Saturday, September 10, 2016

Recommending "Silence"

Silence is probably the world’s most widely-read book about Christianity in Japan. Written by novelist Shusaku Endo, a reluctant Catholic, Chinmoku was first published in Japanese in 1966.
The English translation by William Johnston was published in 1969, and I first read it not long after it came out in English. (Johnston was also the translator of Dr. Nagai’s book Bells of Nagasaki, which I introduced, here, earlier this year.)
Silence, the Novel
Silence is a disturbing book, and a powerful one that merits reading more than once and thinking about repeatedly, even though it is about the plight of Christians in 17th century Japan. While there are many books about faithful martyrs, Silence is about those who lack the courage to suffer persecution and compromise their faith.
In the early 1950s, Endo, who was born in 1923 and died twenty years ago this month, happened to see a fumie in a Japanese museum—and that haunted him for years. In the 17th century fumie (literally, “stepping on pictures”) were used to induce Japanese Christians to renounce their faith—or to be persecuted if they refused to step on the images of Jesus or the Madonna.
Silence is about those who stepped on the fumie

If you read the book, which I hope you will if you haven’t done so already, be sure to read to the very end—or otherwise you will miss the whole point of the book.
Actually, though, Silence was not Endo’s choice for the title of his powerful novel. He once said, “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.”
“Silence,” the Movie
And now Silence has been made into a major movie, directed by the internationally-known Martin Scorsese. It is scheduled to be released before the end of the year
The Japanese version of posted in Sept. 6 article that the new movie will be shown in Japan next year. 

A few days ago, Sharon Bennett Lamb, a Facebook friend who lives in Tokyo, posted this on FB: "Oh my goodness, is this really being made into a movie? The book Silence touched me in a way that’s so hard to describe. I read it the first time I was in Japan 20+ years ago, and could not believe how much a missionary could love his people. I’m preparing myself now (tissues in hand)." 
Silence and Beauty
The most engaging non-fiction book I have read this year, and longer, is Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (May 2016). Fujimura was born in the U.S., the son of Japanese parents, but he has lived and studied in Japan—and became a Christian there. 
Mako, as he is called by his friends, is an internationally renowned artist, and a year ago he became the director of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts.
For years Fujimura has read, researched, and written about Endo and Silence, and his book is a marvelous interpretation of the content of the novel and how key ideas of the book are related to central features of Japanese art and sense of beauty.
To all of you who have not read Silence, I recommend that you do so this fall and then go to see the movie when it comes out. And while there will likely be fewer of you who will do so, I also recommend Fujimura’s fine book. It was worth much more than the $10 I paid for the Kindle version.


  1. Philip Yancey is an outstanding Christian author, and one of his books is titled "Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church." It is about thirteen writers who helped him on his faith journey. Shusaku Endo was one of those, and Yancey’s chapter about Endo is titled “A Place for Traitors.”

  2. Silence is at the top of my favorite book list. I find it deals with faith and faithfulness at several levels and drives one to look more closely at one's own choices. It causes me to remember Paul's words where he said he would be willing to be condemned in order to save his fellow Jews. A strange connection, some will say.

    I first read Silence after the purge of missionaries by the IMB when some refused to "step on the image" (sign a creedal statement supplanting the Bible as ultimate authority) while others submitted in order to preserve the ministries for others. Hard decisions in all cases.

    1. I know you have written before, but I still can't find your name. But thanks for your comments. I hadn't thought of the similarity between the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 and the "fumie."

      As you indicate, they were similar--in reverse. Japanese in the 17th century were required to step on the "fumie" to indicate they were not Christians. In the early years of this century Southern Baptist missionaries, among others, were required to agree with (step on) the BF&M to indicate they were loyal Southern Baptists.

      While the suffering of the dissenters was not nearly as great in the 2000s as in the 17th century, there was suffering nonetheless.

  3. Very interesting, Leroy. And thanks. I don't know, with my new workload, I can add these items to my watch/read list, but I'll watch for the opportunity. I will add the the items to my library book orders for the college. This blog is pertinent to my new context of teaching and chairing a dept. in a missionary college/seminary, where 90% or more of our students are from other cultures. In the two classes I'm teaching, I have students from Mexico, Haiti, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Togo, and the U.S. And I chair the department which offers the major in intercultural studies, wherein students are studying the infinite aspects of maneuvering within various cultures in a globalized world, and to respect cultural differences in order to practice ministry. It's a daunting experience for them, as you would well know. Of course, not all the students go on to become priests, brothers, or nuns, but all of them are in a place of discernment with a strong sense of calling to lives of service.

    1. Thanks for responding to this morning's blog article, Anton. I was happy to hear about your classes--and the exciting challenge you have of teaching students mostly from other cultures.

  4. I would mention a book I'm currently reading: Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion by Susan Jacoby. (Perhaps, Leroy, you've already written about this book in your blog.) It is especially a highly critical book of religion, especially Christianity (Jacoby is known for her unsparing criticisms of religion), but it examines the "conversions" celebrated and lamented in so much of Western history, and the details behind them. In reviewing some of the history of coerced and forced conversions in Western Christianity, she makes this, probably correct comment: "If the history of the Roman Catholic initiation of forced conversion seems to occupy a disproportionate amount of space in this oft-told tale, it is only because, since the early Christian era, the Catholic Church was in charge of more land and people in the West for a longer period of time than any other faith. Had John Calvin's theocrats been in control of Europe from 400 to 1500, the horrors inflicted on individuals, and the repression of religious expression in late populations, would tell us the same story about forced conversion--with different actors. The Protestants had less time than the Catholics to try to control people's souls." (p. 272) This is another book I'll add to our college library.

    1. Anton, I have heard and read some about Jacoby's new book, but I have not read any of it--although I would like to take a look at it at some point. Back in 2013 I read her book about Robert Ingersoll and made reference to it in my Aug. 10, 1913, blog article about Ingersoll.

      There was certainly no forced conversions in Japan in the 16th century after the arrival of Francis Xavier there in 1549. Although by the end of that century there began to be persecution of Christians that intensified in the first third of the 17th century because of the fear that European powers were going to force Western commerce, unequally, upon Japan and that Western culture, including Christianity, would accompany such economic imperialism.

      The fusion of Christianity with the power of governments has been a great detriment to the Christian faith going back to the time of Constantine. That, of course, was seen in Catholicism for centuries, but, as you indicate, Protestants such as Calvin also had theocratic dreams.

  5. Delighted this morning to be in touch and in conversation with Leroy and Anton,and to show appreciation for what both of you have been and are about.

    I'm a big movie fan, and will certainly have my eye out for Silence, the movie, whatever the title with Scorsese directing or producing. The two titles, original novel and non-fiction reflection, go on the book list.

    All of our religious experiences, like all human existence, are culturally conditioned or contextualized. That includes our experiences and consequent descriptions of revelation, inspiration, faith and forced conversions or suppression of others. Given our current context of growing globalization and reflections on the diversity of cultures, we have plenty of work to do to live the "examined life."

    Thanks to Leroy and Anton for your reflections.

    1. I appreciate your comments, Larry, and maybe we can get together and talk about "Silence" after we both have the opportunity to see it. Scorsese has been working on the movie since the late 1990s, and I hope he is going to get it in the theaters by the end of November. Surely there will be a firm release date before long.

      Fujimura talks some about the film in his book, and he writes about talking directly with Scorsese about the movie.

  6. A few months ago my Sunday School class read "Augustine of Hippo: a Biography" by Peter Brown. In the back-and-forth of Christian status in Augustine's time a somewhat similar situation happened. There was a time when Christians were persecuted under Diocletian, and the persecution was particularly fierce in North Aftrica. The Catholic Church allowed members to renounce Christianity to save their lives, but the Donatists were furious with what they saw as a heresy in the Catholic Church, and maintained that believers should stand firm, even unto death, as a number had. When Augustine came to Hippo as the Catholic bishop, the majority of the Christians around Hippo were Donatists. Neither side could persuade the other. So it came down to force, as both sides tried to prevail as the one true church in North Africa. The battle sputtered on for centuries, until the Muslim conquest of the area put both sides out of business.

    1. Thanks for your pertinent response to the blog article, Craig. I have had more sympathy for the Donatists' theological (not their political) position than Augustine did. Endo, though, would have been fully on Augustine's side, no doubt.

      What happened in Japan, though, is that those who would not compromise their faith (and thus would have been applauded by the Donatists) went underground for more than 200 years while all open forms of Christianity was completely suppressed in Japanese society.

      Those who went underground are now usually called Hidden ((Kakure) Christians. The problem was, though, that after Christianity was allowed in Japan again, the Kakure tradition was enough different from the Catholic Church that opened in Nagasaki that many were not able, or willing, to identify with it. And even today there vestiges of the Hidden Christian tradition in Nagasaki Prefecture. June and I visited one such community in the early 2000s.

  7. Very, very interesting, Leroy. The book will go on my list and I'll definitely be on the lookout for the movie. There is something about being silenced that just destroys a person's soul.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Ellin.

      The Christians in 17th century Japan were certainly silenced, and that is the background of the movie. But it is more what was perceived to be the silence of God in response to their persecution.

      I hope you will be able to read the book and see the movie, for it is an important theme and deals with contemporary, as well as historical, issues.

  8. I've been looking forward to the release of the film ever since I heard Scorsese was finally actually going to make it. I'm hoping that there will be a new English translation of this book, as the crucial scene of Christ speaking to the protagonist is not translated accurately in the current edition. The Japanese ”ふむがいい”is not an imperative sentence, and should not be rendered as ‘Trample! Trample!' a la Johnston. It is not a command to commit apostasy, but rather permission, almost an acquiescence.

  9. Thanks, Dan! I knew you would have something important to say about "Silence."

    I remember being surprised at seeing the words you cited in Japanese after having read the English translation first. Certainly the Japanese words are not a command(踏め)but it is much closer to a command that a prohibition. But I like your suggestion that it is a statement giving permission--and, I might add, permission without any hint of condemnation.