God had chosen to become the weakest and most despised of all men. The book constantly hints at this revelation and nearly screams it at the audience when Father Rodrigues finally apostacizes after looking down at the fumie (an image of Christ) and hearing it say to him “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled that I am here!”

All too often, Christian novels are cheesy, cliche, or just plain bad yet Silence is altogether exceptional. In reflecting on this I came to the conclusion that the problem with most Christian novels is that they have so little process of discovery. If the main character does not start as a believer then the reader can easily anticipate each event that will move him or her toward that state. Moreover, even though it is perfectly accpetable for a book to repeat an old and well-known message in its theme, in order to be truly great it must manage to present this truth in some new way. This is very difficult for Christian writers both because the faith starts out with all the best analogies taken in the form of Jesus’ parables and because truly remaking the image of Christianity often requires the creation of an entirely different world, one where the church is unheard of and the doctrine is being discovered for the first time.

See also  Book Review of "The Search" by Nora Roberts

The thing that separates Endo’s masterpiece from most Christian novels and has even allowed it to win both secular and religious literary awards is the fact that it ends with more of a riddle than an answer. In fact, it could even be said that the book starts with an answer and then descends into a riddle. When I finished Silence I found myself perplexed by it both morally and even in the realm of understanding what actually happened. Yet at the same time it is not puzzling in a confused or unsatisfying kind of way. Rather it is as if Endo’s answer was just out of reach and the only he could capture it was to wrap it all up in mystery.

Perhaps that is the best description of Silence that can be given: the answer of humble, sacrificial love wrapped up in the mystery of persecution and weakness.