I just finished reading Silence by Shusaku Endo. It was recommended to me by Bryan, an English teacher at my school who described it as one of the only Christian books he really likes for its literary value. It is a novel about Portuguese missionaries in Japan during the 1600's. Japan had outlawed Christianity and the missionaries who were caught were tortured and killed if they did not apostatize.
The novel explores the concept of inter-cultural missions and a claim that Japan's culture would simply not support Christianity as it was presented by the Europeans. Any Christianity that allegedly did take hold was corrupted and confused in translation. The priest Rodrigues steals into Japan to follow up on the reports that his mentor, an older priest, has defected and denied the faith.
My reaction to this book and my interpretation of the author's message has been so muddled, it was such a distressing story at times, and its value lies in a few bright details, a few words in the book that really seemed to make the story right. For much of the book, I could sense that the ending would determine if I joyed in the story or resented it, and that is how it was. But not just the ending, the few days after the ending, it is the pondering which has made me like this book.
The story painted a murky picture of the confused motives, futile hopes, and deniable victories of the Portuguese missionaries. And all the while, through all the pain, after all the sacrifice, God's silence.
The human events of Silence include as an element the claim that Christianity does not translate and should not be translated into certain cultures. This message of course is especially common in the academic world, but by people who also lean on absolute truth. They appeal to some sort of absolute truth to explain that Christianity absolutely cannot be absolutely true. They claim some sort of universally undeniable logic to say that Christianity cannot be undeniably universal. In the end the most common argument presented against Christianity is the failures of those who promote it, and the story shows the rejection of a Christianity that Christians have failed to make relevant.
In Silence, Endo invites the reader to ask: Can a truth exceed in power our ability to express it? Can God take imperfect human efforts and complete the statement? Can we afford to interpret God's silence as his inaction? Can we presume that our designs are the limit and the fullness of God's actions through us?