Friday, 7 July 2017


On Sunday I finished reading Silence by Shusaku Endo, which had been recommended in many places, especially once Martin Scorsese's film of it came out. I enjoyed it, and found it interesting and thoughtful.

I had a film tie-in edition (which I'd picked up in a charity shop), which I generally don't like (I am sufficiently snobby that I don't want people to think that I'm just reading a book because they made a film of it), but it paid off in this case because it came with a fascinating introduction by Martin Scorsese. (Here it is - as with all such introductions, it's best to read it after you've read the book, not before.) While I don't agree with it all (in particular not the Judas interpretation) it does show a man who has reflected deeply and thoughtfully upon matters of faith, which may surprise some.

The blurb on my copy says 'It is 1640 and Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues sets sail for Japan determined to help the brutally oppressed Christians there. He is also desperate to discover the truth about his former mentor, rumoured to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues cannot believe the stories about a man he so revered, but as his journey takes him deeper into Japan and then into the hands of those who would crush his faith, he finds himself forced to make an impossible choice: to abandon his flock or his God...'

To mention just a couple of things that struck me.

It was one of those unusual books where I wasn't sure what I would think of it until I knew how it ended. How would it treat faith and the faithful? Would the resolution be the typical one of loss of faith under pressure? I thought it was a good ending.

It was also an unusual book in that often the less you know about the author of a book the better, since it can colour your reading of it, and when it does it's usually for the worse, when you really want to be able to read the book in isolation and judge it on its own merits. But in this case the biography of the author added another layer of meaning onto the book. The book is about the 17th-century attempt to crush any church in Japan out of existence, with the repeated view that Japan is not suitable ground for Christianity and it will distort and wither in any case; and one might end the book accepting that view, except that the fact that the author is a 20th-century Japanese Christian does tend to indicate that that view was mistaken...

And the book also drew out what is so often true in the threat of violence and persecution, whether in the context of religion or other situations, that the much more effective threat and creation of moral dilemma is not to threaten to kill you if you don't do something, but to threaten to kill another or others if you don't do something. What struck me particularly in this context was the acceptance of the narrative of whose fault it was and who was responsible. The persecuting authorities said we have to do this to stop Christianity taking root, and it is you missionaries who are making us do this; you are responsible for the deaths of these other people. The missionaries, because they expect opposition and persecution, also accept that it is their fault; the possibility of martyrdom is to be expected and approached in faith, it is a natural and inevitable part of what they - and any converts they make - are called to. But what this means is that no one - neither the Portugese missionaries nor I think the Japanese Christians - challenges that narrative and says to the Japanese authorities, no, this is your fault that is is happening; you are choosing to deal with this in this way; you could look for and choose other ways which don't involve torture and execution. You are responsible. Challenging that premise may of course not have got anyone anywhere, but it was striking to me that the possibility simply did not enter into the situation.

I wonder if this thought has any implications for the church today; certainly in this country and countries like it (as opposed to countries where Christians do face real persecution involving hardship, violence and death) there do seem to be some organisations and individuals that see all kinds of incidents and situations as persecution of Christians and press the persecution publicity klaxon, often counterproductively, rather than trying to engage and find ways forward which don't deepen division and hostility (and in some cases put unhelpful case law on the books which contribute to achieving the kinds of results that they are supposed to be trying to resist and avoid).

So it made me think, but it didn't make me think I should seek out any more of Shusaku Endo's books.

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