Silence and Beauty

C.S. Lewis described our world as “the Kingdom of Noise,” and he composed a psalm in the praise of  noise from the pen of Senior Tempter, Screwtape, in his letter to a young apprentice. By contrast, artist Makoto Fujimura praises the beauty of silence particularly in the context of Japanese culture.  “Perhaps in no other culture is a single word so relevant as silence is to Japan.  In Japan, silence is beauty and beauty is silent.”

In his analysis of Shusako Endo’s global best-seller, Silence, Fujimura deals with the book’s uneasy questions about the  nature of suffering,  faith, betrayal, and service to a God who, at times, chooses to remain silent.  Set in the 17th century during a period of intense persecution of Christians, Silence traces the ministry of Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest who traveled to Japan to investigate rumors that a senior missionary had apostatized under torture.

As a bicultural Japanese American, Makoto Fujimura is uniquely positioned to ponder Endo’s assertion that Christianity is ill-suited to take root in the “mud swamp” of Japan — especially since this is where his own faith journey began.   As an artist who paints using layers of metal and natural pigments to create visual beauty, he is also uniquely qualified to probe the layers of meaning in Endo’s narrative arc.

It would be ideal to read Silence and Beauty in concert with Endo’s novel, but even with a year between my reading of the two books, I found that revisiting the fictional work through Fujimura’s eyes reawakened and deepened my interaction with and appreciation for Silence as a reflection on present-day culture:

  1.  A major theme that recurs throughout Endo’s  Silence, is the trampling of the fumi-e: an icon of Christ which Japanese Christians were forced to step on to show their rejection of the faith.  Silence and Beauty expands on the theme, helping the reader to see that even those of us who are free to do otherwise may find ourselves trampling God and the people most dear to us.   Father Rodrigues’s definition of sin helps me to see Fujimura’s point:

“Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another – to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

2.  Fujimura and Endo both ponder the nature of faithfulness.  Am I faithful to Christ if I am publicly disgraced, and yet privately effective in prayer, ministry and relationships? Am I more faithful to Christ if I have a recognized role in society as His representative, but privately have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing to help the people around me? Endo’s Silence was an agonizing read for me with Rodrigues lamenting the silence of God in his own experience while trying to be a spiritual leader in a cultural context that was completely alien to him — all the while with the threat of torture or imprisonment hanging over him.

Of course, I wanted him to come through the testing with triumph and go on to lead a Great Awakening among the Japanese because of his heroic faith. That’s not how it ended, and I’m still trying to reconcile this.

3.  A further theme of Silence and Beauty is the process of making peace with ambiguity.  It is the tendency of Christians (particularly Western Christians) to draw a hard line between faith and doubt — a faith-is-good-doubt-is-bad- dichotomy.  Makoto underlines Endo’s exposé of this flawed logic for, “it does not express faith in God but instead a faith in clarity and, . . . ‘our lust for certainty.'”

4.  As Endo reached back in history to the story of the apostates of the 17th century, Fujimura picks up the thread and carries it forward to his Ground Zero experience on September 11, 2001 with his studio a few blocks away from the World Trade Center.  Just as the fumi-e represents all of our betrayals and our failures of faith, Father Rodrigues’s intense suffering and wrestling with God represents for us all of our personal Ground Zero realities.  Silence and Beauty offers the redemptive truth that it is only through “resilient prayer” and forgiveness that we move through and eventually beyond our trauma.  In the end, then, it is only the Gospel that will heal and transform a heart — or a nation.

//

This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for over 25 years, and their four children are growing up at an alarming rate. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

34 thoughts on “Silence and Beauty”

  1. Good Morning, Michele … fascinating that even after a year, you were able to compare these 2 books. I so appreciate your passion for reading and the insights you share …

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  2. Wow! What a story and what insightful truths you share here. So very true: “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another – to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” Oh how we need God’s truth to refine our hearts. Just this morning I was re-reading the prophecy of the third of people being refined as silver and tested as gold…and reflecting on how my heart still needs so much refining…how easily I still fall prey to sin. Thank you for your words here, Michele.

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  3. This book sounds intriguing, Michele. I think I would like to read it sometime when I finish some I’ve already started. “It is the tendency of Christians (particularly Western Christians) to draw a hard line between faith and doubt — a faith-is-good-doubt-is-bad- dichotomy. ” I have noticed this, too, and know that it is flawed. I think God is big enough to handle our doubts and sometimes it by working through them that our faith grows stronger. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this review. Blessings to you!

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    1. Gayl, thanks for reading and for you open and questioning mind. I can remember being very closed to questions and doubts at one time in my life, but am learning the beauty of ambiguity. Makoto’s words have really reinforced this for me.

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  4. Thank you for always enlightening me with new reading material. You never disappoint. These words … “Father Rodrigues’s intense suffering and wrestling with God represents for us all of our personal Ground Zero realities. Silence and Beauty offers the redemptive truth that it is only through “resilient prayer” and forgiveness that we move through and eventually beyond our trauma” really hit me today as ones I needed to hear. Thank you friend!

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    1. So glad to have you out there reading. We do learn from our Ground Zero realities, and I really appreciated the parallels that Makoto drew between Endo’s work and our 21st century lives.

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  5. Hi Michele! I keep going back to this line you wrote: “Silence and Beauty expands on the theme, helping the reader to see that even those of us who are free to do otherwise may find ourselves trampling God and the people most dear to us.” WOW. You said a whole lot in that sentence, friend. Thank you for sharing this review. I want to check out this book for sure!

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  6. Wow, Michele, what profound issues it seems these two books deal with–one fleshing out more than the other, it seems. But both seem to be on subjects we all need to understand and grapple more with as believers. Thanks for sharing such a thought-provoking post, my friend!

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  7. Michele, this sounds very thought provoking. I like happy endings too! But I know some stories don’t end well until heaven. I appreciated the definition of sin: “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another – to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” I think we should all consider how our actions and careless words wound others.

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    1. So true about the sad endings here on this planet. Those words about sin really resonated for me as well. We run roughshod over so much that is sacred — sometimes without even noticing.

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  8. I’m going to have to put this book on my list. I pray I never allow myself to get to this point – Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another – to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind; what conviction! Thank you for sharing with Thankful Thursdays, Michele.

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    1. What a great idea! And as for Makoto, this is the first of his books that I have read, but I hope it will not be the last. I have read ABOUT him from Philip Yancey’s writing, but was thankful to have the opportunity to read his own words.

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    1. Yes, Brooke, and the irony of such a sinewy faith finding its beginnings in such an unlikely place! Makoto sheds light on many aspects of Japanese culture as it bears on the Gospel.

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  9. As always, Michelle, I find much to ponder on here at your place. I will be thinking about this for days: “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another – to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

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    1. Sad, isn’t it, how we can miss our own transgressions? Maybe that’s what Psalm 19 is hitting on when the psalmist prays for forgiveness for “hidden faults” and asks that they not rule over him. So much to ponder in this.

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  10. I’ve not yet read Silence and yet it affected me deeply just from a handful of quotes Philip Yancey shared in one of his books. I’m currently reading The Insanity of Obedience by Nik Ripken and am finding his insights on suffering and persecution very insightful and challenging to the extreme! Thanks for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com this week!
    Tina

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  11. I appreciate the new kingdom connection, and I certainly found valuable your insights on the two books you reviewed. There really is a strong connection between beauty and silence. My dad used to tell me and my sister when we were growing up that a woman of few words is able to let her inner beauty shine more brightly – not in a glaring kind of way but like the soft, gentle rays of the early morning sun. I have never forgotten his words -coming from the man of wisdom that he was – a man of few words. How beautifully you have expressed yourself in this post. What a blessing it is for me to have discovered you. Shalom, Michele.

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