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Silence, the haunting 1966 Shūsaku Endō novel of faith, apostasy, and martyrdom in seventeenth-century Japan, tells the story of a Jesuit priest, Sebastião Rodrigues, in search of a former mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira, an historical figure who apostatized after undergoing torture at the hands of the Tokugawa state. Christian missionaries had been in Japan for nearly a century prior to the action Endō describes, but tensions among Japanese daimyo, or local lords, European traders, and European missionaries had led to the persecution of Christians by the end of the sixteenth century and the dawn of a new one, which itself ushered in the Tokugawa Shogunate on the heels of a brutal civil war.

During this process of pacification, Christians were tortured and executed by crucifixion and anazuri, the practice of hanging a victim upside-down above a pit until he bled out or apostatized. Endō’s novel of people and ideas out-of-place is indeed grim.

Why did Christianity fail in Japan after its initial success under the co-founder of the Jesuit order Francis Xavier (d. 1552)? Throughout Silence, Endō deploys the image of a swamp to emblematize the incompatibility of Christianity with Japanese culture. Silence is a very wet novel: Endō’s Japan is waterlogged and cloaked in mist, a constant reminder of decay and impermanence.

When Rodrigues finally finds his old mentor, the apostate Ferreira is blunt: “This country is a swamp.” It is naturally inhospitable to the seeds Christian missionaries wanted to plant there. In Martin Scorsese’s film treatment of the novel, due in select theaters today, the legendary director and devout Catholic will no doubt be exploring these themes.

In one of the novel’s climactic moments, Rodrigues confronts Ferreira, whom he finds to be a weary, empty shell of the Jesuit zealot he once knew:

“For twenty years I labored in the mission.” With emotionless voice Ferreira repeated the same words. “The one thing I know is that our religion does not take root in this country.”

“It is not that it does not take root,” cried Rodrigues in a loud voice, shaking his head. “It’s that the roots are torn up.”

At the loud cry of the priest, Ferreira did not so much as raise his head. Eyes lowered he answered like a puppet without emotion: “This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

In God’s silence, Rodrigues will eventually apostatize by trampling the fumie, an image of Christ made dirty and smooth by the soles of apostate shoes.

There can be “no religion in a swamp.” These were the words of the historian Gregory of Tours (d. 594), deployed against Gallic pagans who threw offerings into a local swamp. Such assessments may have been on the mind of Willibald (d. 787), an early medieval hagiographer who wrote the Life of Boniface, the Anglo-Saxon saint and missionary who Christianized broad areas of northern Europe before his martyrdom in 754.

According to Willibald, Boniface, “entering the watery fields of Frisia through the swamp, which in their language is called Aelmere, went safely through it and circumnavigated it, inspecting the shores there, [which were] unfruitful.” Willibald went on to describe the Frisian landscape vividly in a way that mirrored the diversity of its danger, both physical and religious.

A slightly later anonymous Life of Boniface described how the Frisians “are wild and, just like fish, dwell among waters, by which they are surrounded on all sides, so that they rarely have access to the outside world. … The heavenly word-sower approached these [peoples] remote from all other nations and are therefore brutish and barbarous.” Where Willibald had drawn clear links between Frisia’s swamps and the “errors” they hosted, the anonymous author made a connection between geographic liminality and ethnic alterity.

Frisian swamps were as dangerous as they were pagan; they incubated and shaped bad religion, according to hagiographic tradition. Later in the Life, Willibald described how, after Boniface's martyrdom, the Frisians threw his books into the swamps, disgusted at the low quality of their loot. For Willibald, though, the Frisians were physically sowing seeds––sacred words, in this case––in an inhospitable environment.

There are many literary echoes of the swamp image in early medieval literature. An eighth-century Life of Guthlac by the Anglo-Saxon scholar Felix described how the titular saint heroically battled demons and ghosts in the Fenland swamps, clearly modeling the hero’s experience on that of Athanasius’s (d. 373) Life of Saint Antony. In Beowulf, the monster Grendel’s mere is described as “a dangerous fen-tract” (frecne fengelad). (Grendel himself is a “boundary-walker,” or mearcstapa, on the fringes of civilization.)

In his Life, then, Boniface proclaimed victory over spaces considered by a good deal of early medieval literature to be inhospitable to Christian civilization.

Early medieval hagiographers often projected their cultural anxieties onto swamps—fearsome landscapes full of fearsome people. Thus the missionaries of early medieval Europe sought places where God was silent, turning hostile territory into fertile ground––at least according to their triumphalist hagiographers.

Endō adjusts the image to fit one of his central suggestions in Silence: Christianity could never fully take root in Japan, due to innate cultural incompatibilities. For Boniface, God’s silence had been a challenge to overcome. For Rodrigues, it hangs over Japan like a fog.

In one of the novel’s final moments, Father Rodrigues continues to deny that Christianity is incapable of flourishing in Japan’s swamp. “I’ve told you,” the magistrate of Nagasaki says:

“This country of Japan is not suited to the teaching of Christianity. Christianity simply cannot put down roots here.”

The priest remembered how Ferreira had said exactly the same thing at Saishoji.

“Father, you were not defeated by me.” The Lord of Chikugo looked straight into the ashes of the brazier as he spoke. “You were defeated by this swamp of Japan.”

“No, no …” Unconsciously the priest raised his voice as he spoke. “My struggle was with Christianity in my own heart.”

Where Willibald, twelve centuries earlier, had seen a swamp and told a story about Christianity’s triumph over it, Endō, in a modern version of the medieval story, draws a direct line between Ferreira’s previous failure and Rodrigues’s personal “struggle” over his faith. It is finally unclear whether or not the swamp will defeat Rodrigues: In an act of mercy to save Christian lives, he (at least outwardly) betrays his faith and tramples on the face of Christ.

Will Rodrigues be condemned for his act of mercy? Will he, like Peter, deny God and journey to a deeper faith later? (A cock crows the moment Rodrigues tramples the fumie.) Is Rodrigues right that God can speak through his own silence? (“Even now I am the last priest in this land. But our Lord was not silent.”) When he perceives the image of Christ’s face on the fumie urging him to trample the fumie to save lives, what is he really seeing? “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world”: Is this the devil tempting Rodrigues as he had tempted Christ in the desert?

Silence––a mid–twentieth century novel by a Japanese Catholic about Portuguese Jesuits halfway around the world from their home in the seventeenth century––remains a powerful reminder in our still-young century of the importance of faith despite the silence of God. It also serves to remind modern people of the dangers of seeing cultural differences as irreconcilable. Rodrigues, in the end, cannot seem to negotiate the tension between apostasy in the service of saving lives and the mysterious workings of a merciful God, whose silence renders all other trials insignificant in comparison.

John T. R. Terry holds a Ph.D. in medieval history and teaches at an independent school in Atlanta, Georgia.

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