A Life of Jesus Summary
by Shūsaku Endō

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A Life of Jesus Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 1966 Shsaku End published Chinmoku (Silence, 1969), a novel depicting the conflict between Catholic missionaries in Japan and the samurai government, which was determined to eliminate Christianity from the country. Captured missionaries were required to trample on an image of Christ called a fumie; End employs this image of a much-trampled-on Christ to create an image of a helpless, suffering, and loving Jesus very different from traditional European images of a triumphant, perfect Christ. After finishing this novel, End set himself the task of drawing a picture of Christ that other Japanese could understand, an actual Jesus rather than the ideal one of theologians and philosophers.

The first fruits of his biblical research were serialized between 1970 and 1973 in the magazine Shinch; these working notes were compiled and published in June of 1973 as Shikai no hotori (near the Dead Sea). End polished and reorganized these notes and published his A Life of Jesus three months later, in September of 1973.

The title of the book is the first clue to End’s aim in writing the work; unlike the many volumes of nineteenth century piety entitled The Life of Christ, End’s work is simply A Life of Jesus. Christ is the anointed one, the king, the Messiah; Jesus is the human person, the concrete man, the actual living creature untouched by centuries of idealizing art and philosophy. End begins by trying to summon up for other Japanese the face of Jesus, the ordinary face of a man whose name was one of the most common names for men at that time.

If End finds anything at all unusual about the person of Jesus, it is a premature understanding reflected in his face, an understanding of people’s suffering and need for love. The Japanese writer draws a picture of Nazareth that is very realistic, emphasizing the misery and poverty of daily life. Against this background, Jesus moves as the Compassionate One, demonstrating and developing a love that will be his undoing as his followers come to misunderstand his powers of healing and compassion as a more earthly kind of power. In End’s portrait of Jesus there is, of course, a considerable Buddhist influence; Jesus as the Compassionate One who understands people’s suffering and suffers with them is very close to Buddha, who suffers, understands, and shows compassion.

Perhaps the greatest stumbling blocks for Japanese examining the life of Jesus and the content of the Gospels are the miracles that Jesus worked and the mystery of the Resurrection. End treads carefully in dealing with these matters, always emphasizing the miraculous nature of Jesus’ unending love. Devout Christians may experience the discomfort that early reviewers of the book expressed with End’s handling of the Resurrection; for the Japanese writer it is simply unimportant whether Jesus physically rose from the dead. What is miraculous is that the rather cowardly followers of Jesus, most of whom had mistaken the kingdom of God for a temporal domain, were transformed after Jesus’ death into courageous believers willing to suffer the pain of death to spread the message of the Gospels. The source of this transformation, End believes, was the memory of the all-encompassing love of Jesus.

Another stroke of End’s brush that furthers the inculturation of Jesus for Japanese readers is an emphasis on the maternal aspect of Jesus’ love. End shows this love first developing in Jesus’ encounter with John the Baptist. The charismatic prophet is portrayed as representing the spirituality of the Old Testament, a patriarchal tradition of anger, prophecy, and destruction. End shows Jesus reacting against this harshness, judging it to be inadequate for the tired people of his home and travels. Jesus’ heart, in End’s hands, becomes the heart of a mother who knows the exhaustion of her children and wants nothing more than to abide with them and ease their pain.

It is no surprise, then, that at the heart of End’s work, the Beatitudes are invoked...

(The entire section is 1,090 words.)