On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior
By Shusaku Endo
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “Not every man is so great a coward as he thinks he is — nor yet so good a Christian.” Is the essence of a man that which he holds in his heart, or more akin to his actions? Chapter Five of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well examines the virtue of faith with examples drawn from Shusaku Endo’s Silence, a novel that raises questions about faith that is hidden.
As Karen wrote
The responses of Christian readers to the questions Silence raises follow predictable lines. Progressive Christians praise the novel’s ambiguity, the idea that Jesus would approve of denying him, and the way “love wins” in the lines quoted above. For example, Father James Martin, a liberal Catholic priest, says Rodrigues’s apostasy is allowable “because Christ asks him to” trample on the fumie. Martin praises the story’s emphasis on the role of individual conscience over rules and its emphasis on “‘discernment’ for people facing complicated situations, where a black-and-white approach seems inadequate.” In contrast, some theologically conservative readers see the novel as celebrating, or at least justifying, apostasy and suggesting that one can have an internal faith that is not evidenced by outward behavior. Even more serious a concern for such readers is that the novel lends weight to contemporary ideologies that, as one critic puts it, “seek to absolutize the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ by making effective public adherence to the Christian tradition seem ‘selfish’ and finally futile.”
Ironically, both types of readers are reading the novel in the same way: as a literal exposition of Christian doctrine with which they accordingly either agree or disagree. But Silence is a work of literary art and should be read as such. Endo himself insisted it was not a work of theology. It is fiction, a novel, and even a particular kind of novel. Reading virtuously, reading faithfully, depends greatly on accepting a text on its own terms and attending to how it is told as much as, if not more than, what it tells.
What does it mean to live with a “hidden faith”? Is such a thing possible? Does it make a difference if one is living where Christians are persecuted? Why or why not?