To become a Christian is to be a traitor to one’s culture. A traitor to one’s country. A traitor to one’s family. So it seemed to the military leader of Japan, a Daimyo (a feudal lord and samurai) named, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. On his orders in 1597, twenty-six Christian missionaries were put to death in Nagasaki, tied to a stake and crucified (or burned, depending on the account). Too many Japanese, especially in Nagasaki and the surrounding countryside, were leaving Buddhism for Christianity! By 1614 more than 300,000 Japanese had converted to Christianity (Silence, ‘Translator’s Preface’, xiii; some scholars put that number as high as 760,000)), spiritual descendants of Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and the original Jesuit missionaries. To the Japanese leadership these conversions seemed to undermine national stability and were undifferentiated from the national tensions with Europe. These Christians were traitors to their culture.
Persecutions against missionaries and Japanese Christians (by the thousands, especially in Nagasaki) continued for decades and were severe. This included Portuguese Catholic missionaries who were perceived to play a key role in Europe’s expansion and colonization of Asia. Their work was undermining Japan’s Shinto (Buddhist) culture. Jesuit historian, Herbert Thurston (1856-1939), estimated that one hundred Catholic missionaries were put to death in this period of Christian suppression. During the same period, he names five who may have apostatized ‒ turning away from Christ under torture. Yet he holds out the possibility that they did not in fact, but were reported to have done so by the Japanese; the evidence was not conclusive. One of those in this group of five was named, Father Joseph Chiara. It is his story which may have been the basis for Fr. Rodrigues in the new Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence. The film opened at the Vatican in November 2016 and just opened in US theaters last week (12 January). Reviews have been consistently excellent. Now, I should alert you that this post is a spoiler, though it is fifty years late! The movie is based on a book of the same title by Shūsaku Endō (1923-1996) which was written in 1966. You could read it … I will wait … Okay, good, you’re back. Now you know, the persecutions were intense and the battle between Christ and culture has yet to be resolved.
When I began reading, over Christmas break, I almost put the book down, not to be taken up again; the book begins and ends (the middle, too) as an exercise through pain into depression. Two things kept me engaged. First, the book had been recommended to me by my son Nathan, living in Asia and serving there as a relief worker. He wanted me to read it and to discuss it together. Second, having visited Japan several times, and even read books on the history of missions in Japan, these events were new to me. I kept reading; I read to the very bitter end.
Endō takes us to Japan in the early 17th century, barely 100 years after the Reformation. Jesuit priests have been bringing the gospel for decades. This novel follows two Portuguese priests, Fr. Garrpe and Fr. Rodrigues. Back home in Europe, they have received news that is almost impossible to digest: their own Fr. Christovao Ferreira has apostatized while a missionary in Japan. He was tortured over ‘the pit’. He had been a man of great courage and passion for the gospel. How could this have happened? Their shock leads to denial and denial leads to anger. And anger leads to resolution. They too, shall go, and willingly to suffer torture and even death, if that is what Christ desires. But they will go to Japan and proclaim the gospel. They would not, as had Fr. Ferreira, apostatize. Fr. Sabastian Rodrigues was 28 years old when he sailed for Japan in Endō’s novel.
The shock of the book is not the end ‒ despite the ‘spoiler alert’ above. Few readers, engaging the untested zeal and youth of Fr. Rodrigues, will fail to anticipate what lies ahead for him. While Fr. Garrpe dies for his faith, Rodrigues is betrayed by his ‘Judas’, a ‘believer’ named, Kitchijiro. He is a weak and sniveling follower of (hardly Christ ‒ perhaps of himself!), always calling out to Rodrigues, ‘Father, Father!’ and asking for his blessing, his forgiveness, or just his attention ‒ before and after he betrays him. Then Fr. Rodrigues is interrogated (or is it interviewed ‒ most of their discussions are more like the sparring of interlocutors), by Inoue who is the Lord of Chikugo, and his interpreter, who assumes an active role himself. Over days, weeks, and months, Rodrigues is starved, fed, isolated, interrogated, tempted, satisfied, and abused. But he does not break. Finally, faced with the cries of fellow Christians who are being tortured ‘in the pit’, he is told that they will be freed if he apostatizes. And he does; he places his foot on the ‘fumi-e’, the wooden engraving of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. And a bit more ‒ nothing is simple. Like his anti-hero, Fr. Ferreira, he is given (and takes) a Japanese name, and is given (and takes) a Japanese wife and her children as his family. For years he lives in comfort, serving Inoue ‒ along with Fr. Ferreira, his ‘twin’ apostate. And together they facilitate the suppression of Christianity by writing books and identifying Christian artifacts found in homes of suspected Japanese Christians.
The novel is well written with especially excellent character development. Endō’s storytelling displays its darkest beauty when he makes us face the Silence of God. After watching two brothers put to death on stakes as the tide washed over them on the beach, Fr. Rodrigues observes: ‘The sound of those waves that echoed in the dark like a muffled drum; the sound of those waves all night long, as they broke meaninglessly, receded, and then broke again on the shore. This was the sea that relentlessly washed the dead bodies of Mokichi and Ichizo, the sea that swallowed them up, the sea that after their death, stretched out endlessly with unchanging expressions. And like the sea, God was silent. His silence continued.’ (Silence, 72). There is no romantic beauty to martyrdom. No angelic choir to be heard by observers. No affirmation of the voice of God. Just ugly death and a world which continues on without even gasping at the horror.
Endō also draws us close to the shame of persecution. By allowing us to hear the thinking of Fr. Rodrigues, we discover how easily the accusations of the Enemy overwhelm the silence of God. When one wears rags, is dirty, unshaven, and weak ‒ and the persecutors are clean, well shaven, well dressed, and well fed – one is tempted to fall deeply into shame. The Apostle Paul experienced (and rejected) this abusive shame in his imprisonment, and knew also that the fear of shame could undermine the gospel witness. Here is his affirmation to the Romans, ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel!’ Here is Paul’s challenge to Timothy, ‘Do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord or ashamed of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel!’ Endō’s book helped this comfortable Westerner to better understand Paul’s warning and call to the front-lines without shame.
Also, following shame to one possible end, Endo drew us to confront our own understanding of pain, failure, and the forgiveness of Jesus, especially to those who betray him. The early church faced this in the fourth century when many who apostatized under the persecution of Emperor Diocletian wanted re-admittance to the church in more comfortable times. Endo’s readers faced this as we heard about the apostasy of Fr. Ferreira and witnessed the anger of Fr. Rodrigues. We faced it again when we endured the sniveling Kitchijiro who repeatedly ‒ and simultaneously ‒ both betrays and seeks admittance back into the grace of God and of Fr. Rodrigues. And we faced it through Fr. Rodrigues’s pain and failure. We are called to decide both how we understand such pain and apostasy, and also, if we should forgive Rodrigues? One way to see God’s beauty in the middle of such darkness, pain, and failure is offered by Christian artist Makoto Fujimura in his book Silence and Beauty.
Endō also revealed the real contest between Christ and culture and presented this with understanding, as only a Christian could. The West was indeed a cultural threat to Japan, in part because the missionaries were preaching, not only Christ and him crucified, but also their own culture. Indeed, there was one point in his interrogation when Fr. Rodrigues thought he might draw Inoue and Japan to support Portuguese Catholicism over other ‘styles’ of Catholicism and Christianity. However, Japan has confidence against this challenge in Endō’s most memorable metaphor: ‘the mud swamp that is Japan’. Through Inoue, he declares that Japan, absorbs, digests, and turns in to itself, all that falls into it. What enters the Mud Swamp of Japan loses its distinguishing features and becomes Swamp. This was the case with Buddhism which became Shintoism. So it would be with Christianity. Here the issue is not merely concerning the cultural incarnation of the gospel, as it arrives in actual people, but also the history and facts and persons which are absorbed. And it is here, I think, that Endō went astray, led perhaps by his own wrestlings.
Endō was born in 1923 in Kobe, Japan and he converted to Christianity, in particular, Catholicism. Even three hundred years after the events of this story, Endō’s Christianity never set well with him, fitting poorly over his Japanese frame. Reflecting on this tension, he wrote, ‘Many times I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so. It is not just that I did not throw it off, but that I was unable to throw it off. … it had become a part of me after all. … Still there was always that feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed…. This I think is the “mud swamp” Japanese in me.’ (Silence, ‘Translators Preface’, xviii-xix). Because Christianity refuses to be fully digested, become Japanese, it sat with him uneasily.
But does Endō frame the issue correctly? Leaving untested his claim of apostasy over the counter-claim of Thurston, the contest of Christ and culture is not new. It was seen between Jesus and the Jews, for he challenged their traditions, even seeking opportunities to do so. He even warned that to follow him is to ‘hate’ one’s own father, mother, sister, brother ‒ to be perceived as traitors to our family and culture. Though many knew Christ for who he was, their traditions ‒ the approval of their own culture ‒ was something from which they could not part (John 12:42). And they killed Jesus for that. Later, the first ‘church council’ was about this issue (Acts 15). Their decision was that God is God who redeems each culture as culture and Christianity was not to be identified with one culture (Jewish). God became a man to redeem all cultures, as cultures.
Of course, both the Portuguese priest and the Japanese leaders were caught in what seemed to be the larger picture ‒ the real intent of Europe to colonize Asia and to undermine its culture. But is that the largest picture? The largest picture is that God intentionally created diverse cultures. The advent of cultural diversity was God’s chosen ‘punishment’ for Babel in Genesis 11. Remember, of course, that God had many choices: fire, infighting, or even an earthquake. But instead, God sovereignly chose to fragment the world into many cultures. But we must wait only until Genesis 12 to learn of the telos of God’s plan: ‘all families (cultures, peoples, nations) will be blessed’ through the (soon to be) People of God, the Jews. In the prophets we discover, piecemeal, that God loves to call the other nations ‘his people’ as well. He predicts the day when they will come to him and the knowledge of God will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). But this telos is not to be a merger of all cultures into one ‘heavenly’ culture ‒ as if God planned a reversal of Babel. May it never be! The Great Commission is to bring in all peoples, as peoples. This is the teaching of Paul in many of his letters, including Romans (framing the whole letter with this idea in 1:1-5 and 16:25-27). And God will do just what he promised. In the great worship of the Lamb in heaven, people from every tribe, language, tongue and nation will worship before the throne (Revelation 5:9). None missing! And at the commencement of the New Heavens and the New Earth, the Tree of Life, and its leaves, will be for the healing of all peoples as peoples, plural (Revelations 22:2). That is, God’s people are united, one in Christ, and plural, all peoples. We are like our Trinitarian God, who is always One and always Many.
Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) wrote of this tension of Christ and Culture in his classic work. He perceived five distinct ways that gospel and culture are understood: Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ the Transformer of Culture. This is not the place to fully define and sort out the nuances, but his book ‒ and also D.A. Carson’s 2016 book in which he Revisited Niebuhr’s work with a more scriptural and nuanced discussion ‒ is well worth the read in contrast to Endō. Interestingly, Endō seemed not to accept any nuanced taxonomy of this necessary tension ‒ one God intended. Endō saw only a deep contest between the Christian West and the Buddhist East. Even as he spoke of himself, a Japanese Catholic Christian, he found himself in dissonance with his Japanese self. But to be Eastern, to be Japanese, is not essentially to be Shinto (or Buddhist). Paul tells us that there is neither Jew nor Greek nor (even) male or female ‒ another cultural divide with massive defensive works! Yes, Jesus attacks the very center of what we think our culture is. To be a Christian is not to be capitalist (grace is freely distributed to all who believe; the only wage we individually earn is Hell); Christianity is not democratic (God is Lord of Lords!); nor is Christianity individualistic (the individual who surrenders to Christ becomes part of the People of God). Yet in truth Christ attacks only our perception of our culture, even as he redeems it. Cultures, as we experience it (singular) or perceive them (plural), are as sinful as the people who compose each culture. All cultures must be transformed by the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ intends to enter into every culture to redeem it and make it whole under his lordship. This has never been well received by any culture. Not in Christ’s day. Not today. This is the real point of tension between Christ and culture.
So, it is no surprise that to become a Christian is to be (perceived) a traitor to one’s culture. This it, in itself, a testimony that God is not silent. God speaks and people hear his voice: the Jews in Christ’s day heard and the seventeenth century leaders of Japan heard. He threatens because we are called not to add Christ to our pantheon, but to surrender. Yes, too many Christian missionaries have confused their own culture with the gospel (consider reading James Michener, Hawaii). May God forgive us and purify us. But even when missionaries get this right, as Jesus did, we will often (usually!) be received as those who threaten the culture. For God is not only redeeming individuals, he is redeeming all peoples and every culture. If idolatry seems essential to a culture, as Romans affirms it is to each individual, this is a distortion inherited from the Garden refugees. By the gospel God declares authority over all people and all cultures. Loudly. It is this voice which is heard, perceived, and which threatens. And we hear him today, the God who redeems individuals and all peoples, is calling all to surrender.
Richard A. Shenk is an Adjunct Professor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary; and Pastor of Village Evangelical Free Church, Independence, MN (USA). He holds a PhD from the University of Wales, Lampeter. He is the author of The Virgin Birth of Christ (Paternoster, 2016 ISBN: 9781842279083) and The Wonder of the Cross (Wipf and Stock, 2013 ISBN: 9781610978699).
- D.A. Carson Christ and Culture Revisited, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).
- Shūsaku Endō, Silence, trans. William Johnston, (New York, NY: Picador Modern Classics, 2017).
- Shūsaku Endō, The Samurai, trans. and Van Gessel, (New York: New Directions, 1997).
- Makoto Fujimura and Philip Yancey, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).
- Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1975)
- Herbert Thurston, The True Story Behind “Silence”: The Mystery of the Last Five Jesuits in Japan, from ‘The Month’, volume 105, 1905, (Kindle Edition, n.d.).