Silence (French) Mass Market Paperback – 14 Oct 2010
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"Silence" is set in sixteenth century Japan, where Portuguese missionaries must contend with traders from rival European nations and the persecution of Christians by Japanese feudal lords. The feudal lords want to drive Christianity out of Japan, and try to do so by torturing priests into apostasy, denying their faith. This is done symbolically by stepping on a "fumie," a Christian image, like a picture of Mary or a crucifix. Two Portuguese priests, Sebastian Rodrigues and Francis Garrpe, make a dangerous journey to Japan, both to locate and comfort Japanese converts, and to discover the truth about a supposed apostate priest, Ferreira.
"Silence" makes use of several narrative approaches, third person omniscient at the beginning and ending, while the middle portion of the novel is written in the style of a diary and letters from Rodrigues' point of view. The main protagonist, Rodrigues must deal with the validity of his faith, the propriety of the Christian mission in Japan, the suffering of Japanese converts, and the silence of God in the midst of so much hardship.
Rodrigues' trials are exacerbated by his physical and cultural isolation, as he and Garrpe are forced to conceal themselves in a small hut dug out of the side of a mountain near Nagasaki. Culturally, he must confront being in a nation whose language and customs are mostly alien and threatening to him. The most perplexing external difficulty Rodrigues faces is from an ambiguously motivated local named Kichijiro. Rodrigues' relationship with Kichijiro forces the priest into his deepest and most troubling reflections on faith and the Bible.
"Silence" was an absolutely fascinating read. The historical and cultural milieus of the novel are complicated by Endo's own background. Endo's perspective on Christianity and Catholicism in particular, as a Japanese writer, and writing about Japanese history forced me, at least, as a Westerner, to look at issues of faith and international relations from a radically different perspective than even the foreign-based novels of Graham Greene that I have read, like "The Heart of the Matter" or "The Power and the Glory," the latter of which is thematically very similar to Endo's "Silence". Overall, a tremendous and powerful novel.
While the theology of pain has been touched on in much of Western literature, most of it recently seems either an apology for God's permitting suffering, rants against God for permitting suffering, or pep talks for believers going through suffering. Philip Yancey has provided a great service on the issue in his books on pain, but even they take a somewhat detached view. By contrast, Shusako Endo seems to write from within the terrible grasp of suffering in "Silence", one of the most moving novels I have ever read.
The plot centers around a band of Portugese priests who land in Japan in the 1600's to spread the gospel on a culturally and spiritually unfertile soil. Their theology is eventually challenged in ways that only persecution and suffering can do: can I carry on here? should I? can I forgive my tormentors? should I? Ultimately, they wrestle with public apostasy and with whether or not they could ever be forgiven if they commit such an act.
This is not a feel-good book by any stretch. It deals with failure, defeat, abandonment, pain, and the 'silence' of God through it all. But at the same time it opens the window wide on what the Man of Sorrows went through on our behalf and on how we need God's grace not because of our strength but because of our weakness. Highly recommended.
"Silence" raises several theological points, but the two that stuck with me the most were the following: how can God remain silent despite the suffering of his people (a question no less relevant with the events going on in the world today), and secondly, is it possible that Christianity cannot "grow roots" in the "swamp" that is Japan. A Catholic himself, it is obvious that Endo has struggled over these questions himself, searching for answers. Is it possible to betray your faith but stay true to your God? Endo's frank look at questions like this is part of his universal success. It is amazing to consider that this book was a huge seller in Endo's native Japan, which itself is barely 1% Christian.
"Father, you were not defeated by me," Inoue says to Rodrigues. "You were defeated by this swamp of Japan." "No, no ... my struggle was with Christianity in my own heart" Rodrigues replies. Ultimately, Christian or non-Christian, no matter your age or nationality, faith comes down to these battles in the heart. Endo does a magnificent job depicting this, and Silence is an outstanding book because of it.
In his book "Inside Out," Dr. Larry Crabb speaks of allowing the tough questions of life to truly confuse. At times, one cannot explain why certiain things happen, or why a good God would allow such pain. Steinbeck's novel "Tortilla Flat" also asks why a good God would allow the suffering that is so evident.
Endo's work in this book challenges the reader to face the reality of pain in a fallen world. The plot and characters are so entirely engrossing that I found myself anxiously turning the pages, silently hoping certain things would or wouldn't happen, silently praying that characters would remain faithful.
Phil Yancey wrote a book addressing the question, "Where is God when it hurts?" Endo has addressed that same question in this narrative in such a way that one cannot escape the horror of living in a fallen world -- especially when God seems to be silent...
Endo, in his inimitable way, takes us into dark and treacherous waters: into an examination, indeed a portrait, of what lies beyond the end of faith. The questions he raises are questions all people of faith should consider for themselves, though whether we can be as honest as the protagonist, Father Rodrigues, is will remain a secret known only to ourselves.
This book, more than all of Endo's fine novels, takes the reader on a journey to encounter God in ways that may prove unsettling, but worthy of the effort all the same.
If you read only one book in your whole life, read this one.