Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"Silence" by Shusaku Endo Review, Part 1

“What more can He say, than to you He hath said?”

Why did I review this book? My friend Shay gave it to me during my recent trip to the US; it had been assigned reading for his Japanese class earlier in college and though he remembered it only sketchily, he thought I might find it interesting. And so I did. So many themes in the book struck a chord within me because of my long-standing interest in them. And given that it is a book about the Gospel (or lack thereof) in the hands of Roman Catholics missionaries, it caught my attention even further. Its author has stated his desire in interviews outside of the book to re-conform Christianity to fit Japan better, and his book does much to decrease adherence to a belief in the absolute sovereignty of God in an effort to make God “gentler.” This idea corresponds closely with current Western traditional strands of thinking and thus drew me yet further into a mental and spiritual confrontation with the book’s claims. This review is an effort to deal with the venting of my frustration over the seemingly widespread (though certainly not unanimous) approval of the book.
In Silence’s author Shuusaku (alternate English rendering: Shusaku) Endo’s personal faith journey, he was struck during a visit to a Nagasaki church museum by the exhibit of a fumie blackened by the imprints of thousands of peasants’ toe-prints over the years it was used in persecution. Reflecting that history commonly describes the martyrs and the bold lions of the faith but leaves the weak and the condemned unmentioned, Endo decided to tell their story. Included in that story are thousands of people who had embraced a rudimentary knowledge of the Roman Catholic faith and had fled into remote areas to live when persecution came. Yet apparently virtually no one escaped detection forever, so these Kakure Christians avoided the persecutions by trampling the fumie, worshiping like normal at the Buddhist temple, and keeping up appearances, all the while secretly keeping their gradually more and more syncretistic faith alive despite the almost total dearth of written texts or trained pastors through the recitation of prayers in a Latin-Portuguese-Japanese pidgin language, a twisted version of the Eucharist (using rice balls and sake), and the veneration of “closet gods,” Roman Catholic icons and relics wrapped in cloth and kept in a closet hidden behind their Buddhist household shrines. So these Kakures kept themselves hidden for hundreds of years, emerging when official tolerance was restored in Japan in the 19th century, some to restored union with Rome, others to the continuation of their gradually dwindling movements and the explicit rejection of Papal authority.

Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests, one (Rodrigues) in particular, who enter Japan to keep the flame of faith alive during persecution. He assists the poor peasants in various Kakure villages before being betrayed to the authorities by his personal Judas, a conniving pathetic fellow named Kichijiro. Before his capture and certainly after, his faith experiences many buffetings and doubts, few of which are ever resolved and which end in his own apostasy at the persuasion of his former mentor, himself a former Jesuit missionary priest but now an apostate. After his apostasy, Rodrigues reflects for a time on why he apostatised and what God’s eventual communication with him meant. Most obviously, he seeks to redefine what it means to be devoted to God. Most glaringly absent is his taking into account and really grappling with the evil of the persecuting officials, who had (obviously) the largest role to play in the persecutions. The theme of apostasy is heavy in the book, clearly, as are the themes of missionary service, God’s silence, and power versus weakness. I can only deal with some of these themes in this review and so, regrettably, some will go only vaguely alluded to. This book is set around 1639 in Japan and revolves around the crypto-Catholic Kakure peasants and the Tridentine Jesuit priests sent to minister to them. I add the disclaimer that this book is highly, intensely, Roman Catholic, and I have sought to generalise the faith that the book deals with to include Christianity as a whole, using this term rather loosely, since I do not want to type constantly “Roman Catholic”, since the book itself uses the term “Christian”, and because generally, the Japanese Hiroki-on-the-street equates Christianity and Roman Catholicism. As a believer in the faith expressed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, I regard neither Jesuits nor Kakure Christians as bearers of the true Gospel or true disciples of Christ, unless somehow the true “gospel of grace, the message of your salvation” (Eph 1:13) sneaked through, though I do not find that very probable. I ask the reader simply to bear this in mind.

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