Book Review – Silence

Silence by Shusaku Endo

I first heard about this book from advance articles on the movie release late last year.  I was fascinated that a director like Martin Scorsese could work for so long to bring this book to film, clearly obsessed with the book in his own way.  I got a copy for my wife for Christmas and when she finished, it was my turn.

Given the weighty reviews of the book and its status as a classic of literature, both Japanese and otherwise, I think my expectations were pretty high.  That’s not to say that this isn’t a good book – it is.  Although I don’t think I’ve read any other Japanese literature, Endo embodies what I imagine to be an Eastern literary binary tradition of sparseness and attention to detail.

It was the theological aspect of the book rather than the literary that I found surprisingly frustrating.  The book deals with the theological dark night of the soul of a Portuguese priest who journeys to Japan despite a violent intolerance for Christianity and foreign missionaries in that country at the time.  He risks his life, only to find his faith in tatters.  Or does he?  The book leaves that question more or less unanswered in my opinion.

I found parallels between this book and Elie Wiesel’s Night.  Both show the failure of a protagonist’s faith in the face of overwhelming evil, yet neither book deals with the issue of evil itself (it’s been a while since I read Night, so perhaps Wiesel addresses the topic more than I remember.  Silence never does).  It seems unthinkable that the priest Rodriguez would never bring up the subject of evil within his struggles.  He simply marvels at the silence of God in the face of human suffering and particularly in the face of persecution of God’s people.

Rodriguez sees the suffering of Japanese peasant Christians and wonders why God is silent.  He sees the persecution of Japanese peasant Christians and wonders why God is silent.  He sees the martyrdom of Japanese peasant Christians and wonders why God is silent.  His own suffering he is better equipped to deal with, but he is lost as to why God allows others to suffer for his Name.

But for the Christian, we understand that suffering is part of the life of faith – at least we should expect it will be, even if our particular life is free of active persecution and suffering.  This is not to justify passivity when other Christians suffer, but rather an acknowledgement that such suffering is not an indication of God’s silence, just as our own suffering or persecution or even martyrdom would not be a condemnation of God’s silence.  God is not silent, and Rodriguez cannot bring this to mind in the face of very real and tangible suffering.

When Rodriguez is faced with the choice between apostasy and the suffering and death of real human beings, he is torn to his core.  The argument is made that if God is a God of mercy, then God would certainly expect Rodriguez to apostatize, that Jesus himself would apostatize were He in a similar situation.  But this is a childish and wholly unfair caricature of God and mercy.  The reality is that despite the very real suffering – or impending suffering – of his closest followers, Jesus did not apostatize but rather submitted himself to death and told them to do likewise.  In other words, the avoidance of temporary suffering or death is ultimately not the goal of Jesus or God for our life.  God does not desire our suffering, but He permits it.   God the Father through God the Son overcomes our suffering and even our temporal death through obedience.

I critique Endo’s presentation of this dilemma fully aware that I have not faced persecution or the possibility of martyrdom for my faith yet.  Nor have I been given the choice between apostatizing publicly in order save others from suffering, or remain true to my faith while others suffer and die.  If I am ever placed in such a situation, I pray I will have the strength to resist the lies and implications of my accusers and tormentors.  It is not I who causes the suffering and death of others, it is rather our persecutors.  It is the old serpent Satan leading others once again to do his will.  Evil is to blame, not me.  And my willingness to abandon my faith to save the lives of others ultimately does a disservice to the very faith we share in common.

I hope I’ll be able to keep all of that in mind.  Perhaps I won’t, in which case I know that there is forgiveness in Christ for my weakness.  But I think that the struggle that Endo seeks to portray will be much more complex and multifaceted.  God is not silent.  Ever.  God is continually speaking, and is his most eloquent in the life and death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus the Christ.  It is the Word made flesh that both explains the persecution of the faithful and promises us victory despite what looks and feels very much like complete and total defeat.  I would hope that a priest would at least deal with this in passing, rather than marveling only at what he considers to be God’s silence in a particular situation.


2 Responses to “Book Review – Silence”

  1. Mea Culpa? | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] recently read Silence, I’ve been wrangling over whether or not to see the movie.   This essay should encourage me […]

  2. Japan’s Hidden Christians | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] highlighting of this aspect of Christian history a few years ago was fanned into flame by both the book, Silence, and the movie. I’ve yet to see the movie, and I suspect it wouldn’t add much […]

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