There is a genre of writing called “Christian fiction” which promises to those who read it a very controlled plot that is not likely to offend the sensibilities of readers 8 to 80. Like all genre fiction, it meets a need—one everyone may feel from time to time: the experience of reading something that you don’t have to “worry about” and that won’t ridicule your beliefs. Not only that, but everyone likes a good story told well that can take your mind off real life for a while. But these books rarely would be called “literature.”
On the other hand, there are authors who take the ideas of Christianity very seriously and who do write literary novels. These novels explore questions that all people ask, and they are read and admired by people both religious and non-religious.
Both novels follow the peregrinations of flawed priests on the run from those in power who seek to kill them. Both priests face doubts about their priestly calling and about the One they seek to serve as they minister to the people they encounter.
Silence tells the story of a 17th century Portuguese priest named Father Rodrigues who comes secretly to Japan at a time when Christianity is banned by the ruling authorities. Based on actual events in Japan when Christian missionaries had established thriving Christian communities there, the novel describes how these communities and the priests who served them were persecuted and martyred or were forced to deny their faith. To prove that the Christians had in fact recanted, the authorities required the Japanese Christians to step on a drawing of Jesus called the fumie. Those who refused were tortured to death. Many stepped on the image but many chose death over this sacrilege.
A side note: Back in 2013, a college professor at Florida Atlantic University wanted to explore the importance of symbolism with an exercise that required students to write the name “Jesus” on a piece of paper and then step on it. If only some of the Christians in this college classroom had been familiar with this novel. They could have instructed the professor on symbolism so important people chose to die rather than desecrate a symbol.
Father Rodrigues comes to Japan to minister to the Japanese Christians who are without a priest and to learn of the fate of a former teacher who is rumored to have stepped on the fumie. He is quite willing to die for his faith but as he sees the terrible suffering of the Japanese Christians who refuse to renounce their Savior, he seeks a word of comfort or reassurance from Christ. In the end, the sacrifice he is called to make is harder than dying.
Endo uses the priest’s story to explore some difficult themes. The main one is indicated by the title: Why is God silent when he sees his followers suffering? Readers also may wonder if there is any time when renouncing Christianity to a persecutor is the Christian thing to do? And perhaps an additional theme readers could explore is do symbols matter?
Silence has recently been made into a movie that will be released this Christmas season (2016).
This novel does have theology that may be unfamiliar to many Evangelicals, who believe a direct relationship with God is possible without the intersession of a priest. Catholics without a priest, however, are left in a precarious situation, unable to say confession or be baptized. And a priest has a very special office that has been bestowed upon him so that even if he is personally unworthy, he still can perform the duties of his office and minister to others.
In The Power and the Glory, the setting is Mexico in the 1930s when the government began persecuting Christians and clerics in an effort to rid the country of Catholic influence. The protagonist is called “the Whiskey priest.” Besides having a drinking problem, this priest has also fathered a child—he is a very unworthy priest indeed. Yet with all his flaws, the priest still seeks to administer the sacraments to those who need them–even to those who betray him.
Both the Whiskey Priest and Father Rodrigues find it difficult to keep their idealism in the face of brutal reality. But as their idealism dies and their faith falters, they both find that Christ does answer them. They want deliverance from suffering, but Christ allows them to see that He has suffered with them. The “God with us” suffers for us and alongside us. Neither book offers tidy answers or characters admirable for their abiding faith. But both offer some profound spiritual questions that thoughtful Christians will want to think about.
All of literature, whether “Christian” or not, is about some aspect of the human condition. This is a topic of interest to Christians because the human condition is a topic of interest to God. If the incarnation illustrates anything, it shows us that.