I had been reading The Song of Susannah by Stephen King when my wife brought home two copies of the book Silence by Shusaku Endo from the library. She wanted to read them together and discuss. Though I generally love reading Stephen King, The Song of Susannah just wasn’t doing it for me (I still need to finish it). Silence pulled me in quickly. The prose flowed well, though some of the translation was sloppy, and the compelling, yet simple, story kept me engaged. So, it was goodbye, King, and hello, Endo. He explores many themes, but of all of them I’m only going to focus on the idea of Christian love and faith, and how the two could potentially be in conflict under certain circumstances.
It took me roughly a week and a half to finish Silence. Examining the literature from an English standpoint is difficult. I can only imagine what might be lost in translation, and frankly the translation by William Johnston was less than impressive. Either way, I’m only assuming that overall Endo’s subtext and themes come across fine within the English translation.
Silence is a historical drama set in the 1640’s when Christianity was outlawed in Japan. After hearing rumors that his mentor Father Ferreira had committed apostasy, Father Rodrigues gets permission to travel to Japan to seek him out and discover the truth for himself. In Japan, he meets the underground church, learns of the horrific torturing methods for Christians, and must face his own doubt and inner-conflict when pushed to the extreme.
I guess I’ll mention now that if you haven’t read Silence and intend to, then be aware that I reveal specific plot details and character information.
By the beginning, Rodrigues is rather idealistic and naive in his Christian faith and what is required of Christians. His opinions of apostates is severe and judgmental as one might judge Judas Iscariot. It’s hard to blame him. He lives in a safe environment in Portugal and it’s assumed he hasn’t undergone any real persecution. As he spends his time in Japan, however, his faith and love is tested. He doesn’t seem to care much for the people or culture of Japan nor about their supposed faith in Christ. Of course, he performs his priestly duties, listening to confession and absolving them of their sins, but he’s wary of some of their true faith because he’s heard many have denied Christ. His true heart is in finding Ferreira.
Endo’s subtext reveals itself when Rodrigues is ultimately captured and interrogated by Inoue. Through their dialogue some of the conflict comes to light. Inoue doesn’t believe Japan is fertile ground for Christianity and that is why it hasn’t done well, despite the fact that it spread quite well before they banned it. They have a battle of wits of sorts over philosophy and theology. Rodrigues believes truth is universal and that all people can come to know Christ. Inoue doesn’t, of course. Is truth universal? And if Christian truth is universal, why can’t it take root in Japan? It brings up great questions about the spirit of God and the idea of universal truth. Christ never claimed to always provide success for his disciples. Christ himself was rejected by his own people. Most Christians I assume would say just because the gospel doesn’t take root right away doesn’t mean it’s not universal truth.
But I’m digressing. The real meat and potatoes of the story is at the end. Rodrigues assumes Inoue will torture him and put him in the “pit”, but this isn’t the case. Instead, Inoue says that if Rodrigues doesn’t deny Christ and become apostate, then Christian villagers will be put in the pit instead. Rodrigues is faced with a moral dilemma. Does he allow his Christian brothers to suffer? Ferreira claims that Christ would become apostate to save them and that Rodrigues isn’t doing it because of pride.
Rodrigues faces an unthinkable choice. He can choose faith and believe Christ will save the Christians who are suffering, or if anything that they will meet him in paradise, or he can choose love for his Christian brothers and save them from suffering. In modern times, apostasy is not as big of a deal as it was back then. If Rodrigues chooses to deny Christ, then he loses his ministry, is removed from the church, and ultimately must face Christ in eternity and explain himself. If he chooses to let his Christian brothers suffer, he must explain why he didn’t act out in love and rescue them from their plight. Does faith take precedence or does love? I was impressed by Endo’s ability to capture this idea that two seemingly coexisting parts like faith and love could suddenly come into conflict under the right pressure and circumstances.
I’ll be good and won’t ruin the choice that Rodrigues made. I think the tension between these two things in such a context speaks for itself. It’s a difficult moral dilemma, one I think God will ultimately understand and judge based upon the situation. Sometimes we are faced with unthinkable and difficult decisions and have to use our best judgement and wisdom at the time.
Quite often love should be the compass by which we make those tough decisions.