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Readers of First Thoughts will know by now that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence by Shūsaku Endō was released in select theaters on December 23. The novel warrants the attention it is getting. Set in the 1640s at the end of Japan's “Christian Century” (1549-1639), Silence is a haunting journey through one priest’s struggles to remain faithful in the most challenging of circumstances. While there are a number of subplots, the theme of faithfulness integrates the various issues Endō explores in the novel. Endō examines what it means to be a faithful Christian and what faithful Christianity might look like in Japan, even as he wrestles with whether there can be a form of Christianity that is faithful to Japan’s own culture. The narrative supplies no clean answers to the question of faithfulness; rather, the path forward is constant struggle, as found in Sebastião Rodrigues’s declaration after his apostasy that “even now I am the last priest in this land.”

Faithfulness hovers behind Endō’s use of the Apocalypse to frame the narrative. The novel begins with Rodrigues’s recollection of the vision of God in the fourth and fifth chapters of the Apocalypse; it concludes with the image of final judgment, in chapter twenty of the Apocalypse, breaking in upon his consciousness. The figure of Jesus as the “faithful witness” (ho martys, ho pistos) becomes the shadow under which Rodrigues makes his plaint known. The image of faithful witness comes from Psalm 89:37, where the moon serves as a witness in the sky to God’s faithfulness. The narrator reminds the reader of this: “The rays of the moon fell through the prison bars, forming on the wall a shadow that reminded the priest of the man of Galilee.” For this reason, as Roy Peachey makes clear, Silence is less historical fiction than existential literature. In a sense, Rodrigues’s line of questioning results from his experience of the apparent absurdity of his existence as a priest in Japan amid the silence of God. He is a Catholic version of Camus’s Clamence in The Fall (published a few years before Silence).

One subplot centers on Rodrigues’s experience of divine silence and his inability to “see” God’s presence. The struggle of faithfulness is played out in the spaces between presence and absence, especially as these spaces unfold in Ignatian contemplation. Rodrigues keeps visualizing Christ, and he must discern what the image means. At the beginning of the narrative, he expects to find the conquering Christ delivering Japanese Christians. The image of Christ in his mind is Piero della Francesca’s fresco in Borgo San Sepolcro (now Sansepolcro) of the resurrected Christ who defeated death. He cannot see the Lamb slain in the Japanese Christians.

Endō moves back and forth between presence and absence. Nature declares the presence of God, as Rodrigues sees the beauty of the mountain outside his cabin and senses that “God will protect us.” Then Rodrigues finds in the waves constantly crashing on the shore a vacuous monotony that suggests Japanese martyrdom is an absurd leap into emptiness. The sickening silence of God is met with the singing of Christ’s broken body, but Rodrigues cannot see or hear the answer because he is looking for the God of glory who comes in radiant light, not the broken Lamb who does not speak. He has not yet discerned correctly the face of Christ. Indeed, it takes his own horrendous act of stepping on the fumie before he can see that Christ in fact has never been silent; Rodrigues simply did not have ears to hear or eyes to see. As Rodrigues begins to discern the face of the suffering Christ in the people, especially in the apostate figure of Kichijiro, he discovers that “our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.” Endō's Rodrigues moves theologically in the way that Jon Sobrino, another Jesuit, moved when he declared that the crucified peoples of Latin America required a new image of Christ.

A second subplot has to do with whether Christianity can be faithful to a distinctly Japanese way of life. Or, perhaps more precisely, Endō explores what faithful Christianity in Japan might look like. Here, too, Endō does not allow the reader to escape the struggle. He contrasts two ways of approaching the question of Japan and Christianity. The first way is expressed by the apostate priest Cristóvão Ferreira, who applies a kind of scholastic logic to Japanese Christianity: The swamp of Japan has caused the root of Christianity to decay and rot, turning it into something else. Rodrigues's mission is absurd over against the swamp of Japan.

The second way is found in the Japanese Christians, from their joy at receiving a crucifix and prayer beads to their willingness to undergo martyrdom. Rodrigues discovers a vibrant practice of Christianity among the villagers he encounters, kept alive by the confraternity structures the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans had put in place. What is missing, however, is the priest who stands in the place of Christ and performs the sacraments. Can this church exist without priests and the sacraments? The problem of the swamp of Japan is not that Japanese culture rots Christian teaching but that, apart from a clear connection to the Church, the young sapling will die. This is exactly the view that the Inquisitor Inoue espouses in the end. He wants to cut Japanese Christianity off from its roots by breaking communion with the hierarchy of the Church.

Endō purposely conflates historical events and persons. The basic plot of the novel stems from the final Jesuit mission to Japan in 1643, in which several Jesuit priests apostatized after interrogation and torture by the Inquisitor Inoue. Endō places Alessandro Valignano (d. 1606), the Jesuit Visitor of the East, after the Great Martyrdom of Nagasaki (1622) and the Shimabara rebellion of Japanese Christians (1637). Moreover, the choice of the name Rodrigues for the main character harks back to João Rodrigues (“Tcuzzu,” the “Interpreter”), whom Valignano admitted to the priesthood in 1601, in part because he was fluent in Japanese. In the same year, Tokugawa Ieyasu made João Rodrigues his official agent in the Chinese silk trade. After he was expelled in 1610, Rodrigues wrote a Japanese grammar and a history of Christianity in Japan. The use of Valignano and the name Rodrigues heightens the question of a Christianity that is faithful to Japan, especially given that both historical figures were deeply committed to cultivating an authentic Japanese form of Christianity.

Ultimately, Rodrigues's struggle to understand what faithfulness means is identical to Japanese Christians' struggle to discern what it means to be the body of Christ cut off from the body of Christ. Rodrigues is the priest who is not a priest, even as Japanese Christianity is the church that is not the Church. And yet the final words of Rodrigues, that “my life until this day would have spoken of him,” are the words of Japanese Christians. We know that they are Christians by their struggle and devotion, a love that never surrenders and risks all, even as Christ became the faithful witness as the Lamb slain for all.

Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.

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