(Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969)
In the mid-seventeenth century, two Jesuit priests travel to Japan to find their mentor, who rumor holds has committed apostasy in the midst of an outbreak of persecution. As they travel through an unfamiliar land in dangerous times, they must face questions and challenges that shake the core of their faith: are there places where Christianity doesn’t work? What is the relationship between nationality and religion? And, most pressingly, why is God silent in the face of suffering and injustice?
Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic novelist, masterfully weaves these questions throughout a compelling narrative. One could read Silence for the plot alone and be satisfied with a compelling historical drama. Of course, this would be missing Endo’s point. Silence is that rare kind of novel that ruthlessly deconstructs while still leaving material for the reader to consider and build upon. Do grace and forgiveness have meaning in a society that has rejected Christ? Endo unflinchingly directs the reader to consider. This is not a book for the theologically faint-of-heart. There are no easy answers to be found.
Endo’s pacing and character development are nothing short of masterful. The anguish of the protagonist quickly becomes the anguish of the readers. The setting is purposefully difficult to understand so that the reader is destabilized and must acclimate along with the priests. For all that can be said about Silence’s theological maturity, it is also one of the mot well-crafted novel’s I’ve ever read.
I first read Silence when I was with helping to facilitate a round-table discussion of it at my university. I came away from the novel feeling encouraged by its overall message, especially in its ending. About half of participants in discussion felt the opposite; they saw the same ending as a sobering rather than victorious. This is a credit to the novel’s ability to engage the reader in consideration and dialog.
Silence will likely be remembered as one of the great novels of the later 20th century. Few match it for intrigue, difficulty, and importance. It is an uncomfortable read, but such is the way of Christian discipleship. The Gospel of Christ does not allow for easy answers or the avoiding of difficult realities. Silence made me a better follower of Christ.
Jake Raabe is the editor of Words About God. See more of his writing at http://www.jeraabe.wordpress.com and follow him on twitter @J_E_Raabe.