Long, dark night: reflections on Scandal

This evening, I finished reading Shusaku Endo’s novel Scandal. (I very much enjoy Endo’s writing; his excellent novel Silence is fairly well-known, and The Samurai would rank as one of my top five favorite novels.) I’m still trying to process exactly what Scandal “means;” feel free to read along as I mull over the novel. Spoilers will undoubtedly abound, so proceed with caution.
Scandal tells the story of Suguro, an aging Christian novelist who has, at the twilight of his literary career, found both critical success as a writer and personal fulfillment in an ordered and moral life. (I don’t know enough about Endo’s personal life to recognize which parts of the story are autobiographical and which aren’t, but I have a feeling that the protagonist’s life and thoughts bear more than a passing resemblance to Endo’s.)
Unfortunately for Suguro, just as he is preparing to “settle down” for a well-deserved rest from his long and difficult literary career, his reputation is threatened by scandalous rumors. Rumors surface that Suguro has been spotted in Tokyo’s “red light” district frequenting S&M clubs and other unsavory venues. Suguro is disturbed by the persistant rumors even though he knows they are untrue, and something about them seems to threaten the neatly-arranged, happily-married moral life he has constructed for himself over the years. The novel tells the story of Suguro’s search for the suspected impersonator, but also walks us step-by-step through Suguro’s reasoning as he comes to grips with his own morality and Christian beliefs.
That’s the surface story, at least. Beneath the surface, Endo is exploring a lot of difficult issues. A number of questions and themes surface briefly or are hinted at throughout the story: what it means to be a Japanese Christian; how a Christian artist can approach his craft with artistic integrity; how can Christians relate to and talk about a world tainted to its core by filth and sin. It seems clear to me that these are all issues that have troubled Endo, and the lack of firm resolution to any of them makes me suspect that he was still looking for answers himself while writing this novel.
But while these issues get some treatment in the story, the core of the novel is about one thing: sin. Sin, depravity, the unspeakable desires and urges that live at the heart of every human being. Suguro, and the characters he meets during the story, are walking contradictions: on the one hand, they can be polite, kind, generous, or innocent on the surface, but beneath each mask is an insatiable corruption that renders every good deed, every happy marriage, every kind word, every noble achievement hollow and meaningless.
As Suguro’s investigations continue, the actual question of whether or not he committed the scandalous acts becomes almost irrelevant–because the deeper he looks into himself, the more he realizes that he, the good husband and influential Christian Suguro, is as hungry for depravity as the worst rapist or murderer. Suguro has made it almost all the way to the end of his life living morally and righteously, but in the end he is utterly undone by sin. The perfect life he has created is a joke, a mask, a meaningless act of self-deception; in his heart, he is utterly depraved, a monster.
As Suguro learns about the nature of sin, we, the readers, learn with him. Endo is saying something profound about sin in Scandal, something that I haven’t seen since my college readings of Dostoyevsky and Flannery O’Connor. Endo wants to break down any notion that we can save ourselves. As the novel begins, Suguro believes that man’s capacity to sin contains the seeds of his own salvation–he believes that sin can have noble intentions, that it is undertaken in a twisted but nevertheless sincere desire to find spiritual fulfillment. Suguro sees sin as the misguided excess of humans who want salvation but don’t know quite how to attain it.
It’s a comforting notion of sin; it’s a sin that God will surely forgive, because He can understand why you’re doing it. That’s an attractive idea to me, at least. But after luring you into this mode of thinking, Endo springs his trap. Sin, Endo shows us, is not natural or misguided: it is vile. It infects every corner of our heart and every thought of our minds; it’s ugly and destructive and hateful. For Endo, real sin–the kind that lives in the human heart, that separates us from God–is not the moral failing of the disciples who doubted Jesus but who later felt bad for their actions and repented after the cock crowed. No–sin is the person who stood at the side of the road to Calvary and jeered at Jesus for no reason other than the pleasure of defiling something that’s pure and innocent. The kind of deliberate depravity that no just God could possibly forgive, let alone tolerate. The kind of sin that offers no hope of salvation or escape.
That’s the message Endo leaves for us: no resolution, no easy answer, just an awareness that human beings are truly and utterly wretched. Endo does not question that God forgives our sin, but he does not profess to understand it, either. What kind of love looks at the human monster and chooses to purify it? What kind of God could stand to look at a creature so corrupt with rebellion?
Flannery O’Connor famously hoped that, by exposing the dark heart of humanity in her stories, she would shock her readers into crying out for God. Endo, while his writing style is very different from O’Connor’s, bears a similar message in Scandal. Humans are never more aware of God’s mysterious, incomprehensible grace than when they have hit the absolute nadir of the soul.

Through the large glass window of a tearoom next door, he saw a cheerful group of three or four young women seated around a table. One of them noticed Suguro and pointed him out to her neighbor, not even knowing he was a monster. –from Scandal

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15 thoughts on “Long, dark night: reflections on Scandal

  1. KDC

    Hey, is this the Japanese Christian novelist I keep hearing about and then forgetting to write down the name of? I need to check him out, if so.

  2. kim

    This book sounds great – I am a big fan of both Dostoyevsky and O’Connor so I may have to see if my library has anything by Endo. Good review.

  3. jrau

    I heartily recommend that you read at least one of his novels if the subject matter sounds interesting. I’d probably recommend Silence if you want to get a feel for his style and ideas (and since it’s his best-known novel, it’s more likely to be at the local library or bookstore than his other works). All of his novels (that I’ve read, at least) are fairly depressing, though, so make sure you’re in the mood for some good Heart of Darkness-style despair before you dive in.
    He’s a fascinating writer. I’d be interested in your reactions to him, should you choose to read one of his books.

  4. BC

    I realize that such a story might fit with the whole “total depravity” thing. However, I don’t believe in total depravity. I was taught traditional Christian theology, but in the course of growing up I was also told that God took Enoch up to heaven:
    Hbr 11:5 By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.
    Hbr 11:6 But without faith [it is] impossible to please [him]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and [that] he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
    It ultimately seemed like a contradiction in the Biblical message. Sure, Paul talks about “faith” here, but Enoch’s faith was faith in God, not faith in Jesus (because Enoch predated Jesus) — which leads to a strange situation of maintaining that Enoch was saved without faith in Jesus. This, despite Jesus quote, “None can come to the Father except through me”. But, if Enoch is any example, there’s a condradiction — he “came to the father” without Jesus. Using Enoch as an example, doesn’t that also mean that modern-day Jews (who have no faith in Jesus) could also attain salvation? In spite of the claim that “human beings are truely and utterly wretched”, there seem to be plenty of Biblical figures who “pleased God”. In the end, I’m left thinking that this whole “total depravity” thing is questionable exegesis.

  5. Bill

    I’d argue that there is a good, Biblical explanation both for total depravity and Enoch’s faith.
    For a classic ecclesiastical argument for total depravity, I’d recommend the third and fourth heads of doctrine in the Canons of Dordt. The notion of total depravity being the condition of man by virtue of Adam’s sin is largely drawn from passages like Romans 5. There, Paul says a number of times that just as all were condemned by the sin of Adam, so all can be saved by the perfect life of Christ. (Romans 5:12-21) I would argue that the strongest statement for total depravity comes from Romans 5:18-19:
    “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
    As for Enoch, I agree that he could not have been saved by faith in Jesus the same way we are. He would not have known exactly who the man Jesus was as revealed to us in the New Testament. But I think that’s the point of Hebrews 11. It is written to help Jews understand how the saints of the Old Testament could have been saved, considering salvation only comes through Christ’s sacrifice. It was also to show that they were not saved by obedience to the law, as some supposed. They were saved by faith.
    Hebrews 11 starts by saying, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. For by it, people of old received their commendation.” We are told that people of old received God’s commendation by faith. A faith Enoch clearly had: “By faith Enoch was taken up…before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.”
    But faith in what, since they did not know Jesus Christ as he was? Hebrews 11 helps us answer that question as well: “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised.”
    What was promised? The Messiah was promised. The promise that God gave first to Adam and Eve that a savior would come from their line: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall crush your head, and you shall strike his heel.” (Gen. 3:15) A seed of the woman would come who would crush the head of the serpent once and for all. The believers of old were looking forward to the fulfillment of that promise, a descendent of Adam who would crush the serpent.
    I think that’s the point of Hebrews 11:39 coupled with 11:40: “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
    The saints of old believed in the a coming savior who they never saw in their lifetimes. But they were made perfect in the same way New Testament saints are made perfect. They are not made perfect “apart from us” but rather are made perfect in the exact same way. The difference between the saints of old and us is that we have already received “something better” since we have seen the fulfillment of what was promised to Adam in Jesus Christ. Christ is the deliverer that was the hope of Enoch and all saints long before Jesus’ advent.
    Enoch, Noah, Abraham and all the old heroes of the faith were assured that they did not hope for a savior in vain. As Hebrews 11:13 says: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”
    I believe Christ when he said, “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” I believe all the saints come to the Father by faith in Jesus Christ, whether it was the Jesus hoped for, seen and greeted from afar by the saints of old, or the Jesus who has appeared to us in these last days. I think Enoch was saved just as Christians today are saved, by God’s grace through the means of faith in Christ Jesus. Enoch believed in, saw and greeted Christ from afar by the faith worked in him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
    Salvation is a gift of grace from the Father’s hands, won for us by Christ’s life and death, and given to us by grace through faith as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. And whether it’s Enoch or me, we are both saved the same way, by the same God who loved us in spite of our sin and set us free from the tyranny of the devil for the praise, honor and glory of God’s holy name.

  6. BC

    >I would argue that the strongest statement for total depravity comes from Romans 5:18-19.
    “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
    Hmmm. I guess I don’t see anything about total depravity in Romans 5:18-19 — unless you can successfully translate “sinners” into “totally depraved”, which I certainly don’t see. (I think it actually weakens your case if this is the “strongest statement” that can be offered in favor of the Medieval doctine of total depravity. And, I use the word “medieval” to bring attention to the fact that the doctine didn’t appear until some 1500 years after Christ.)
    >Enoch believed in, saw and greeted Christ from afar by the faith worked in him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
    Fair enough. Although, I think modern-day Jews also have faith in a messiah. The problem for them is that their faith in a future faith might’ve actually been fulfilled in the past. This leaves them in a bit of a conumdrum: should they be condemned for failing to have faith in Jesus, or should they be saved for having faith for a future messiah (as the Old Testament Jews did) even though their faith did not properly align with the historical Jesus? Seems a bit heavy handed to condemn faithful Jews who are doing the same thing as their forefathers (i.e. having faith in God the father, looking for the messiah, and were saved as a result) because they didn’t recognize the alignment of Jesus and their messiah.
    In any case, the point still stands that Old Testament figures did please or displease God according to their obedience to Him. Abel pleased God by giving an animal sacrifice. Cain displeased God by giving “fruit of the ground”. Both were giving sacrifices to God, both obviously had faith in God. The distiction was their obedience. Moses had faith, but he incurred God’s displeasure by striking the rock (disobedience). Of course, if man is inherently evil and totally deprived, Cain and Moses’ offenses were just drops in the bucket in their depravity – thus, it’s illogical for God to get angry with them. And Abel’s animal sacrifice is also a “drop in the bucket” compared to his “total depravity”, thus how can God be pleased? Thus, I suggest that the doctine of “total depravity” is flawed. That makes the most sense in explaining how these people could please or displease God with their acts of obedience and disobedience.

  7. jrau

    Very interesting discussion. I don’t have much to add to what Bill has said, but do want to make a quick point that may be relevant:
    As I understand it, the doctrine of total depravity does not say (despite the rather dramatic name) that humans are as evil as they could possibly be, or that humans cannot do deeds that are (by human standards) morally good. It merely holds that humans cannot, by their own actions, be made righteous before God. No matter how good, noble, or vile our actions, they fall short of making us righteous. They are inadequate to save us without God’s grace.
    I have actually seen the doctrine referred to as “total inability” in this sense.
    (Also, Endo is Catholic, for what it’s worth.)

  8. BC

    > It merely holds that humans cannot, by their own actions, be made righteous before God.
    (nod) Well, I think that would be a reasonable definition. Usually when I hear “totally depravity” I imagine God looking down from heaven and seeing each and every human as some kind of Gollum-like creature (though that would probably be an understatement since even Gollum had some redeeming qualities as evidenced by his mental conflict between betraying Frodo or treating him as a friend). Although, I can’t help but think Endo is painting a picture of a Gollum-like creature when you (Andy) say, “the message Endo leaves for us: no resolution, no easy answer, just an awareness that *human beings are truely and utterly wretched*”.
    > (Also, Endo is Catholic, for what it’s worth.)
    Ah, so maybe he didn’t have “total depravity” in mind.
    (It also occured to me, though that Old Testament Jews were still very much held accountable to the law in a way that Christians are not. For example, there are large numbers of laws in Leviticus. This means that even the Old Testament figures, who had faith in a coming Messiah were still not on the same level as Christians in terms of the redeeming efficacy of faith.)

  9. Bill

    I’ve heard it said that total inability is a better description. Historically, the doctrine is seen to encompass the notions that 1)man is conceived and born in sin by virtue of the sin of Adam, our federal head and 2) that because of our fallen natures, we are unable to come to the Lord unless he intervenes to save us.
    Perhaps BC is correct that the Romans passage I cited speaks more to the first point (original sin) rather than the second (total inability). But I think other passages show the truth of the second point, like Genesis 6:5 (every inclination of man’s heart is only evil all the time), Psalm 51:5 (surely I was conceived and born in sin), Jeremiah 17:9 (the heart is wicked above all things and beyond cure), Romans 3:10-18, 23 quoting from Psalms and Eccles., saying that no one is righteous and no one seeks God, and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God), Ephesians 2:1 (all are dead in trespasses and sin), and Jesus himself in John 6:44 says, “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him.”
    I would also quickly say I would dispute the notion that total depravity/inability is a medieval doctrine. Obviously, from the above I think it is Scriptural. Also, church fathers in the second through fourth centuries A.D. taught the doctrine (such as Iranaeus (c. 180 AD), Tertullian (c. 200), Origen (c. 244), Cyprian (c. 250), Methodius (c. 300), Aphraates (c. 344), Cyril (c. 350), Athanasius (c. 360), and Ambrose (c. 383)). It’s most famous non-Apostolic proponent is Augustine, who argued for the doctrine in his disputations with Pelagius during the late fourth and early fifth centuries. It may come to us in “official” form in the Canons of Dort, but it was around long before that.
    Finally, I would say that everyone who is saved is saved the same way, by Jesus Christ. Either the Christ hoped for, like Enoch, or the Christ who has come, like Peter or any of us. But Peter makes it clear, “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:10-12) We certainly please and displease God every day by the things we do. But the only way we are acceptable to him is if someone perfectly pleases God for us and pays for the displeasure we’ve caused God. The only way that could be done is by Christ living a perfect life for us and suffering and dying in our place so that we would not be rejected by God. We become partakers in this salvation by the faith God works in our hearts, just as he worked faith in Abel, Enoch, Moses, Peter and Paul. Apart from Christ, there is no hope. With Christ, there is no longer any fear.

  10. jrau

    Heh, I really like the image of humans as little Gollum-like creatures!
    Don’t get me wrong about Endo–he definitely paints a very, very bleak picture of the human condition, quite possibly more than is theologically necessary to make his point. The story’s protagonist looks into his own heart and is horrified to find in it the same inclination towards evil that he sees in the sexual predators and broken people that he meets. I think Endo’s message is not that every human is a vile, Gollum-like beast, but that the urge/potential to become that beast lurks in the background of every human mind, tainting everything we do in some form. Some people are better at hiding it than others, but in the end the beast always wins out unless some outside force (in this case, God’s grace) intervenes.
    Is this a completely theologically correct version? Well, I don’t know; he may be over-emphasizing the “total depravity” part. But if his intent is to shock his readers into re-evaluating how “moral” and “good” they really are, then I think he has been successful.

  11. BC

    > Genesis 6:5
    Well, this is talking about the state of mankind just before God wipes out mankind through a flood. I’m not sure, therefore, that this is so much a comment on mankind (at all times throughout history) as much as it is a comment on mankind during the period of Noah.
    So, there’s the distinction of “each and every man is completely evil” (which seems to be favored by Endo) versus the “each and every man has sinned, and therefore needs redemption” (which I think you’re favoring). I don’t think anyone is disputing the later, just the former. Andy says in his original post that the idea of the depravity of man impresses on reader the idea that mankind is very far from being good enough for salvation. Well, that might be a useful idea way to impress the “insufficiency” idea on the reader, but we shouldn’t accept the factualness of “depravity” simply because it helps the “insufficiency” idea or illuminates God’s grace. Afterall, there may be other effects that flow from the idea of “depravity” which are not correct. For example, if you promote the idea of “depravity” in order to reinforce the idea of “insufficency”, people might get the mistaken idea that they should be made to suffer for their supposed depravity. For example, during the Black Plague, men actually whipped themselves in an attempt to atone for sin that they presumed mankind had committed. The idea of “depravity” can accidentally lead to these kinds of misunderstandings. Hence, one shouldn’t promote questionable theologies of “depravity” simply because it correctly reinforces ideas of “insufficiency” because you don’t know how those ideas will be interpreted and reinterpreted.
    The subject of Enoch did raise a few questions that got me thinking, though. For example, if faith in a future Messiah was sufficient for Enoch’s ascention into heaven, why did the Old Testament Jews need the excessive legalese of the Old Testament law? If the purpose was to please God, why aren’t Christians subject to the same religious laws? And if faith was sufficient for (Old Testament) Enoch, what was the purpose of the gap between Old Testament legalities versus New Testament laws?

  12. Bill

    I think you are absolutely right in that the orthodox doctrine of total depravity has never meant to say that each and every person is always as bad as he can possibly be. In fact, many would argue that it is God’s common grace to mankind that keeps our fallen state from manifesting itself as the worst of the worst all the time in every person. And I think you make a good point that when one uses the term depravity without being clear about how it’s being used, one runs the risk of being misunderstood. That’s why I referred first to the Canons of Dort. I had a feeling it would cover it more completely than I ever could 🙂
    As to the question of the covenant with Israel, that’s a huge question. I believe the notion of covenant is inexorably linked to how we view all of Scripture.
    It’s the division we see in Scripture between the law and the gospel. Wherever the Bible says, “Do this and live” it is the law. Wherever the Bible says “I will do this for you” it is the good news of the gospel.
    The promise of a savior has been the gospel that was first given to Adam and renewed with Abram. It is an everlasting covenant, and the hope of all mankind that through the line of Adam, Abram, David and others, a savior will come to the world to save us from our sins.
    But the law continues throughout the Bible as a reminder that what we do is not in keeping with what God requires. God continues to remind his people of his demands, and in doing so shows them their continuing sin and reminds them of their need for a savior.
    The covenant with Israel is not an everlasting covenant. It is meant to be a type and shadow of things to come. This is the whole theme of Hebrews 3-10 (see also Col. 2:17). Showing the superiority of the gospel of grace in Christ to the law of Moses is the thrust of the book of Hebrews. That’s why Hebrews 11 culminates with a statement of New Covenant faith by saints like Enoch.
    Enoch could not be saved under the old covenant laws because as Paul says, “no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Romans 3:20) The only thing that the old covenant does is show us our sin. The law can show us our sin, but it can’t offer hope to those who have not kept it perfectly.
    Paul says that we have the righteousness we need to be saved apart from the law. We have it in the righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith in him. He is the one who has perfectly fulfilled all of God’s laws. He is the one who can obey for us and pay the penalty for our disobedience.
    There are only two ways to stand before God. In your own righteousness, as judged by the law, and in Christ’s by faith. Your own righteousness will never be enough to merit your salvation because the more you look at God’s law, the more you’ll see your own failing. But in Christ, there is forgiveness of sins and the old covenant passes away.
    This is what we are meant to see in the old covenant with Israel. The altar fires that never go out, the continuing sacrifices reminding the people over and over that they continually need intercession between them and God. They are sinful and God is holy. Therefore God is locked away, inaccessible in the Holy of Holies and they cannot approach.
    But in Christ, all can approach God. All can be cleansed. Because of his sacrifice, the sacrifices can finally cease. The altar fires can grow cold. The veil of the Holy of Holies is torn apart and God makes his dwelling with his saved people. The high priest can sit down rather than continually stand before the altar. Sin and death and hell have been defeated.
    God made a real covenant with the people of Israel with real promises and real curses. But its function was to be a sermon illustration to the people of God’s holiness, their sinfulness and the need for a mediator who could repair the rift. Christ is that mediator. By faith in him, we are accounted righteous and the old covenant with its laws has passed away, replaced by the new and glorious covenant of grace.

  13. jrau

    Wow, very interesting points all around. As for Endo over-emphasizing the depravity of man, well, I really should stop putting words in his mouth since I don’t know much of his personal theology beyond what I’ve read in his novels. That said, I think (and again, this is just me surmising) that he would respond to that charge by asking whether in strictly theological terms, there is any meaningful distinction between “each and every man is completely evil” and “each and every man has sinned, and therefore needs redemption”–both are equally in need of grace; neither is closer to or farther from righteousness than the other.
    Also, we should remember that he is a writing a novel about his personal grappling with the problem of evil, and about the folly of thinking yourself immune to the general human tendency towards sin. I’m inclined to allow him more artistic license than I would grant the author of a theology textbook.

  14. Bill

    Yeah, there is always the danger of reading something into a book that wasn’t intended by the author.
    I just finished listening to a discussion on The White Horse Innabout how “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown has fueled a renewed interest in the Gnostic writings about Jesus. Even worse, people are believing that the “evidence” from this fiction novel really give cause to question the historic Christian understanding of Jesus. I’m sure Dan Brown has some issues with Christianity and especially the Roman church, but I doubt his fiction works ought to be read as some kind of serious scholarly work on church history.

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