Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

End struggled throughout his life to understand the relationship between his identity as a Japanese and as a Catholic. Silence ponders whether Western Christianity (though not Christianity itself) is incompatible with Japanese culture. If it is, then Western Christianity must adapt to Japan, rather than Japan and the Japanese adapting to Western Christianity. The repeated discussion of “the swamp of Japan” reaches no neat conclusion, but Rodrigues’s stepping on the fumie and his internal debate about its significance indicate that his Portuguese Christianity has been overcome by the swamp of Japan. However, a new understanding of Christ, Christ’s work in the world, and Christianity may be at work in Rodrigues: Some form of Christianity is possible in Japanese culture.

The issue of the adaptability of Christianity applies, of course, not only to Japan in the 1600’s or Japan in the 2000’s but also to all cultures at all times. If Western Christianity found a swamp in Japan, as the novel suggests, might it not also find a swamp in twenty-first century America, Africa, or Asia? If it does, what would an acceptable adaptation of Christianity be for those countries?

The eponymous subject of the novel has been interpreted in two main directions. Either God remains silent throughout the novel despite the pleas of his followers for him to speak or the reader is invited to see the ways in which God communicates in or through the apparent silence. End supported the latter interpretation in interviews and video presentations. The novel is an extended meditation on Habakkuk 2:20: “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” Readers are invited to be silent so that they can hear God.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Silence is a dark, epistolary novel of apostasy and betrayal, a tale of great faith and faithlessness among both Western and Eastern men, men whose integrity as believers and as human beings is under constant attack. While Father Ferreira believes that Christianity cannot survive in Japan—“The sapling I brought quickly decayed to its roots in this swamp”—it is clear that End believes that it is Western Christianity that has trouble taking root, and that a Gospel more responsive to the Eastern perspective must be brought to the people of Japan.

It is this more Eastern view that Father Rodrigues comes to understand and embrace, an “apostate faith” that sees devotion to the individual superseding allegiance to institutionalized religion. The “silence” of the title is God’s silence, His apparent willingness to allow the acute suffering of his people without explanation. It is this silence, however, which Rodrigues eventually recognizes as the voice of Christ.

Rodrigues’ capture by the authorities, seemingly inevitable from the start, is nevertheless brought off with drama and suspense as the reader wonders whether Rodrigues’ faith will survive. In contrast with Ferreira’s confrontation with Inoue, the Japanese magistrate who embodies a very contemporary marriage of intellect linked to a detached humanity, Rodrigues emerges as a stalwart believer, affirming the presence of God even in his apparent absence. Silence is based on the historical fact that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Edo emperors came to the conclusion that Christianity did not “fit” Japan, banishing Christian missionaries and persecuting their flocks of converts. End turns that conclusion on its head, establishing that, in fact, Christianity and Christ fit nowhere, even in the West, yet they also fit every place where men and women strive for dignity and hope. End’s Christ responds faithfully to man’s homelessness in the world, his loneliness, offering compensation for the pain of this brief life in eternity.