MARCH / APRIL 2017: BY SHANNON H.
Those who subscribe to Christianity (or any worldview) have endured “trials and tribulations” in life, events that cause one to doubt or question one’s faith in God or any other deity. A death of a loved one, a loss of a job, even a natural disaster can cause someone to reexamine their beliefs. Sometimes suffering can increase faith in God or another divine being, giving one hope there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence is an example of observing and experiencing harsh conditions and wondering if God exists.
In 17th Century Europe, Father Sebastien Rodrigues and Father Garrpe, two Portuguese Catholic priests, receive word their mentor, Father Christovao Ferreira, a missionary, has lost his faith and married a Japanese woman. They travel to Japan to find him and see if his apostasy is true. In the mid to 16th Century, Japan permitted Europeans to spread the Catholic faith, however, later in the 16th Century and well into the 17th Century, Japan started and increased persecution of Christians, forcing believers to practice in secret. They executed those caught or forced them to step on a small carving of Christ (a “fumie”) to save their lives (considered blasphemous).
Once reaching the country, the two priests meet a shady man named Kichijiro, who assists in guiding them in their surroundings. Fr. Rodrigues is suspicious of Kichijiro, as he claims to not be a believer in Christ but mutters prayers in Latin. Both men witness brutal Christian persecution as the Japanese crucify believers along the sea, leaving them to submerge once the tide comes in, suspend men in pits, drop them into the sea to drown, and engage in other brutalities. Kichijiro, the “on again, off again” Christian, avoids death by putting his foot on the “fumie,” which confuses Fr. Rodrigues, thinking he may either trying to save himself or is a non-Christian hoping to betray him and Fr. Garrpe for money (100 pieces of silver for a Christian, 300 for a priest). Fr. Rodrigues’ shock and horror at the Japanese’s treatment of Christians causes him to pray to God fervently and question His existence as his prayers go unanswered, leaving him to think God is silent while many of His flock endure torture and die for their faith. To paraphrase Fr. Rodrigues, if there’s no God, his trip to Japan was all for naught.
To avoid authorities capturing them, Frs. Rodrigues and Garrpe split up, and subsequent events put Rodrigues’ faith to the ultimate test.
Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo is a prolific writer, telling a story not just about theology but faith, God, prayer, and perseverance. It’s religiously neutral, not promoting Christianity over Buddhism or vice versa. Biblical allusions abound; Kichijiro is the story’s “Judas,” a man claiming to be or not be Christian when it suits him. Faith and prayer allude to the novel’s title; Fr. Rodrigues prays for fellow believers and receives no response from God, sensing His silence on the matter. He finds himself in an Eastern-Western culture clash over the Christian faith; one authority compares Japan to a “mud swamp” and Christianity has a hard time trying to take root in it (Japan is religiously and culturally Buddhist). Raising issues of perseverance and self-preservation, Silence presents the notion that, if feeling persecuted for one’s faith, one can “renounce” faith in front of authorities without leaving the faith in the name of personal survival. Fr. Rodrigues debates this notion in his head several times, especially when watching others die for their beliefs.
Silence opened my mind to what martyrdom is and the lengths people go to keep their faith and/or preserve themselves. We cannot judge those who “apostate” under extreme duress and assume they no longer keep the faith, whether the setting is Medieval Japan, Ancient Rome, Soviet Russia, the Middle East, or anywhere else. Everyone, Christian or otherwise, should read this brilliant novel, and every seminary, Bible college, etc. should teach it, to get believers to think critically about faith and answer the questions the novel presents to the reader (it’s also a great idea for Bible study). The novel strengthened my faith in God and Christ. I couldn’t help feeling for the novel’s protagonists as they navigate a foreign land hostile to Christianity, while trying to keep faith at the same time.
I wanted to slap Kichijiro, not for his treachery but for being annoying (the way he pops up now and then gets on my nerves). Even though it’s just over 200 pages, Silence reads like a Lord of the Rings style epic, the visual storytelling giving the reader an image of what Medieval Japan was like, right down to the huts that the peasants lived in (Shusaku Endo did his research). Above all, it is a fantastic, but heavy, read.
About the Author: Shannon H. lives in Southern California where she spends her time reading, listening to music, attending comic conventions, and coming up with ideas for a few novels. Follow her on Instagram at Writer4God.