The Quiet Grace of Silence and Beauty, by Makoto Fujimura

This gorgeous reflection on Christian faith is a kind of detective story, mysteries layered one […]

This gorgeous reflection on Christian faith is a kind of detective story, mysteries layered one on top of the other, much like the traditional nihonga painting that Makoto Fujimura himself was trained in.

The framing mystery is how the artist-author came to faith as a Japanese-American in Japan, a far less “Christian nation” than his own. That mystery tracks closely with the mystery of the faith of Shūsaku Endō, author of the revered novel Silence. Endō’s faith developed amidst profound emotional and physical suffering coupled with a lifelong sense of cultural displacement, an outsider to his own people. This feeling is one that Fujimura, ethnically Japanese and fluent in the language, feels as well. Officially a foreign citizen, he is compelled to sign his Japanese name in katakana, the script for “non-Japanese” things, instead of in the normal kanji characters (which, ironically, are themselves borrowed Chinese and thus just as truly “foreign”!).

Both men’s complicated Christian faith united with outsider status are further mapped onto the mystery of the faith of the persecuted Christians of Japan’s sixteenth century. This most obviously includes the martyrs, but in much more subtle, complex, and painful ways also includes those who consented to deface images of Christ (fumi-e)—like Fr. Rodrigues in Endō’s novel—and yet who continued to believe and retain their practices of faith all the way into the reopening of Japan to the West in the second half of the nineteenth century.

One could add to this yet another mystery, which is alluded to rather than directly engaged in Fujimura’s book: why does God allow this suffering to befall His believers? Not only the suffering of physical torture and martyrdom, but the suffering of being an unwilling traitor, a “weakling,” one who wishes to do better for God and cannot? Why is one granted heroic faith and another permitted to flounder and fail?

This would be more than enough for a rich, beautiful, and moving book, which Silence and Beauty certainly is. Anyone who has been moved by Endō’s extraordinary novel will only grow in appreciation for it after reading Fujimura’s insightful commentary. But as a visual artist Fujimura brings something more to the story. Here, too, there is a detective’s eye at work.

Fujimura examines the anguished Japanese passion for beauty as the flip side of its painful culture of “groupthink,” persecution, and suppression of individual identity that he calls, after the defaced images, “fumi-e culture.” From the small ritualized tearooms of Sen no Rikyu to the vanishing forest and blackened silver moon of Tohaku Hasegawa to the despair of other twentieth-century Japanese novelists, Fujimura perceives the suffering of Christ hidden deep within Japanese culture. It is a culture that has not yet recovered from multiple traumas: its uniquely vicious torture of Christian believers, its two and a half centuries of self-imposed isolation, its spiraling nationalism ending in humiliating military defeat, and finally postwar reconstruction that tried to replace the soul with material goods, resulting in a shockingly high suicide rate and low birth rate as people continually check out of their own society. By now, the very future of Japanese civilization seems to be in question. And yet threaded in and among all these traumas are vistas of extraordinary beauty, gentleness, quiet—grace.

Fujimura does not advance easy answers for either the Japanese or would-be imperialist outsiders determined to cure all Japan’s ills. Suffering on this scale is truly a mystery, a grievous divine providence that sounds more like Job than Joshua. Indeed, the subtext of Fujimura’s book is an apologetic for Silence and for Endō’s faith against easy-minded Christian believers, Catholic and Protestant alike, who disdain this story of the compromised and fallen. The fracturing pain of Japan’s failed faith is precisely what discloses grace: truly, not what is deserved or owed or guaranteed, but what is given, again and again, abundantly, even to those who will not or cannot receive it. The Giver remains generous regardless of the recipient. We are invited to weep for and with those who cannot grasp what is being poured into their hands. As Fr. Rodrigues discovers to his own anguish, only a small change of fate can turn any triumphalist into a traitor. But the traitor’s hands may thereby finally unclench and receive what they were hitherto too proud to accept.

As a recent Western arrival in Japan myself, working in the church and bearing my Christian faith, Silence has been uneasily on my mind. But Fujimura’s study of this extraordinary novel unveils much that would have remained hidden to me—and so teaches me to value the hidden in a way that is not so natural to my explicit, analytic, therapeutic Western pre-sets.

I come away from the book with a new sense of God’s mercy; a different rubric of success; and a commitment to watch for beauty, as a fingerprint of God’s mercy, wherever it may be found in this apparently successful but deeply wounded collection of islands. As a long-time outsider myself, who has been at home in many places and nowhere at all, I am profoundly grateful to Fujimura for his ability to straddle his own insider/outsider status and open up vistas for the rest of us. And I look forward to discovering more of his beautiful theological works, past and future, written and painted.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is Associate Pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church, author of the quarterly newsletter “Theology and a Recipe,” and with Paul R. Hinlicky co-host of the podcast “Queen of the Sciences: Conversations between a Theologian and Her Dad.”