In our modern North American churches, we often sing of the “overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God” to remind us of how powerful and far-reaching God’s love is. This theme of the grandiosity of God’s love is predominant in today’s liturgy, and often writers seem to incorporate the vastness of creation to parallel the vastness of God’s goodness. Take, for example, the children’s worship song “Every Move I Make” that talks of “waves of mercy, waves of grace.” In this song, there is a connection between water and God’s goodness. In another example, the song “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail),” by Hillsong United, which held a ubiquitous presence in many worship ensembles’ repertoire of songs a few years ago, includes imagery of the ocean that inspires a sense of awe and wonder that we are invited to step into. In all of this, God’s love washes over us like the ocean.
Yet, in many of life’s experiences, we do not necessarily feel the sense of God’s love, but rather a sense of God’s silence. In times where we feel God is silent, the waters and ocean might not symbolize the breadth of God’s love as we’ve come to romanticize in our modern worship songs. But rather, the ocean symbolizes something dreadful, mystifying, and rather lonely. If I were to wordsmith the aforementioned Bethel song to contemplate this revelation, the chorus would become “Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending silence of God.”
This symbolism of the ocean as a terrifying and silent place that is evocative of God’s silence is what the Japanese author Shūsaku Endō accomplishes in his critically acclaimed novel Silence. This conception of the ocean is starkly different from the visions of the ocean that we hold in our modern liturgy. Silence, a novel originally written in Japanese, is hailed as one of the best novels of the twentieth century and has been turned into a film adaptation by Martin Scorsese, released in 2016. It is a historical novel based on the real-life figure of Cristóvão Ferreira, a Jesuit missionary who renounced his faith after being captured in anti-Christian purges in early seventeenth-century Japan.
Silence is a historical novel based on the real-life figure of Cristóvão Ferreira, a Jesuit missionary who renounced his faith after being captured in anti-Christian purges in early seventeenth-century Japan.
In the novel, the fictional character Rodrigues journeys to Japan to discover what has happened to Ferreira, who was his mentor, and to serve as a missionary to the people there, alongside his missionary partner Fransisco Garrpe. This takes place at the start of the Sakoku (“closed country”) period in seventeenth-century Japan, where Christian persecution was implemented and institutionalized. The Sakoku period (1633–1853) was a time in Japanese history where all foreigners (save for the occasional traders) were banned. It was implemented in order to remove the growing influences of European powers, and this included the Catholic Christian missionary orders who had been operating in the archipelago for decades. At the time, many Japanese people across socio-economic classes were converting to Christianity, and thus it was perceived as a threat. Consequently, as the persecution intensified, the church was forced to go underground.
Throughout Rodrigues’s journey, he is accompanied by a drunk fisherman, Kichijiro, whom he meets in Macau and hires as a guide. From a literary perspective, Kichijiro serves as a foil to Rodrigues and ultimately becomes a Judas-like figure. Rodrigues soon discovers that as a priest who is ultimately captured, he must make an agonizing choice involving his faith and the lives of the people he has come to serve. Like the other persecuted priests before him in Japan, he must either publicly renounce the God he has dedicated his life to by trampling upon a bronze figure of the crucifix (fumi-e), or refuse and face the consequence of witnessing the local Japanese Christians be brutally tortured and ultimately condemned to death.
Silence is a work that deals with difficult questions that are relevant to senior high school students who are working through questions of faith. They may not face the same dilemmas of persecution or death that the central characters experience, but they will likely resonate with the struggles of faith and doubt that Rodrigues experiences. In the midst of all the difficulties, the main tension that the main character Rodrigues faces is God’s seeming abandonment of the Jesuit missionaries and Christians in Japan. The novel also explores challenging but valuable topics for students in Christian schools to think through, including the European missionaries’ complicity in colonial endeavors, apostasy and the loss of faith, and finally Eastern vs. Western philosophies and ways of living.
Due to the nature of the content, Silence is undoubtedly a difficult book to read and process. There is unsettling tension between the sections describing visceral and violent persecution of the local Christians and the sections describing Rodrigues’s internal battles with faith in a land that is hostile to foreigners. The novel is also sharp in its critique of the colonial endeavors of Europeans in Asia, cleverly pointing out the folly and naivete of the Jesuit priests in their belief that they would save the Japanese who were “sheep without a shepherd” (Endō 14).
In the few years that I have covered this book as a literary unit, I have witnessed vigorous debates among students about the nature of faith, apostasy, and the presence of God during difficult times.
In the few years that I have covered this book as a literary unit, I have witnessed vigorous debates among students about the nature of faith, apostasy, and the presence of God during difficult times. Due to the complexity of the issues and the graphic nature of some of the scenes, I recommend it for senior-level students. Nevertheless, despite the difficult content, I contend that this book is a great inclusion into any language and literature teacher’s arsenal of texts in the Christian school, as it is rich in literary merit, nuanced in its critiques, and ultimately hopeful, despite a tragic ending.
Imagery and Allusions
What Endō excels at as a writer is the atmosphere that he creates through language and how vividly he describes the setting that the Jesuit missionaries find themselves in. The novel creates tension by maintaining a constant unsettling silence, as if at any point, the missionaries could be discovered for their illegal presence in the Japanese peninsula. Everything seems to be quiet, from the ships that “move forward noiselessly” (30) to the villages that seem to be “surrounded by a fearful, eerie silence (83).
Moreover, the ocean seems to be deathly quiet. In a harrowing persecution scene, the ocean serves as the backdrop for the brutal crucifixion of local Christians Mokichi and Ichizo. Rodrigues witnesses this event and likens the silence of the ocean to the perceived silence of God. As he watches helplessly from afar, Rodrigues laments, “And like the sea God was silent. His silence continues” (89). It is a gut-wrenching scene, and readers cannot help but feel empathy for the terrible situation that the characters have to go through in loyalty to their faith.
Anthony Bigornia is a teacher and the Student Life Coordinator at White Rock Christian Academy in Surrey, BC. He currently teaches IB DP Language & Literature 11 and 12. In his spare time he enjoys playing electric guitar, a game of chess, or pick-up basketball. IG: @aye.bigs
Endō, Shūsaku. Silence. Translated by William Johnston, Picador, 2007.
Hillsong United. “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail).” https://hillsong.com/lyrics/oceans-where-feet-may-fail/.
Scorsese, Martin. Introduction. Silence, by Shūsaku Endō, Picador, 2007, pp. ix–x.