Is Christianity true for all humanity, or it is “cultural” or “geographic”? Another way of asking the question is, is Christianity universal or specific to Western culture (and in serious danger even there, especially in Europe generally and among the elites in United States)?
That’s one of the two questions posed by Shusaku Endo in his novel Silence, the story of two Portuguese priests in Japan in the 1600s during a time of Great Christian persecution. The novel was published in 1969, and is based on a true story, but the questions it poses seem even more contemporary and important today. (I’ll discuss the second question, what is the “silence” of the title, next Monday, the final of four posts on the novel.)
Knowing a persecution of Christians is underway, Father Sebastian Rodrigues goes to Japan for two reasons – to provide pastoral care for the Christians who are left and to verify the rumors that the former head of the mission to Japan, Rodrigues’ own former seminary teacher Father Christovao Ferreira, has apostatized and abandoned the faith. Rodrigues is eventually found by authorities, imprisoned but not (in the novel, at least) tortured. Instead, the local authorities attempt an array of intellectual gambits to convince Rodrigues to abandon his Catholic faith. These include conversations with the local ruler and the torture of native Japanese Christians.
The most dramatic and persuasive of these attempts is to bring Rodrigues to the former Father Ferreira, who now dresses in Japanese style, has a wife and has become something of an agent for the Japanese authorities (he at least does what he’s told to do). Ferreira attempts to convince his former student that Christianity simply will not work in Japan; it will not take root in the country’s culture. It may work in Europe, but Europe is not Japan.
Rodrigues fully understands the importance of the argument. If it is true that Christianity does not apply to Japan and can flourish only in a more hospitable culture, then it is a fraud, and a fraud everywhere, because its claims are indeed universal. It is not just a “religion for Europeans” but a faith for all humanity. And while Rodrigues finds himself slipping under the influence of his former teacher and fellow priest, there’s a more formidable question looming.
Can you renounce your faith in name only to save the lives of others? Isn’t that a kind of Christ-like sacrifice?
Silence is a provocative read, and it’s meant to be.
Shusaku Endo’s Silence is the book under discussion in the month of January by the Reader’s Guild of the International Arts Movement.
The book is also being filmed as a movie by Martin Scorsese and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, and is set for release late in 2010. For more information about the book, visit its entry on Wikipedia. And artist Makoto Fujimura talks about the book in an IAM podcast.