Most self-help books are about as insightful as the latest Buzzfeed quiz. They’re not even full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing”; they skip to the last bit: nothing. That may be my own pride speaking, of thinking I’m “above” self-help books, but it’s a gut reaction I can’t seem to shake each time I break down and check out the latest bestsellers in the category.
I’ve often found that novels and movies can be much more inspiring and insightful than books and videos which try so hard to tell me things I’ve heard before. Part of it, I suspect, is the nature of conviction. Sadly, it’s too easy to listen to a sermon or advice from a mentor, or to read a book, and feel a gnawing in my belly or a churning sense that I should change something about my life. Far more often I rationally consider it and think, Yep, that’s a good idea; file that away for later, without allowing my comfortable sense of self to be disturbed by it.
Yet when I encounter certain novels or films, there can be a powerful ring of truth that reverberates down my spine; I suppose it may be because of empathy. I feel convicted in my body rather than allowing my mind to wander and forget what I just saw or read.
There are times when I find myself in the same dark woods as Dante was in “The Divine Comedy,” feeling lost and alone in a strange place. I may be a long way off from a mid-life crisis, but my generation seems to have appropriated the same listless, depressed attitude for itself.
It hit especially hard after finishing university. The post-graduation blues is far from unique to me, but I was mired in depression for months, slowly sinking as I slogged through life anxious and exhausted and burned out.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked up a novel that seemed to offer little in the way of encouragement. It was a novel that asked several difficult questions, ones which still haunts me to this day: What do we do when confronted with the seeming silence of God? How strong is my own faith—not am I strong enough to die for it, but am I strong enough to live in weakness because of it?
Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel “Silence” is an acclaimed piece of modern Christian literature. It’s been endlessly studied and dissected, yet is still enigmatic to its core, and almost unanswerable in its questions. It’s also one of the most haunting books I’ve ever read. It’s been recently adapted into film by Martin Scorsese, whose visual appraisal of the novel only adds to its staggering weight and inquiries into the inner faith of Christianity.
Set in the 17th century, it’s been almost a hundred years since St. Francis Xavier sowed Christianity into the soil of Japan. While it first took root, growing to a few hundred thousand believers, now the Christian faith is outlawed throughout the country. In the midst of widespread persecution, the local Christians are reduced to living in secret, each village cut off entirely from the other one, not sure who to trust for fear of being reported to the authorities.
It is in this mire that two Portuguese Jesuit priests take it upon themselves to go into Japan, not only to minister to the Christians in hiding there, but to also find their mentor, Father Ferreira, and root out the truth to the rumor that he has apostatized and given up the faith. Once there, they bear witness to the brutality of the Japanese inquisitors, seeing hidden Christians rooted out and tortured as they are forced to step on an engraved image of Christ, symbolizing their refutation of the faith.
As time passes, the two priests begin to question whether or not God is with them, and why He is seemingly silent among the people suffering around them. More than that, though, the audience begins to realize that our two protagonists, the supposed saviors of the faith in Japan, may not be as strong as we thought. And since we are meant to identify with them, we must grapple with the possibility that we are not as strong as we think, either.
A rich, dense book and film, “Silence” is also one of the most nuanced and complicated fictional works about Christianity I’ve seen in a long time. It confronts us with our own fears and unvoiced doubts—not necessarily about God’s silence, but about our own weakness and frailty: the silence of our own lives.
Both the novel and film exist in an ambiguous state, allowing the reader to interpret the varying levels of faith and doubt among its characters, and whether or not God really was silent. It’s a harrowing spectacle of inner turmoil and the exhaustive nature of pain. Where is God in the midst of all of it?
I’ve rarely been as shaken as when I finished reading the novel. Not in the sense that I doubted my faith, but that I questioned my own nature. We often allow ourselves to write our lives as if they’re stories we’re living out. We define who we are. After reading “Silence,” though, I came to realize, along with these priests, that following our own path leads to destruction. The primary priest, Rodrigues, doesn’t realize how swelled up with pride he is at his missionary work in Japan. He considers his faith and his work superior, basking in the adoration of the hidden Christians rather than seeking out God.
This is how we lose ourselves, charting our course through life by an insular compass. And it often takes a roundabout way to realize it, to be convicted. Self-help books and movies that fall into the “inspirational” genre often just tell us what we want to hear about ourselves rather than forcing us to confront the deceit within our hearts. “Silence” makes us identify with one who seems like he has it all together, only to make us realize that just like him, we’re adrift at sea, just as weak and in need of a Savior as those around us.