Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering
IVP Books, 2016
263 pp., $26.00
Jessica Hooten Wilson
God at Ground Zero
Around ten years ago, my childhood church decided to sing songs during communion. Whereas before we would sit quietly reflecting on Christ's body and his blood, we could no longer meditate in silence. Instead, thoughts were bestowed on us in hymn lyrics. The silence was broken by repetitive cantations of the "lover of our soul." I remember Eugene Peterson once instructed pastors to practice silence in their preaching, to pause for a moment, even to the point of discomfort in their listeners. The silence was good, Peterson suggested, whether parishioners realized it or not. Unfortunately, for many Americans, silence worries us. It is perpetual noise that comforts us, but silence makes us anxious. When we speak of "God's silence," we are usually indicting him for being absent. We do not imagine a way in which silence is God speaking.
When Christ is confronted by Pilate in the Gospels prior to his crucifixion, the Lord chooses silence as the best response. It is this Christ that Makoto Fujimura reacquaints us with in Silence and Beauty. Through his memories of his childhood years in Japan, his investigation into Japanese culture, his knowledge of Japanese art, and most significantly, his reflections on Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, Fujimura invites readers not only to find beauty in silence but also to understand it as the language of God. When Endo published his novel in 1966, he began receiving feedback from readers who misunderstood the title. They thought he had told a story about God's silence in the midst of suffering. In a documentary, Endo protests against this interpretation: "I did not write a book about the Silence of God; I wrote a book about the Voice of God speaking through suffering and silence." This way of speaking may elude many Americans, so much more familiar and at ease with noise; in some ways, God's "silence" is even more challenging than suffering. But that is why Fujimura's book is such a bracing read. He reminds us "that God is not simply a Western" god but the God of the whole Earth, of every tribe and culture.
Mako Fujimura is a Japanese American, born in Boston, who spent his childhood years in Kamakura as well as several years in Tokyo at the University of the Arts. His immersion in both Japanese and American culture has provided him a unique perspective on Endo's novel, which is written in Japanese and yet seems "to a Japanese person, as if one is reading a foreign author." Like Fujimura, Endo was both an insider and outsider to his culture. As a Catholic Japanese man educated in France, Endo "wrote from the vantage point of an outsider peering into his own culture and his own heart." The insider status allows Fujimura and Endo to see things that the Japanese keep hidden, but their place as outsiders frees them to unveil these secrets.
Fujimura's book is not primarily about Silence; rather, the novel acts as a doorway through which we access new ways of understanding silence, beauty, and Christ himself. Set in 17th-century Japan at the height of its 250-year persecution of Christians, the novel tells the story of a Portuguese missionary, Father Rodrigues, who ventures to Japan to disprove the reports that his Jesuit mentor Father Ferreira committed apostasy. Fujimura unpacks the history behind the real accounts on which Endo based his fictional narrative, including the stories of the Japanese persecutions of Christians and the tradition of Kakure Kirishitan or "hidden Christians," who concealed their faith during the centuries of persecution. In an echo of Flannery O'Connor's phrase "Christ-haunted," by which she refers to her home in the South, Fujimura calls Japan the "Christ-hidden culture." The Japanese prize hiddenness, ambiguity, and silence, which has relegated Christian belief to a place behind the scenes of Shinto rituals and in the wings of Buddhist temples.
In Japan, Christianity is an outsider religion. The word is always written in katakana, the alphabet that designates foreignness, what belongs outside. While Christianity values individual voices and Jesus himself welcomes outsiders, the Japanese prize homogeneity. Fujimura relates the story of Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), a forerunner of the Christian persecution, to explicate the values of hiddenness and conformity in Japan. Sen no Rikyu was an innovator, ostracized from his community. He exploited the Japanese respect for hiddenness in the creation of his small tearooms where the utensils and paintings in the room contained hidden messages. He instituted small doors that forced everyone to bow and remove their swords when they entered. In contrast to the tradition of colored bowls, Rikyu used a black bowl, emblematic of the beauty of sacrifice as well as a protest against the head warlord who despised black. Because of his refusal to conform, Rikyu was forced to commit suicide. His decapitated head was delivered to the warlord and chained to the temple steps to be literally trampled underfoot like a fumi-e of flesh.