Shusaku Endo’s Silence is one of the most moving, deeply theological novels I have ever read. Here, I will discuss but a few worldview-level issues found in the book. There will be SPOILERS below.
The Hidden God
The most pervasive theme throughout the book is that of silence. The hiddenness of God is pressed home poignantly in scene after scene. Early in the book, the main character, a Jesuit priest from Portugal named Sebastião Rodrigues has confidence that no matter what, we will find out a purpose for any and all suffering in the world. His thought is that because God is good, there must be a reason behind each and every possible evil.
Yet as the book continues, the persecution of Christians intensifies and is made extremely clear to Rodrigues. Time and again he witnesses Christians being tortured to death and prays. Each time, a refrain is found in the book: he is answered by silence.
Again and again, the please of Christians and of the priest, Rodrigues, are answered by silence. He looks out to sea surrounding Japan and sees only blackness.
Silence confronts us with the problem of evil front-and-center, and offers some of the most frequently used answers in response. Yet many of these answers seem inadequate when set alongside the continued suffering of Christians being tortured.
The Absurdity of Life Without God
Life without God is absurd. Yet even this point, as found in Silence, points to the silence of God. Rodrigues reflects on his life, and finds that it is completely absurd if there is no God. But rather than focusing on big picture points on this topic, he points it to his own life and laments the absurdity of how he’s lived it if there is no God.
Christ, the Crucified Lord
Rodrigues is captured, and he is forced to endure the screams of tortured victims as time and again they ask him to apostasize. What is required of him is that he trample on an image of Christ. If he does not do so, the suffering of others will continue. He begins to wonder about the mercy of God and whether it would, indeed, be better to trample on this image of Christ and be seen as an apostate. Finally, he decides he will do it, if only to prevent further torture of others:
How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’
The priest placed his foot on the fumie [image of Christ]. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew. (171)
Christ came to suffer, and our sin is part of that suffering. Yet, Christ calls to us, letting us know his mercy is boundless, and that it was for our sake he “was born into this world.”
Ultimately, the silence of God is not silence at all. As the priest says it in the closing lines of the novel: “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him” (191). Christ works in us and through us.
The dialogue Rodrigues has with Christ in the end is just as poignant:
“Lord, I resented your silence.”
“I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” (190)
Silence is one of those rare books that is sure to be remembered from the time you read it onward. I don’t know that I will ever forget the vivid scenes in which priests are forced to choose between allowing continued torture or being labeled as apostates. It is a stirring, heart-rending book of faith in the face of apparent silence. But the ultimate message is more hopeful: Christ is in us.
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Shusaku Endo, Silence (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1980). Edition linked is a newer edition.
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