Writing in the sixteenth century, Francis Xavier, one of the original members of the Society of Jesus and a pioneering evangelist to Asia, claimed that Japan was “the country in the Orient most suited to Christianity.” Validating this prediction, hundreds of thousands of Japanese people converted over the following century. But today, Christians make up about two percent of the population of Japan. What happened? The question does not have a simple answer. Certainly the tragic connection between Christian missions and European empire played a role, as did conflicts among countries and between Protestant and Catholic missions. Widespread persecution of Christians at the hands of a hostile government—brought on, it must be admitted, by the aforementioned sins of European missionaries—choked out whatever fragile shoots were left.

I don’t know what it’s like for a non-Christian to read Silence; for a Christian it is a harrowing experience, almost unbearable at times.On the other hand, it may be that Christianity and Japan were never a good fit. This is the theory proposed by numerous characters in Shusaku Endo’s magnum opus, Silence, which celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year. Endo, a Japanese Catholic, had more skin in the game than most of us do, but like Fyodor Dostoevsky, he was too masterful a novelist to be a partisan, religious or otherwise. Just as Dostoevsky allows Ivan Karamazov to present his case against God so eloquently that many readers walk away thinking the author himself was an atheist, Endo inhabits the novel’s enemies of Christianity. “This country is a swamp,” says Cristóvão Ferreira, a Jesuit missionary who has apostatized in Japan. “Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp” (147).

That these words are ventriloquized by a branch on that sapling hints that there is more to this book than its arguments against Japanese Christianity; but again, Endo is so committed to the dialectic project of the novel—what the Russian literary theorist M. M. Bakhtin calls its heteroglossia—that he will not directly rebuke Ferreira. Instead, the warp and weft of the novel transcend argument altogether and allow it to do what novels are supposed to do: give readers an existential experience that reorients their world.

The plot of Silence is not difficult to describe. Its protagonist is Father Sebastian Rodrigues, who travels with two other Portuguese Jesuits to Macao and then to Japan. Part of his mission is to minister to the underground Japanese church, of course, but he has a more personal goal as well. The rumor of Ferreira’s apostasy has reached Europe, and it is seen as “not simply the failure of one individual but a humiliating defeat for the faith itself and for the whole of Europe” (7). What’s more, Ferreira was Rodrigues’s teacher in seminary, and his possible apostasy has drilled a pinhole in the ship of Rodrigues’s faith. He must discover whether the rumors of Ferreira’s apostasy are true.

Things go bad almost immediately in Japan. The priests are forced to hide in a hut for weeks, bitten by lice and sweating in the humidity of the rainy season. There are a number of Japanese Christians, and they are thankful for the priests, but as time inches past, they become increasingly aware that the Japanese authorities have learned of their existence and are trying to find them. Eventually, of course, those officials do find them, and Rodrigues is given an unthinkable decision: Either he must apostatize, or else the Japanese Christians will be tortured in inventive and horrifying ways.

Rodrigues’s own physical suffering is bearable, and the suffering of the Japanese Christians could perhaps be made meaningful—but the genuine torture that Rodrigues undergoes is the silence of God suggested by the title. Rodrigues’s faith is repeatedly tested and tried, and well before the end of the novel, it is on the verge of collapsing altogether. He watches from his hiding place as two Japanese Christians are tied to stakes on the beach, where the incoming tide wears down their resistance and they eventually die, days later, of exhaustion. Rodrigues stares at the sea and imagines God’s apathetic face in it:

The sound of those waves that echoed in the dark like a muffled drum; the sound of those waves all night long, as they broke meaninglessly, receded, and then broke again on the shore. This was the sea that relentlessly washed the dead bodies of Mokichi and Ichizo, the sea that swallowed them up, the sea that, after their death, stretched out endlessly with unchanging expressions. And like the sea God was silent. (68)

I don’t know what it’s like for a non-Christian to read Silence; for a Christian it is a harrowing experience, almost unbearable at times. Endo studied French literature in Japan and eventually in France itself, and the cadences and obsessions of Albert Camus are evident in his spare prose; behind Camus lurks the shadow of Blaise Pascal, so frightened by “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces.”

Silence undermines Christians’ deepest hopes. It is a commonplace, for example, that Christianity spread through the Roman Empire so effectively because, rather than in spite of, the persecution of the early Christians. But the Japanese Christians suffer even more intense persecution, and the religion is nearly stamped out in the country. (We know this even if Rodrigues does not.) James famously tells us to “consider it nothing but joy” when we “face trials of any kind,” since “the testing of your faith produces endurance” (NRSV, 1:2-3). But what if it doesn’t produce endurance? What if our faith does not pass the test?

Those of us who live in political security are perhaps too quick to imagine that we would be able to withstand the sort of suffering that is de riguer for Christians in other parts of the world. Silence warns us not to be so blithe. Confronted with the habitual apostate Kichijiro, with whom his life in Japan is unpleasantly tangled, Rodrigues wonders about the line between the faithful and the apostate: “How many of our Christians, if only they had been born in another age from this persecution would never have been confronted with the problem of apostasy or martyrdom but would have lived blessed lives of faith until the very hour of death” (77). The question—phrased as a declaration to keep us from answering too quickly—is directed at Christians in the developed world, and no doubt at Endo himself.

Every time I return to Silence, I find myself more interested in Kichijiro. He is a deeply unlikeable character—he apostatizes at least three times in the novel, and he betrays Rodrigues to the authorities. And yet his motivations are never entirely clear. He cannot stay away from Rodrigues, and at one point he demands that he himself be jailed and punished as a Christian. (He later apostatizes again.) He calls himself a “weak shoot” (77), and part of Rodrigues’s anguish involves his struggle to understand the relationship between Christ and Judas, which has profound implications about how he is to treat Kichijiro. In a novel that contains genuine heroes of the faith, Kichijiro and Rodrigues are united in their weaknesses and crippling doubts. It’s not until Rodrigues understands this that he has a real sense of what grace is.

The novel’s ending, as we might expect, is wrenching and profoundly ambiguous. Rodrigues believes himself to have ascended to a higher plane of faith, worshipping a God “different from the God that is preached in the churches” (175), though the specifics of that difference are never made clear. How seriously are we meant to take him here? Endo—like God, like the sea—is silent, and his readers are left rocking back and forth in a tiny boat on the cold gray ocean. Silence is not, perhaps, a novel that instills faith—but it is a novel that creates enough doubts to allow our faith to take a new shape, and for that reason it deserves a place on the shelf of Christian classics, somewhere between The Brothers Karamazov and The Power and the Glory.

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