Briefly Reviewed: June 2022
By Michael Thomas Cibenko
Publisher: Arx Publishing
Review Author: Anthony Celentano
If your knowledge of the history of the Church in Japan came mostly from watching the television miniseries Shogun (1980) or Martin Scorcese’s film adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s Silence (2016), then Michael Thomas Cibenko’s maiden novel Masaru is for you. Masaru (Japanese for “victory”) has as its backdrop the Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising of persecuted Christians in 1637. Cibenko spent several years living near the site where the events took place, and he depicts the landscapes of the book’s mainly rural settings with convincing detail. Bamboo groves, rice paddies, mountain streams, and cavernous hideaways are clearly projected onto the mind’s eye by a narrator who knows these places intimately.
As the tale begins, the reader is introduced to young Shiro Nakagawa, a teenager of the samurai class who lives with his parents and maternal grandmother. (Those who know a bit about Japan, or even anime culture, will recognize that the character is based on the real-life Shiro Amakusa, the celebrated and often mythologized leader of the actual Christian rebellion.) Young Shiro is something of an introvert, choosing to spend much of his time with his thoughts as he walks the wooded hills of his native Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan.
Shiro’s family, with the exception of his staunchly Buddhist grandmother, are Catholic converts. Christianity had been brought to the shores of Kyushu by St. Francis Xavier a half-century earlier. With the permission of the imperial authorities who had their minds set on trade, churches were built, and converts came to be numbered in the thousands. Yet, early in the story, we see a cultural tension between those who have adopted the faith with great zeal and those who view anything foreign with inflexible suspicion. At home, arguments between Shiro’s father and grandmother are common, while torment at the hands of local bullies frequently awaits Shiro whenever he steps outside.
Such tensions aside, the opening chapter of Masaru presents an idyllic Shire-esque picture of the Japanese countryside and a time of relative peace following decades of warring among the country’s feudal lords. Before the chapter concludes, we are introduced to the story’s main villain, Lord Onitsuka, a dark-armored henchman of the newly appointed shogun (supreme military commander). Onitsuka and his army are en route from the city of Kyoto to the Christian regions of the south. The new shogun has a particular disdain for Christianity, which has been spreading at a rate that threatens political and social upheaval. Onitsuka’s orders are to burn churches, arrest priests, and enforce the new ban on Christian practices.
On what is to be the day of Shiro’s First Communion, Onitsuka and his men burst into the small village church, arrest the Portuguese priest, and defile the consecrated Hosts. Later that evening, Shiro’s friend Kumiko sneaks back to the church to return the Hosts to the tabernacle. She is assaulted by one of the guards, and Shiro rushes to her aid. This sets in motion a series of events that will reunite Shiro with another friend from his boyhood. The two embark on a mission to rescue Shiro’s priest and mentor.
Masaru is, among other things, an engaging history lesson propelled by a compelling adventure tale. While modest in length, Masaru touches on various political and cultural complexities (Christian lords vs. non-Christian lords, the shogun vs. the emperor, Buddhist monks vs. samurai, Spanish Catholics vs. Dutch Protestants) that may inspire further research for the curious reader.
Cibenko places a pair of epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. For the most part, one is taken from Scripture, while the other is a Japanese proverb with some common element. For example, the first chapter is prefaced with a verse from the Gospel of John: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” This is followed by the Japanese proverb, “Be like wheat whereas the taller you grow, the lower you bow your head to the ground.” The connection between these epigraphs and the novel’s themes is more or less apparent from chapter to chapter, and they lend themselves nicely to a larger theme: a kind of natural marriage of Christian and Japanese cultures.
A great strength of Masaru is its apologetics via simple, almost Socratic dialogues. In an early chapter, Shiro, while walking with his mentor, Fr. Olivera, admits his difficulty in grasping the reality of the Real Presence. Using an analogy that connects with Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accidents, the priest puts forth to his skeptical pupil: “If man, himself a creature and limited in his powers, can transform a thing into something else, while the very substance of the thing remains the same, would it not also be possible that God, the author of all creation and whose powers have no limitation, could change the substance of a thing while its form and all appearances remain the same?” (If transubstantiation were explained in such a way during catechesis, perhaps young people would have a more solid grasp of the faith from the foundation of reason.)
As the events of Masaru unfold, the plot branches off into two parallel stories, in an almost Lord of the Rings fashion. One involves the defense of a fortress that has been seized by an army of Christian peasants and samurai, while the other follows a pair of friends on a quest. At pivotal moments, we witness atrocities described in just enough detail to get the point across without being too gruesome. Minor characters, ranging from Buddhist warrior monks to an empress to the bishop of Macau, also take the stage. A “cameo” appearance by the warrior philosopher Miyamoto Musashi will delight anyone familiar with The Book of Five Rings, and fans of the aforementioned Shogun miniseries will surely recognize the appearance of a character connected to that work.
Masaru is a satisfying novel. (While reading it, I remarked to myself several times how well it would translate to film.) I recommend it to those seeking quality fiction that is grounded in the faith, and to anyone interested in Church history, Japanese culture, or simply a well-told tale of adventure and self-sacrifice.
How to Listen & How to Speak: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants to Renew Commonsense and Uncommonsense Wisdom in the Contemporary World
By Peter A. Redpath
Publisher: En Route Books & Media
Review Author: David Ross
In an introduction to St. Augustine’s City of God, Étienne Gilson makes the bold claim that philosophy can unify the nations. Gilson’s notion of unity is a notion of healing. In fact, unity itself can be a sign of healthiness. That unity is a sign of healthiness is crucial for understanding Peter A. Redpath’s How to Listen & How to Speak. Redpath, a philosophy professor with over 50 years’ teaching experience, is clearly concerned with healing and unity, and rightly so, because disunity seems to be the dance of the day. If unity is a sign of healthiness, then disunity is a sign of unhealthiness, of sickness, of some kind of corruption or privation intent on dismembering and ultimately destroying unified wholes: families, societies, and civilizations.
The tragedy of sickness and disunity is twofold. First, sickness and disunity presuppose health; they presuppose that there is a way things ought to be, the very notion of which is largely rejected today by those who are supposed to have answers. Second, those in the midst of disunity and sickness are in many ways blind to their circumstances and thus blind to the truth that there is a way things ought to be. The end of unity and healing seems to be Redpath’s mission in writing this book, and if those who read the book were to implement its teachings, Redpath’s mission would be well underway, for the foundation of unity is proper communication and understanding.
There are two important points to make concerning the content of How to Listen & How to Speak. The first is that the book is a dialectic with Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Speak, How to Listen (1983). Redpath follows Adler’s topics and subject matter, charitably interprets Adler, and builds on him. Those familiar with Adler’s book will find Redpath’s book engaging and, in the best sense, challenging.
The second point is that Redpath’s book is to be used in a classroom setting. Redpath explicitly makes this point in his introduction. In reading the book, the classroom context becomes apparent as the book is about healthy and unifying modes of communication. In other words, to sit down and read the book without discussing it defeats many of the points it puts forward. Having taken a few of Redpath’s graduate-level metaphysics courses, it seems to me even more proper to read this book in a classroom setting as many of Redpath’s ideas are built upon his background in Thomistic metaphysics. This is not to say that the book is unintelligible for those without a metaphysics background, but rather that it is all the richer for those with such a background.
Redpath explains well the metaphysical in relation to what some may consider to be the “practical.” For many who study philosophy, it may seem as though metaphysics were a discussion of that which is out there — things that, in every possible way, have nothing to do with everyday life. Redpath demonstrates how a proper understanding of metaphysics is anything but out there and is precisely what we need in order to heal our everyday life, and he demonstrates this by bridging the study of metaphysics with the study of rhetoric in a way that is both illuminating and charming.
Lastly, the timing of this book could not be better. It is no coincidence that Redpath’s book was written and released during this time. He noticed what many teachers have noticed: the undervaluing of the capacity to communicate well, which, in turn, affects students and society alike. I teach at a Classical school, and our students’ ability to communicate, both in writing and in speaking, is at an all-time low, which I say without hyperbole. After implementing distance learning due to COVID restrictions for a year, our students’ communication skills suffered greatly — in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. For the first time in our school’s history, our reading and writing test scores were lower than those of our mathematics tests, and we are aware that other schools are experiencing the same difficulties. Thus, to have someone like Dr. Redpath clearly identify the issue and how to proceed beyond it is not merely a breath of fresh air but a directive for healing in a socially disunified and rhetorically unhealthy time.
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