I have a confession to make: I have never read Shusako Endo’s great 20th-century novel “Silence” (currently being made into a movie by Martin Scorcese). It isn’t a case of just not having gotten around to it yet. I’ve actively avoided it.
The reason is, I’ve been afraid.
Set in 17th-century Japan and based on real historical figures, “Silence” tells the story of the Portuguese priest Sebastian Rodrigues. After word arrives that Ferreira, a fellow Jesuit who was serving as a missionary to Japan, has apostatized under torture, Rodrigues and two others travel to the country to learn more. But before long they too find themselves betrayed, imprisoned, and tortured. To save other Christians from a cruel fate, Rodrigues is forced to step on a fumi-e, a block on which an image of Jesus is carved.
Throughout the novel, Rodrigues grapples with what appears to be the silence of God in the face of human suffering. This is the same apparent silence that drove Ferreira to recant his faith. And it is what kept me from reading Endo’s book. I was not sure I was prepared to wrestle with the titanic and terrifying idea of God’s silence.
Then I got a copy of Makoto Fujimura‘s book “Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering.” Fujimura, a prestigious Japanese-American artist, is a man I’ve long admired and a man well-versed in the complex interaction between faith and the arts. I had hope that he might have something helpful to say about the work I found so forbidding.
I was not disappointed. Fujimura’s thoughts on “Silence” upended all my preconceptions. Far from being intimidated by it, he welcomes its unique challenges, drawing strength from facing them head-on.
It helps that he has a deep understanding of Japanese culture. Though born in America, Fujimura knows Japan and its history very well. He first discovered the kind of fumi-e described in Endo’s book while studying at the Tokyo University of the Arts. He writes of that encounter:
I had just come to embrace faith in Christ at the age of twenty-seven, after several years of spiritual awakening. Now I faced, literally, the reality of Christian faith in Japan. I had just been baptized in a missionary church in Higashikurume, but this fumi-e encounter was my true “baptism” into being a Christian in Japan.
The images were for the newly baptized Fujimura a jarring reminder of Japan’s history of persecuting Christians — a persecution so long-lasting and so brutal that it effectively strangled the faith in that country for centuries. While in many countries persecution spurs the growth of the church, Japan was different. Fujimura describes the torture undergone by Japanese Christians beginning in the 17th century, and its aftermath, as a “darkness [that] would mar the psyche of the country and define its aesthetic, even to this day.”
Christianity did not fully die out, Fujimura tells us, but it was driven so far underground that only those who knew how and where to look could see any signs of it. Among those who know how to look are those who study Japanese culture, especially its art. What Fujimura often refers to as Japan’s “trauma” has left deep wounds on the national psyche, but it also has shaped its ideas of the beautiful in unique ways. He identifies symbolism and techniques in Japanese art that suggest hidden but never-quite-forgotten faith.
The Catholic Endo understood this, Fujimura argues: “Endo connects the suffering of the Savior with the beauty of Japan.” And, going even further: “He saw human trauma, evil and suffering as the universal language. He saw Jesus of Nazareth as the ultimate mediator of such trauma. Endo was moved more by Jesus the suffering servant than by Jesus the miracle worker, and he spent the rest of his life writing to explore why.”
And as a writer in a country where Christians had undergone so much torment, Endo was equipped for just such an exploration. In his haunting story, many of those broken by persecution do not really lose their faith — though they falter and fail, at some level they still cling to the mercy of God. And though God does not stop their torture, He suffers with them. In the climactic moment when Rodrigues must trample on the image of Christ, he seems to hear Christ’s voice telling him, “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!”
Endo portrays a faith that is full of doubt and fear but never truly loses its power, however far underground it is driven. As Fujimura reminds us, Christians tend to forget that we worship a God who identified with the powerless, a God who allowed Himself to be betrayed rather than take vengeance on His enemies, who “led by giving his power away.” This truth has to be driven home for us over and over again, and one way this can happen is through studying the fumi-e. “A venerable image . . . was made smooth by thousands of betrayers,” Fujimura writes. “Its worn-smooth surface may now capture Christ’s true visage more than any paintings of Christ done in the West. . . . Only in the visual culture of Japan” — the place where Christians suffered so greatly — “is this fumi-e phenomenon possible.”
So even Japan, where faith seemed to die out, has something to contribute to the history and the growth of faith throughout the world. Fujimura is convinced that even though “Silence” deals with “failures of faith,” it is not arguing that faith is ultimately a failure. Endo’s God is truly anything but silent — and with that understanding in mind, I feel less afraid now to read his book. In any event, I am very glad and thankful that I read Fujimura’s.
For Further Information:
Makoto Fujimura created a series of paintings, also called “Silence and Beauty,” to accompany the launch of this book. To see some of them, click here.
Image copyright IVP Books. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.