It’s Time for “Silence — by Shusaku Endo

[Spoiler alert. Finish the novel before you begin this discussion. You don’t want to know what’s going to happen. Some background is here. ]

I finished reading the novel Silence by the great Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo about two weeks ago and I was overwhelmed. It is so beautiful and so profoundly disturbing. To me, these are the marks of a deep grace, because such grace is the kind that always overturns things and makes us question what we thought we knew before….

Did I really read this novel years ago? It is all so fresh and new. The climactic moment in which Jesus’ words to Judas are given a new meaning, on p. 190 when Father Rodrigues is deciding whether he can hear Kichijiro’s confession, hit me right between the eyes. I was really stunned. “What you must do, go and do quickly….” I wonder how others responded to this climactic moment in the book? Or was this the climactic moment in the book for you? If not, what was? And why?

Ever since I finished the book, I’ve been mulling over the questions I was left with by Endo. My questions might not be the same ones you had. But I’ll mention a few of mine, to get the discussion going.

First, I was really struck by how marvelously well Shusaku Endo drew me into this novel. We begin from a place far distant from Japan (in every way), and then we go with the Portuguese padres on that long sea journey, and finally we arrive on the mysterious shore of Japan itself. Now the terrifying threat of capture and torture is hanging over our heads at every instant, and we are kept in suspense as we travel with Father Rodrigues through the gradual, step-by-step revelation of Japan: the actual place as it was to some of the people who lived in it at that time.

As a Westerner, I could not help but deeply identify with the Western priest, as Endo drew me into making this journey along with Father Rodrigues.

But what must this journey have been like for a native of Japan? Or for any non-Western reader?

Endo has set up the novel so that it draws me as a Westerner into a shocking realization of what the preaching of the Christian gospel meant for those who embraced it in 17th century Japan. But how must this same journey have unfolded for Endo’s own Japanese readers? What is most shocking for readers who approach the book from the standpoint of Japan being one’s homeland and the foreigners “invading it” from the outside?

I wonder how much you still identify with Father Rodrigues as the protagonist of this book? I would really like to hear about other people’s journeys through this novel. It must be a very different journey, too, for those who are Christians, whether Japanese or Western, than it is for those who are not Christians?

John Gardner, the great American novelist, said that there are really only “two basic plots” in all of world literature: “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger rides into town.”

The brilliant Shusaku Endo has both of these plot-structures running concurrently in this novel. Where did you find yourself situated in this unfolding journey?

Another question. How do you feel about that powerful but ugly phrase, the “swamp” of Japan? Does anyone happen to know the original Japanese word and its connotations? (Is it a rice-paddy type of swamp? Does Japan have “swamps”?) How do you feel about this characterization of Japan by the cruel magistrate Inoue?

Thinking about how the magistrate used this metaphor got me to wondering whether Inoue himself is a violent hater of the West only. Or does he violently hate Japan as well? Is he trying to defend Japan or destroying it, just as much as he thought the foreigners would do?

Finally, what about all the questions we have at the end of the novel about Father Rodrigues and Father Ferreira as the camera (as it were) pans slowly back and away, and as 17th-century Japan fades out of our sight, back into the dusty old records of the historical archives.

I was left haunted by the feeling that the two fathers were not alike. That they did what they did for very different reasons, or in a very different spirit. But if this difference between them is real, it must have been indicated by Endo rather subtly. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on the sources of this feeling, so I kept asking myself why I felt this chasm between the two. Did anyone else feel this way about the two padres at the end of the book?

The archival records at the very end inform us that both padres worked feverishly to prevent any more missionaries from getting into Japan. What were their motivations? Were their motivations the same?

Then there’s Kichijiro. We can’t forget him. Just try to imagine this novel without him. The narrative wouldn’t be able to unfold in an narrative-action sense, or thematically, either. As the Judas figure, he raises all the theological questions Judas raises, and he also serves as a great foil for Father Rodrigues, constantly mirroring the changes going on inside of Rodrigues as his attitudes toward Kichijiro evolve. (What is the Japanese meaning of his name?)

Thinking about Kichijiro, I started to realize that every figure in the novel makes a contribution to the growth of Father Rodriguez. Endo depicts the spiritual pilgrimage of this character in such a way that he was constantly reminding me of my medieval and Renaissance European writers on the journey of Everyman…. (They’re the ones I’ve always taught.) As with those European artists, I thought that for Endo, even Rodrigues’ enemies – or maybe especially his enemies – contribute in necessary ways to that inward journey he is on. Does it even make sense to you to talk about a spiritual journey here?

I might as well admit that the story of Father Rodrigues was so powerful for me that it almost made the title of the novel seem ironic. All of us have felt, whether we believe or do not believe, the terrible silences of God. (Think of Elie Wiesel’s Night and the Holocaust for the Jewish people.) But the breaking of God’s silence in this novel was the most striking and transforming part of it, at least for me. What did you feel?

Father Rodrigues’ apostasy has been controversial. Some Christians readers have condemned it, saying that neither Rodrigues nor Ferreira ever had genuine faith in the first place. How do you feel about this?

In the early 17th century, at precisely the same time in which the events in this novel are set, John Donne was writing: “Sometimes not to be a martyr is itself a martyrdom.” Was Father Rodrigues a Christian martyr?

By the way, what about the many, many physical martyrs in this book? Isn’t it extraordinary, as history shows over and over again, just what people will endure under duress? Sometimes out of faith, and sometimes too out of anger and defiance. Please pardon me, but I kept thinking, “This is exactly why John McCain is right about torture.” After all, McCain knew this from personal experience. Torture doesn’t work. Even the magistrate Inuoue realized this. He needed to find something more dramatic: the apostasy of the very priests themselves.

Even in his early days in Japan, Rodrigues told the Japanese converts to trample the fumie if necessary. I think that’s a very telling moment in the narrative and I’d love to discuss it. (p. 54). And also Father Garrp’s swimming out to drown with the “basket worms” lying wrapped in those mats in the boat on pp. 132-34.

If only Father Rodrigues had been faced with such a relatively “easy” decision to make as Father Garrp faced.

Instead, Rodrigues’ own fate, so skillfully engineered by the magistrate Inoue (with help from Father Ferreira), was much more diabolical. Rodrigues’ most cunning adversary understood Rodrigues very, very well – as persecutors generally do understand their victims, since persecutors are always denying and trying to annihilate something they are struggling against within themselves. (I need to apply this to myself…as Hi and others have pointed out to me….) Anyway, what do you think about the choices confronting Rodrigues, when the Japanese Christians are suffering so terribly, suspended over the pit?

In fact, it is Inoue who poses the most crucial theological question in this novel, the question of Christianity’s essential distinctive. This happens on p. 187 when Inoue asserts his own understanding of the “difference between Christ and Buddha.” But Father Rodrigues thinks of Inoue, “he doesn’t understand Christianity.”

Maybe it was in this scene that I began to feel Father Rodrigues had parted company from Father Ferreira…?

This pivotal scene also reminded me of the perceptive remarks about the “hard edge” that Western religions seem to have for those raised in an Eastern religious climate, made by Hi when he referred to this novel as an example of the dissonance between Christianity and the Japanese. What do you think about this ? Or about Inoue’s role in this scene and throughout the novel?

By the way, to whom is that longer speech of Father Rodrigues addressed? The one at the top of p. 187?

When Father Rodrigues finally makes his choice, he has already been told by Father Ferreira that the victims have renounced their faith repeatedly. Only Rodrigues has the power to save them. Now maybe this is a really strange question, but I wondered, would a Christian have the right to rescue them, if they had not recanted already? To take their martyrdom away from them?

Shusaku Endo, though, chose to avoid this dilemma. Instead, he chose to focus his novel on a different and perhaps larger dilemma. Is Inoue right about the nature of Christianity? Or is Father Ferreira right, and has Japan in the end changed the gospel of Father Rodrigues into something essentially non-Christian? Is it even possible for Christianity to remain itself, in a cultural setting as different as Japan?

Ultimately, the answers each of us arrive at will probably depend upon our answer to the even deeper question Shusaku Endo raises in this novel. What is the essential nature of Christianity?

10 thoughts on “It’s Time for “Silence — by Shusaku Endo

  1. Janet, I just finished the novel this morning. I’m still reeling. Thank you for suggesting it. I’ve already told a group I belong to to go get it and read it. Your questions above are mostly my questions. I have no answers at this point. Maybe I never will, but I’m anxious to proceed with asking them anyway.

  2. Thank you for telling me, Davis. I’m glad to know that you are glad you read the book! (Maybe someone can let me know sometime where your group gets to on all this.)

    I suppose that my own ponderings keep coming out more on the side of the “soft” kind of Christianity, and not in agreement with the “hard-edged” side, the side that the magistrate Inuoe apparently saw. I have to agree with Father Rodriques when he says that Inoue “doesn’t understand Christianity,” when he says that Buddha’s compassion is free and unlimited but Christians have to be “strong” in addition. Don’t we have two millenia of teachings that it is by grace and not by works that we enter into any kind of intimacy with the divine goodness? Yet legalism is always creeping back into our human attempts to understand God’s love.

    But then this would seem to leave the compassion of the Buddha and Christ’s compassion undistinguished, at least in this regard? Well, I am okay with that. Any religious teaching of divine compassion that reaches the hearts of the suffering MUST be regarded as deeply true, I would think, by anyone who follows the way of the Cross, surely?

    I think there are Christian distinctives, but they are not operative at the deepest existential levels, whenever we are dealing with the experience and reality of the depths of divine love. Perhaps the distinctives of “the mighty acts of God in Christ” during Holy Week seem to bring this reality home to me in an archetypal and efficacious way…but I still want to follow Thomas Aquinas and Dante in understanding that all genuine compassion and all vicarious atonement are still an unfolding of the same divine truth, wherever it is manifested in the world….

    Yet Hi is right about that “hard edge” that seems to be noticable in Western religion and in Western Christianity. Often my beloved Augustine of Hippo is taxed with being responsible for much of this fierceness. So it is fascinating to remember that it was Augustine who wrote that ALL truth is God’s truth (not that our “God’s truth” is the exclusive truth).

    And I kept remembering Augustine throughout Endo’s novel and when Father Rodrigues heard Kichijiro’s confession, because of the position that Augustine took on the controversy that was splitting the North African church in the fifth century AD: whether or not to allow those who had apostacized during the recent fierce (and deadly) persecutions to return to the churches and be re-admitted to communion and the other sacraments (these were the many wretched “Kichijiros” of that day). Perhaps you expect that the austere Bishop of Hippo would take a hard line? But it was just the opposite. He said that they MUST be forgiven and restored, because to make our own distinctions among ourselves, between who among us is worthy and who is unworthy to receive Christ’s full love, is to misunderstand everything, and to misunderstand it on the most fundamental level.

    If Father Rodrigues’ journey teaches us anything, perhaps it reminds us of just how much is involved in anyone’s ever reaching the fundamental level of understanding, the level that is to some degree commensurate with the gift. Should it be a big surprise that most of us don’t reach it? And certainly we never dwell there consistently! No, perhaps the real surprise about Christianity is that the deep level of understanding keeps on cropping up anyway, again and again (that “soft” Christianity?), most of the time either reviled or unnoticed and unseen, and through a most difficult and mysterious grace.

  3. You think we might all be “a ragged mirth of thieves and murderers”?

    George Herbert’s “Redemption” (1631)

    Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
    Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
    And make a suit unto him, to afford
    A new small-rented lease, and cancell the old.

    In heaven at his manor I him sought:
    They told me there, that he was lately gone
    About some land, which he had dearly bought
    Long since on earth, to take possession.

    I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
    Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
    In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
    At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

    Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied,
    Who straight, “Your suit is granted,” said, and died.

  4. I don’t know Janet. I’m in a state of shock from the book and from the impending death of a friend, but I’m still at the altar rail with all the -other- thieves and murderers. It’s the only place where I feel right.

  5. Janet, I just finished, like 15 minutes ago. I’ll make a more concerted effort to enter the dialog shortly, but for now I just wanted to respond to you first comment above:
    “Don’t we have two millenia of teachings that it is by grace and not by works that we enter into any kind of intimacy with the divine goodness? Yet legalism is always creeping back into our human attempts to understand God’s love.”

    I’m going to say yes and no: yes, it is entirely by God’s gratuity that we have any sort of relationship with him. But that only explains the preface or origin of that relationship. A more catholic view, and I’ll argue the traditional (although nuanced by all the different orders – Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, et al.) view, would want to include the state of that relationship and those in dialog as just as much part of the explanation. That is, an explanation here won’t only include the efficient cause, but also the formal and final causes (I think I’m getting my causes straight here). Anyway, once brought into that relationship, there’s a process by which and an end toward which the world is always moving that plays a big part in maintaining that relationship. I don’t think it can be whittled down to “works.” Rather, I think of it like participating in the sacraments. Our relationship to God through the church is starved if we deprive ourselves of the sacraments. Likewise, if we refuse to participate in the world in a way that conforms to our end, we lose something of the sacramentality of being in the world.

    anyway, I know you wanted this kind of discussion to happen elsewhere, so I leave it at that.

    thanks again for the great recommendation (and sorry for the midnight grammar and spelling)


  6. Thanks for writing, Dan

    “Rather, I think of it like participating in the sacraments. Our relationship to God through the church is starved if we deprive ourselves of the sacraments. Likewise, if we refuse to participate in the world in a way that conforms to our end, we lose something of the sacramentality of being in the world.”

    Yes, I agree with you you about this “participation.” I suppose this is why Father Rodrigues [I slipped and typed Ferreiro originally and will correct this throughout] was willing to hear Kichijiro’s confession and have him live with him in his little community.

    The question, I suppose, is abut the forms and the realities, the letter and the spirit. How do we recognize charity or grace — or legalism or the spirit of death — when the labels start to get switched around. And as both Jesus and Paul warned, the labels of love and grace do get turned around and applied to phariseeism instead, over and over again in the history of human institutions….

    I made my comments about grace (vs works) in relation to p. 187 when Inuoe says that Buddha always forgives, but in Christianity “you also have to be strong.” And Father [Rodrigues] thinks, he doesn’t understand Christianity at all. I think this is the challenge of the book to Christians: to think toward the depths of how far divine forgiveness and love might extend. For Father [Rodrigues], this is what is revealed for him when Jesus breaks the silence and speaks to him from the fumie…. Always it is the cross that is the ultimate silence, and speaking, of God. How do we “hear” the cross; what does it say to us?

    So, do you think Inoue is right, that we “have to be strong” in addition to receiving God’s compassion and forgiveness? The sacraments are an interesting mention you made, because they are essentially means for receiving grace and love…. It’s hard to think of them as a kind of works or “being strong”….

  7. No, quite right Janet, the sacraments are made for us ( not for God) because we -are- weak. Your point about hearing the confession of Kichijiro is to the point. The Buddha “always forgives” because God -allows- him to forgive whereas God’s -nature- is “always to have mercy”.

  8. Janet, I’ve copied your reply to me over at TLOU. I’d love to continue the discussion of the role of sacraments, especially your thoughts of how the sacraments play into Endo’s idea of salvation and the life of the church. Davis, I’d love your input of there too, especially re: your last comment here.

    Thanks guys

  9. Pingback: The Sacraments and Silence at The Land of Unlikeness

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