Many years ago, I attended a small Christian high school. Though I took Bible classes every year, most of the discussions we had about God and theology have faded from my memory. There’s one conversation, though, that still haunts me.
We were in that phase of Christian teenagerhood where arguing about predestination was the hip thing to do. What does God’s sovereignty really mean? Has God determined that some people are destined for glory and others for destruction? We would not settle for mystery: we wanted answers and had opinions.
The passage in question on this day was Romans 9, particularly verses 17-18. Paul writes:
For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
And while nothing said then convinced me one way or the other about the doctrine of predestination, my teacher said something about surrender that I’ve never forgotten.
“Can you say you would surrender to God’s sovereignty and his glory even if his purpose for you was to use you as he used Pharaoh?” Mr. Erlandson—Erlo, we called him—asked. He was balding, and wore glasses and a green suit. The class notes he typed up for us were thick with footnotes and footnotes to the footnotes.
“I had to come to a place in my life where I was willing to be used even as Pharaoh was used,” Erlo continued (and of course, nearly twenty years later, I’m paraphrasing). “I had to trust in God’s love and glory and sovereignty more than I wanted to be saved.”
What does trusting in God’s sovereignty really require of us?
Perhaps the connection between this memory and Silence will not be totally clear until you get to the end of the novel, which is like a surprise punch in the gut.
Written by Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo in the 1960s, Silence is the story of a Portuguese missionary to Japan in the 1600s. A bit of historical background: Christianity had been brought to Japan in 1549 by Francis Xavier, and by the end of that century at least 200,000 Japanese had converted. Christian seminaries, churches, hospitals, and indigenous clergy sprang up, and missionaries held privileged positions in the Japanese court. But in 1614 an edict of expulsion was issued, and the execution of Christians began. Men, women, and children were burnt alive when they refused to apostatize.
Their martyrdom only strengthened the resolve of others, and so the government turned to torture. The most famous of the methods of torture was to bind the victim, and hang her upside down over a pit of excrement. One woman endured this for fourteen days before dying.
Finally one missionary apostatized—Father Ferreira—and it is with his apostasy that Endo’s fictional work begins. Having heard of Ferreira’s apostasy, Father Sebastian Rodrigues plans to sneak into Japan to investigate the truth of the story as well as to serve as a priest for the hidden Christians in Japan.
Obviously, this is not your typical beach book. It’s not a lighthearted page-turner with romance or warm fuzzy feelings. But it’s devastatingly relevant. Reading it gives us a way to stand in solidarity with Christians facing persecution around the world. And even those of us who do not face persecution do face the questions this book wrestles with: What do we do when God is silent in the face of our suffering? Is Christianity a western religion, or can it thrive in other cultures? What does trusting in God’s sovereignty require of us?
I can’t wait to hear your thoughts in our Facebook discussion of the book at the end of the month. Endo is not subtle with these themes, but—if I may put my English teacher hat on for a moment—pay attention to the words silence and face as you read.
August’s book is Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr.
*Recommended by Amy Peterson and Kelley Nikondeha
Are you reading Silence with us? Share your thoughts so far in the comments.