Book review: ‘Silence and Beauty’

Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” is, shall we say, having a moment.

The 1966 novel — praised by such luminaries as Graham Greene and John Updike — is the core text this year for every student at Wheaton College. Director Martin Scorsese has just released a widely praised film version of the work. And Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura, who spoke at Wheaton in September, has published an excellent study of Endo’s book called “Silence and Beauty.”

Fujimura’s wide-ranging volume offers fascinating details not only on “Silence” but also on 9/11, Scorsese, Endo’s life-story and especially Japan: its history, its art, its language and its cultural mindset after 250 years of radically suppressing the Christian church.

Based on true events, “Silence” describes missionaries to 17th-century Japan, with its vicious government crusade against Christianity — a crusade that included witch-hunts, executions and diabolical tortures. The object was to get both parishioner and priest to apostatize by stepping on a bronze image of Jesus called a “fumi-e.” Fujimura examines what he calls “fumi-e culture” — namely, the resulting spiritual void, which somehow continues to testify to Christ by the very nature of its prolonged, overt denial. As in Endo’s book, God speaks even in the midst of silence.

Fujimura, himself an award-winning artist, further asserts that in Japan, “silence is beauty.” In other words, the intensely quiet and restrained nature of Japanese art — such as the tea ceremony — continues to carry a fragrance of Christianity even when this religion has supposedly been excluded from the public sphere. This is why the Japanese remain obsessed with such Judeo-Christian cultural artifacts as Bach, “Anne of Green Gables” and black gospel music — and perhaps also why Endo’s overtly Christian books became best-sellers in a country where Christians compose less than 1 percent of the population.

But this only is one aspect of Fujimura’s fine work. A resident of lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, he describes those terrifying days, which he processed partly by visiting the bomb sites in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Born in America, he remains puzzled by the way his Christian beliefs took hold on him while he was in Japan; at the same time, he develops a theology of suffering that shows how faith can endure such horrors as persecution, terrorism and nuclear holocaust.

The first non-native artist invited to study in the doctoral program at the Tokyo University of Arts, Fujimura uses the ancient Japanese nihonga technique, relying on pigments derived from pulverized shells; he ties this also to suffering — how something crushed can eventually turn into a thing of beauty. Similarly fascinating is the way Japanese art uses time and change — with works becoming worn or rusted and thus taking on a new appearance for later viewers. (One artist, for example, inserted a moon made of bright silver, knowing that it would eventually turn black.)

But even my few comments here give only a limited sense of the depth and breadth in Fujimura’s book. Embellished with illustrations and a foreword by Philip Yancey, “Silence and Beauty” deserves to be read more than once.

For fans of “Silence,” it’s a must.