“Silence” and Apostasy

Two elements deserve more attention if we are to understand what Endo is doing in his novel: the times when God does speak and what life is like post-apostasy.

I finally read Shusaku Endo’s Silence. It’s been on my list for more than a decade, but always put off for one reason or another. With the advent of the film, it got bumped to the top. I am glad it did: it is a profound and moving novel.

I have not seen the movie and I’m debating whether to watch it. Truth be told, I don’t really trust Scorsese to get the important things right (but here’s hoping I am wrong).  Still, I’ve read a number of reviews lately, both on the book and the movie, and there are two elements that I think deserve more attention if we are to understand what Endo is doing: the times in the novel when God does speak and what life is like post-apostasy.  

Sebastian Rodrigues, the novel’s missionary priest protagonist, laments and questions God’s silence throughout the novel, though not in an impious or unbelieving way, but in an honest and searching way. I would say an Augustinian or Job-like way. Why is God silent in the face of so much evil? This is an existential question which, for Rodrigues, is particularly aimed at God’s seeming non-response to acts of evil.  Rodrigues does not lament that God is silent simply, as though he didn’t believe God existed at all, but is troubled that God is silent while people are suffering.  This is an important point because there are a number of times in the novel when God does speak to Rodrigues.  These are reassurances of God’s mercy and presence and continual fidelity and, interestingly, are often connected with meditations on the beauty of Christ’s face. 

I think these moments are important because the controversial scene with the fumie is so different. In that scene, the fumie speaks. This mode of revelation is not unheard of in Catholic literature (see St. Francis at San Damiano), but given that the fumie is a state-designed image of Christ made to stepped on and so prove apostasy or non-Christianity (therefore, a kind of demonic icon), I am not sure we are meant to think that this is the voice of God. It is clearly so different from the previous times God spoke to Rodrigues which are taken to be authentic.  

The voice from the fumie tells Rodrigues what he wants to hear: trample me and everyone’s suffering, yours and theirs, will cease (in other words, show love in the way God refuses to).  This seems like the voice of mercy, but it does not seem Christian in any traditional sense.  Fr. Ferreira, Rodrigues’ mentor in Jesuit formation and now apostasy, even says that Christ himself would apostatize in this situation, which, again, is perhaps not meant to be taken as the voice of wisdom, but of Satan.  (Christ, we might recall, was offered a similar suggestion on the cross which he did not follow.)  Still, whatever one makes of that brilliantly ambiguous scene, Endo clearly depicts Rodrigues’ trampling of the fumie as an act of denial: the cock crows immediately after.  

This leads to the next point: life post-apostasy.  The cock crowing is clearly meant to evoke Peter’s denial of Christ, but, unlike Peter, Rodrigues—and Ferreira before him—does not repent and turn back. There is no face-to-face confession and forgiveness on the sea shore and no Quo Vadis encounter where Rodrigues turns back to face his martyrdom.

Life post-apostasy for Rodrigues and Ferreira is not a life of integrity or faithfulness or repentance or even noble suffering. It is a life of continual compromise with the state who more and more takes over the apostates’ identity, even to the point of giving them new names (the names of deceased Japanese), making them marry and tend to children, and not only act as informers against potential Christian activity, but even become spokesmen for the state’s case against Christianity. Both apostates in the novel are asked to write treatises refuting the errors of Christianity. And both comply.

I was shocked to learn from Bishop Barron’s review that Scorsese ends his film with Rodrigues holding a crucifix at his funeral. This is implausible in the novel and, I think, inimical to its logic. Not only have the Japanese forbidden these objects completely (with the help of Rodrigues, mind you), but I am not even sure Rodrigues would want a crucifix by the end. Barron has a wry comment about how Scorsese’s choice here is a gentle plug for the ambivalent Christianity of the modern day elite for whom a completely private faith is a salutary thing. Indeed, this is a comforting fiction with which the lapsed cultural Christian might comfort himself: I cling to some part of the faith in my heart, despite my public actions, and I’ll die a good Christian in the eyes of myself and my God. 

But I think Endo is wiser than that: apostasy has consequences. Without repentance and conversion, apostasy leads to a life of compromise that consumes the apostate, leaving him a shell of a man.  For Endo, there is no such thing as a secret integrity or private faith. The Japanese officials shrewdly encourage Rodrigues to simply say, “I apostatize,” while believing in his heart whatever he likes.  But the heart does change with apostasy.  In the novel, the apostate Ferreira, known in his early mission work for his gentle and kind heart, comes to be known as “blackhearted.”  Apostasy, even if the action is “only external,” becomes internal. Actions have consequences for the soul. Apostasy divides Rodrigues and his mentor, Ferreira, and their insides come, over time, to match their outsides. 

Toward the end of the novel, Rodrigues wonders if there is any difference between himself and his former guide and betrayer Kichijiro.  A combination of Peter and Judas, with a weak will and bad hygiene, Kichijiro falls away time and again, but he distinguishes himself from Rodrigues by repeatedly turning back.  He repents seventy times seven times, while the apostate Rodrigues becomes more and more a functionary of the state.  Kichijiro is the true Peter in the novel.  Indeed, in addition to the witness of the noble Japanese peasant martyrs, perhaps Kichijiro is Endo’s subtle way of showing that in the “swamp of Japan” the plant of Christianity truly can take root. 

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About Dr. Jared Ortiz 16 Articles
Dr. Jared Ortiz is Professor of Religion at Hope College and author of You Made Us for Yourself: Creation in St Augustine’s Confessions (Fortress Press, 2016) and editor of Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition (The Catholic University of America Press, 2019). He is also founder and executive director of the Saint Benedict Institute.