Silence

41zs0ocj5gLSilence, Shusaku Endo

Sometimes I have trouble writing a review of a book I read because I just didn’t feel like there was a lot there. I’m left kind of “meh” and unsure how to stretch that out to a few paragraphs. For Silence it’s the opposite. I think I’ve started and scrapped this review 1000 times because this book covered so many different topics, and made me think so many different thoughts, that I’ve had trouble organizing them into anything coherent. I’ll give it my best try, though. Also, this is going to include some spoilers. I don’t think they take anything away, since this is a book that is about its journey, not the bare bones of the story, and I knew them before I read it, but I thought I’d give a warning for those who just hate spoilers in any circumstance.

Shusako Endo is a Japanese Catholic novelist. I was unfamiliar with him until someone recommended this book to me, but apparently he’s very well known in certain circles—based on what I’ve seen online I think it’s required that any article about Endo refers to him as the “Japanese Graham Greene”. Silence grapples with a lot of what I must imagine are complicated feelings for Japanese Christianity, highlighting as it does the tension between historical Japan and Catholicism. It highlights the journey of a Portuguese Jesuit missionary to Japan and his colleague in the 17th century, when Catholicism was banned and Catholics and anyone supporting Catholics was rather brutally persecuted. Throughout this very short, although very substantial, novel, the story touches on martyrdom, missionaries, different interpretations of Catholicism, and betrayal. And silence-the silence of God in the face of His people’s suffering, the silence of God to those who are trying to follow him.

What I loved about this novel was how much it explored these different concepts, and how willing it was to grapple with quite difficult issues for a Catholic to grapple with. The main topic of it is, as is highlighted in the title, Silence. Why does God not speak up, why does God not tell his loyal servant what to do, why does he not stop the suffering of His people? While I don’t want to negate this discussion, it is something that pops up in numerous theological discussions, and hardly a unique topic—although I did particularly appreciate and identify with what seemed to be the books’ answer. What I was much more interested in was the novel’s discussion of betrayal and Judas, a topic which I find fascinating. The Island of the Day Before, an Umberto Eco novel that I really need to reread since all of his novels take at least two read throughs to understand, touched on this as well. How much is Judas to blame? Without his betrayal, we do not have Jesus on the cross, we do not have the Resurrection, his action was necessary to the story. Did he have a choice? Was he forgiven? Was he punished? If he had not hung himself, could he have had redemption? Did his suicide in itself show that he felt guilt and wanted and deserves forgiveness?

While the primary character in Silence, Fr. Rodrigues, does meditate often on Judas, the representation of him here in this book is as a Japanese man who seems to be torn between helping the Christians and his own fear. The question posed by the book, and never exactly answered, is how much this man, Kichijiro, can help himself. Is it fair for him to be judged by the situation he is put in? Is this a man who is going to be condemned for eternity because of his betrayals when in a different time, a different society, one where he isn’t faced with such challenges and persecution, he may have gone about his life in an unremarkable way, going to Mass, going through the motions, never failing because he has never faced such a hard test? It is uncomfortable to think about, and in its own way, although I don’t think this is the point of the book, it almost raises the specter of predestination and how much we do have free will, and if our character is really our own.

I disagree to a certain extent that we aren’t tested. I think we are tested constantly throughout our lives, although most of us, for which I am exceedingly grateful, are never tested in such harsh ways. And we can make our own choices and do have a capacity for change. Do we support having a homeless feeding station in our church, or do we only support feeding the homeless when it’s done far away from the places we frequent? Are we willing to accept refugees or let our fear guide us? Do we stand up for someone who’s being picked on, do we look away, or do we join in? The question of where this puts our eternal soul is a larger one, one that I am eminently unqualified to answer as I am not God, but I don’t think that the lack of large tests-a lack, once again, that I am extremely grateful for-means that we are not tested on whether or not we are true to ethics and our morality in our own ways on a regular basis.

The book seems to make a distinction between betraying God and betraying others, though, and while some have compared the lead figure to Judas because of his betrayal of Jesus at the end—a betrayal he perpetrates in order to end the suffering of those he’d come to minister at the end—I don’t see how that can be the interpretation. Fr. Rodrigues betrays his faith, at least visibly, by stepping on the fumi-e, an image of Christ. But he does it after Jesus’ silence is finally broken, after he hears Christ tell him that Christ has come to take upon our sins and our suffering, and to be trampled. Immediately after, a cock crows, confirming that this is a betrayal, yes, but immediately changing Fr. Rodrigues from any possibility of a Judas figure into a Peter. I have difficulty even seeing Fr. Rodrigues as Peter, though, who denied Christ out of fear and to save himself. Fr. Rodrigues betrays his own faith and denies Christ not to save his own skin, but to stop the suffering of the Catholic followers, taking on a sin in order to end the suffering of others. I find it difficult to condemn this choice in the moment.

Where I disagree with the book, and some of the subsequent discussions of it, is on its discussion of whether or not Japanese Catholicism is “true” Catholicism. The original priest who apostatized, who Fr. Rodrigues and his colleague were there to find, defends his decision to not only deny his faith but assist the Japanese authorities in denouncing Christianity because Catholicism didn’t *really* take hold in Japan, even if the practices of it did. I don’t see in anyway how this could be any different from every other society, though. Catholicism always adapted itself to local areas and customs. It’s how we ended up with an Easter that is entirely divorced from the timing of Passover and based solely on the moon and certain good, old-fashioned fertility celebrations. A popular theory is that the Celtic cross has its circle because St. Patrick combined it with the symbol of the Sun God to make Christianity more accessible to the Celtic pagans. And as for deeper, theological considerations, I guarantee most Catholics, even the most devout ones, couldn’t necessarily explain all of the intricacies of Catholic doctrine and the trinity in a way that was 100% non-heretical. (Especially since the non-heretical explanation of a lot of the doctrine is, “It’s just the mystery of faith, okay?”)

Ultimately, this is a hauntingly beautiful novel that has stuck with me since I read it and I expect will stay with me for years and years and years. Its ultimate description of Jesus as one who is not here to end our suffering, but to suffer with us and for us, is one deeply appreciate. Silence’s meditation throughout—again, one that I thought was never answered, although perhaps others disagree—on what really does make us good, what makes us loyal, how we are judged by our different circumstances, is wonderfully, beautifully, and, what’s more, sympathetically rendered. I don’t think anyone can read this and not have their world view challenged, and at least make us all explore our inner lives more deeply.

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