Review of “Silence” by Shūsaku Endō

Today marks the 420th anniversary of the twenty-six Japanese martyrs of Nagasaki in 1597 under the Tokugawa shogunate. Shūsaku Endō’s novel, Silence, takes place during the shogunate’s persecution of Christians in the 1640s when many Japanese Christians died for the faith. The controversial nature of the novel and the film has yielded negative reviews which claim the message of Endō’s work is the justification of apostasy and positive reviews which praise the moral ambiguity inherent in the novel devoid of clear black and white solutions.1 Both interpretations are valid for a surface level reading of Silence but there is a depth to the novel missed in many interpretations.2

Summary of Silence

Christianity was completely banned in the 1630s resulting in matyrdoms of Japanese Christians and apostasies.3 Rumours of esteemed Jesuit Fr. Christovao Ferreira apostatizing under torture have reached Rome and his former pupils, Frs. Sebastian Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe, set out to discover the truth. The Jesuits enter Japan and hide in a village through the aid of a cowardly Japanese man named Kichijiro.

To test secret Christians, leaders of the Tokugawa shogunate present a fumi-e to be trampled by Japanese subjects.4 Those who refuse to trample reveal their secret identites as Christians and may be executed. Those who do trample either were not Christians or they are Christians who renounce their faith. Kichijiro claims to be a Christian but consistently steps on the fumi-e out of fear for his life and Rodrigues looks upon him with disdain because Kichijiro will not die like other Japanese matyrs.5

Rodrigues is later betrayed by Kichijiro and captured by the authorities. Other Japanese Christians are forced to undergo a horrendous torture, tsurushi, unless Rodrigues tramples on the fumi-e and apostatizes.6 Throughout the book, Rodrigues questions why God would be silent while His people suffer and the priest is anguished by the tortures the Christians are enduring. He then hears the voice of Christ in the fumie saying,

Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross (p. 259).

Rodrigues tramples on the fumie and apostatizes. The book ends describing Rodrigues’s new life with his Japanese wife, his work to identify secret Christian objects for the authorities to keep Christianity out of Japan, and his continual renunciations of the faith.

Clarifying the English Translation of Silence

Silence is hampered by its translation into English. When the voice of Christ tells Rodrigues to trample, the command is not as abrupt as it appears in English. Instead, Christ speaks in a gentle maternal tone sympathizing with Rodrigues as if to say, “It is all right to trample.”7 Additionally, the English translation states Rodrigues writes several books disavowing the faith in the so called “Appendix” chapter.8 This “writing a book” is actually a recantation formula against the faith Rodrigues signs. He must renew his apostasy because he commits secret Christian actions like hearing a confession.9 Lastly, the word translated as “apostasy” in English is often a Japanese word meaning “fall” without any religious significance. The word “fall” is used in conjunction with the word “rise” to illustrate a cycle of rising and falling throughout the novel.10

God as the Non-Silent Character of the Novel

Endō later regretted following his publisher’s advice to use the title Silence because this makes the novel more easily misunderstood. The silence of God is an overt theme throughout the novel but it has been mistaken by readers as the primary theme.11 Endō later clarified he was not writing about God’s silence and this is confirmed when God actually speaks from the fumi-e; God’s voice emerges within silence.12 When Rodrigues questions why God was silent, God replies that He was not silent but suffered with the priest in his anguish.13 Since God is not silent throughout the book, the title must have another referent. Endō originally wanted to use the title “The Scent of a Sunny Place” to convey the “loneliness of a defeated man such as Ferreira, who stands beneath the harsh rays of the sun, arms folded, and reflects on all he has lost.”14 This unused title also confirms God’s silence is not the primary theme. Rather, it is people like Rodrigues and other outcasts who are silenced.

The first half of the novel presents Rodrigues’s first-person perspective. Everything is seen through his eyes and he is clearly the main character. After Rodrigues is captured, the novel switches to a third-person point of view and Rodrigues’s internal thoughts are not as accessible as in earlier chapters. He is still the main character but he has lost some prominence. At the end of Silence, Rodrigues loses his identity by being given a Japanese name to replace his Christian one and he is casually mentioned in official records. When he dies, he is given a new Buddhist name resulting in him being lost in history.15 Endō later explained, “What I was trying to say was that, by allowing those who have been silenced by history or the church to relate their own life’s experiences, God is speaking of His own existence.”16 Thus, God is not silent even though He may be perceived to be in the midst of suffering but God is silenced by removing other people from memory.17

Kichijiro as Judas or Peter?

Kichijiro is a coward and a drunk.18 At first he denies he is a Christian to the Jesuits because he renounced the faith in the past by stepping on the fumi-e while his family refused to apostatize and were killed. Upon his return to Japan with the Jesuits, he vainly assumes the reputation of an exemplary Christian. However, Kichijiro apostatizes every time he is tested by the authorities to step on the fumi-e. He later betrays Rodrigues and hands the Jesuit over to the authorities for silver coins. Up to this point, Kichijiro clearly appears as Judas.

However, this weak-willed Japanese man follows after Rodrigues as the authorities persecute the priest and he seeks the sacrament of confession. Kichijiro says he could have been a good Christian if he did not have to undergo persecution. He complains he was created a weak man and the weak are unable to die a martyr’s death. Rodrigues looks down on Kichijiro for his cowardice and lack of fortitude but Rodrigues’s pride blinds him from seeing that the sacrament of reconciliation is for weak men.19 Kichijiro’s actions are also reminiscient of Peter the apostle, who followed Christ at a distance during His passion, denied Christ out of cowardice, and later received forgiveness. A cock crows at the moment of Rodrigues’s apostasy recalling St. Peter’s denial of Jesus three times. After recognizing that he denied Christ, Rodrigues later realizes that there is no difference between him and Kichijiro.20 Both the Jesuit and the Japanese man have denied Christ like Judas and St. Peter.

Kichijiro does not perfectly fit the Judas or Petrine analogies. He does not fall off into a despair that leads him to suicide like Judas and he does not embrace martyrdom like St. Peter eventually did. However, he is an example of every person’s failure to remain faithful by sinning against God and neighbor but he repents of his continual sins and weaknesses while weeping.21

The Face of Christ and Luther’s Theologians of Glory and Theologians of the Cross

The novel has been criticized for having a Protestant theology and Endō explained that the theology inherent in Silence represented his position.22 He believed Christianity failed to take root in Japan because it has only presented a triumphant Christ to the Japanese and neglected the idea of Christ suffering with His people.23 Instead of presenting Christ like an authoritarian father, Endō wanted to portray Him as an unconditional loving mother who does not spurn human weaknesses.24 The theology of the novel is expressed in the changing face of Christ who is at first remembered by Rodrigues as beautiful and serene. Upon Rodrigues’s capture, he begins to see Christ’s face as ugly, worn down, and tired.

The changing face of Christ is the primary theme of the novel which alters Rodrigues’s understanding of God.25 Rodrigues’s transformation mirrors a change from what Martin Luther called a theologian of glory to a theologian of the cross.26 Theologians of glory speculate on the nature of God and His actions beyond divine revelation. They try to understand God as virtuous and powerful according to reason but they end up constructing a God in their own image.27 Their theologies minimize the suffering of the cross and glorify good works. Theologians of the cross base their theologies on the visible revelation of God centered on the cross. They recognize God is hidden in suffering and not in some rational construct. Luther wrote, “[T]rue theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ…God can only be found in suffering and the cross.”28

Luther’s discussion of these theologians occurs in the context of following the law of God by human works contrasted with faith in God. In his view, humans are utterly incapable of doing a good work and only faith in Christ makes a person righteous.29 Theologians of the cross recognize the depravity of the human condition and that only by being reduced to nothing through suffering can a person recognize God.30 A Christian may do good works but they have no impact on his salvation.

An Erroneous Theology of Silence

The similarities between Lutheran Protestant theology and Silence are intriguing even if the novel does not perfectly fit Luther’s scheme. Rodrigues’s apostasy has been interpreted by some readers as a Christ-like act where the Jesuit denies himself to save others instead of following institutional rules and he continues the rest of his life renewing his apostasy. He claims to be a Christian who believes in God but this is only possible by justifying his bad actions with his good intentions; it is an action separating what he does from what he believes.31 Many so-called Christians today believe their actions are irrelevant as long as Jesus is accepted in one’s heart.

However, this type of theology contradicts the biblical notion that deeds have an impact on a person’s salvation (see Matt 25:31–46; 1 Cor 3:8, 12–15Rev 14:13). Following God’s commandments and acts of charity are not works which are irrelevant to one’s salvation. Jesus says to the young ruler, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:17). He also says, “[W]hoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:33) It is impossible to understand how Rodrigues can claim to believe in God if he rejects the commandments of the Lord he claims to follow. The only explanation is Rodrigues believes in a distorted God of Jesus Christ or he has constructed a new god contradicting Jesus.

Suppose a situation where the mayor of a large city is married and has several children still living at home. An enemy of the city has decided to obliterate it with a nuclear weapon unless the mayor comes into enemy territory without his family, lives under house arrest, and must produce a new family with a new spouse provided by the enemy government. Some may think the mayor should follow the enemy’s request to save the most people. This is a consequentialist or utilitarian viewpoint which determines the good according to quantity. The original family of the mayor must suffer pain in order to minimize the pain of a greater number of people. The mayor commits the evil action of denying his wife and children for the good effect to save others and this viewpoint only recognizes a person’s dignity if they are part of the majority.

Rodrigues made a choice to lessen the pain of the people who heard being tortured and rejected the relationship he had with Jesus. It is an inverted Christology which states one should reject Christ in order to act Christ-like to lessen other people’s pain. A closer analogy to Rodrigues’s apostasy is Jesus denying His relationship with the Father and failing to go through His passion because of the suffering other people will endure in His name. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are you who reduce the pain of others by denying me.” If the mayor decides not to deny his family, he is not responsible for the actions of his enemy and he can truly suffer with his city even if he cannot erase the pain.

How to Read Silence with Faith

Silence is a work of fiction which touches on truths in the areas of history and religion. However, it is not primarily concerned with historical accuracy like one would find in a textbook or primary source. Rather, it employs historical situations and people for Endō’s existential inquiry into the lives of apostates. He mixes existential crises preoccupying modern minds with a historical setting.32 Endō visited a museum in Nagasaki about Japanese Christians where he saw a fumi-e and he wondered if he would have stepped on it during persecution. He also sought to understand those who did apostatize and Endō thought the stories of the apostates was worth exploring.33 Thus, a story has been created to examine a hypothetical life of an apostate and Endō successfully created a work of art which provokes one’s understanding of Christians who became lost in history.

Endō also investigates the faith of apostates resembling his own struggle with Catholicism.34 Just as Silence is not a history book, it is also not a manual of faith. It is neither of these genres but it employs both spheres of life for the story of an apostate who struggles to be faithful. Even if Endō portrays Rodrigues’s apostasy as praiseworthy—which is a debatable interpretation—it is irresponsible to receive Endō’s version of Christianity that contradicts the Gospel. Rodrigues’s apostasy is lamentable and not to be imitated as Jesus Himself makes clear in the Gospel. Reading silence to justify apostasy is an anti-Christian argument which places a work of fiction over the testimony of the Apostles. Looking for how to live one’s faith in a work of fiction without being properly taught is just as informative as looking for faith prescriptions in Choose Your Own Adventure books.

However, understanding hypothetical—and possibly actual—experiences of people who are persecuted can help modern readers understand the faith even if a choice of a persecuted Christian is disagreeable. Martyrs and apostates can be analyzed theologically to help advance our understanding of the faith. For example, one can better understand the mercy of God for Kichijiro even though the latter continues to fall or how some apostate Christians tried to keep the faith privately even though this goes against Christ’s command to be faithful. Other topics that can benefit a theological discussion can be whether Rodrigues’s apostasy compares with the criteria of mortal sin or how Christians step on their personal fumi-e today.35 This novel with the “ends justify the means” approach is also analgous to the position in the Church today advocating for communion for those divorced and remarried without an annlument.36

While the novel raises theological issues that can be faithfully analyzed, there is a danger of empathizing with Rodrigues and his situation to the point that an untrained Christian may mistake human compassion for the Gospel. For this reason, Silence is not recommended for Christians who are uncatechized and those who cannot recognize that Rodrigues should not have apostatized. Endō raises the issue of forgiveness for Rodrigues but many may be unable to realize that good intentions do not excuse immoral actions. Endō was a Catholic who had a strained relationship with his faith but his religious identity does not make Silence a Catholic novel. Silence can help readers gain insight into those who are persecuted and give into pressure while seeking God amidst those who suffer but a model example to follow is the twenty-six Japanese martyrs of Nagaski provide who mirrored Christ in their deaths.

Gessel also mentions how Endō was anti-institution.


  1. One negative review is Brad Miner, “Christus Apostata: Scorsese’s ‘Silence’,” The Catholic Thing, December 26, 2016, https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2016/12/26/christus-apostata-scorseses-silence/. One positive review is John Anderson, “The Faithful and the Faithless,” America, December 21, 2016, http://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2016/12/21/silence-complex-film-about-nature-faith-its-wonder-it-ever-got-made/. Other helpful reviews are Amy Welborn, “Reading Silence for the First Time,” The Catholic World Report, December 14, 2016, http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/5281/reading_isilencei_for_the_first_time.aspx; Roy Peachey, “The Troubling Legacy of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence,” First Things, December 27, 2016, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2016/12/the-troubling-legacy-of-shsaku-ends-silence; Meg Hunter-Kilmer, “More than Apostasy: What We’re not Talking about with ‘Silence,'” Aleteia (January 18, 2017), http://aleteia.org/2017/01/18/more-than-apostasy-what-were-not-talking-about-with-silence/; Robert Barron, “Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ and the Seaside Martyrs,” Word on Fire, December 27, 2016, http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/scorseses-silence-and-the-seaside-martyrs/5360/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialmedia&utm_term=fb-barron&utm_content=silence&utm_campaign=article; Dale M. Coulter, “Shūsaku Endō’s Silence and Faithfulness,” First Things, January 3, 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2017/01/shsaku-ends-silence-and-faithfulness; Alexi Sargeant, “Judas in Japan,” New Criterion (January 24, 2017), http://www.newcriterion.com/posts.cfm/Judas-in-Japan-8338; William Doino Jr., “Silence: Scorsese’s Spiritual Masterpiece,” First Things, January 2, 2017, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/01/silence-scorseses-spiritual-masterpiece; Jared Ortiz, “‘Silence’ and Apostasy,” Catholic World Report, January 4, 2017, http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Blog/5324/silence_and_apostasy.aspx; Samuel Bellafiore, “Silence: A First Review,” Church Life Journal, January 5, 2017, http://churchlife.nd.edu/2017/01/05/silence-a-first-review/; W.S. Griffith IV, “Enduring ‘Silence’: An Essay on Shūsaku Endō’s Novel,” Test Everything, December 31, 2016, https://testeverythingblog.com/enduring-silence-18699d1f4fbb#.c757i1xwj; Steven G. Greydanus, “Apostasy and Ambiguity: ‘Silence’ Asks Hard Questions about Faith and Persecution,” National Catholic Register, February 11, 2017, http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/apostasy-and-ambiguity-silence-asks-hard-questions-about-faith-and-persecut
  2. The version of the novel used for this review is Shūsaku Endō, Silence, trans. William Johnston (New York: Taplinger, 1969). There are many thought-provoking themes in Silence including the Japanese swamp contrasted with the universality of Christianity, whether the Japanese Kirishitans believe in the Christian God, and the role of Ferreira but this review can only examine a few themes briefly. 
  3. A historical background of the secret Japanese Christians who persisted from the times of persecution to the present day is provided by Philip Yancey, “Japan’s Faithful Judas, Part 1,” Books and Culture (January/February 1996), http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/1996/janfeb/6b103a.html. Some of these secret Christians today—the Kakure—practice a religion which combines Christianity with elements of other Japanese religions. A good summary of the novel is Philip Yancey, “Japan’s Faithful Judas, Part 2,” Books and Culture (January/February 1996), http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/1996/janfeb/6b103b.html. The articles by Yancey are also published here: http://www.2think.org/endo.shtml 
  4. “A fumi-e (fumi “stepping on” + e “picture”) was a likeness of Jesus or Mary upon which the religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan required suspected Christians (Kirishitan) to step on in order to prove that they were not members of that outlawed religion.” Wikipedia, s.v. “Fumi-e,” last modified January 16, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fumi-e
  5.  Additionally, Rodrigues views the faith of these Japanese Christians as primitive and simplistic because they are concerned with religious objects and view heaven as a place without suffering and oppressive taxation. Rodrigues comments, “The peasants here, just like those at Tomogi, kept pressing me for a small crucifix or medal or holy picture or some such thing. And when I replied that I had left all these things behind, they looked quite crushed. Finally, I had to take my rosary and, unfastening the beads, gave one to each of them. I suppose it is not a bad thing that the Japanese Christians should reverence such things; but somehow their whole attitude makes me uneasy. I keep asking myself if there is not some error in their outlook.” Endō, Silence, 69. Also, “[Rodrigues] felt like shouting out: ‘Heaven is not the sort of place you think it is!’ But he restrained himself. These peasants had learned their catechism like children; they dreamt of a Heaven in which there was no bitter taxation and no oppression. Who was he to put a cruel end to their happy dream?” Ibid., 126. His arrogance is palpable throughout the novel. 
  6.  Wikipedia, s.v. “Tsurushi,” last modified December 31, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsurushi
  7. Van C. Gessel, “Silence on Opposite Shores: Critical Reactions to the Novel in Japan and the West,” in Approaching Silence: New Perspectives on Shusaku Endo’s Classic Novel, ed. Mark W. Dennis and Darren J.N. Middleton (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 38 n. 10. 
  8. This chapter is not separated this way in the original Japanese book and is a crucial part of the novel. Ibid., 40 n. 37. 
  9. Gessel, “Silence on Opposite Shores,” 34, 40 n. 38. Rodrigues administers the sacrament of confession after he apostatizes when Kichijiro asks for it. 
  10. Ibid., 34. 
  11. The primary theme of the novel is the changing face of Christ. Endō said, “To me the most meaningful thing in the novel is the change in the hero’s image of Christ.” Quoted in Philip Yancey, “Japan’s Faithful Judas, Part 2.” 
  12. Endō said, “Because I titled the novel Silence, both readers and critics in Japan have gotten the mistaken impression that I was writing about God’s silence. And though I’ve written on that, no, God does speak, there are still many people who misread the novel as treating the silence of God. As a result, they overlook the portion of the novel where God does speak, the part that is most significant to me…What I ultimately wanted to write was that within silence there comes a voice…that a voice emerges through the silence.” Quoted in Gessel, “Silence on Opposite Shores,” 37 n. 9. 
  13. This brings up a great discussion of God’s presence especially during the martyrdoms in the book when Rodrigues thought God was silence. 
  14. Gessel, “Silence on Opposite Shores,” 27. 
  15. Ibid., 35–36. 
  16. Quoted in Gessel, “Silence on Opposite Shores,” 38, n. 11. A different translation of the quote can be found in “Reading Guide for Silence, by Shusako Endo,” Wheaton College, accessed January 7, 2017, http://www.wheaton.edu/Academics/Liberal-Arts/Christ-at-the-Core-Curriculum/Core-Book/Reading-Guide
  17. Another interpretation is Rodrigues’s prideful voice must be silenced in order for him to hear the voice of Christ. Gessel, “Silence on Opposite Shores,” 36. 
  18. An analysis of the character Kichijiro is found in Thomas P. Harmon, “Judas and St. Peter in Scorsese’s ‘Silence,'” Catholic World Report, January 5, 2017, http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Blog/5328/judas_and_st_peter_in_scorseses_silence.aspx
  19. Ibid. 
  20. Endō, Silence, 263.  See Gessel, “Silence on Opposite Shores,” 33–34. 
  21. Endō identified himself as Kichijiro and it may be significant that Rodrigues is called “Apostate Paul” because Paul is Endō’s baptismal name. Gessel,”Silence on Opposite Shores,” 33, 40 n. 42. 
  22. Gessel, “Silence on Opposite Shores,” 25–6, 33, 37 n. 4. The novel has also been criticized by some Protestant academics who find Rodrigues’s apostasy unjustifiable. 
  23. Yancey, “Japan’s Faithful Judas, Part 2.” 
  24. Ibid. 
  25. See above note 11. 
  26. Martin Luther, “The Heidelberg Disputation,” http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php#19. See especially nos. 19–22, 24–25. 
  27. Carl R. Trueman, “Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” New Horizons (October 2005) http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/NH05/10b.html 
  28. Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” nos. 20–21. 
  29. Ibid., no. 25. 
  30. Ibid., no. 24. 
  31. Although his fellow priests may look down upon him, Rodrigues realizes that such scorn is aligned with how Christ was treated. He may betray his fellow priests, but Rodrigues believes he is not betraying God. “He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love.” Endō, Silence, 286. 
  32. Peachey, “The Troubling Legacy.” 
  33. Yancey, “Japan’s Faithful Judas, Part 1.” See also above n. 14. 
  34. Ibid. 
  35. Welborn, “Reading Silence for the First Time.” 
  36. Dan Hitchens, “Scorsese’s Silence has an Unexpected Relevance to the Communion Debate,” Catholic Herald, January 4, 2017, http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2017/01/04/scorseses-silence-has-an-unexpected-relevance-to-the-communion-debate/. 
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