Silence is a difficult book. It is not difficult to read but it is difficult because of the complex picture of Christianity that it presents. I can understand why so many people love and many others find it near heresy.
Silence was written in 1966 by Shusaku Endo. Shusaku Endo was a Japanese Catholic and wrote this historical novel about the 17th century persecution of Christianity in Japan.
The story follows a Portuguese Jesuit Priest that sneaks into Japan to minister to the local persecuted Christian community and find out if it is true that his former mentor Father Ferreira has committed apostasy (denied Christ.)
Japan is one of the historical examples of where the ‘blood of martyrdom’ was not the ‘seed of the church’ as Tertullian put it. The Christian community in Japan grew quickly after Francis Xavier (founder of the Jesuits) first brought the message of Christianity there in 1549. There were several hundred thousand Christians in Japan by the time the first persecutions started.
In 1597, 26 Christians were crucified. Later persecutions occurred in 1613, 1630 and 1632. But after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1638, where a peasant revolt was put down (many of whom were Catholic Christians), the ban on Christianity was strongly enforced.
Silence is set in 1638 just after the Shimabara Rebellion. Father Rodrigues and his companion Father Garrpe find a village of Christians and secretly minister to them. But soon they are discovered and escape so they will not bring problems to the village. Their escape is too late and several villagers are tortured and killed. The priest split up to reach more people and hopefully be harder to find.
But Rodrigues is found by Kichijiro, the man that originally lead them into Japan. Kichijiro is the Judas character of the story. He is not strong in the face of persecution, but breaks and betrays Rodrigues, but keeps coming back for absolution.
The book is a meditation on the silence of God in the face of persecution and evil. And quite appropriate for Good Friday, it explores the idea that we are all Judas.
Martin Scorsese is planning on making a movie of Silence that might be released as early as 2014.
I do not like spoilers, but it is worth discussing a couple of the spoiler plot points. If you do not want spoilers (on this 57-year-old book) skip the rest of the post.
The strong moral ambiguity of the book is essentially about what it means to reject Christ and why God allows for suffering. Ferreira had committed apostasy by stepping on the face of Christ (an image of Christ called a fumie). When he did this he became a pawn of the government. When Rodrigues is captured he endures some torture, but what breaks him is that he is treated relatively well but forced to watch and/or listen to the torture of other Christians. Ferreira and the Japanese captors sit and prod Rodrigues about the ‘so-called’ love and mercy of a God that allows suffering of his followers.
The persecutors are portrayed as learning from the early persecution that when you martyr the leaders the church is strengthened. But when the leaders are forced to watch the persecution of the followers they willingly apostate themselves to stop the torture. It is the breaking of both the leaderships spirit and shaming the leaders before the rest of the Christians that breaks the church in Japan.
The final exploration of the book is about Rodrigues life in Japan. He is never allowed to leave and is forced to live as a normal Japanese man, forced to marry and have children. But as he struggles with the result of his apostasy, he feels like God has brought him there to see that God suffers with the persecuted instead of stopping the persecution.
Silence received many awards and was considered the best work of Endo, who was a popular and respected writer in Japan. It deserves it recognition because it squarely takes on the romanticized view that many Christians have about persecution and martyrdom. But it also deserves some of the questions about what it really means to follow Christ. This a book worth reading.