Silence by Shusaku Endo. I read this novel because it happens to be required reading for my daughter’s freshman class at Wheaton College, and I wanted to see what she’s reading. We had a great mini-bookclub on the phone. Plus, Martin Scorsese has made it into a movie, releasing sometime in the next several months.
The story takes place in Japan in the 1600s. WAIT! Stay with me here. I know that sounds like something you would usually skip over. But hear me out. The novel is based on the life (and letters) of a Jesuit priest from Portugal who travels to Japan to find his mentor when he hears the man denied his faith.
The time period was one of tremendous persecution for Christians in Japan. The Shoganate made it illegal to believe in Christianity, which resulted in hidden Christian communities. The government officials raided homes looking for Christian items, rooting out people of faith. The bodies of martyrs multiplied, so they instead began to torture the Christians until they “apostatized.” This involved stepping on an image of Christ.
If a tortured Christian agreed to trample his Savior, they would immediately stop the torture and let him go. Priests who they captured, were never let go. They were tortured until they apostatized, and then never allowed to leave the country, or interact with its people.
Silence plumbs the depths of pride, persecution, betrayal, the suffering Savior, and apostasy – something most Christians are guilty of in one way or another. And then there is grace. The priest arrogantly contemplates himself as a Christ-type through much of the book, but in the end, he finds another comparison.
The story brings up a universal question: When things go wrong, when evil seems to prevail, when God’s loved ones are harmed, tortured and killed, why does God not act? Why is He silent? Endo explained how his book addresses the question. “I did not write a book about the Silence of God; I wrote a book about the Voice of God speaking through suffering and silence.”
The book starts a bit slow, to catch the reader up on the historical context. But soon, it picks up and depicts very flawed people locked in a struggle with belief, God, self, and service. The imagery and detail-especially references to light and dark, sound and silence-is breathtaking. A worthy read – especially if you plan to see the movie!
Silence is not an easy book, but I’d venture to say it’s one of those “good for you books.” 4 out of 5 stars.