Silence by Shūsaku Endō, Trans. William Johnston

Silence book cover

Alex Kato

At the turn of the 17th century, while attempting to unite Japan by conquest, the Tokugawa shogunate tried to crush the Christianity that united the southern daimyōs (feudal lords) against them. Here, the blood of the martyrs was apparently not the seed of the Church. The feudal government virtually eradicated Christianity and sealed off Japan from Western influence for 250 years. Today, many consider Japan the largest unreached people group in the world, 125 million people with less than 0.5% Christian. Shūsaku Endō‘s Silence opens a chilling window into that defining period of persecution. As a Japanese American, the book both complicated my vague pride in Japanese orderliness and efficiency, and fanned my desire to somehow serve this nation still in desperate need of the Gospel.

In Silence, Sebastian Rodriguez, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, sails to Japan in the midst of this withering persecution. He sneaks from town to town, offering sacraments to secret Christians, all while looking for his mentor, who is rumored to have renounced the faith. Father Rodriguez arrives prepared to fight off fear, but as he watches the Christian peasants suffer, he finds his true adversary is doubt. Amid this slaughter, why does God seem silent?

Silence disturbed me. The torture is cold and creative. Yet, it is historical, and it’s something Christians should grapple with, personally and theologically. I recommend reading the book before seeing Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film adaptation, not only to bring Rodriguez’s internal dialogue into the visual experience but also to know how upsetting the images will be (and decide whether to watch the poignant but graphic film after all).

Endo leaves readers with complicated questions. Why does God seem silent? What does it mean to obey God? What would I do in the same situations? Personally, I needed people to ask these questions with, and it was helpful to read and watch Silence with others from my Stone Hill small group. Look for an opportunity to read this book with others, because I am sure it will unsettle you, as it should.

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