Invitation: to discuss Shusaku Endo’s “Silence”

As the month of October is slipping by us, remember that you’re invited to read (or reread) the great novel Silence, written by one of Japan’s finest novelists, Shusaku Endo. In November, we’ll see if we can get some discussion of this novel going. The conversations we’ve had here about physics and poststructuralism have had the perverse effect of helping direct me more deeply into my off-line theoretical writing, so I have had less time for blogging. But I’d love to talk over this provocative novel that Hi brought up with the varied readers we have here. [For some thoughts on science and literature, wherein I end up comparing Endo and Einstein, see my comment here.]

Silence is a “spare and elegant” classic that is frequently taught in “international fiction” courses, which is how I happened to pick it up to read years ago, when a colleague was teaching it. In it, Endo shows us an historic clash of cultures by telling the story of a seventeenth-century European missionary to Japan and his flock of Japanese converts, as they seek to endure a fierce persecution.

Endo, who is Japanese, identified himself as a Christian. (And Hi has some very thoughtful remarks on this and on Christianity in Japan.) In any case, he certainly looks very deeply into the idea of Christian sacrifice and martyrdom in this novel — so deeply that it has aroused disquiet and even protest among Christians.

For myself as a Christian, I was deeply moved by reading this difficult and unforgettable book. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and I found it spiritually bracing and cleansing. It gets down to basics about what Christ’s death means for believers in a way nothing else I’ve ever read has done.

But it’s a very rich novel, with many faces, and if I am not mistaken, Hi introduced it in connection with the question of why anyone would (or should) embrace belief in the Christian God, or in any gods, when different cultures have such different religious traditions. (Science on the other hand has a certain universality that appeals across cultures. I believe that is part of this thought.) And Hi also mentions how hard-edged and aggressive all of the Western religions seem to be, from the Eastern perspective accustomed to Buddhism and Shintu. But he says this all, better than I am doing.

As Christians are heading toward the season of Advent, a season that calls them to “silence” and darkness, in which they await the coming of the Christ-child and ponder what this nativity means, it seems appropriate to read a novel called Silence, about a Christian who is forced to make a terrible choice in a time of great personal darkness — in a time of utter silence from God, which might remind us of Mother Theresa’s letters about her sense of “abandonment” by God. (We talked about this a little bit over at The Land of Unlikeness. But not in depth, and I still have many questions about them.)

Another connection with current issues, perhaps, is to be found in the way that Endo’s protagonist does not know for sure (how can he?) whether his God will see his decision as sinful and blasphemous, or as being perhaps in the deepest likeness to Christ’s divine love as manifested on the Cross. He is an extreme situation, in which none of us would wish to find ourselves, for which no conventional guidelines from the past seem to apply. Faith, though, always tests not us, but who we think God is, and what God is for us (this God who “is love”).

Right now, we Episcopalians find ourselves in a place where the same diametrically opposed interpretations of our actions are being offered us. How can we know for sure? We have to trust in the God we know. I have never thought that the real question is, does God exist? No, the real question is, who and what is God?

And the question, who is God, what is God, is also the question: what have I found in my journey that compells my allegiance and is worthy of my deepest devotion?

I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to ponder this novel, and pursue whatever issues it raises for us, without being militant or disputatious. So, my very gentle readers (gentle most of the time anyway), I hope you’ll get your copies and start reading….

Here’s to November!

11 thoughts on “Invitation: to discuss Shusaku Endo’s “Silence”

  1. Janet, I thank you for this invitation. I already checked out the Silence and Stained Glass Elegies at CUA’s library and hope to get with it later next week (after midterms and my paper on Rahner and de Lubac are finished).


  2. Pingback: Invitation to Read Shusako Endo’s Silence at The Land of Unlikeness

  3. Dan, It isn’t going to be an easy read, I’m afraid. It’s going to tear you up…. (Forgive me.)

    Davis, That’s perfectly okay. But I really hope that you will contribute to the conversation, because it will only be our loss if you don’t. And did you read Hi’s wonderful comments on it, from a Japanese point of view?

  4. Thanks, Andy, and welcome!

    I think everyone wants more conversation on Silence, but no-one is quite bold enough to start. I wish people would just describe what their journey through the novel felt like to them. I would be very interested in hearing other people’s experiences….

  5. Jennifer

    I am living in Japan right now, and am in a book club with a bunch of Americans. We are reading this book right now, and I love it! Will you please tell me where I can find Mother Theresa’s letters you mentioned? I didn’t know she had ever felt a sense of “abandonment.” Where can I read more about that?

  6. Hello, Jennifer,

    Yes, the publication of her private letters caused a stir in 2007 and if you google “Mother Teresa’s letters” you will find the TIME magazine article and many other news reports and the review in Catholic Culture and so forth. (She may have comforted more Christians in this manner than in any other way. Our Lord felt abandoned, didn’t he?)

    Here’s the link for “Mother Teresa’s Letters: Come Be My Light”:

    You’ll also find a discussion about her depression and her spirituality on a blog I’m linked to, that is run by some friends of mine:

    “Silence” is such a great and profound book, isn’t it? Endo’s written other thoughtful novels too and is, in spite of all the difficulties, a convert to Christianity. I think he understands the difference between obeying the “letter” of the law and how that kills, and obeying the “spirit” of the law that gives life (and also kills but in a different way), a lot better than most of us do. And he also seems to understand that we must struggle in humility and in darkness with these questions, because only the foolish think answers for this kind of deep knowing are simple and clear-cut.

    Thanks for writing. Let me know how the book group goes. Janet

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