On “Silence”, by Shusaku Endo

Spoiler alerts ahead! To avoid them, skip to the last five paragraphs

Where to begin on such an honest and terrible depiction of what it meant to be a Christian in Japan in the 1600’s? I once heard my pastor say of Silence that it reminded him of how easy it is for Western Christians to follow Jesus at a distance. That is, how easy it is to be a Christian in the West and never face any opposition.

The struggle for relevance, the desire to be accepted and cool are nothing Christianity claims to offer. In fact, the desire to be cool says more about one’s faith in culture than it does about Jesus. But if the point of being a Christian isn’t about doing what’s trending, what is it?

Shusaku Endo presents a ghastly portrayal that is far too close to torture for comfort. In Silence we have father Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest who’s come to Japan in search of the alleged apostate priest, Father Christovao Ferreira who after 20 years as a missionary was said to have trodden upon the face of God (which, to the Japanese, was proof of one’s apostasy). To Rodrigues, and many others, this simply could not be true. His belief in the power of God to prevail his people was too strong for any real opposition able to turn a priest. Or so he thought. So he and another priest come to Japan, but upon arrival they are immediately swept into the forest to a place where only the Christian villagers would know, and who’d come, two-by-two, to visit them in the night. After some time the priests wore tired and felt ready to be on with their mission of finding Ferreira. It was then that they separated and would never again be reunited.

Rodrigues travels to another small village, but it is not long before he and other Christians are discovered and rewards are placed upon their heads. The coward, Kichijiro, (to me the most interesting character) basically a drunk who can’t make up his mind about whether or not he’s a Christian, is finally the one to turn Rodrigues over in exchange for the small reward, drawing parallels to how Judas turned over Jesus.

Rodrigues is repeatedly told that he will deny his faith and trod upon the “Fumie” (an image of Christ painted upon a piece of wood), and while he constantly denies it, he is also internally troubled, wondering about why God is allowing the Magistrate to torture Christians so freely. The benevolence of God, then, becomes of greatest question for the priest, especially as he is often forced to either witness by sight or by sound the torture of peasant Christians.

The priest is faced with a very important ethical dilemma then. He is told that if he would only deny the faith then his fellow Christian prisoners would be set free; that if he’d trod the Fumie, their torture would end (which he knows is probably a lie). Some of his accusers even question his real love for the Christians if he is willing to let them suffer. For his persistence he’s called selfish and is even pleaded with by his opposers to just deny Christ and put an end to everything. His faith is strong, even with his doubt, at least until he finally does find Ferreira. Clothed now as a Japanese person and even called by a deceased Japanese man’s name, Ferreira doesn’t plead with Rodrigues to apostasize as much as he coldly claims that Christianity just can’t take root in Japan. He calls Japan a swamp, and says that no matter how many seeds are cast upon the swamp, a tree will never sprout. Rodrigues is angered of course, and meanwhile still being subjected to the tortures. Soon he comes to believe, by way of Ferreira, that Christ himself might actually trod the Fumie, for that must be the most loving thing to do in such a perilous quandary. Hampered by guilt imposed by the Magistrate and by the shame he he feels for even considering denying his God, he remains with the faith until finally the torture is too much. He trods the Fumie and from there on is placed under house arrest, sentenced to write books about the inaccuracy of Christianity until he dies of sickness at age 65.  

As I read I could not say that I’d be strong enough to resist any longer than Rodrigues had (far shorter, I’m sure). Not because my faith in God is necessarily weak, but because my love for God’s humanity might be stronger. That is, I often wonder if my real god is the love, justice, and enjoyment of people.

Truly, it does take belief in an afterlife, a hope for a restored order of the world, to resist torture, even unto death. But I think that somehow being exposed to another’s torture is far worse than being tortured oneself. Maybe this isn’t true for everybody. But what about being told your loved ones will suffer until you give up your faith? Is it selfish to hold to your faith? Or is it courageous? Again, it takes a true belief that God is real and that pain on this earth pales in comparison to the life we’ll get to live after death.

I’ve been greatly challenged by Silence. Sure, there are the philosophical dilemmas, but even more, I have been enlightened to my own lack of courage to believe in God when the moment to show my belief presents itself.

But there’s another side to this question, and surely one that Rodrigues considered: if somebody was torturing my family, then there is clearly something psychotic about the torturer. Or is this just my Western mind? If one was to ask me to deny God to their face in exchange for my family, then am I not just needing to justify myself before a psychopath? Of what consequence is it to him to hear me deny the faith? To whom, in the end, am I truly accountable? God or man? I get the other side of the coin, though. The principle of the matter is: who is most important?

What if it became illegal in the US to be a Christian and officers were required to arrest Christians, and what if torture became the norm to purge our country of Christianity? It would seem to me, based on Jesus’ allegiance to God in the face of his own governing state, that God must win, no matter how idiotic or inhumane the torture is. Thoughts?

Upon the Bread of Life, Just Believe: some thoughts on John 6:22-36

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (oil on canvas, by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti, c. 1545-1550)

In the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John, Jesus makes a short trip across the Sea of Galilee to a city called Capernaum. Shortly after his arrival he finds that hundreds, if not thousands, of people from the town he was just in (Bethsaida) have travelled in their own boats in pursuit of him.

Many of these townspeople had been part of the 5,000 whom Jesus famously fed by miraculously multiplying loaves of bread and baskets of fish. When they find Jesus here in Capernaum they seem to exclaim: “Teacher, when did you come here?”

Mosaic Commemorating the Feeding of the 5,000 (photo by Robert L. Grupp)

Jesus is perceptive. I see him smiling a little, maybe shrugging. He says, “You’re not looking for me because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill in bread and are hungry again.”

You’re just hungry again. That’s why you’ve followed me here. His lesson then is: “Don’t strain for temporary food, but for eternal food…”

Eternal food. One might have heard a hollow sound were they to knock upon the collective skull of the crowd just then (admittedly, the same simple-mindedness would have been true of me as well). Trying to be perceptive themselves they may have assumed that by “eternal” Jesus was referring to a longer-lasting prize they’d yet to receive. So, moving away from the topic of their growling stomachs, they ask, “What must we do to be doing the work of God?”

Yep. I’ve asked this question often. It’s the old bartering-masked-in-piety trick I revert to when I’m feeling pretty good about life, above certain sins, and confident in my own standing. Alright God, I’m ready. Put me in. Let me show you what I can really do. Don’t just give me that eternally loving presence thing you’re always talking about. This time let me earn it.

It’s the opposite of bartering for God’s help and provision, in a way. You know what I mean. Rather than the prodigal son-esque: “I’m at the end of my rope, God, help me!” thing, it’s believing that God’s grace makes me into some kind of indentured servant. It’s saying, “Hey, see what great work I’ve been doing here? See the prayer, the charity, the abstinence? I’ve moved on; I’ve become healthy. So how about we just call things even?”

Christianity tells of many mysteries. For example, that the first will be last, and the last will be first, or, that Jesus did not come to bring peace but something that would split and divide up families. But I’ve found nothing more mysterious than how freely receiving what I need begets more belief that I need to make up that free gift to God.

Jesus is kind in his response to the crowd. “You are doing the work of God by believing,” he says.

He means, you are paying me back (if you must hear it this way) by your belief. That’s all.

A very close friend of mine—let’s call him Joey—confessed once that he found believing in God to be too difficult. Misunderstanding him, I replied, “Yeah, me too, man.” Joey kindly laughed at that. He explained that the burden of being a Christian was too heavy for him, and that he was tired of feeling guilty for not carrying it very well. He and I both grew up as evangelical Christians. Our church taught kids that devotion to God was paramount; that devotion was, if nothing else, proof of one’s salvation. From around 8th or 9th grade it was encouraged (and quietly expected, I presume) that kids were daily engaged in some form of what was coined, “quiet time with God.”

In short, a “quiet time” is spending a portion of one’s day (maybe 20 to 60 minutes) in solitude while reading the Bible or praying. It’s difficult to know exactly where or how the idea of our modern ”quiet time” came about (and frankly, we need a better phrase for it—not only does it carry a burdensome reputation, it also sounds a little too close to “sleepy time”), but I suspect it’s been something Christians have done for a long time to try to know God better. It may have been poorly dictated sermons by Joey and my pastors that were to blame, or that he misinterpreted some teachings on what devotion to God meant (God knows I did). But his interpretation of what being devoted to God meant was that it was a rule to follow, and that failure to keep the rule was not exactly a sin, but not exactly helping him be on God’s good side either. Joey believed the proof of his faith could be found in his ability to follow through with the rule. And so, from a young age he saw how, each day, he could not prove his faith.

Back to Jesus. He said: “Only believe.” So, what does this mean?

Hear me rightly now: is a man who calls himself a painter but never gets up to paint really a painter? In Christianity, there exists a fine line between legalism and some sort of free-formed Jesus-y association, and an argument could be made that neither extreme is really what Jesus taught. But, I often wonder how Joey’s faith would be different today if the emphasis he remembered while growing up at church was that he didn’t need to do anything to be on God’s good side. That his devotion to God would actually be a reaction to God’s enduring love for him.

Five years later, Joey still seeks a god in the world, and I can see how he thinks it could still be true. But the Christian God is too unattainable. For what it’s worth, though, it’s my belief that his seeking, his yearning for a god, is proof of a very strong devotion indeed. It’s proof that, if nothing else, he has tasted something enlivening and that he will cross many seas to find it.

A Foreigner Among My Own: estranged at a Christian music festival. [Theology Thursday]

I know why I’m here. Sometimes it feels like I don’t, though. I don’t belong anymore. But we all knew that coming into it.

Out in the fields there, pulled tight like long plastic candy wrappers, are family sized tents. Inside those tents are sleeping bags, bibles, baby wipes, luggage, apples, water bottles. Boxes upon boxes of supplies from Wal-mart. Some tents are bigger, though. They house people who stand, talk, swirl coffee, and nod at each other and say Amen, and Brother a lot. They all speak the same language here.

Children with buzz-cuts, freckles, thick glasses and denim shorts sift their sandaled feet through the grass next to me. The boys wear baseball caps with familiar logos and t-shirts with words I’ve heard youth pastors title as sermons. The boys here talk about video games. The girls whisper and giggle. Some have unpierced ears and others have long socks bunched at their ankles and stuffed into their tennis shoes. They glance at me, then at the ground. They whisper again, taking hold of each other’s arms at the elbows, their purple scrunchies tight around their hair.

I am here. Here I am, I say. But here is not where I am used to anymore. I watch the world before me. This is where I’ve come from. These were my people. I learned all I know from them. The things that matter. And they do, they really do. They still matter. Now, however, I am the man who has departed. Except, I never really left. I’ve always been around, I just decided to move into a tree house that hangs over the border of another world.

It is different being twenty-eight and looking back on my ten-to-fifteen year-old life. Back then I just wanted someone to give a shit about me. I didn’t care about money or eating healthy or skin tone or drugs or parties. Every kid wanted to be popular, so I did too. I did it because I craved my friends’ approval. I wore the shirts, the empty cross necklace, and denim shorts because my friends did. And because it was all I ever knew. 

It was all I knew. 

I listen to parents and adults talking to each other near my tent. They’re loud and open about what they think and feel. But they aren’t abrasive or rude. They’re just doing what they do and since the vast majority of people here are of the same mind they feel free. 

At the booth I get occasional questions from folks whose attention has been pricked (and God helps us if we didn’t also believe in Jesus). They’ll say, So, what is this? and Why is there a shirt that says ‘Time Will Tell’? and Why don’t your shirts say anything about Jesus? and Why is a man raping a woman on your shirt? Most recently we released a graphic called “Glass Half Full” with two friends clinking beer glasses together. This, not to my surprise, brought one concerned mother questioning my brother, who was working at the time.

     ”So, what is this?”

     ”The booth here, or…”

     ”No, this shirt. What is this?”

     ”Well, it says ‘Glass Half Full’ and it…”

     ”I can see that. You know, I don’t find this very uplifting.”

     ”Oh,” my brother said.

     ”Just two guys drinking beers is all I see. I don’t see anything uplifting about that.”

     And she walked away.

God help us. Help us from your people, whom you love, whom you ask us to love. Help us to hold our tongues. Help us to offer silence instead of anger; unity instead of dissension. Instead of what we really want to say to an overly reactionary concentration of Christian culture, give us your mercy. But God, it can really feel like a load of crap sometimes.

There are 40,000 people here and I’ve only seen one person smoking. She looked like she was trying to hide behind a tree. I am tempted to find her, to bum a smoke and ask her about her tattoos. She’d understand my anxiety and would nod, and we’d both say, Well, what can we do about it, right? But we both know how much we can do. The tide is not slowly turning any longer. People are opening, progressing. Honesty is the new morality. The gospel is an organism that won’t die no matter how jaded we become with it. I often wonder what the word for revival in the church is because pretty soon we’re going to start using it as often as “kale smoothie” and “gluten free”.

I walk the premises. I smile and nod at people. I note the coffee stands, the funnel cake trucks, the fellow t-shirt vendors. I buy a cheeseburger and sit on a bench. There is mud underfoot because of the rain. I think about how I look at conservative Christian festivals. Tattoo guy with his long hair and beard. Kids stare, and I wave and smile. They watch me walk by, my hand falling back to my side. I am apparently some sort of circus act.

But they don’t know any better. They’ve lived here in rural Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or Ohio, or have grown up home schooled and overly churched. They listen to the Bible on tape for kids, and they watch Veggie Tales. They go to their church’s form of Boy Scouts and Brownies. I know because I grew up doing the same thing. We used to be taught to say terrible things like Them, and The Lost because they didn’t have what we had. We’d gather in tents and sing the same five songs, over and over, because we thought we had to. We should be compelled to, we’d hear. We are gathered here to seek your face, we’d sing. Calling out with our voices, untrained and out of key, our fingers stretched and pointed at the sky, these were the places we were taught what the presence of God felt and looked like. I always tried to look away when the spot light panned across my face because it hurt my eyes. 

Carl and David have beer and we each pull one open. We sip and talk about our day while cramped into their two-man tent. We joke and talk about funny interactions. We talk about strange thoughts, we talk about potential ladies in our lives and we tell each other to be true to ourselves and who we know we’ve been made to be. We say, I know it sounds a certain way to say this, but if you know the life you’ve been asked to live then you need to lose her. And we will say, Yeah, I know it. And we will respond, Sorry bro.

Every morning the sound of a country worship band jets into the sky and ricochets along the hillsides. Cloudless, breezy, seventy-five degrees, and a man singing in Weird Al fashion a song originally titled “Who Let the Dogs Out” as “Who Let the Devil Out”. I blink, I stare at my tent ceiling and I say, I am here. Here I am. But here is not where I know anymore. I used to speak this language, I was a member of this culture, but now I am a foreigner. I still believe in their God, if not more so now than ever. But I do not relate with their lives. Nor they mine. 

God, help us to find a place together.