In the midst of a conversation about Shusaku Endo’s amazing novel Silence and Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of it with Brandon O’Brien, dean of OBU&NLC (the Ouachita Baptist University satellite campus in Conway, AR, where I do some adjunct teaching each year), O’Brien mentioned that I should read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. As I feel like I’m barely keeping my head above water right now, I listened to it via Audible instead (and as I am perpetually conflicted over whether or not listening to a book is the same as reading a book, I do try, imperfectly to be sure, to mention here when I have listened to an audiobook).
I was struck, immediately, by the similarities between Silence and The Power and the Glory. Endo was a huge fan of Greene and was considered by many to be the Graham Greene of the East. George Bull has written a very interesting account of their relationship here. It is not surprising, then, that Endo was greatly influenced by Greene in the writing of Silence. I do want to be careful in saying this, but there were times when I felt the stories were too similar indeed. Even so, I do very much want to stop short of accusing Endo of plagiarism. For all of their similarities, they are also quite different stories in many ways as well. I think the term “heavily influenced” is the most accurate to describe the relationship of Silence to The Power and the Glory.
The Power and the Glory is about a Mexican priest who did not flee the Mexican government’s oppressive measures against the Catholic church but who chose, instead, to stay. Even so, he is a profoundly flawed priest and, by all traditional standards, a bad priest indeed. For starters, he is called a “Whisky Priest” because of his alcoholism. What is more, he fathered a child with a woman. Thirdly, Graham presents him as cowardly, wavering, and hypocritical.
Even so, he stays and, in his own imperfect way, he keeps alive the presence of the Church in Mexico. As in Silence, there is another priest who earlier apostatized and who lived with a wife in the area. The Whisky Priest is aware of him and asks him to come hear his confession near the end, with a rather sad result.
The Whisky Priest is, in my opinion, never likable in the way that Silence‘s Rodriguez is, but the faint flame of faith never abandons him just as it never abandons Rodriguez. There is a Kichijiro character in The Power and the Glory, though the priest knows immediately who he is and what he is about. There is also an Inquisitor character, the police chief who is hunting the Whisky Priest.
The overall effect of The Power and the Glory is somewhat similar to that of Silence. It leaves the reader with profound questions: was the priest a failure or was he (to use a word that Greene returns to time and again) a saint? Is mustard seed faith not still faith and does anybody ever really have more than a mustard seed’s worth of faith? Does the power of the gospel not transcend the flawed vessels in which it is carried? (This last question is one that the writings of Flannery O’Conner raises as well.)
I think that pastors must read these books in unique ways as well, for we know what we want to be and we know what, tragically, we so often are. We feel the gulf between our desire to be men of God and the type of men we so often are. So I listened to the Whiskey Priest’s reflections on his own failures with an interested and sympathetic ear. I understand. I get it.
While I very much hope that I do not live in such rank hypocrisy as the Whisky Priest, I am fully aware of the inner challenge of trying to serve God and of the awareness that, at the end of the day, we are but imperfect and cracked vessels. In this regard, books like The Power and the Glory and Silence make a very valuable contribution not only to literature but to pastoral ministry and the Christian life in general.
This is a very interesting book. Read it and read Endo’s Silence as well.