I can’t work out whether I’m late to the party or should have left this a little longer to marinate, but I’ve got round to writing some reflections on ‘Silence’. Last week, I focused on the work itself; today I wanted to turn my attention to some lessons we can learn from how ‘Silence’ was actually received.
Making faithful, powerful art can still get you rejected
The response falls quite neatly, but still jarringly, into two camps. We’ll come to the general reception later, but when we look at the response of the church, it is fair to say that Endo’s book was not embraced, initially at least, with open arms.
On its release in 1966, Silence, as a book, was condemned by several Catholic churches in Japan and some sectors of the evangelical church across the western world were similarly suspicious. Mark Williams, professor of Japanese studies at Leeds University, notes that despite the fact that the book sold well in Japan, the “hardcore Catholic community view it as heretical and blasphemous… Endo was persona non grata among Japanese Catholics. You can’t find the book in any Christian bookshops…’ (Here‘s the full source)
Having said this, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lack of knee jerk condemnations of the film adaptation from evangelicalism this time around (although that may have more to do with the fact that we’re much more comfortable with doubters like Scorcese raising difficult questions of faith, than we are with card carrying believers like Endo doing the same).
In a way then, it wouldn’t be pushing it too much to say that Endo shared the fate of Father Rodrigues: considered apostate by the very church he loved, for doing what, he at least, thought was right. However, while there is a romantic poetry in this symmetry, we mustn’t neglect the personal anguish this would have caused. Endo had to endure real rejection for carrying through his artistic vision, and I personally don’t think that this was an indication that he did anything wrong.
I think that we too, as artists in the church, have to embrace this reality. If we make authentic, powerful work, we will experience similar rejection from our Christian brothers and sisters. This may be simply in the form of misunderstanding or in feeling patronized or undervalued, but recent history would suggest that the greater the impact our work has outside of the church, the greater the rejection may well be from other Christians (Lecrae is an interesting example in this regard).
There are clearly lessons here for the church in general, but for us as artists, who I guess would make up the majority of the people reading this blog, we must go into this with our eyes wide open. I don’t think it should lead us to distance ourselves from church, but to realise that if we are looking for affirmation and even validation there, we will be sadly disappointed. I would wholeheartedly encourage all Christians to knit themselves in tightly to a local church , but at the same time, I’d equally encourage Christian artists to make sure you have strong friendships with other Christian artists who will ‘get you’, although they still may challenge you in your practice. (I guess, in a sense, those last two sentences explain Sputnik’s own raison d’etre very neatly)
Art like this can smuggle Jesus into the heart of a culture
But for many people, they may wonder why we should take the risk at all?’ Why shouldn’t Christians play it safe and go on making sanitised, well intentioned art? Why make work that could lead people to wildly different conclusions to the ones we intended- both in the church and outside it?
I’m sure that there will be a future blog post about the parables of Jesus that could be slotted in at this point, but as it is not written yet and as that would be veering from our immediate subject matter, I’ll simply redirect you to the parable of the shrewd manager (Lk 16:1-9) and then add a WWJD?
The story of Silence itself though gives a compelling response to such questions. The fascinating thing about this story is that the events depicted were very real and still have a huge effect today. There are countless examples throughout history of brutal anti-Christian persecution leading to church growth- ancient Rome and modern day China spring to mind. However Japan is an anomaly. In many ways, Japan successfully suppressed Christianity in the 17th century and it never really bounced back.
Today, under 3% of Japan would self identify as Christian. That’s a smaller number of Christians than you’d find in Burkina Faso, and a smaller percentage of Christians than you’d find in Saudi Arabia. However, at the heart of modern day Japan, Endo’s Silence is revered as a crucial cultural artefact.
In 1966, it won the Tanazaki prize, one of Japan’s most sought after literary awards, and it is still held in high regard in his homeland where he would be listed in any compilation of modern Japanese literary greats.
This is a remarkable achievement. Whatever you think of Endo’s work or of Rodrigues’ example or of Scorcese’s adaptation- this work has burrowed Christianity into the heart of a culture that has systematically suppressed the Christian message in the public square. And anyone who wants to study this book is going to have to burrow themselves even deeper into Christian theology as, let’s face it, it’s not like Christianity is a peripheral theme in the book. Everything is here- from the atonement to repentance to grace to forgiveness. And Jesus comes out of it incredibly well.
It was very moving to read Andrew Garfield’s reflections on playing the role of Father Rodrigues in the film. In preparation for the role, he underwent a whole course of Jesuit retreats and exercises and when he was asked what stood out for him in these exercises, his reply was this:
“What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.”
I think that anyone approaching Endo’s work with a spiritual openness would be able to navigate their way to the same affection, and that is something remarkable.
For all their failings, perhaps the apostate priests of the 17th century have left behind a legacy. From their stories, marred by human weakness and failing, Jesus has regained a place at the heart of Japanese culture- hidden from view, yes, but still accessible to anyone who wants to take a look. And now, they are speaking through Hollywood too.
Whether that vindicates them stepping on their fumi-es all those years ago, I don’t know, but it is certainly a wonderful and unexpected epilogue. For all Christians who long to see every culture come to fall in love with Jesus, it’s certainly a huge reason to thank God for Shusaku Endo (and for Martin Scorcese). For all Christians who want to make art that speaks into their specific culture, we should be doubly thankful, because here we have someone who has given us a pretty good model of how it should be done.
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.