Sunday, January 18, 2004

The sound of silence

In his 1969 novel Silence, Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo chronicles the plight of Christian persecution in 17th century Japan. It is the story of Portugese Jesuit Father Rodrigues, who upon receiving the news of the apostasy of his mentor, the distinguished padre Ferreira, braves the treacherous sea journey to Japan to investigate this blow to the struggling Japanese flock.

In many ways I was reminded of Roland Joffe's The Mission--the grim determination of 17th century missionary Jesuits. At the same time, the plot structure strikingly mirrors Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness--the search deep into the jungle for the brilliantly good man gone mad. In fact, I couldn't help but picture Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz when imagining the intellectual apostate Ferreira.

In terms of plot, not much happens. Endo instead chooses to focus on the internal spiritual battle of Rodrigues as he grapples not only with his own faith but his own justification for Christianity in this foreign land where peasants are brutally tortured and killed for it. Endo effectively utilizes the technique of shifting perspective as he begins his novel as letters from Rodrigues back to his order in Rome. The point of view then shifts to an omniscient narrative before finally entering into the journal of a cursory character observing the priest. Endo creates increasing distance from his hero throught the story that heightens the tragic downward spiral of Rodrigues.

But what most struck me was Endo's use of the motiff of sound, or the lack thereof (as the title establishes), throughout the novel:

"And like the sea God was silent. His silence continued... I knew well, of course, that the greatest sin against God was despair; but the silence of God was something I could not fathom" (68, 69).

Rodrigues watches as Christians are tied to crosses on the beach and left to drown in the incoming tide. He hears the moans of those hung upside-down in pits of human excrement. They are tortured not because they refuse to deny their faith, but because Rodrigues refuses to. And God doesn't ride in on a white horse in shining armor to save the day.

How does one grapple with the silence of God? The nation of Israel endured 400 years between the ministries of the prophet Malachi and John the Baptist--four centuries without a word from the Lord. In the span that temple was desecrated and destroyed. The country was runover by pagan Hellenists and then the Romans. And God was silent all that time.


I don't handle silence all that well. Even just know I find myself turning on the CD player to drown out that raging vacuum of silence. I cringe at quiet stillness. Something has to be in the background. And so, to me, the silence of God is a torturous thing.

But Fumitaka Matsuoka, in an article on Endo's Christology for Theology Today, writes,
"God's silence is God's message. It is the silence of 'accompaniment' for the forsaken and the suffering. The silence of God on the fumie is not the silence of 'nihil.' The image of Christ, though crudely carved by a non-Christian artist, becomes the mediator of God's accompaniment when seen through the eyes of faith, for the agony of apostasy is truly an agony because of the faith which precedes it. Here Endo develops a distinctly Japanese perception of faith."

This twentysomething American finds this disturbingly foreign. For the past five years I've been inundated with Sunday morning messages and chapel services that the Christian experience moves from glory to glory to glory. There's a Delirious song with a line to the effect of, "There is a God who saves the day." I find I've become absorbed in this Western idea of God as my superhero, whisking me away from my troubles and riding off into the sunset, only to feel disillusioned, cynical and abandoned when instead I'm faced with the silent God. Something in me craves an active God who vanquishes my problems--not this passive one who sits and cries with me.

Matsuoka continues,
Such theological notions as love, grace, trust, and truth are intelligible only in the experience of their opposites, Endo sees them incarnate in the person of Jesus through his own experience of failure, rejection, and, most of all, ineffectualness. Only rarely has modern Christianity presented the story of Jesus as the one to whom those who had failed, were rejected, lonely, and alienated could turn and find understanding and compassion. Endo argues that it is our universal human experience of failure in life that provides us with an understanding of Christian faith in its depth.

There is an idea rampant in the Christian communities that I have observed and participated in that suffering, loneliness, disappointment, failure, loneliness and alienation are sin. They are to be rebuked, overcome with the victorious blood and name of Je-hee-zus. (The incantation is all the more effectual if it's pronounced with three syllables.) They are no part of the Christian experience, and therefore, to feel them is neither living in victory, nor walking in the Spirit.

But the human experience proves otherwise. The martyrs of the universal persecuted church prove otherwise. The Christ portrayed in the 52nd and 53rd chapters of Isaiah proves otherwise. Padre Rodrigues as portrayed by Shusaku Endo proves otherwise.

And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

posted by Peter at 2:23 PM
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