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With the theme of hospitable readers and neighboring texts, the classical Greek virtue of hospitality meets the Christian virtue of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.

Either virtue involves looking out for the well-being of those whom we encounter, whether as guest or as neighbor, including those whose claim on us might not seem natural or invited. Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37) disrupts conventional notions of neighboring obligations, uncomfortably suggesting that our neighbor, and our accompanying ethical obligations of hospitality, extend beyond traditional boundaries formed by kinship and tribal solidarity. What then might it mean to consider texts as neighbors or readers as hosts from whom hospitality is to be expected?

Deep River, the last novel of Shusaku Endo, explores the spiritual yearnings of five Japanese characters, whose lives converge on a tour of sacred Buddhist sites in India. Each of these characters bears lifelong burdens of loneliness, isolation, or guilt, and their shared pilgrimage to the sacred river Ganges opens them up to the possibility of receiving and giving the love they so desperately need. Thematically, the novel moves toward a vision of an inclusive spiritual hospitality, in which the alien and the outcast can find spiritual consolation. These spiritual pilgrimages are set against the backdrop of multiple religious personae, but at the heart of the novel is the self-giving, unconditional love of Jesus and of the radical manner in which one character, Otsu, seeks to emulate Jesus’ love. In the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious setting of India, Otsu’s willingness to take up his cross and imitate Jesus’ example suggests an expansive understanding of what it means to love one’s neighbor.

In its textual composition as well, the novel opens up space in which the text itself enacts what could be construed as a form of hospitable reading. To describe a text as host is to build on longstanding tropes that personify the narrative perspective of a text in terms of a narrator or persona who tells the story. To describe the narrator of Deep River as a host is to acknowledge the multiple layers of stories and allusions that this narrator invites into the narrative fabric of the story. Nearly a prototypical embodiment of what Julia Kristeva has termed “intertextuality,”1 the narrative structure of Deep River consists of a pastiche of “neighboring texts”: each of the five characters has a personal story told through the construct of a clinical case study; at least two of these stories are revised adaptations of previous short stories written by Endo; the narrative frequently invokes the words of Isaiah 53, a passage of profound Christological significance for Christian readers; and several key episodes allude, both verbally and through narrative pattern, to the Christian sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist, and confession (penance and reconciliation). In addition, there is in the text an interpretive trace or echo of the religious pluralism of John Hick, who proposed that “there is not merely one way but a plurality of ways of salvation or liberation.”2 This pluralistic paradigm takes familiar Christian references and allusions, appropriating the spiritual and ethical associations of these Christian allusions, but reinterpreting their religious meaning through the pluralist theological paradigm.

Read intertextually, the novel raises important questions as to whether these allusive practices by a “host text” demonstrate hermeneutical hospitality or, perhaps, a more subversive undermining of the religious texts it reinterprets. While the intertextual text employs familiar rhetorical figures such as allusion or direct quotation—and this paper will at times refer to allusion as a metonymical shorthand for various rhetorical strategies employed in Deep River—Kristeva’s concept of the intertextual novel redefines the relationship between host text and its antecedent sources. Kristeva cites the view of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, that “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another,”3 to define intertextuality as an appropriation of multiple voices and perspectives which results in referential ambivalence. According to Kristeva’s reading of Bakhtin, a “writer can use another’s word, giving it a new meaning while retaining the meaning it already had. The result is a word with two significations: it becomes ambivalent.”4 What Bakhtin called the “hidden interior polemic” is a type of verbal ambiguity “characterized by the active (modifying) influence of another’s words on the writer’s word. It is the writer who ‘speaks,’ but a foreign discourse is constantly present in the speech that it distorts.”5

Kristevan and Bakhtinian intertextuality has a powerful anti-authoritarian teleology to it. For Bakhtin, writing in the context of the authoritarian Soviet state, the subversive nature of the dialogic text serves a purpose of political dissidence, but for Kristeva, that dissidence serves what she terms an “anti-theological” purpose.6

One need not agree with Kristeva that all such texts are inevitably “anti-Christian and anti-rationalist”7 to recognize that the “hidden interior polemic” could be a powerful means of undermining official pronouncements of powerful institutions, including the church. Such is the effect of the interpretive presence of Hick’s religious pluralism in Endo’s novel. This interpretive paradigm of pluralism acts as the “foreign discourse” in the novel, altering and redefining the iconography and the sacred texts that the novel, as host text, invites into its narrative.

For the first half of his career, Endo frequently described a tension between his Japanese identity and the beliefs of his adopted Christian faith, often using the metaphor of Christianity as a Western-style suit that did not fit his Japanese body. His project, as he described it to Kazumi Yamagata, was to “reshape this Western dress that my mother gave me and make it fit the Japanese body; [to explore if] it was possible to adapt Christianity to our mentality without distorting Christianity.”8 After Silence (1966), a novel in which a character provocatively pronounces Christianity to be a sapling that cannot grow in the swampy waters of Japan,9 Endo apparently concluded that the problem was with a paternalistic, judgmental Christianity that, in his view, had been shaped by Western culture. In his Life of Jesus, Endo articulated an alternative, maternal theology of Jesus’ love:

The religious mentality of the Japanese is—just as it was at the time when the people accepted Buddhism—responsive to one who “suffers with us” and who “allows for our weakness,” but their mentality has little tolerance for any kind of transcendent being who judges humans harshly, then punishes them. In brief, the Japanese tend to seek in their gods and buddhas a warm-hearted mother rather than a stern father. With this fact always in mind I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus.10

From this point in his career, Endo would characterize Jesus’ love almost exclusively in terms of an empathetic identification with human suffering. Many readers, myself included, have interpreted this development in Endo’s thinking as an expression of his desire to find an enculturated expression of Christianity congenial to Japanese culture. By the time he wrote Deep River, however, Endo had apparently moved beyond Christian orthodoxy to embrace the paradigm of religious pluralism. Indeed, Mark Williams argues that Endo had “openly espoused” pluralism long before Deep River and that it can be “clearly seen germinating in his earlier works.”11

While composing Deep River, Endo discovered John Hick’s 1985 book, The Problems of Religious Pluralism, and embraced Hick’s argument that no religion has exclusive access to the divine. In his composition notes, Endo describes the shock of discovering a Christian theologian who claimed that “world religions are seeking the same God through different paths, cultures, and symbols” and who proposed that “religious pluralism should give up such a theology as to see Jesus as Messiah, and so should reconsider the problem of Jesus’s incarnation and of the Holy Trinity.”12 Hick rejected what he called “a juridical conception of salvation” whereby humans are granted a “change of status in the eyes of God from the guilt of participation in Adam’s original sin to a forgiveness made possible by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,”13 instead redefining salvation or liberation as “the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness.”14

In Deep River, Endo shapes the spiritual quests of his characters in pluralistic terms. Each character needs to be brought out of self-enclosed isolation to encounter some form of divine reality and to experience unconditional love and acceptance. Four of the characters (the remarkably cynical and nihilistic divorcée Mitsuko Naruse, the guilt-stricken war hero Kiguchi, the recently-widowed businessman Isobe, and Numada, the writer of children’s tales) have traveled to India to tour its sacred Buddhist sites. In Varinasi, they meet up with Otsu, one of Endo’s most compelling characters. Socially inept as a young man, he had been seduced and abandoned by Ms. Naruse, tried unhappily to reconcile his Japanese sensibilities with the scholastic theology he studied in a French seminary, and now pursues an unconventional ministry of bringing the dead bodies of the untouchables to the funeral pyres by the banks of the Ganges. Otsu is a contemporary holy fool, who understands one thing well: because Jesus has experienced rejection, he will never abandon anyone. Otsu clings fiercely to the unconditional love of Jesus and seeks to emulate that love in his idiosyncratic practice of the Imitatio Christi.

These tourists harbor private secrets too shameful or embarrassing to voice. Kiguchi wants to offer Buddhist prayers on behalf of his fellow soldiers who perished in the harrowing retreat through the jungles of Burma. He cannot forget the horrors of war and the guilt felt by his army buddy Tsukada for having eaten the flesh of a dead soldier. Isobe is in India on a quixotic quest to see if his deceased wife might be reincarnated as a young Indian girl. For most of his life, Isobe has embodied the stereotype of the workaholic Japanese businessman who takes his wife for granted and has only discovered upon her death how deeply he misses her. Numada has since childhood found it easier to communicate with dogs and birds than with humans and as an adult would confide his deepest secrets to a myna bird. This bird died while Numada was undergoing a dangerous operation, and Numada has long believed that the bird had, in some mysterious way, died in his place. He has come to India to repay this debt by releasing another bird into a bird sanctuary. Ms. Naruse’s motives for traveling to India are less clear, but she has never been able to forget the earnest young man she heartlessly seduced and discarded and has kept in touch with him sporadically from his seminary days to his present vocation of mercy. As a younger woman, she despised Otsu’s “foreign” god, and throughout her life had fiercely guarded her autonomy while simultaneously acknowledging her incapacity to love. She comes to India out of boredom, curiosity, and a spiritual longing of which she may not be entirely aware.

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53

From the earliest chapters of Deep River, with the extended flashback to Mitsuko’s and Otsu’s undergraduate days, to the day of the riot that appears to take Otsu’s life, the text of Isaiah 53 appears as a recurring refrain. From their first appearance, the suffering servant references are woven into a narrative argument that Christianity must be liberated from Western culture. In chapter three, the narrative takes us back to Mitsuko’s and Otsu’s undergraduate days at a Catholic university, where, as she waits for Otsu, she sees the crucifix, opens the Bible, and reads from Isaiah 53:

…he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him…. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.15

Initially, this passage emphasizes the cultural incomprehensibility of this image. Mitsuko implicitly associates the man with no beauty in the text with the iconic image of “the scrawny naked man on the cross,” the “ugly man she did not believe in.”16 Mitsuko, who has no discernible beliefs of her own, is offended that Otsu would serve this foreign God and determines to seduce Otsu, thereby intending to make him betray this God. Throughout the novel, Mitsuko continues to dismiss Christianity as a foreign religion. When she meets up with Otsu years later at the seminary in France, she tells him, “‘You’re a strange man. You’re Japanese, aren’t you? It makes my teeth stand on edge just to think of you as a Japanese believing in this European Christianity nonsense.’”17 In his defense, Otsu insists that he does not “‘believe in European Christianity’” and that he finds European “ways of thinking … ponderous to an Asian” like himself.18 Otsu’s statement concisely expresses the problem that Endo explored throughout his writing career: Christianity appears to many of his Japanese characters to be so enculturated in Western ways of thinking that it feels alien to their cultural identity. Because of Mitsuko’s antipathy to the word “God,” he proposes that they use an arbitrary signifier, “the 70 Onion,” to refer to a “force,” or an “entity that performs the labours of love.”19 Ironically, it is through the suffering servant motif of Isaiah 53 that Mitsuko discovers an alternative image of the divine, one less alienating to her cultural sensibilities. Mitsuko even begins to think of Otsu in language reminiscent of Isaiah: “He [Otsu] had no charm as a man, had nothing in his looks that might appeal to her, and he always aroused her feelings of contempt.”20 Although she claims to despise Otsu, she continues to write to him and to read the letters in which he defines his vocational mission in terms of Jesus’ ministry to the “lonely, the sick, and the suffering.”21 In these letters, he also begins to work out his emerging philosophy of religious pluralism: “‘God has many different faces. I don’t think God exists exclusively in the churches and chapels of Europe. I think he is also among the Jews and the Buddhists and the Hindus.’”22 This theme of God’s multiple faces is developed by associating the suffering servant not only with Christ, but also with Otsu and, through Mitsuko’s imagination, with the goddess Chamunda, “the goddess festering with leprosy, encoiled by poisonous vipers, gaunt, yet nursing children from her drooping breasts. … In them she had discovered the Asian mother who groans beneath the weight of the torments of this life.”23 For Mitsuko, this image of Chamunda is a fitting symbol of human suffering. She did not feel that same identification with the “ugly man on the cross,” but the “Asian mother” Chamunda manages to reach the emotional core of Mitsuko’s being.

In its pluralistically-inclusive practice of hospitable reading, the host text absorbs the language of Isaiah 53 to serve as a proxy for multiple avatars of suffering and compassion. The Isaiah text becomes cross-culturally inscribed in complex ways—as a traditional Christian reference to Jesus’ suffering on behalf of humanity, in support of Otsu’s anti-Western critique of scholastic theology, by association with the Hindu deities of Kali and Chamunda, as an image that fuses Christian and Asian images of suffering love, and then finally as the inspiration for Otsu to take up his own cross to follow Jesus, which Otsu pledges to do on the day of the riot and his fatal wound. Thematically, the novel uses this text to suggest the presence of a longsuffering, divine love infused in all religions, a love that, like the great river itself, welcomes all of humanity.

While it appears that the suffering servant motif becomes an inclusive expression of a universal divine love, the textual host exercises an important editorial excision that significantly transforms the meaning of his suffering. In the novel, the references to Isaiah 53 never complete verse 4, instead ending with the clause “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” What is omitted are the theologically significant lines that follow:

… yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
[5] But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.
[6] All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Revised Standard Version)

Ending the quotations with the reference to bearing griefs and sorrows is consistent with Endo’s depiction of Jesus as an empathetic fellow-sufferer who understands grief and comforts the sorrowful. The omitted verses, however, point to the heart of the Christian gospel: the suffering servant is “wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities,” and it is through this very “chastisement” that the people are made whole. Isaiah speaks of these sufferings as a punishment on behalf of others, a theme that Paul expands on in Romans where he explains the meaning of Jesus’ death: “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25, RSV). The apostle Peter quotes directly from Isaiah 53 to declare that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (I Peter 2: 24-25, RSV).

Omitting these references in Isaiah 53 to what the Christian church has always recognized to refer to Christ’s redemptive suffering on the cross might be an innocent redaction, a desire to focus primarily on Jesus’ empathetic experience of suffering without dismissing the salvific purpose of his death, were it not for the pluralist trace, which not only makes the idea of an atoning death unnecessary but identifies it as the problem for which pluralism is the solution. Moreover, the narrative echoes of the sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist, and penance also follow this theological revisionism by reinterpreting the meaning of the sacraments in therapeutic rather than soteriological terms.

The sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist, and penance (of which our focus will be on confession) are each alluded to in significant plot narratives in Deep River. The first two (baptism and the Eucharist) are part of the “sacraments of Christian initiation” while penance (confession) is the first of the “sacraments of healing.”24 Each of these sacraments is inextricably connected to the sacrificial death of Jesus, through which the grace of salvation is extended. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, of which Endo was a member, teaches that “through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God.”25 Through the Eucharist, “those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.”26 The sacrament of penance and reconciliation, which includes the act of confession, involves an acknowledgement “of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.”27 All of these sacraments point to the central claim of the Christian gospel: that humans are naturally in a state of sinful alienation from God, but that through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, they may be saved from their sins and receive the gift of eternal life.

In the novel, these sacramental motifs appear at moments of spiritual cleansing or emotional healing that occur in the lives of several characters. While these sacramental motifs draw ethical and even spiritual power from their association with the death of Jesus, they minimize the need for the kind of confession that leads to repentance; indeed, they avoid using the category of sin as a descriptor of human actions. What marks the turning points in these characters’ lives is not a turning from sin to grace as much as it is a turning away from egotism, self-absorption, and loneliness toward greater empathy and love. The “salvation” of these characters thus follows the pluralist paradigm by which Hick refers to salvation as “the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness.”28

Mitsuko’s spiritual quest takes her at the end of the novel literally into the sacred river in an initiation rite that, with symbolic allusions both to Christian baptism and to Hindu purification rites, suggests some form of spiritual epiphany. Before entering the river, Mitsuko overhears a guide explain that “‘The Hindus believe that once you enter this river, all of your past sins are washed away.”29 Indeed, the Ganges is understood to be “the archetype of all sacred waters; she is a goddess, Mother Gangā (Gangā Mātā), representative of the life-giving maternal waters of the ancient Vedic hymns; above all, she is the symbol par excellence of purity and the purifying power of the sacred.”30 At the same time, Mitsuko also continues her obsessive fixation on Otsu and the “Onion,” wondering “why did she care about him, why did she keep searching for him even as she went on mocking him”?31 The ambiguous pronoun “him” could refer either to Otsu or to the “Onion,” who, despite Otsu’s definition of the Onion as a force, is increasingly identified in the novel as a proxy for Jesus of Nazareth.

Both the Christian sacrament of baptism and Hindu purification rites presume that the water is associated with cleansing from sin. Mitsuko’s spiritual epiphany, however, conspicuously avoids any conscious expression of confession or even regret. Rather, it is an expression of discovery. Her self-described “‘fabricated prayer’”32 is largely an expression of her identification with the “river of humanity”:

I have learned, though, that there is a river of humanity…. I feel as though I’ve started to understand what I was yearning for through all the many mistakes of my past”
“What I can believe in now is the sight of all these people, each carrying his or her own individual burdens, praying at this river…. I believe that the river embraces these people and carries them away… and I am a part of it.33

The closest her prayer comes to a confession of sin is her reference to “the many mistakes of my past,” which she attributes to an unknown yearning. As an admission of sin, it is somewhat less robust than that expected in either Christian baptism or Hindu purification rites. Also unlike Christian baptism, in which God is always named in the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Mitsuko resolutely refuses to name the object of her prayer, even maintaining ambivalence about the arbitrary name “Onion,” implying that it might itself be a portal that, at best, gestures toward something greater “that could not be limited to the Onion.”34 Her willingness to open herself up to, and identify with, the experiences of humanity represents a moment of significant personal growth for her, a sharp contrast to her hellion days of youth when she eagerly and maliciously sought her pleasure by inflicting pain on others. Her epiphany also illustrates the generic movement from self-centeredness to an other-centeredness by which Hick defines salvation. If it is meant to draw on the symbolic associations of baptism or a purification rite, however, it does so by omitting, or at the least minimizing, the need for repentance.

In addition to this baptismal motif, the novel has several confessional scenes. Kiguchi’s and Numada’s stories have multiple levels of self-disclosure, including moments that resemble the rite of confession. Both stories, coincidentally, are revised versions of short stories Endo wrote a decade or more earlier, and it is by comparing the earlier versions with the revised form in which they appear in Deep River that we can see most clearly Endo’s displacement of the theological language of confession in favor of a more therapeutic desire for self-disclosure and understanding.

Kiguchi needs to reveal the burden he has carried with him since the Second World War, a story that Endo first wrote in 1984 as a short story with the theologically-significant title, “The Last Supper.”35 Both versions share the same basic plot: a soldier named Tsukada survived the infamous Death March through Burma by eating the flesh of a deceased comrade. For the rest of his life, Tsukada is tormented by guilt and drinks himself to an early death, spending his last hours in a hospital where a foreign volunteer hears his confession and gives him absolution of sorts by indicating that he, too, as a survivor of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes, had eaten human flesh. By confessing his deed and hearing these words of understanding, Tsukada is able to die in peace. In “The Last Supper,” the foreign volunteer is an Argentinian named Echenique; in Deep River, the foreigner is a Frenchman named Gaston. In Deep River, Kiguchi was a fellow soldier, whose life was saved because Tsukada ate human flesh and thereby maintained his strength to carry his comrade to safety.

There are several subtle differences between the two versions of the story, differences that indicate a shift in the way that sin, guilt, and forgiveness are presented. In the earlier version, Tsukada ate the flesh of his deceased comrade for his own survival, not to save the life of another. Hence, Tsukada asks the Christian foreigner if his God could forgive “someone who has fallen into such depravity.”36 In Deep River, Tsukada asks if “someone who’s fallen that far into the hell of starvation” could be forgiven,37 the former term “depravity” conveying a moral failure while the latter construction (“fallen into the hell of starvation”) suggests greater passivity into material conditions of deprivation. The fact that Tsukada eats the meat to save Kiguchi’s life also affects the way in which the action is viewed by others. Late in the novel, Kiguchi dreams that Gaston explained to him that his friend “‘would be forgiven because he had done it out of compassion.’”38 This subtle change implies that forgiveness is merited if an offense is motivated by compassion. Christian forgiveness, however, does not depend upon what motivated the transgression, a truth more clearly communicated in the earlier version of the story.

The later version also changes the narrator of Kiguchi’s story from the hospital psychiatrist to Kiguchi himself. The earlier version contrasts the psychiatrist’s inability to relieve Tsukada’s guilt with the theologically-inflected compassion of the Christian foreigner, whose words seem to bring Tsukada peace in his final moments. To be sure, the psychiatrist manages to draw out Tsukada’s painful confession, but his consolations offer Tsukada no lasting relief: “Mr. Tsukada. You drink every night to forget those eyes, don’t you? … But not even that child [the son of the deceased soldier] blames you. It’s just the way things were.”39 By contrast, Echenique, after hearing Tsukada’s story, has his own startling revelation. One of the survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 that crashed in the Andes in 1972, he lived by eating the flesh of the deceased fellow passengers. In a brilliant plot device, Endo gives Echenique’s experience Eucharistic symbolism, using language that alludes, as does the title of the story, to the Last Supper.

Echenique explains that a priest on the plane sustained fatal injuries, but before dying, he gave the surviving passengers permission to eat his flesh. This priest had been a habitual drinker, and he implored the rest of the passengers to “eat my body … and wait until you’re saved.”40 In a bit of grim humor, he cannot help but joke about his alcohol-saturated body: “If you eat too much in one sitting, you’ll get drunk. I’ve got a thirteen-year supply of alcohol inside me.”41 This man offers up his body and his wine that others might be saved, and Echenique, in his halting Japanese, emphasizes the sacramental overtones of this grisly action: “I too eat. … But then I eat also his love.”42

In Deep River, the Eucharistic overtones remain, if less pronounced. The dying passenger, still described as a drunken man, tells the passengers to eat his flesh for “help” will come,43 a term with less theological resonance than the word “saved.” The narrative omits the joke about ingesting the man’s alcohol in his flesh, instead treating his history of alcoholism primarily as his moral failing that his final act of generosity redeems in the eyes of others. Most telling, however, is the final image given of Gaston sitting beside Tsukada’s bed:

Kiguchi could not tell whether such comfort eased Tsukada’s pain. But the figure of Gaston kneeling beside his bed looked like a bent nail, and the bent nail struggled to become one with the contortions of Tsukada’s mind, and to suffer along with Tsukada.44

When Tsukada finally does pass away, “Kiguchi couldn’t help but feel that this peaceful death-mask had been made possible because Gaston had soaked up all the anguish in Tsukada’s heart.”45 This beautiful and emotionally powerful image of a fellow-sufferer makes the purpose of his compassion the easing of Tsukada’s anguish, an action that is depicted without reference to forgiveness.

Numada has a different story of confession, one that merges the sacramental imagery of confession with the motif of a substitutionary death. An earlier version of Numada’s story appears as “A Forty-Year-Old Man,” with a different protagonist (Suguro) and a different context. Nevertheless, both stories share these elements: Numada (Suguro) had a pet bird to whom he used to tell his deepest secrets, things he could never confide to another human being. Numada (Suguro) also happened to have a chronic lung condition, which necessitated a risky operation during which his heart stopped on the operating table, leaving him momentarily dead. During his hospitalization, nobody remembered to care for his bird, which ended up dying during the operation. In both stories, the protagonist has the strong conviction that the bird died in his place, the Christian symbolism of which is unmistakable.

Once again, however, the alterations to the story serve to de-emphasize the soteriological theme of a vicarious death on behalf of a man who has sinned (“A Forty-Year-Old Man”) to the theme which predominates throughout Deep River, of the companionship of one who takes on our deepest burdens and demonstrates an unconditional love to the point of laying down one’s life for another. Confession is no longer the plea of a sinner who needs forgiveness but the plea of a lonely and alienated man who needs understanding.

In “A Forty-Year-Old Man,” Suguro bears the guilt of having betrayed his wife by sleeping with her cousin and subsequently taking her to an abortion clinic. This is the secret that he confesses to his myna bird, whom the narrator explicitly likens to a “priest seated in the confessional.”46 Endo skillfully uses blood imagery as expressions of Suguro’s guilt and as symbolic reminders of the atoning blood of Jesus. After his close call on the operating table, Suguro leaves the hospital with his wife, who seems to know about the affair, and who also apparently forgives her husband with the reassurance that “everything will be all right now.”47 Her forgiveness is symbolically reinforced by her statement that the bird died in his place, a phrase redolent with overtones of Jesus’ substitutionary death. This motif of confession draws on the traditional theology of the atonement and the relationship between confession of sin and forgiveness.

In Deep River, Numada’s story omits any reference to sin and guilt, transforming the practice of confession into a symbol of one’s need for self-disclosure to a non-judgmental being. Numada’s plight is not guilt but rather the intense loneliness he has experienced since childhood, a loneliness that has led him to the imaginative creation of an animal world in his books for children. The motif of a substitutionary death remains, the bird having apparently died in Numada’s place, but there seems to be no particular logic for this substitutionary death. Instead, the bird’s death seems simply to be an expression of unconditional love from a creature, even when it dies from neglect. The bird’s death also prefigures Otsu’s eventual death. In seeking to save the tourist Sanjo, who had violated the taboo against photographing the dead, from an angry mob, Otsu literally gives his life to save another man’s life.

This model of unconditional love, identified with Jesus, Otsu, Chamunda, the myna bird and throughout Endo’s oeuvre with a host of other unconventional exemplars of longsuffering love, reveals the heart of Endo’s theology. To the extent that Endo simply emphasizes the “suffering and brokenness of Christ,”48 he stands within an important strand of Japanese theology that Richard Mouw and Douglas Sweeney refer to as “Christus dolor theology.”49 However, as Mouw and Sweeney remind us, “to recognize that Jesus has suffered with us needs in no way to detract from the fact that in eternally significant ways he also suffered for us … bearing the full burden of our sin and guilt in ways that we could never do for ourselves.”50 That is the theological understanding of Jesus’ sufferings that the narrator of Deep River quietly abandons with the selective and theologically incomplete reading of Isaiah 53 and with the sacramental imagery emptied of soteriological significance. The cleansing of baptismal waters, the confessional self-disclosures, and even the Eucharistic overtones of eating human flesh come to signify therapeutic transformations of these characters, leading them from self-enclosed isolation into what Mitsuko calls the “river of humanity.51

It is this pattern of subverting the orthodox meanings of the Christian texts and motifs in Deep River that defines the narrative as intertextual in the Kristevan sense, rather than as a more conventional rhetoric of allusion. By situating the characters’ transformative experiences in sacramental language and imagery, the narrative suggests that something of salvific significance has taken place, but the hidden interior polemic redefines those experiences in a therapeutic rather than theological idiom. There is a subversive element to this pattern of reading and appropriating sacred texts and images, of drawing from the rich spiritual capital of the Christian sacraments but then emptying them of their spiritual signification. While such textual and hermeneutical practices may well be defended as intellectually or even theologically necessary from the pluralist standpoint, one would be hard-pressed to describe this as a charitable form of reading the Christian tradition. Charitable reading practices, at least on some level, imply a hermeneutical adaptation of the Golden Rule (to read as one would wish to be read by others). One irony of the novel is that while the great river is a metaphor of hospitable welcome to all peoples and all spiritual practices, the novel itself does not seem to open up space for orthodox expressions of the Christian faith.

As a host text, Deep River consists of the stories of several individuals—Isobe, Numada, Kiguchi, Mitsuko, and Otsu—which are absorbed into a larger narrative about spiritual transformation. The narrative encourages a hospitable reading of their personal stories, their private struggles treated with generosity and respect and their human dignity affirmed. Likewise, the text welcomes multiple religious personae of this culturally and spiritually pluralistic setting—from the named deities Kali and Chamunda to the more archetypally generic “Asian mother” that the tour guide Enami passionately honors, from the generic and syncretistic “Onion” to the explicit textual presence of Jesus. As befits the titular symbol of the great river that embraces all of humanity, this narrative inclusivity reflects an expansive understanding of what it means to love one’s neighbor in an increasingly interconnected world.

In the classical world, hospitality was demanded by the gods and motivated to some extent by fear lest the stranger at one’s door turn out to be a deity in disguise. Jesus’ ethic of hospitality motivates, not by appealing to the fear of offending a deity but by elevating the moral status of “the least of these,” for He asserts that whatever acts of charity and kindness are offered to the most insignificant of humans are accepted as if they were performed directly for God (Matt. 25: 35-40).

In welcoming the suffering servant of Isaiah into the text, Deep River affirms this kingdom ethic of hospitable love for all people, no matter how insignificant or marginalized. Yet in its editorial concision of Isaiah 53, the textual host does not recognize the complete identity of the suffering servant: he is the man of sorrows, to be sure, despised and rejected by humanity, yet he also becomes the savior, the one by whose suffering humanity is healed, and he is exalted by the prophet as the “righteous one” who will “make many to be accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53:11, RSV). This is the incarnate God whose identity may easily be missed in the ambivalent texts of Deep River.

Cite this article
John T. Netland, “Rewriting the Death of Jesus: An Intertextual Reading of Shusaku Endo’s Deep River”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:1 , 65–78


  1. Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi, trans. Seán Hand (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986). 37.
  2. John Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 34.
  3. Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” 37.
  4. Ibid., 43–44.
  5. Ibid., 44.
  6. Ibid., 47, 49.
  7. Ibid., 50.
  8. Kazumi Yamagata, “Mr. Shusaku Endo Talks About His Life and Works as a Catholic Writer,” The Chesterton Review 12 (1986): 495.
  9. Shusaku Endo, Silence, trans. William Johnston (New York: Taplinger, 1966), 147.
  10. Shusaku Endo, A Life of Jesus, trans. Richard A. Schuchert, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1973), 1.
  11. Mark Williams, “Crossing the Deep River: Endo Shusaku and the Problem of Religious Pluralism,” in Xavier’s Legacies: Catholicism in Modern Japanese Culture, ed. Kevin M. Doak (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011), 116-117.
  12. Quoted by John Hick in John Hick: An Autobiography (Oxford: One World, 2002), 286.
  13. Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 31-32.
  14. Ibid., 29.
  15. Shusaku Endo, Deep River, trans. Van C. Gessel (New York: New Directions, 1994), 44-45.
  16. Ibid., 45.
  17. Ibid., 64.
  18. Ibid., 65.
  19. Ibid., 64.
  20. Ibid., 116.
  21. Ibid., 123.
  22. Ibid., 121.
  23. Ibid., 175.
  24. he Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Two: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, Section Two: The Seven Sacraments of the Church, §1211. Online Resource. The, 1993. __P3E.HTM.
  25. Ibid., §1213.
  26. Ibid., §1322.
  27. 7Ibid., §1424.
  28. Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 29.
  29. Endo, Deep River, 196.
  30. Lindsay Jones, Mircea Eliade, and Charles J. Adams, Encyclopedia of Religion (Detroit: Macmillan, 2005), 5:3274.
  31. Endo, Deep River, 209.
  32. Ibid., 210.
  33. Ibid., 210–211.
  34. Ibid., 211.
  35. Shusaku Endo, “The Last Supper,” in The Final Martyrs, trans. Van C. Gessel (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1993), 147-167.
  36. Ibid., 164.
  37. Endo, Deep River, 101.
  38. Ibid., 200.
  39. Endo, “The Last Supper,” 160.
  40. Ibid., 165–166.
  41. Ibid., 166.
  42. Ibid., 166.
  43. Endo, Deep River, 102.
  44. Ibid., 103.
  45. Ibid., 103.
  46. Shusaku Endo, “A Forty-Year-Old Man,” in Stained Glass Elegies, trans. Van C. Gessel (New York: New Directions, 1984), 23.
  47. Ibid., 27.
  48. Richard J. Mouw and Douglas A. Sweeney, The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 2.
  49. Ibid., 1.
  50. Ibid., 95.
  51. Endo, Deep River, 211.

John T. Netland

Union University
John T. Netland is Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and Professor of English at Union University.