Silence: A Novel by Shūsaku Endō, translated by William Johnston (New York: Picador, 2016; originally published in 1969. 256 pp)

Born in Tokyo in 1923, Shūsaku Endō was raised by his mother and an aunt in Kobe, where he converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of eleven. At Tokyo’s Keio University, he majored in French literature, graduating with a BA in 1949, before furthering his studies in French Catholic literature at the University of Lyon in France between 1950 and 1953. Before his death in 1996, Endō was the recipient of a number of outstanding Japanese literary awards: the Akutagawa Prize, Mainichi Cultural Prize, Shincho Prize, and the Tanizaki Prize, and was widely considered the greatest Japanese novelist of his time.

William Johnston was an Irish translator and Jesuit missionary. An authority on fourteenth-century spirituality, he translated several works from the contemplated traditions of both East and West, as well as work by Shūsaku Endō.

In Search of Certainty

There’s no certainty in life except death and taxes, or so we colloquially say. However, many Evangelical-oriented Christians want to make a case for much certainty. Through many streams and tributaries of theological positioning, Christians of the Book find certainty in the Book. Answers to every question rest on the pages of Scripture. The pious among us just need that daily devotional and the moral absolutes of life will flow forth like living water.

My formative years link closely with this reasoning. Live black and white in a gray world, etc. Years later, I find the outcomes of such spiritual formation quite interesting. Like a spinning canvas on which a painter flicks globs of acrylic, my church counterparts have flung far and wide. Some have neglected the teaching of Christ completely; some have clung harder to a particular dogma; others have altered their paths in more nuanced ways.

When I consider my velocity based on this centrifugal force, I find a complete reimagining of Christian living in a pluralistic world. Instead of deontological principles, my ethic leans more toward narrative. Instead of strict literalism, my hermeneutics point toward canonical interpretation. Where life was once black and white, I cling to the gray. For me, David Bazan’s break up album with God, Curse Your Branches holds many pearls of truth, chief of which is his question, “Why are some hell bent in finding an answer while others are quite content with saying I don’t know?” In other words, the paradox of life operates between a rootedness in pursuit of truth while recognizing and affirming a healthy dose of mysticism. The further I explore the depth of our lives experience, the more I recognize the frailty of my reasoning faculties.

Wrestling with Silence

For this reason, Shūsaku Endō’s Silence represents the pinnacle of my inner wrestling and will to power. Set in 16th century Japan, Endō outlines the oppressive governmental policies that penalize and condemn Christianity a priori in society.

Endo’s two Portuguese protagonists, Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe proceed on a personal mission to Japan to find their mentor, Father Ferreira. Rumors has it, Father Ferreira has apostatized. Assuming such an event could never happen, the priests journey to this dangerous land in secrecy.

Endō structures the first half of the novel around the journal entries of Rodrigues. The reader achieves an internal view at his character and his joy at serving the rural and poor Japanese fishing communities once they’ve landed. The hunger and thirst these communities possess for the sacraments emboldens the priests and confirms the universal nature of the gospel message. Yet, even in these moments, doubt emerges as a result of such squalor.

“This child also would grow up like its parents and grandparents to eke out a miserable existence face to face with the black sea in this cramped and desolate land; it, too, would live like a beast, and like a beast it would die. But Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and the corrupt—this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time” (38).

And yet, for as positive the early passages point to the work of the priesthood, the back half of the book points to the despair of a theological system planted on such rocky soil. Structurally, the narrative moves to third person as the shogun inflicts the most egregious offenses on the Japanese Christians and the priests have no recourse but to observe the suffering of others.

“They were martyred. But what a martyrdom! I had long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints—how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven, how they had been filled with glory in Paradise, how the angels had blown trumpets. This was the splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams. But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily—in silence” (62).

Finding the Face of Christ in Grays of the World

Key to the governmental persecution is the requirement of Christians to tread over the face of Christ, a fumie. For many, merely speaking the words of the apostate is an easy requirement, but the physical action of placing heel on the countenance of Christ is too much.

As the suffering of the many increases, Rodrigues continues to petition the Lord but only receives deafening silence. This silence provides frustration and anger as martyrdoms increase for not discernible reason. Rodrigues begins to question the validity of such a theological system that ends with such pain.

Without divulging the powerful ending, suffice to say Endō masterfully carves an ambiguous approach that affirms a Christological approach to life while also establishing the messy middle this world represents. Endō forces the reader to question assumption about the basic tenets of faith and suggests some radical answers to living faithfully in the most extreme of circumstances. Silence might be the best book I’ve ever read. Please read it.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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