Review: Silence

Shusaku Endo, Taplinger, 1969. 201 pp. Three of Five Stars

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.47.09 PMIs God silent in our suffering? The author implies “yes”, but Christians know better. God is not aloof in suffering. “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2Co. 1:5).

Written by a Japanese-Catholic, Silence addresses the troubled period of Japanese history known as “the Christian century”. By 1614, 300,000 “Christians” lived in Japan’s population of 20 million. But amidst the light, dark persecution prevailed.

Apparently a highly revered missionary, a priest named Ferreira, had apostatized by recanting his faith. A Portuguese priest is sent to find out if it is true and finds persecution himself. This is a novel about a young priest who, among excruciating persecution, is fighting to maintain his faith in God. The more he resists recantation, the more he asks: “Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent?”

I took several lessons from this book. Life was unusually difficult for missionaries in Japan during the 17th century, or maybe its just that much of missions today is unusually comfortable. Out East there was widespread poverty, a difficult language, and never-ending persecution. The Japanese were brutal toward Christians, torturing them by public burning, hanging them for days in pits of excrement and dousing them with boiling water.

Careful, dear Christian, how much faith you put in other Christians. The elder priest was revered and honored. But then came the good life and his young protégé walked away disillusioned.

I was again reminded that myriads of people make radical, painful, and selfless choices for false causes. Silence paints the sad reality that many accept martyrdom, suffering and poverty for teachings that are not true. In this case, it is the Roman Catholic faith.

As a Catholic, Endo’s theology is skewed. He places great emphasis on “apostasy” by recantation, perhaps due to Japan and their value of “honor.” To them, forcing a Christian to recant does greater damage than execution. But Endo assumed that to step on a fumie automatically prohibits one from genuine salvation. What would he think of Peter?

Can a real Christian ever recant, even temporarily? Endo complicated this question through scenarios which John Frame calls “tragic moral choice”, but I don’t believe such categories exist.

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