“Silence” – the novel


Indeed “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends”. Could it be that there is something providential behind the movement out of the literary shadows of Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, which is now being effected by its translation into the medium of film by Martin Scorsese? The film was released in the US last week and is being released in Europe today (Friday 30 December).

This novel is extraordinarily relevant to our time and to the story of faith and religion in the modern world. It is a novel about persecution, about compromise of principles, about apostasy and mercy, about heroism and cowardice. All of these are central to the harrowing tale at the centre of Endo’s Silence, considered to be his masterpiece by many.


Endo was a Catholic. In his life he mirrored the eternal conflict of the believer with the world, the world which does not know God. This is the conflict which Romano Guardini refers to when he writes of the “true light” of Christ “showering radiance on everyone who comes near him.”  But, the great German theologian says, “if that person is ‘seeing’ in the worldly sense, something in him is willed to seek the world and himself rather than the Messiah. His eye is fixed on world and self and remains so.”

In Endo’s life this conflict was very much set in the context of his native Japan – a country and a culture which had for centuries determinedly set its face against Christ and God, opting instead for the world as seen through the vision of the Buddha. But the context of his Japan is now the context of every Christian in the Western world – a world which has set out either to reject God and persecute believers, or which seeks to redefine God in its own image. The “Silence” of the title of Endo’s novel is the apparent failure of God to speak and act in the face of human suffering, injustice and  persecution. But this silence is really the test of faith, a test which ultimately separates those who see the “true light”, or “hear” the true voice of God, from those who do not – with glorious consequences for some and tragic consequences for others.

In his introduction to the novel Endo wrote of its genesis:

For a long time I was attracted to a meaningless nihilism and when I finally came to realize the fearfulness of such a void I was struck once again with the grandeur of the Catholic Faith. (Silence xx) But this brought him to another problem, that of “the reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese blood”.

The great question for him, one that is at the heart of the brutal persecutions depicted in the novel, is how to resolve the conflict which the Western trappings of the universal truth of Christ’s teaching presented to the guardians of Japanese culture and tradition.

The novel reveals the murderous bewilderment of the Japanese cultural elite when confronted with the success of the Christian missionaries in the sixteenth century. There was, on their part, a terrible and utterly flawed identification of the universal message of Christ with the cultural values of the agents who brought that message.

What makes the novel so relevant to the world today is that the universal truth of the message is again in conflict with the cultural elites – this time with the modernist and post-modernist and post-truth values increasingly dominating our consciousness and our culture.

On the one hand there is rejection and, where power makes it possible, persecution of Christians. On the other hand there is the tendency to modify the teaching to suit the new self-image of mankind which is now being absorbed and disseminated by contemporary cultural elites. This is the equivalent of the “swamp” which Endo saw in Japan, absorbing and distorting the essential truth brought by the missionaries. He described it as a swamp that “sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process” (Silence, xix). This, of course, is the perennial tightrope which truth always has to walk in any and every process of inculturation.

This is the issue at the heart of the novel on one level.


On another parallel level Endo tells the sad story of the personal faith of individuals. Two of the three priests central to the story apostasize. The one who keeps protesting about God’s silence eventually hears a voice which he takes to be the voice of Christ. The voice tells him to trample on the image, the public sign his persecutors demand. “You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may 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.”

But the denouement of the novel, from the hell on earth in which his soul, if not his body, has to go on living for thirty more years, shows us that it is his own, or another voice which he hears, not the voice of God. The suffering Japanese Christians, whom he fooled himself into thinking that he was acting out of mercy towards, went on suffering – and he even acquiesced in that suffering. His efforts at self-justification have all the hall-marks of torturous self-delusion.

The Silence of the novel is not the silence of men, it is the silence of God; it persists. Like the history of Christian martyrdom teaches – no matter how hard this is to understand – the ways of God are not the ways of man. The mercy of God is not the mercy of man. The heroes of this novel, Fr. Garrpe, Monica and the other Japanese martyrs depicted knew this; the anti-heroes of this novel, Ferreira and Rodrigues, did not know this. Martyrs down through history know this; the world does not know this.

On this level I doubt very much if the film is going to achieve much clarity. Martin Scorsese talks of it in terms of his personal journey – a journey which took him form a Catholic Italian upbringing in New York, through The Last Temptation of Christ, to this and beyond. For Liam Neeson it may be similar, this time from an Ulster Catholic upbringing to, who knows what? We shall have to leave that to another judgement.

In a recent interview Neeson is quoted as saying that the movie’s exploration into faith and its theme of standing up for what you believe in made him examine where doubt fits into religion.

“The other component of faith that [director] Martin Scorsese explores in the film is doubt. They’re both [together],” he says. “And I think it is a God-given component. If we have this free will to question and if one believes in God, I think you celebrate that.” Really? The freedom we have to doubt is God-give. The doubt is our contribution.

Neeson added that one doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate the film’s message. “We all (have) faith in something whether it’s faith in a marriage or relationship or faith in your work,” he explains. “It can be applied to anything.” That all sounds a little too much like an echo from the “swamp” which pained Endo so much.

But Neeson is not reading the novel. He may be reading Scorsese’s script. On a personal level it is about faith and fear, rather than faith and doubt. The nemesis of the apostates is not that they doubted, or apostatized because of doubt. The key to their tragedy was the weakness of their faith in the face of a demand to deny divinity. In the end the heroism of their activity in spreading the faith was insufficient when that faith was put to the ultimate test, that of accepting God in his silence. The focus of the novel  – in the case of three of the characters, Rodrigues, Ferreira and the Japanese peasant, Kichijiro, – is on the destructive power of this weakness which brought them to their doom, their living hell.

Endo has been rightly compared to Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor in his preoccupations and the paradoxes he uses to explore them. He is also that very unique thing, a Catholic writer from an Asian culture. As such his work must stand, in spite of its complexity, its paradoxical character and its consequent risk of misinterpretation, as an essential link in the long and troubled history of the evangelization of the Far East, and Japan in particular.

One thought on ““Silence” – the novel

  1. Michael,

    End of 4th par. with glorious consequences for some AND tragic consequences for others.

    9th par. and this is a typo: On the other hand there is the tendency TO modify the teaching to suit the new self-image of mankind which is now being absorbed

    9th par. last word – should it not be “inculturation”?

    Further down: 4th last paragraph:

    “The other component of faith that [director] Martin Scorsese explores in the film is doubt. They’re both [together],” he says. “And I think it is a *G*od-given component. If we have this free will to question and if one believes in God, I think you celebrate that.” Really? The freedom we have to doubt is God-give*n*. The doubt is our contribution.

    Great stuff, Michael. I’m looking forward to seeing the film – we’ll talk about it then!


    *Pat Hanratty*

    *36 Rathfarnham Wood*

    *Dublin 14*


    *00-353-87-2731904 00-353-1-4947724*

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