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Unfathomable Silence

A review of Silence by Shusaku Endo

Published on:
October 10, 2016
Read time:
6 min.
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When I found the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo in the bookstore, I was happy mainly for the reason that it was short. A friend of mine had recommended it, gushing about how it was the best book she had ever read, and I was, to say the least, skeptical. So when this strange looking book cover of a priest praying over a bleeding red sun caught my eye, I was surprised to see Silence staring back at me, and was pleased that it was a weekend read. 

The quicker I could finish it, the quicker I could get to books that actually matter, right?

Silence by Shusaku Endo
Cover design by Yuko Shimizu

Looking back, I realize now that there are few books that have had a deeper impact on my life than Silence. I’ve loved stories more, I’ve loved others’ writing more, and I’ve loved characters a whole lot more that the ones in Silence, but Endo seemed to reach into the future and place that book in my lap to help me deal with a theological issue I’ve been trying to figure out for the last few years.

The issue is, as the novel suggests, silence. I am being a bit too vulnerable for my liking in admitting this—especially in the first issue of Fathom—but even though I went to seminary, where you are supposed to be so in tuned with God that you walk around like everyone else: smiling and singing hymns from the 1800s, I never truly feel the presence of God as many evangelical Christians describe. I saw (am seeing) terrible things happen in this world and wondered why God does not intervene, why he doesn’t swallow evildoers, why he’s silent.

This little issue I had was becoming severe to the point of consumption. I could barely work. I couldn’t talk to anyone about theology or God without having overbearing anxiety. I tried to find some solutions, but those solutions were narrow and unsatisfactory. I was waiting for God to “speak” to me, and if you’ve ever been in the place where he isn’t, it’s hard to think that he will. But in steps Endo to save the day, and honestly, my life.

I was waiting for God to “speak” to me, and if you’ve ever been in the place where he isn’t, it’s hard to think that he will.

The novel centers on a missionary, Father Rodrigues, who, on hearing rumors of the apostasy of his teacher Father Ferreira, goes to Japan to learn the truth. In the beginning, Father Rodrigues seems to be doing all the typical missionary things. He is blessing people, praying with people, and counseling people during a time when the government is persecuting and killing all who refuse to abandon their faith. As the novel progresses Father Rodrigues constantly thinks about why God isn’t intervening and eliminating the persecution and murder of these innocent Christians. He sees Christians dragged from their homes. God does not act. He sees himself and many others betrayed for riches and money. God is silent.

Even though he has these thoughts and he questions the presence of God, he quickly dismisses them from his mind. I mean, he’s a priest, and a priest ought not think about such things much less consider them. 

This is something you probably need to know about Shusaku Endo. From the moment I picked up the novel and began to read, I trusted him.

This issue continues to pester him throughout the whole novel until he finally gets his answer. This issue continues to pester me throughout the entirety of the novel because I wanted to see how he would solve it. I literally didn’t put this book down because I was so curious how Endo would answer the question and so trusting of him to handle it well that I sped through it to get to the end.

This is something you probably need to know about Shusaku Endo. From the moment I picked up the novel and began to read, I trusted him. From the very second the issue of God’s silence was brought up, and I scrunched my brow and sat up straight, I believed that if anyone could give me a satisfying answer, it was Endo. I had never read anything by him before. The first words I had read of Endo’s were the first words of Silence.

The solutions that Endo gives to these problems are perhaps so trustworthy because of how good of a writer he is, how he treats things so seriously. You can see that every word he writes is drenched in his faith and in an experience with it. He also forces you into places you don’t want to go, but he doesn’t leave you feeling abandoned. 

I will say that Silence has not solved all my problems, but it has given me a good foundation on which I can live with my problems.

Trying to find an answer to these issues that I had was a scary thing for me. When Endo plunged me into it, I didn’t feel as if he were leaving me there like some other novelists would. When I read writers like David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen they often raise these issues and end it there. There is no hope because now I just have more issues I didn’t even know I had. Endo changes this tone by bringing up an issue that many believers have, yet not just leaving it at that.

Endo also does not act in a typical Christian manner either. While I struggle with hopeless novels, I like hopeless ones more than ones that tie everything in a nice bow. This seems to be a problem with a lot of Christian novelists. They think they have to answer all the questions and make sense of every little thing they are raising. It’s nauseatingly dull and narrow. And if you’ve been around Christianity long enough, it’s predictable too. And I like nothing less than a predictable novel. Endo’s novel is hopeful, but it’s not quite a neat systematic answer that he gives you. He is excellent at striking the balance between the two, which is—I think—how Christians ought to handle these issues. It’s not quite a solution he provides, but a way to live with your issues.

I will say that Silence has not solved all my problems, but it has given me a good foundation on which I can live with my problems. That seems like a significant distinction.

If you think you know theology, if your theology is systematic and neatly packed, if you think you have a grasp on God and who he is and how he acts, if you think you will never commit apostasy (especially after reading Jesus Freaks) and that everything in your faith is firm and solid, read Silence to be uprooted and placed on a firmer foundation, a foundation that leaves you satisfied even though you don’t really have the answer—like it perhaps did for Job.

If you think you will never commit apostasy (especially after reading Jesus Freaks) and that everything in your faith is firm and solid, read Silence to be uprooted and placed on a firmer foundation.

This was another thing that this novel did for me. I used to love systematic theology. It made God understandable and, honestly, easy to grasp, so long as you read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (which seems to have lost credence lately with everything Dr. Grudem has been involved in regarding heresy and endorsements).

Now, I don’t really get systematic theology because God isn’t systematic. This is actually a great danger in Christianity. When we feel as if we have nailed God and understand him completely, when he fits into the little holes in our head so perfectly that he is everything we want him to be and nothing we don’t, we have simply made a god in our own image. And worship of that god is idolatry. In order to worship the true God you must understand him as—ready—unfathomable.

And this is somewhat the purpose of our magazine. We want to understand the depths of Christianity, and we want to understand deeper things of God, but the deeper we go into that ocean, the deeper we are going to realize that it really is deep. And when it comes to God, there is no end. We will be searching and exploring who God is for eternity.

It’s novels like Silence that really give me a different perspective on this and realign me. They cause me to remember that God is a whole lot greater than who I think he is in my head. If the universe can’t contain him, how much less can my mind.

If you want your view of God to expand, read Silence. If you want to keep him all neat and tidy and exactly how he is in your mind right now, don’t read a single word of this novel. If you have questions about the silence of God and need some kind of foundation to stand on (because if you do have this issue, you obviously need something to stand on since it is a miserable experience and one that constantly leaves you feeling like you missed the last step), then read Silence. Heck, read it just because Martin Scorsese is making it into a movie.

Jonathan Minnema
Jonathan is the video producer for Fathom Magazine. You can reach him at jon@fathommag.com and @jonminnema.

Silence
by Shusaku Endo
Picador Modern Classics, pp. 240, $9.52

Cover photo by Andrej Chudy.

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