The "Problems" of Endo's Silence

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Many of you may not have read Shusaku Endo's Silence. If you are one of these, abandon this column and run just as fast as you can to the library, seek out a copy, and read it. Be warned, it is hard going. The translation is a little rough in spots and the story itself is wrenching.

I was moved to consider writing this column by a very interesting post on a Catholic Writer's conference by Tom at Disputations. He contends, and I agree, that one of the problems of conducting such a conference is the problem of factionalism within the Catholic Writing community. Go and read his post. But his though inspired my own about Endo's book. Note that from this point on there will be spoilers, so if you have not read the book, please do so before you continue.

Endo's book has been viewed quite differently by different critics. Some Catholic critics criticize the book for the adoption of heterodox theology and understanding of Catholicism. Many other critics find in the story a great examination of the problem of evil and what religious ought to do in the face of it.

All I can say of Silence is that it has haunted me since I first read it. I believe it brings up a central question in faith and explores it unrelentingly. The question concerns apostasy and what the proper course of action to take in dreadful circumstances might be.

The story is set in Japan of the 17th century. A new group of missionaries has arrived, smuggled in aboard a Dutch trading ship. Catholicism and Christianity have been outlawed in Japan as a foreign element that has served to turn the people from traditional ways. This foreign element has introduced a kind of political crisis because of the way medieval Japanese government was set up.

Our two priests journey through this hostile Japan and encounter small enclaves of believers who have preserved the remnants of their beliefs through the persecutions. They witness the hideous deaths of some believers who had taken them in and allowed them to say Mass.

Eventually one of the priests is captured and is forced to witness and listen to the torture of countless of his "parishioners." This people are hung upset down over a pit, slit are cut in their ears and they are allowed to slowly bleed to death. The cell of the priest is at a location where he hears their groans amplified constantly.

The priest is told that he can save the lives of everyone who is to endure this torture and the torture of being gradually drowned by the high-tide if he will only step on the fumie which is an image of Jesus. At the climax of the novel, the Priest hears Jesus speak from the fumie telling him to tread on him, step on him, this is what He came for and this is what He expects. The priest does so, and the novel ends with the priest being forced to marry and settle to a "normal" life with the friendship of another priest who had previously done the same.

Often, because of this ending, Endo is labeled a "bad Catholic." (That isn't the only reason, but people who find him a bad Catholic go back and cite this as evidence. Now, I might have some real problems with some of Endo's statements in his Life of Jesus. I seem problematic theology and a certain confusion therein represented as biography; however, bad theology doesn't necessarily make a "bad Catholic." Even arriving at the wrong conclusion doesn't necessarily make a "bad Catholic." In point of fact, to my mind the term has no meaning. One is either a Catholic or not a Catholic depending on a number of conditions that vary from person to person.

But Endo's book raises serious issues and asks us to look at them through the lenses of a man dedicated to God. As with my view of my pacifistic tendencies, they're perfectly fine, so long as I am the only one who suffers. But as soon as someone else is affected it becomes much more problematic in a moral sense. Do I have the right to ask others to sacrifice their lives for my moral principles? The same question occurred to me here. If I were in the priest's place, would I have the right to ask others to be martyrs because I sat by and did nothing to save them. Even if the something is to step on a image of the Lord, to "apostasize"?

Many say that Endo's conclusion was simply wrong, the priest should have stayed strong and endured the torture of the many and eventually attained martyrdom himself. I say, what does it matter what one does to a symbol, no matter how potent, if it could relieve tremendous suffering here and now? Or let us say, I at least ask the question and I thank God I'm not in a position to have to answer it.

Great novelists ask these questions, sometimes with no certain answers. Someone who toes the line doctrinally cannot ask this question truthfully. That is, the answer is already implicit in whatever doctrine they are following. They cannot allow the story to play out in all ways possible. In a sense they must manipulate the characters to the end they have in mind. This makes for fine pedagogy, but highly questionable art. An artist must have the freedom to arrive at whatever conclusion the story naturally culminates in, without fear of being labeled somehow "less than Catholic" because his vision shows him this questionable end.

The end of a story is not a picture of the faith of the artist. It may or may not represent what the artist himself would do. Some refer to Graham Greene's work as the work of a "bad Catholic" for similar reasons. But not everyone is Flannery O'Connor. Not everyone arrives at the place where Walker Percy is. And we should not. An artist must be an artist and must be true to that impulse even while being a Catholic. If that leads the artist to believe, however incorrectly we might view it, that priests should be married, then the work should reflect that conclusion. Anything less is a betrayal both of the gifts God has granted to the artist and the vision of the artist himself.

This is not to say that "anything goes." But in the opinion of many, a Catholic artist could not produce the equivalent of a book like The Human Stain or even Portnoy's Complaint, to take this author's most famous work. And I ask, why should that be? Why should theology limit what an artist can explore or even the conclusions, however tentative and upsetting they may to some, that he comes to? I can see no reason other than the fact that some people seem to confuse art with apologetics. And while art may have a pedagogical and apologetic face, that is not at the core and that should not drive the artist who is looking at the world through Catholic eyes. If so, we would have no such "problematic" works as Mariette in Ecstasy among other great, recent Catholic works.

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I would have stepped on the image without hesitation.

Also, like you, I also lean toward passivism (or active non-violence resistance), and what that means when it involves others. Should I require it of others? How does it apply if you are an outsider to the group being defended? What if my resistance is met with violence against others by the oppressor?

But I stray from the topic....

I haven't read Endo's book. If it doesn't give the whole story away, what is the motivation of the priest marrying? Does he feel in some way that stepping on the image was an apostacy?


Dear JCecil3,

No. He is forced into marriage because this is a fuller sign of his "recantation" of the faith. All Japanese know that a man of the cloth is not married so this is a strong outward sign that he is no longer a man of the cloth. Although Endo leaves that open as a question as well.

It is worth your time and energy. Judging from your reaction, you might find Endo a very companionable fellow traveller.



Steven, I would say that theology does not need to limit what an artist can explore. OK, I suppose there are some limits but art is many things to people. Soothing, comforting, inspiring and even challenging. None of that is in itself bad. We might attach our own baggage to our reactions to art, but that is our baggage, not the art.

I have read "Silence" and I agree completely with your assessment of it. I also agree that doctrine should not limit art. I made some points about "art" over on Tom's blog, to which he objected rather strenuously. I won't reiterate at length here, but I noted in my comments to Tom that good writing *should* be disturbing, rather than comforting to the reader, comparing literary fiction to the disturbing, often less than factual, but always God-evoking pronouncements of the Old Testament prophets. I also paraphrased the Canadian novelist, Robertson Davies, who had a character say (as I remember): "The purpose of art is not beauty. The purpose of art is to butcher whatever coddles the mind." This is hyperbolic, perhaps. But, in itself, it accomplishes exactly what it claims art should be and do. I endorse it.

Did the suffering stop when he stepped on the face of Jesus? If so, then I think the novel isn't honest -- apostasy (even feigned apostasy) only makes persecution worse.

To me, the most haunting part was when the priest experienced -- the temptation? -- the vision? of Christ inviting him to apostasize.

I don't have my copy, it's returned to the library, but as I remember it Christ tells him that it is exactly to endure such betrayals that he came to earth.

The description of the protagonist's final years -- given a pagan name and a wife, ordered to write a refutation of the teachings of Christ -- seem to me a most subtly cruel torture.

Excellent review!

It's been about seven years since I've read _Silence_. I read it as a pre-Catholic. I enjoyed the book for its history but didn't know enough about theology to have any questions about that aspect of the book.

I do remember having some doubts about the verisimilitude of the novel. From what I remember, it was told as a series of letters from the protagonist priest. There were times, when he was on the run or in prison, when it seemed impossible for him to have been able to write letters.

Other than that minor complaint, I found it a very thought-provoking novel about Japan's Christian Century.

I am not a writer. And I haven't read _Silence_. Therefore, I cannot pretend really to know anything about the question of limitation of art by "doctrine."

But it seems to me that the writer, as an artist, should produce a story that is truthful -- even if fiction. And if the "doctrine" is true, there should be a coherence between the truth of the story and the truth of the doctrine.

So, to use your example, if it is untrue that priests should marry, how could a fully truthful story reach the (untruthful) conclusion that they should?

The role of the art of fiction is, perhaps, not to depict how, ideally, things *should* be. Rather, I think, the task of fiction is to show the reality of things *as they are.* Thus, Endo wrote "Silence" in order that non-Catholics, whether Japanese, or not, might understand the particular cross that had to be borne by Catholic missionaries (and their converts) in Japan, as they were opposed by the forces of a predominately antagonistic culture.
The protagonist of "Silence" is an anti-hero. We learn from observing his struggle, and from sharing vicariously, with pathos, in his ultimate failure, how very much is asked of each of us when we pretend to live a life of *uncompromising* Christian faith. Uncompromising: meditate on that.

P.S. I don't mean by the "non-Catholics" above that Endo was not writing first for Catholics, as I assume that he was. But, since he is Japanese, it must be understood that his larger readership in Japan will be non-Catholic.

Dear Anonymous above,

You say,

"So, to use your example, if it is untrue that priests should marry, how could a fully truthful story reach the (untruthful) conclusion that they should?"

But, I ask, is that the point of the novel? In fact, the marriage takes place AFTER the apostasy to confirm it and it isn't a voluntary act, it is merely consented to. I think this is profoundly true to form. Why after stepping on the fumie would he not complete the apostasy.

Art is about the truth of life portrayed--it CAN be about ultimate truth simultaneously, but it need not be. All art must be true, but it must be true integrally, not necessarily outside of itself.

And I have to be very honest. I've seen very few "doctrinally pure" works that qualify in any way as art. They may be magnificent works of the intellect, they may be god-given revelations. But outside of the Bible and a few other sacred works, art and doctrinal purity don't usually live in the same fields.

That's not to say they cannot; however, it is rare that they coexist. And I do point out that even in doctrinally correct works, take for example The Thanatos Syndrome there is distinctly dubious morality played out for effect. The purist Christian reader would find things to fault there as well. And what about the homosexual rape at the end of Flannery O'Conner's The Violent Bear it Away?

My point is that art must be art, and if the artist happens to be Catholic, it may produce a work of notable integrity, but not always, and not necessarily. Art follows its own way and arrives by its own devices at the truth (much of the time.)



Quote from what you wrote, Steven: "Do I have the right to ask others to sacrifice their lives for my moral principles?"

I don't know what to call this except taking on the mindset of the torturers. I've never seen anybody tortured but I've seen a lot of movies where it figures at one time or another. There always comes a time when the torturer says: "I'm not doing this to you. YOU are doing this to you. Just recant/sign the confession/ admit that the truth isn't so.....and this can end." After a certain amount of breaking down this can look logical to the one being tortured. The ones we call saints do not give in to this but remain faithful to their solitary, seemingly futile witness to the truth until the end.

The scenario in Endo's "Silence" is the same even though the most exquisite torture involves pain to others rather than directly to the priest himself. The torturers knew as did the priest himself the MEANING they would attach to his apostasy.....never mind the actual form that it took.

I hadn't thought of it before, but the vision of Christ appearing and asking the priest to step on his image resembles (to my mind) Satan's temptation of Christ in the garden as depicted in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ". Satan harped on the futility of the suffering Christ was about to bear.

I find it difficult to "give myself" to serious fiction precisely because one must agree to enter an author-created world and agree to see truth, even if temporarily, as the author does. I have a hard time giving authors that power!

Dear RuthAnn,

I respectfully but vehemently diagree. But my disagreement can remain with me. What I want to direct your attention to is both my uncertainty and the challenge Endo presents by raising the question in his art. Already there has been much discussion here regarding the question, but not really looking at the important point that ART raises this question. Whatever answer you may arrive at, it starts with the question that Endo asks. I don't even know for certain what Endo's answer to it is. I think too many facilely suppose that he would favor the apostasy. But I don't think that the ambiguity of the work allows us to come to that conclusion.

The important point is not what happens in the story, but that Endo allowed himself to ask the questions through the story and provides a trial for our ideas. As Tom often says, one cannot do evil that good may result. I do not support apostasy, but I think we too often sit back in privileged comfort and do not face the hard, real questions. We've never been in the place, I pray never to be there. But I suspect that in my weakness I would do as JCecil3 stated, because what I do with my foot does not reflect what is in my heart. My martyrdom would be to be seen as apostate--I would be judged by exterior actions, not by what is inside. This, I think may also be Endo's point. We too readily judge others when we have not walked a mile in their moccassins. Only God can know what is in the heart, and yet we pretend to know all the time.



Perhaps the priest, if he had the faith and courage of a martyr, should have offered his life in exchange for the other victims who couldn't take it, like what St. Maximilian Kolbe did. A truly faithful priest would never make an act of apostasy, if stepping on the image was such an act, as the good end of saving the lives of weak Christians does not justify the bad means of apostasy. After all, the love of God is a higher commandment than the love of one's neighbour.

In any case, one should always admire heroism, but have compassion on the weak.

Please forgive me if I have offended anyone of you.

Dear Mr. Lee,

How could expressing a perfectly well-formed and sensible opinion ever be offensive. I think you hit the nail on the head with two ideas--(1) it is never licit to use a bad means to accomplish a good end; and (2) was stepping on the fumie truly an act of apostasy?

It is in the subtle interplay of these notions that much of the fruitfulness of the fiction arises. If it is not apostasy in the priest's heart but is in the yes of those who surround him, is the act apostasy? Whose standards? If they are the standards of the onlookers, then the priest is doomed, but the standards of his own well-formed conscience, what then.

In point of fact, it is part of the drama of the fiction that the priest accepts that this act will be interpreted as apostasy, even though he has no intention of committing it. Is an act made in full knowledge of how it will be viewed equivalent to embracing that view of it?

You see, if Endo had played by the rules and condemned the priest and the act from the outset, we would not be able to ask the interesting questions and have the fruitful dialogue we presently have. That is part of what Art is about. When effective, it digs deep and forces the participant to do so as well.

Harold Bloom had a great line that I love to quote or paraphrase. "You do not so much read the great books as they read you." And in doing so tell you much about your assumptions and ideas.

Thank you for your interesting contributions to the discussion, and rest assured no one I read seemed to be offended by your comments, and I most especially was not offended.



I haven't read Shusaku Endo's Silence, but does he glorify the priests' actions or portray them as praiseworthy? Or does he make it clear to the reader that the priests acted under duress?

And did the priests scandalize any of the Christians who knew them? I ask this because, from my point of view, even if the priests' consciences were clear before God, they might have scandalized some Christians.

And if there was scandal, did they make efforts to explain their actions to scandalized Christians whenever they had the opportunity to do so?

What a neat starting point, and a range of thoughtful comments!

A strand I do recall was the aggressive, soldierly strand of the Catholicism brought by the priests. I think Endo saw them as too much like Japanese soldiers - but maybe also like one of the Thomas More biographers, who contrasted More with Spanish saints who seemed to be _demanding_ martyrdom.

Mostly, I am trying to remember where my copy of _Silence_ is lurking ;-)

many thanks, Toquam



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