Review of Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura

August 30, 2016

silence and beautyFujimura, Makoto. Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016, pp. 261, $26, hardback.

Makoto Fujimura is a distinguished contemporary visual artist, specializing in a traditional Japanese style of painting known as nihonga. As the founder of the International Arts Movement and the director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary, Fujimura is a prominent voice in the field of theology and the arts. He has written multiple books in this field, including Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture (NavPress, 2009) and Culture Care (Fujimura Institute and International Arts Movement, 2014). In Silence and Beauty, Fujimura interacts with Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed twentieth-century novel, Silence, to explore the nature of faith and grace in the midst of failure—and to engage with philosophical issues such as the problem of evil and the hiddenness of God in times of suffering (pp. 27-28).

For Fujimura, Endo’s novel grants insight into the nature of Japanese culture, aesthetics, and Christianity. The novel chronicles the apostasy of seventeenth-century Christian missionaries to Japan who publicly renounced Christ by stomping on fumi-e, which are “relief bronze sculptures [of Jesus and Mary]” (p. 23). Those who did not step on these images were often killed or tortured (p. 30). This blot on Japanese history has resulted in what Fujimura calls a “fumi-e culture” in Japan—that is, “a culture of groupthink guided by invisible strands of codes of honor” (p. 24). Fujimura elaborated that “through visible and invisible forms this [culture] can cause many forms of . . . bullying [and] has excluded those who do not fit in” (p. 24). As such, hiddenness and ambiguity are cultural values in Japan, for if one openly refuses to conform to the surrounding culture, he/she risks being cut off from that culture (p. 72). Hence, though they experience an underlying shame for their ancestors’ apostasy, Christians in Japan feel pressure to conform publicly to cultural expectations while keeping their faith hidden (pp. 40, 44). Fujimura points to Christ, the Suffering Servant, as the only solution to this fumi-e culture (p. 90), arguing that “the Christian gospel . . . can liberate us all from the grip of fear, trauma and death” (p. 69).

Part theology/philosophy, part literary criticism, and part personal memoir, Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty is a fascinating read, providing “flesh and bone” to concepts that might otherwise be highly intellectual and abstract—such as the problem of evil and the freedom of the will. His work is particularly refreshing because of the high value that Fujimura places on art in the life of a believer. For example, Fujimura’s own Christian conversion came after reading William Blake’s epic poem Jerusalem (p. 100). Fujimura’s personal story at this point is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s testimony of the power of literature to reveal the longing in one’s heart to be restored to Christ.

Fujimura is also helpful in his admonition for artists to deal with the dark side of reality (p. 192). This admonition is a good one for contemporary Christians to hear. Christian music and storytelling tend to focus on “family friendly” and “uplifting” subject matters and in so doing, can possibly miss out on the glory of the gospel itself. Until one recognizes the brokenness of the world around him and of his own soul, he cannot truly experience the beauty of God’s grace.

Nevertheless, a few sections of the book give one pause, particularly with respect to Fujimura’s treatment of apostasy. Fujimura offers an excellent exposition of the fallout of a fumi-e culture, showing the trauma that results for those who apostatize or otherwise violate their conscience (p. 103). Especially haunting is Fujimura’s explanation that many Japanese Christians ultimately decided to renounce their faith publicly not to save their own lives, but rather to save the lives of others (p. 122). But Fujimura’s discussion becomes problematic when he seemingly suggests that Father Rodrigues, the main character of Endo’s Silence, is an example of faith because Father Rodrigues tramples on the fumi-e to spare others from suffering (p. 147). Fujimura even calls Father Rodrigues’s action “beautiful,” as it accompanies “the most powerful expression of the voice of Christ in Japanese literature” (p. 150). Moreover, according to Fujimura, through this experience, Father Rodrigues would “learn [the Japanese] art of hiding [one’s] faith” (p. 151; see also p. 207).

Now, certainly, God’s grace is great enough even to restore those who have denied Christ—the Apostle Peter is the perfect example. And admittedly, the Western reader cannot even begin to imagine the complicated choices believers in a persecuted context must face on a daily basis. But Fujimura goes so far as to suggest that one could be a “crypto-Christian” and continue to “step on the fumi-e every New Year’s Day” (p. 185). This mentality appears to run counter to the gravity of apostasy as revealed in Scripture. Jesus stated, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father” (Matt 10:33; see also Mark 8:38, 2 Tim 2:12). Moreover, Hebrews 6:4-6 speaks of the terrifying fate of those who apostatize. Fujimura’s sympathy for human weakness and his desire for all to know the grace of God are to be commended, but to suggest that one could repeatedly and publicly deny Christ in order to escape death and yet continue to follow Christ privately is a clear violation of the teaching of the New Testament. Though in the context of the novel, Father Rodrigues acts as a Christ figure by laying down his own well-being for the lives of others, a greater picture of love would have been for him to hold fast in the midst of persecution, demonstrating to his followers that their hope is not in this present life but rather in the life to come.

Nonetheless, Silence and Beauty is a worthy read, benefiting artists and theologians alike. So many books speak of the need for theological engagement with the arts, but Fujimura is actually doing it, demonstrating how the arts can play an important role in a believer’s life and spiritual development. For further insight into the relationship between theology and the arts, one may also want to read Leland Ryken’s The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts (Wipf & Stock, 1989), Steven R. Guthrie’s Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human (Baker Academic, 2011), and Gene Edward Veith, Jr.’s State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe (Crossway, 1991).

Richard H. Stark, III

Berea First Baptist Church, Greenville, SC

Wrap Up