Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering
263 pp., 30.00
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.
Fumi-e are stepping blocks, often made of bronze, carved with Christ's figure, created for the sole purpose of preventing the spread of Christianity. Every New Year's Day, the fumi-e would be lined up for villagers to walk on to exhibit their rejection of Christ. Fujimura first encountered these fumi-e in the Tokyo National Museum, and he notes how smoothly worn away is the face of Christ on these blocks. In Japan, there is an aesthetic called wabi sabi, which means "wearing away" and refers metaphorically to the idea that "in death and the ephemeral, enduring beauty can be found." While these fumi-e elicit sorrow for the beaten icon and those forced to publicly denounce their Savior, they also show a true portrait of Christ. "Its worn-smooth surface may capture Christ's true visage more than any paintings of Christ done in the West," Fujimura suggests. These trampled images of Christ remind us of the truth—that even Christ's closest disciples rejected him.
At the crucial moment of Endo's novel, Father Rodrigues steps on the fumi-e and publicly renounces Christ. However, Fujimura insists that the conclusion of Silence undermines what appears to be apostasy. Rodrigues' final words affirm his faith: "I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him." By stepping on the fumi-e, Rodrigues forgoes his European colonial vestments of religion for a Japanese faith, a hidden Christianity. This idea of "hidden Christianity" seems oppositional to the Gospels that tell us not to hide our faith; if we are silent, the very rocks will cry out! Yet, Fujimura asks, "How do we remain faithful in a context in which dying for Christ is possible but living for Christ is made impossible?" Which is more valuable, Fujimura seems to wonder, the martyr or the hidden saint?
One of the most moving passages in Silence and Beauty is the story of two young martyrs. In 1597, before the period of Endo's novel, 26 Christians were marched through the streets of Nagasaki. Their ears and noses had been cut off, so blood drenched the snow as they walked. When they arrived at the top of Nishizaka Hill overlooking the city, there stood 26 crosses prepared for their execution. Purportedly, an 11-year-old boy among them responded, "Show me my cross," to which another young boy echoed, "Show me mine." Centuries later, Fujimura stood atop this hill, imagining the tragedy of these martyrs as well as recalling the devastation of Nagasaki in August 1945. For Fujimura, whose home was walking distance from the terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, these places are all "Ground Zero." They are places of sacrifice, suffering, and death.
Yet, Fujimura insists, "In the mystery of silence and beauty God speaks through our broken lives facing our Ground Zero." Somehow, in some unexplainable way, beauty exists in spite of (or even through?) Ground Zero. The Japanese word for "beauty" is composed of two ideograms—"sheep" and "great." In Japanese, then, beauty is a composite of great sacrifice. Fujimura ties the Japanese word for beauty to the prophet Isaiah's description of Christ. In Isaiah 53, the prophet writes, "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." In this same passage, Christ is called a sheep, "a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth." The key to understanding Christ's beauty in this passage is the phrase "to attract us." "We all, like sheep, have gone astray," the prophet writes. We cannot see the beauty any more than we can hear the language of silence. With eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear, we step on "our own fumi-es." While Silence and Beauty "may focus on Japan," Fujimura writes, "the mystery it solves may generate important conversations to find antidotes to the death and malaise of our souls in this postmodern, pluralistic era."
In the foreword to Silence and Beauty, Philip Yancey writes, "Only Mako Fujimura could have written this book." Truly, the book seems written by a Providence that moved Fujimura through Japan and America at significant moments in history and gifted him with particular talents and insight that allowed him to piece together the tragedy of Nagasaki and 9/11 with the fictional apostasy of Endo's Father Rodrigues and the persecution of a 16th-century tea master. "My writing will seem refractive in nature," Fujimura writes at the start of his book, preparing us for the book's layers of narrative, research, and reflection that remind us of his nihonga paintings. Because of its entangling of multiple pieces—literary and art criticism, sociological and psychological explorations of Japanese culture, and personal narrative—Fujimura's book is best read both forwards and backwards. It should not be read once and put back on the shelf; rather, it should be drunk like a tonic, like the antidote or innoculative drug that he claims Endo's Silence itself is for our culture.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is the Associate Director of Honors at John Brown University and an assistant professor of creative writing.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.