Sunday, January 24, 2010

IAM Reader's Guild review: Silence by Shusaku Endo

My blog reviews of the IAM Reader's Guild gatherings in 2010.  (see previous Readers Guild posts here)

January 2010:  Silence by Shusaku Endo
Endicott, NY chapter of the IAM Readers Guild

Exactly ten people attended our first gathering of the Endicott Readers Guild.  Ten people bringing a wonderful assortment of snacks and beverages capped  by the thoughtful addition of Japanese-inspired wasabi peas and gummy koi fish.

Although it is most likely a discussion group taboo, I couldn’t help myself by asking right at the top of the evening: “Thumbs up or thumbs down?”  The answer was predominantly, “Thumbs in the middle.”  The explanation many of the readers gave was that they felt the book was written and very readable, but they were disappointed by the story and feeling weighted down by the subject matter.

This was an honest response and a perfect way to launch almost two straight hours of discussion.  For starters, most of us found we did not have a lot of sympathy for Rodrigues or Ferreira, and only a tiny bit for the decidedly, Gollum-like Kichijoro.  Many of the readers wished we could have spent more time with Garrpe.  While most did not identify with a character so  much as an identification  from our own struggles experiencing the silence of God.  We represented a few different faith backgrounds and there seemed to be a direct correlation between where we had come from, where we were now and what we believed about the silence of God.  Is He not listening?  Not answering?  Answering, but saying no? Are we trying to hear Him through religious practices or a living, breathing relationship? 

Several expressed a sense of sorrow for Rodrigues, thinking that he was missing an understanding of relationship with the God he was so desperate to hear.  Others expressed something like a frustration that Rodrigues insisted God was silent in the midst of the suffering around him, when, in fact, there were several descriptions of very clear communication from Christ.  The pinnacle description of this Voice is written in Chapter 9:  “It was this concave face that had looked at the priest in sorrow. In sorrow it had gazed up at him as the eyes spoke appealingly: ‘Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.’

The second half of the evening we discussed the conflict Rodrigues – and his fellow Western missionaries – face introducing the God of their religious conviction to the Eastern values and beliefs of the Japanese people.  This discussion included thoughts about the motivation for the mission:  to love and serve the people or to satisfy their curiosity about Ferriera’s rumored apostasy.  This line of conversation was related to Mako’s podcast comments about Endo’s lack of description of the priest’s sense of call

We wondered together if this would have affected the outcome.  Had his purpose been to introduce the suffering Christ he often imagines during his confinement, would the younger priest been less easily-influenced by the existentialistic judgments of former mentor priest: “‘They did not believe in the Christian God.’ Ferreira spoke clearly and with self-confidence, deliberately emphasizing every word. ‘The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God, and they never will.’ “

Toward the end of our discussion time, we wondered aloud if a differently motivated Rodrigues would have resulted in a different outcome.  Perhaps, he would have been more willing to resist trampling the fumie if he had more fully believed the suffering Japanese would become martyrs given over to a present God.  Rather, he seemed to conclude that God was not listening and that their fate was in his ineffective hands.  He eventually behaved as if he had no option but to “love” the suffering Christians by performing an act of apostasy.  The fruit of this decision is that he goes on to live a solitary, self-loathing life, giving paltry aid to the Japanese magistrate.  As our time ran out, we couldn’t help but talk about the contrast between Garrpe’s response to coercion and Rodrigues’.  Two kinds of torture, yes, but only one had to go on living with that torment.

Endo masterfully depicts a stark and silent world -- in the subtle descriptions of buzzing insects, withering heat and rotten food, dark water and crimson blood stains on dusty courtyards.  His storytelling had a sobering effect on us all and we were grateful for the chance to come in from the cold January evening and cheer each other with brisk conversation, merlot and gummy fish. It was a good evening and we are looking forward to gathering again.

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