Shusaku Endo (translated into English by William Johnston in 1969)
Marlboro: Taplinger Publishing, 1980
“Everyone should read this book!” was the emphatic conclusion of class discussion—not coming from the professor, but from a student. The rest of the class agreed, and someone added, “It is painful, but it has changed me.” The comments were like an echo of the very words I had spoken when I finished the book. And each person who reads this book on my recommendation thanks me, even if the thanks is accompanied by tears.
Silence, by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, is a novel set in Japan in the 17th century. It tells the story of a Portuguese priest sent to Japan to investigate rumors of persecution, martyrdom, and apostasy. It is valuable for Christians to learn about a largely unknown era in church history. How many of us realize there was a time when Christianity was growing so rapidly in Japan that it was seen as a political threat? Learning about these Christians and the persecution they faced is in itself worthwhile.
The emotional and personal impact is even more important. The whole time I was reading the book, I was also analyzing myself. How would I respond to persecution? At what point would fear overtake faith? What is the responsibility of a teacher of the gospel to new Christians? What if my decisions add to their persecution? What does it mean to be a “hidden Christian”? Is such a thing as a “hidden Christian” possible? Where is God in times of persecution, and why is God silent? The novel is not a fear-mongering endeavor at all, but the intensity of the self-examination of the main character, Sebastian Rodrigues, calls forth a similar intensity of self-examination and reflection in the reader.
The novel moves beyond wrestling with the issue of persecution to an interrogation of the nature of faith itself. What does it mean to put one’s faith in Christ? And it moves beyond an investigation of the nature of faith to an insistence on the contemplation of Christ. From the very beginning of the book, Sebastian is deeply committed to Christ, and he frequently envisions the face of Christ, seeking to devote his every action to Christ. He sees a beautiful, young, and triumphant face, and he is confident he will participate in the triumph of Christianity in Japan.
In his long letters to his superiors in Portugal, Sebastian reveals every detail of his encounters in Japan. As he meets the suffering Japanese Christians, as he is betrayed into the hands of the persecutors, as he faces the question of whether he will trample on the face of Christ (literally trample on a fumie, a picture of the face of Christ), the face he envisions eventually becomes the shrunken face of the suffering servant, the crucified one. And it is this extended focus on Christ, the powerful contemplation of the image of Christ, that is the most compelling reason everyone should read this book.
Patricia Magness is professor of humanities at Milligan College in Tennessee and serves on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.