The Harrowing Silence: A Book Recommendation

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The car in front of me swerved, and a bundle of long limbs flew up over its hood, tumbled across the roof, and slid down onto the hot August pavement. The car slowed briefly then sped away, leaving behind it a dying animal kicking and groaning in the dark.

I parked my truck on the shoulder and got out. It was a seldom-trafficked road. No cars. It would have been quiet except for the drama in the southbound lane. The fawn’s legs wouldn’t work. It flopped and rolled, mewling eerily as it tried to right itself like a broken wind-up toy.

When I knelt down beside it, its eye rolled toward me and stared. It stopped kicking and lay still, panting, blowing breath out of its mouth in sharp, hoarse heaves. I picked it up by the ankles, two in each hand, and carried it into the grass beside the road. What now? I thought.

It stared back at me. Its eye was shot wide open, bulging, and rolling awkwardly back to keep me in its view. There was bloody spittle at its mouth and nose. Surely it would die. I ran my hand across its withers. Hot. I couldn’t believe how hot it was. Burning from the inside out–and wet, lathered with sweat and blood. I patted it gently and spoke to it. Easy. Easy. Sshhh. The panting slowed. The neck relaxed. The eye rolled forward and closed. Stillness.

I knelt there a moment more, thankful the fawn was dead, then stood up and turned to leave. But as soon as I turned, the fawn began writhing again. It coughed and spit and panted and that frightened eye circled around to find me. I knelt back down and once more stroked its hot, blood-lathered coat. Under my hand, its panic passed and there it lay, silent and afraid. The eye kept me fast and I stayed a while. Easy. Easy.

It occurred to me that the kindest thing might be to finish what the car began, but I hadn’t any means to do it. The best I could muster was a tire iron and I couldn’t see any kindness in a bludgeoning. I even considered using my hands but feared that snapping its thickly corded neck would prove more difficult than expected, and the last thing I wanted was to botch the job and leave it worse off than it would have been without me. So I tried to leave again. And once more, as soon as I stood up, the deer flopped and twisted and groaned. So back down I went. Easy. Easy. And there I was, knelt in the dark, lending a hand of comfort to a broken creature suffering nigh its end. How long? I prayed. How long, O Lord, will you let this go on?

— — —

In the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries tended a thriving Christianity in Japan. It’s estimated that there were between 200,000 and 400,000 converts. Churches grew, seminaries were established, and Portuguese priests were revered. But by the early 17th century, Christianity had been all but eradicated. The Japanese leadership feared the westernization of their country and saw Christianity and its missionaries as a prime threat. Persecution was institutionalized. Thousands were tortured and killed and the Church in Portugal effectively gave up. They would send no more missionaries to die. Shusaku Endo’s Silence is the story of two young missionaries who went anyway.

The story is Shakespearian in its relentless tragedy and its effectiveness in asking questions that, if we are honest, have no easily manageable answers. Why do the innocent die? Why does God not break his silence and end suffering? When persecution ceases to be hypothetical and becomes torturous reality, have we any right to pass judgement on the man or woman who succumbs in the torturer’s keep? Can apostasy possibly be an act of love?

When a naïve Father Rodriques sails from Portugal, intent upon a mission to Japan and his ideal of a glorious martyrdom there, he has no idea what is waiting for him. Those questions loom like muttering storms, half-seen on the horizon. The world he leaves behind is one of clear choices: pagan or Christian, apostate or apostle, fidelity or betrayal, black or white. But the Japan he discovers is a grey waste of unthinkable choices and faith-shattering cruelty. From the moment he sets foot in Japan, his ideals are slowly peeled back, layer by layer, winnowing his presuppositions away and laying bare the chilling truth that even the deepest certainty can be shaken when the only answer to the tortured groan of the Christian in the next cell is the harrowing silence of God.

As a writer, Endo is deft enough to know that the answers aren’t necessarily any more comforting than the questions, and in fact I’d venture to suggest that some of the questions he wrestles with are essentially unanswerable. To attempt answers is to reduce the questions themselves to insignificance and reduce the people faced with them to something less than human. Like the author, the best we can do is to wrestle. Confronted with the reality of torture, doubt, weakness, and the suffering of others, the best we can hope for is a pugilism of conscience in which no one can contend unchanged.

It’s a book that every Christian ought to get in the ring with. It’s a book that every missionary needs to confront. One of the many perspectives Endo presents is that which says Christianity has no place in Japan, that it’s fundamentally incapable of taking root there and rightly ought to be stamped out. That’s obviously the antagonistic view in the book, but it’s one with which anyone serious about missions work needs to grapple and overcome.

— — —

The fawn wouldn’t die, at least not according to my schedule. I gave up on it. What was I to do? Wait beside the road all night? Throw it in my truck and wait until morning to drive it to a vet? I didn’t have time for that. I left. I stood up and left it writhing in the grass coughing and sputtering and burning hot as a coal. I got in my truck and drove away—and about half a mile down the road I broke into tears because even though I’d done everything I knew to do, more than was required, I couldn’t escape the fact that leaving it there felt like a betrayal. I knew in my heart that I’d done the wrong thing. All it needed was my hand to comfort it, my voice to soothe it, my presence for assurance. And I denied it. The fawn died alone, writhing and screaming in the darkness.

— — —

The final beauty and complexity of Endo’s masterwork is in its denouement. Those fallen under the arm of the torturer cry out for God to speak and end it all. Their prayers and cries are met with silence. Will God not utter a word to break it? Often, no. And yet, amid the silence they are answered. The Word came among us, suffered among us, suffers among us still. God’s silence is not broken. Rather, it’s fulfilled. The Word that fulfills it was spoken to soothe, to comfort, to give assurance, to fill forever the silent reaches. Even though we betray it in our fear, even though we fail to hear it beside us, even though we trample it underfoot in our weakness, grief, and suffering, the Word cries out: I more than anyone know of your pain. It was to be trampled on by men than I came into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.

Christ does not leave us abandoned to die alone like animals along the road. He abides with us. He stays no matter how long, feels each pang no matter how deep, and understands our betrayal even before we’ve given it a name. What thou dost, do quickly. What we do in the wake of his understanding is a choice of vital significance, because even in moments when, like Endo’s Father Rodrigues, we pride ourselves on being Christ-like, when we resolve ourselves to glorious martyrdoms of spirit if not of flesh, we’re often surprised to find ourselves driving away from the horror beside the road, having been no better than Judas after all.

In the aftermath, do we tie ourselves a rope and go in search of a tree? Do we, like Peter thrice apostate, run headlong to the tomb and lay the foundations of something new? Or do we, humans that we are, go forth upon the middle ground veering wildly and desperate for guidance?

Shall we do as Judas? Or shall we do as Peter? For we are none of us so strong as we think. We all shut out the Word, and none of us bear the silence well.

The Fumie
By A. S. Peterson

Trample! Trample!
To quiet the groan
Trample the wretch
In ragged repose
Lying crushed underfoot
While the morning cock crows
From whom each hides his face
In whose grime-crusted form
The imprint of suffering
Is e’er deeper worn
Whose beauty has gone
By each treacher defaced
As each foot surrenders
Its weight in disgrace
“Your dirt for my beauty,
My pain for relief!”
The weeping king cries
The unthinkable plea
“Trample! Trample!
For this was I born.
For this crows the cock
Each terrible morn
Do quick what thou dost
And trample again
I’m crowned to lie down
And be trampled by men.”

Fumie – n. A device used to expose Christians after Christianity became prohibited in Japan (starting to an extent in 1587). Normally an image of Jesus, the Fumie was dropped on the ground and individuals made to step upon it in the belief that a true Christian would not commit such a sacrilege.

[Shusaku Endo’s Silence is available in the Rabbit Room store.]

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


36 Comments

  1. Lindsey

    Last year, my discipleship group went through Tim Keller’s study on Mark- a study we also called “The Suffering Servant.” This essay extracts some of the most harrowing truths from Mark. Well written. Powerful, provocative, and indeed painful to read.

  2. Leanne

    My seminary teacher just recommended this book to our class last week. I’m going to dive in after this term is over.

  3. caroline cobb smith

    My husband and I just read this book this past fall. It was a powerful book and I’m so glad I read it, but I was left with so many questions that I haven’t had the chance to really think through. Thank you for writing this article – it helped clarify some of the questions that I had, and helps me continue to think through this hard topic.

  4. Eowyn

    How heart-breakingly beautiful….The part about the fawn nearly had me in tears. Living in the country and having dogs, I’ve seen many young animals die; it conjures up a familiar, painful image. I’ll have to check out this book; it sounds great.

    “Now, Judas don’t you come too close,
    I fear that I might see,
    The traitor’s look upon your face,
    Might look too much like me.
    ‘Cause just like you I’ve sold the Lord,
    And often for much less!
    And like a wretched traitor,
    I betrayed him with a kiss…”

    -“Traitor’s Look” Michael Card

  5. Chris

    “To attempt answers is to reduce the questions themselves to insignificance and reduce the people faced with them to something less than human. Like the author, the best we can do is to wrestle. Confronted with the reality of torture, doubt, weakness, and the suffering of others, the best we can hope for is a pugilism of conscience in which no one can contend unchanged.” That’s an apologetic born of wisdom, my friend.

  6. JaimeGj

    Wow. Thank you for this. I have no words but much to ponder.

    “Do quick what thou dost
    And trample again
    I’m crowned to lie down
    And be trampled by men.”

    The poem is beautiful. And I love those lines. They flow in the beauty of their rhythm; and speak of such pain — a two edged sword; to wound and to heal. Well done.

  7. Dan Foster

    I read this a few years ago before my first trip to Japan. It was recommended to me by a missionary to Japan.

    I don’t have much to add to this well-written review. The book is beautiful and challenging and confusing. And it definitely leaves you with questions, not answers.

  8. BIM

    Wow, what a sad story about the fawn. Is that something from your experience, or is it an excerpt from the book?

  9. david

    i took a class on missiology that was cross-listed with the English and Divinity departments at Campbell University several years ago – Silence was one of the books we read (along with Things Fall Apart and The Poisonwood Bible) and then read The Open Secret and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin. we then took ALL that we’d read (the novels depicting largely failed missionary contextualization and the theological challenges of Newbigin) and processed it in discussion and dialogue.

    one of my most formative theological classes

    you’ve heard that Silence is being/has been adapted into a screenplay and is directed by Scorsese, right…? 2013 release tentative…

  10. Bruce Hennigan

    I just gave a presentation on evil and suffering. I wish I had your post last week. Very powerful and insightful. I will get this book! It is wonderful. Just watched “Furious Love” (available on iTunes) and much of what you speak of; the desperation to show Christ to a pagan world; the frustration at the way things are come out in this movie. It is to love the unloved just as you showed love to the fawn. Thank you for these stirring words!!!!

  11. Marilyn H.

    Darn it, Pete. I am in tears at my desk, but this is beautiful. I know the risks of reading these posts at work, but I just can’t help myself. Rabbit Room order coming soon . . . .

  12. Dave Kuhns

    I read this book years ago and it left me a little troubled, mostly confused then about what to believe. I knew intuitively that it was an important thing I was reading, because of the questions being raised, but wasn’t sure what to do with them. Thanks Pete for clarification of the thesis of this book!

  13. Alyssa

    I don’t know when a piece of writing has stirred me so deeply. I’ve been coming back and reading it again and again this afternoon. Just incredible.

  14. Beth Brendle

    I don’t think I can read the book, though I’ve read references to it in many authors that I love. My heart is constantly raw from my work (I’m a pediatric nurse) and I can’t read fictional suffering, no matter how thought-provoking or well-written. But your post is so good. This has been my struggle for all of my thinking life, this wrestling with the character of God and the reality of pain. My own pain I can handle…but the suffering of the innocent almost destroys me on a regular basis. This is what it means to have your heart of stone replaced with Jesus’s heart of flesh: it breaks like His. It breaks, and breaks, and breaks. Imagine the fawn as a child dying alone in an ICU bed…you’ll never forget that fawn. I’ll never forget that child. I know Jesus’s heart is broken too…this is why He came.

  15. Catherine

    I first read this book in tenth grade. My English class that year was a study in world literature, with an overarching theme of human pain and suffering. In addition to Silence, we read Camus’ The Stanger, Levi’s The Periodic Table, and Wiesel’s Night, to name a few. For a fifteen year-old, these books presented heavy questions. Years later, I am dealing with them still. And based on this post, which is itself heartbreaking and beautiful, I am long overdue for another reading of Silence.

  16. Josh Kemper

    I think LOIS had it right: “Heart wrenching.” Pete, I don’t know what to tell you. You really have a way with words when there’s really something to tell. I don’t know how many people are waiting for the next thing you’ll publish, but I know I’m not the only one who just can’t wait for it.

  17. Justin

    I read this book about a year and a half ago, and it’s definitely a deeply challenging book. It certainly doesn’t allow you any easy answers.

    I’m really not sure what Endo privately concluded, but I know that for me the book spoke to wrestling with the sovereignty of God. It seems like a pretty elementary aspect of our faith–conceding that God is, you know, God–but the more I think about it the more I suspect that a failure to accept God’s sovereignty is at the heart of all sin.

    It’s easy to think that you accept God’s sovereignty when you have a simplistic, Santa Claus concept of God. But the Bible suggests that God is much more dangerous, much wilder and greater and more unbound than we would like Him to be. That was the wrenching thing about reading Jeremiah–somewhere around the 20th chapter I realized that it was possible to do God’s will and be unhappy.

    This is not to say that Jeremiah’s unhappiness and trials are a complete portrait of what it means to walk with God. But it was really quite shattering to confront the fact that God has the right to ask this of us. That he has the right to take Job’s wealth, and his family, and his health. In short, God is truly God, and our lives and this world are fully His.

    And yet . . . He is good. Like Pete, I’ve hit a deer with my car that did not die right away. (Fortunately, I was able to call a neighbor who came and shot the deer in the head to hasten the inevitable.) I’ve come to conclude that if God watches the sparrows, He must also watch over the deer as well, so their days and hours fall equally under His sovereignty. And so must my own life, whether it be characterized by gain or loss. God is my only hope, and He cannot be powerful enough to guide my every step unless He is sovereign enough to overmatch my narrow desires.

  18. Rusty

    My wife and I lived in Japan for three years as English teachers in my mid-twenties. I took a break from seminary because I was struggling with my faith too much to write papers and minister to others. I read this book while in the throws of doubt and living in the same land that Silence was written.

    Thanks for making it more visible to readers Pete. It took me to the edge of doubt and showed me that Jesus is present in injustice in ways I had not yet imagined.

  19. LauraP

    This is so beautifully written, Pete. I can’t wait to read the book and dig more deeply into the ideas and themes you and the other commenters have expressed here. So grateful for the depth and breadth of this community.

  20. Debra Henderson

    Pete, this is beautifully written thank you for sharing it! Coming face to face with the ugliness and reality of death, especially the death of the innocent, forever changes us.

    I too have stood beside, touched, wept and longed to do more to stop, take away or ease the suffering. I imagine this is how John & Mary must have felt as they sat at the foot of the cross. Only the Giver of breath has the right to decide when He will no longer give it.

    Beth Brendle – you are my hero! We lost our only son to cancer three years ago and I fell in love with you brave, pediatric nurses who lovingly minister daily in the face of suffering and death. You may not know this side of eternity what an amazing difference a cup of water kindly given makes. Please know you have my deepest gratitude for serving with courage and kindness on the front lines! What grace and mercy you bring!

  21. Loren

    My heart is crying out, “Mea culpa! Mea culpa!” Your description of the fawn is heartbreaking, but when I read your review of Silence I caught a glimpse of God’s grief over humanity’s suffering and his longing to save us. For us to accept his salvation. Do I have that heart?

  22. Dan Kulp

    I just finished this story. My stomach & head are churning. Thanks for write up and the nudge into reading it. It’s hard to think of missionary work, Judas and the love of Jesus in the same way.

  23. Brenda Branson

    Pete, I’m reading this post just now–over two years since it was written. Wow! Dear friend, I’ve loved reading your books and other writings, but this has convinced me that some of your best work may be the yet unwritten non-fiction books that explore the tension between the joy and pain of living and loving, and the ache for redemption to come. Please write on, write on . . . when all hope is gone, write on.

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