MAIN QUESTION TO CONSIDER: Did Father Rodrigues ultimately make the right decision? Right by whose standards?
Silence is a book about the death of a church. It tells a story firmly rooted in history, about the brutal persecution and destruction of the thriving Catholic mission in seventeenth century Japan, an era that produced many thousands of martyrs.
It’s a fine historical novel, but beyond that, it is regarded as a spiritual classic because of the portrayal of the main character, Fr. Rodrigues, who tries to understand how God can permit the horrors he is witnessing. Why is God silent? Does He not exist, or does He not care about His creatures? Or is there a higher purpose utterly incomprehensible to humanity? Also, he must decide how to respond himself to the destruction of a world – to an apocalyptic situation. His whole background teaches him to resist to the point of facing agonizing torture and martyrdom – and yet, the reality is quite different from what he expects. This is a book about faithfulness, about treason and betrayal, and very much about the relationship of Christian faith to state power.
It is helpful to read something of Endo’s life, to understand the thought-world of a man living as a tiny religious minority in an intolerant culture. I’ve also included links, above, that give you a good sense of the historical background you’ll need to find out what’s going on in the story.
Also be aware that the persecution produced some amazing contemporary visual art, which is well worth while checking out. You can even see a picture of the fumie that plays so large a role in the book.
Based on what we commonly think about the history of Christianity, why is this book a surprise, even a shock?
This is a book about the end of the world, about persecution. According to traditional Christian thought, how should the church and its believers react to such a time? What goes wrong in this book?
How does the book fit with or clash with the standard images of missions and missionaries? If someone was making a film of this kind of story thirty years or so ago, how might they have made it different, with conventional heroes and villains?
We hear a lot about how churches are born and grow, but virtually never how they fade and die, yet historically such vanishings have been strikingly common. Why do we so rarely hear about them, and why do historians so rarely discuss them? Contrary to the noble sentiment that is sometimes heard, you really can kill an idea.
Does the extinction of church pose challenges to faith: if Christianity is a true religion, why has God permitted it to die in such large parts of the world? Is the survival and extinction of a faith just a matter of chance and historical accident? How might Endo address this broader question?
Why does it matter that the author is himself Japanese, rather than a European describing these events?
We read the story partly through the letters of Fr. Rodrigues, a narrator with his particular ideas and prejudices. Are we supposed to accept what he says as, so to speak, Gospel truth? Or are we meant also to see things more through the eyes of the Japanese characters themselves? How might they have seen things differently? How reliable is Rodrigues as a narrator?
What conditions in his lifetime might have shaped his account of this ruthless and fanatical regime? There are two parallels you might pay attention to, each involving the forcible regulation and repression of behavior. One is the ruthless repression during WWII-era Japan, when the Secret Police (Kempeitai) rooted out “thought crime” and unpatriotic behavior. (George Orwell actually borrowed the term “thought crime” from this precedent). The other parallel is the brainwashing of prisoners during the Korean War (1950-53).
Are we meant to draw comparisons to the events of the Cold War with which both Endo and Miller were so familiar?
Fr. Rodrigues arrives in Japan with an elaborate set of ideas about what he can expect as a priest and a missionary, about what the life of the church is like, about the glories of sanctity martyrdom. How does the reality live up to that? What are his surprises and disappointments as he confronts reality? Has his training prepared him properly for what he is going to face?
What difference does it make for the reader that the persecutors in this instance are Asian and at least some of their victims are European?
Endo is interested in the making of history, and the process of investigating the past. How do these concerns shape the structure of Silence? How does the book use documents, real or invented, to tell the story? What effect do such documents have on the reader?
What does Endo try to teach us about the nature of Christ, and of Christianity? How does he suggest that the church might have misunderstood these core lessons? How do Fr. Rodrigues’s understandings of Christ change under the pressure of violence and fear?
How do Biblical images appear in the novel, and particularly New Testament images?
In the Catholic thought of the seventeenth century, the priest re-enacted the role of Christ during the Mass, and sought to imitate Christ. How does that imitation affect Fr. Rodrigues’s view of himself, his situation, and his enemies and persecutors?
What does the book tell us about religious persecution, about the ways in which it can be ruthlessly effective? Based on the book, are there any ways of resisting such an assault?
The Japanese persecutions involved physical brutality and abuse on an appalling scale. Any author describing them faces a dilemma, of making them convincing without making the reader numb with disgust. Does Endo do an effective job in portraying the violence of this world? You can read a stunning and shocking historical account of such a martyrdom, and compare it with Endo’s book.
Tell me about the meaning of apostasy in the book.
Tell me about the relationship between Ferreira and Rodrigues, and how each deals with his fate.
Both seventeenth century Europe and modern Japan were deeply committed to the ideal of loyalty, and regarded betrayal as the worst of sins. Does Endo suggest that Christianity should observe these values strictly, or rise above them?
Repeatedly in the book, we hear that Christianity has failed in Japan because it is an import not suited to the culture. Do you think Endo himself believes that? (Ferreira describes Japan as a “bottomless swamp” for ideas). Does Endo put some or much of the blame for the persecution on the European clergy and missionaries themselves?
What does Endo tell us about the appeal of Christianity for the Japanese people?
What does the book tell us about the problems of translating Christianity into another culture and language without compromising its meaning?
What does the book tell us about the nature of church and state? Can the church ever truly rely on the tolerance of support of the state, or must the relationship between the two always be a kind of armed truce? How does Endo’s view of the state differ from Miller’s?
Does it matter that the novel is by a Catholic author describing a Catholic story: might a Protestant writer have treated the story differently?
Nature descriptions abound in the book, especially the rain and the sea: tell me about them. Are they used consistently to symbolize particular things?
What parallels strike us between this book and the fate of persecuted churches in parts of the world today?
When Rodrigues hears Christ speak, are we meant to understand this as a real vision, or a diabolic temptation?
At the risk of being obvious, much of the book’s action takes place in or near the city of Nagasaki, a name that has a special resonance for a modern audience (and it certainly would have done in Endo’s time, in the 1960s). Note that the city is more or less being rebuilt at this time, that it is a large construction site. How does knowing the twentieth century fate of Nagasaki affect our reading of Silence?
What is the core lesson of Silence, the main takeaway? Is it a novel of despair, or of faith?
Does Fr. Rodrigues die as a Christian?