Review: Silence and Beauty

Silence and Beauty

Silence and Beauty, Makoto Fujimura (foreward by Philip Yancey). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A “layered” reflection on Shusaku Endo’s Silence by a Japanese-American artist that explores the Christian experience of persecution in Japan, and the connections between silence, suffering, and beauty, that may draw contemporary Japanese to faith.

It is said that you cannot judge a book by its cover. Yet my very first encounter with this book suggested I was in for something special as I looked at a cover with a pure white background, a couple of Japanese characters, and a translucent dust jacket with the the words “Silence and Beauty” superimposed on those characters. I opened the book to find inside papers that I believe are a work of the artist/author. And what I found between the covers was a profound reflection upon Shusaku Endo’s Silence.

Makoto Fujimura is an internationally renown artist who paints in the ancient Japanese technique of nihonga, which involves the pulverizing of various minerals mixed into a binder and applied in as many as one hundred layers onto art papers. He begins his work by describing his encounter with Endo’s work having a similar “pulverizing” effect in his life as he encountered the suffering of Christian martyrs and the attempt to shame apostatizers by having them walk on fumi-e (bronze images of the crucified Christ, or the Virgin Mary). The novel revolves around Father Rodrigues, who struggles between martyrdom, and saving others from suffering by walking on fumi-e, and the interior struggle with the “silence” of God in the face of such suffering.

From here, Fujimura explores layers of meaning as he interweaves his own artistic journey, and the struggle to be faithful to Christ in an art world often hostile to faith. He also explores Japanese culture and the connections between “the chrysanthemum and the sword”, between kindness and cruelty, beauty and suffering, and how this has shaped Japanese consciousness, art, and literature. Along the way, he reflects on the paradox of the fumi-e, at once a symbol of shame, and yet by the very act of those who step on Christ, a proclamation of the cross. And with this, he uncovers a reality with which we often struggle but do not find easy to admit, living between faithfulness and denial. The fumi-e, a symbol of shame, becomes a symbol of hope, for Father Rodrigues, and for us.

I struggled at first in understanding what Fujimura was doing until I grasped that rather than a linear exposition of Endo’s work, this was a layered reflection, returning to the canvas again and again adding new insights and reflections to what he’d already written. Fujimura layers history, story, and biography together. Nagasaki was “Ground Zero” for the first martyrdoms of Christians in the Japanese persecution, the location of persecution in Silence, and the site of the second atomic bombing on August 9, 1945. Ground Zero was a church where many were worshiping. Fujimura interweaves his own “Ground Zero” experience of having a studio and a loft apartment in the shadow of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the struggle with suffering, darkness and lament, and the paradox of beauty that may arise from these.

The book includes a summary of Endo’s book for those who have not read it. Fujimura suggests, and I would agree, reading Endo’s book first. I read Silence a number of years ago and want to re-read it, and perhaps re-read Fujimura’s book as well. He also discusses Endo’s relationship in two appendices to two other Japanese authors of note, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe. There is a glossary of Japanese terms which is quite helpful, and which you want to have your thumb in as you read.

The book concludes with some thoughtful observations about Christian mission in Japan (which I think are also applicable in the West) that brings brokenness and beauty together, in place of a church that has often seem more focused on legalism. He speaks of the hunger for beauty in Japanese culture, the longing for liberation from fumi-e, and the power of the Christian message to bring this. These are his concluding words:

     “Endo shows that God speaks through silence. ‘Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.’ In the mystery of silence and beauty God speaks through our broken lives facing our Ground Zero. In the layers revealed through the worn-smooth surface of a fumi-e is a true portrait of Christ; Japan’s unique hidden culture offers it as a gift to the world.”

In Silence and Beauty, what Fujimura has done is explore those layers and revealed this gift.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Silent Reading Parties?

Silent reading partyI always enjoy checking out the articles at BookriotIt’s a younger crowd that are often interested in different books than I usually read, but they love reading and always are coming up with interesting ideas for readers or to encourage reading.

Recently, they ran an article on hosting silent reading parties. That sounded like an interesting idea. I notice that we often read alone, but not alone–for example, in a local Starbucks, or even the cafe’ of a local bookstore. And, if you can avoid the person who insists on talking loudly on their cell phone with a business client, or the conversation where someone is going through the excruciating details of a relationship breakup, it can be a good place to be around people, yet read.

Silent reading parties take this a step further. The idea is simply to find a comfortable place to gather a bunch of people for the express purpose of reading — silently. The location featured in the article is a brew pub in an old house with a parlor.

The article talks about friendly but clear ways to enforce quiet, such as business cards with “Shh!” printed on them to be handed to those who can’t resist being chatty. It suggests a maximum of two hours, letting people know when the time is up. Some non-distracting background music can be helpful to make it less awkward to be silent with others.

The fascinating thing to me was that many people really enjoyed being silent with others and having a break from “high-contact socializing.” It is also interesting to me that there is not necessarily a discussion of what people read afterwards, although I suspect some do this. How exceedingly rare it is to be silent with others around! I’ve been in some retreat settings where this has been so. The writer commented that this is almost “church-like.” I sighed because I find it is rare to sit silently in church without someone feeling they need to break the silence.

I wonder if this is a dimension of life we overlook, that these silent reading parties are re-discovering. We need silence, but this doesn’t always mean solitude. Sometimes we find great comfort in silence in the company of others. Whether it is communing with a book, our own thoughts, or God, we find it strangely comforting to do this at times without words with others who can share that silent communion.