In his book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, artist Makoto Fujimura explains that the Japanese ideogram for “beauty” is a combination of two other symbols: one representing a sacrificial “sheep” and the other meaning “great.” This concept of beauty as “great sacrifice” not only brings insight into Japanese culture, but can also deepen our understanding of what it means to follow Christ.
Fujimura’s book is a wide-ranging reflection on Japanese culture, history, and art, and is based on another book, Silence by Shūsaku Endō. Originally published in 1966 in Japanese, Silence is becoming recognized throughout the world as a “great book,” a work of literature that conveys timeless truth. Fujimura’s exploration can further assist readers in understanding the meaning of Silence, Japanese culture, and how the story of the Japanese Christians might provide an antidote to more worldly versions of Christianity.
Silence is historical fiction based on real missionaries who followed the Biblical command to spread the Gospel to “the ends of the earth,” as Japan seemed to the Europeans. These efforts to teach Japanese about God sending his son to atone for human sin were initially successful in a culture that had already connected beauty with sacrifice. But 17th century Japanese authorities instituted a harsh and effective persecution that forced even the most dedicated believers to publicly renounce faith. This public renunciation required Christian leaders to trample on “fumi-e,” images of Christ or the Virgin.
Convicted Christians, if not martyred, were required to trample on fumi-e not just once, but at the onset of each year. The missionary priests were not permitted to leave Japan, but kept under house arrest and frequently paraded to the people as examples of the failure of Christianity.
A number of American Christians who’ve read Silence have described it as dark and depressing, and have condemned the fictional character Father Rodrigues as a failed witness. But while the book is certainly haunting, Fujimura helps readers to see that Rodrigues is much more like the Apostle Peter, and perhaps even more like Christ than we first perceive. In the modernized, Western church, we prefer more comfortable versions of Christianity. Some adhere to a politically correct and respectable church that stays relevant by keeping up with cultural trends and progressive values. Others overtly or subtly embrace forms of prosperity gospel, in which the right prayers and behavior lead to material and social success. We boast of faith heroes like Billy Graham, who led many to Christ and was popular, well-loved, and respected.
In contrast, Father Rodrigues, loses everything. Despite his prayers, God remains silent and does not spare Rodrigues from suffering. Like the Apostle Peter, Rodrigues denies Christ at the crucial moment. He becomes a despised apostate of the church and a target of ridicule for the Japanese. Even the children taunt and throw rocks at him. And yet, in a completely broken and disgraced way, he retains his faith and nurtures the faith of others.
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