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‘Silence and Beauty’. Thoughts on faith, art, and suffering

‘Silence and Beauty’. Thoughts on faith, art, and suffering

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Makoto Fujimura is an internationally renowned artist who specialises in the ancient Japanese tradition of nihonga painting. His work is exhibited at prominent arts establishments, including Dillon Gallery in New York, The Contemporary Museum of Tokyo, and the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts Museum.

Fujimura is also a writer. Similar to his paintings, Silence and Beauty, his latest book, is multi–layered, vibrant, with a fluid structure. Written by a painter, the experience of reading is probably not unlike contemplating one of Fujimura’s many–layered paintings, with pulverized mineral pigments of insight. It is a beautiful book that requires the silence of active listening to be fully appreciated; a book for the wounded and wavering in faith, for those struggling to process pain and trauma, for Christians concerned about and active in the arts and the wider culture, but also for lovers of Japanese culture, literature and tea.

His main conversation partner, and indeed catalyst for the book is ShÅ«saku Endō, the Japanese author most famous for his novel Silence, recently brought to the big screen by Martin Scorsese. The resemblance and underlying affinity between Endō and Fujimura run deep and become apparent as Fujimura takes us beneath the surface of Endō’s deceptively simple prose to explore, among other things, the three main themes that are shown to permeate their life journeys, Japanese culture, and Silence and Beauty itself: hiddenness, ambiguity and beauty. Fujimura succeeds in showing the import of Silence, beyond any subjective aesthetic appeal, as a particularly suitable means of wrestling deeply with questions of faith, art and culture.

In one of the deeper layers of Silence of Beauty Fujimura draws from Endō’s writings a vision of a faith that is capacious enough to accommodate doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity. This offers hope for the weak and wavering, particularly when experiencing personal traumas or traversing what Fujimura calls ‘ground–zero realities’ – a phrase which echoes not only the terrorist attacks of 9/11 but also the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaski at the end of World War II.

In another one of the book’s layers we learn of the aching soul of Japanese culture – filled with repressed longings and yearnings from past pain and persecution, somewhat closed, but profoundly sensitive to (hidden) beauty. Fujimura has a deep understanding of the Japanese soul, and shares with Endō the fate of having to straddle Western and Oriental cultures, being simultaneously an insider and outsider in both. Yet this is what makes his perspective unique. Conversant in both cultures, Fujimura weaves together insights on Japanese art, Asian theology, samurai rituals, while also engaging the ills and malaise of Western culture, drawing on writers of kindred sensibility: Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, T. S. Eliot, and others.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book are the connections Fujimura makes between Japan’s history of Christian persecution and contemporary liberal culture. Arguably, the parallel between secular liberalism’s exclusion of religion and the Tokugawa persecution of Christians in Japan runs deep, even if important differences remain. The lesson seems to be that clamping down on religious freedom stifles not just the public expression of religion but free thinking as well. This gives rise to what Fujimura calls ‘fumi–e cultures’. The ‘fumi–e’ – the image of Christ and the Virgin Mary which Japanese Christians were forced to step on to apostatize – he takes to be a symbol not only of betrayal – of others and of our own ideals – but also of all reductionisms and false dichotomies that impoverish and isolate cultures.

Finally, Silence and Beauty is also a candid account of the struggle to work professionally in the arts as a committed Christian. Fujimura confesses to sometimes feeling as an exile in both the Church and the arts world, building bridges where some are content with chasms. There is no indulging in self–pity, however, only a sober account of the challenges, infused nonetheless with the hope that bridges will be built, and indeed are being built, to allow for an enriching two–way traffic between the Church and the arts.

I will end with a little confession. This reader felt somewhat unprepared for the detailed lessons in Japanese (art) history, strewn with names of Japanese masters of literature, visual art, and tea, and therefore found the account a bit heavy going at times. This is, of course, an admission of ignorance, but maybe the introduction could have been clearer to gear up readers for the agreeable, if sometimes demanding journey through Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty.

Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura is published by InterVarsity Press (2016)


Natan Mladin is a researcher at Theos | @nathanmladin

This is part of a mini–series reflecting on Silence. Check out:

  • Nick Spencer’s review of Silence, the new film by Martin Scorsese 
  • Paul Bickley’s review of Silence, the original book by ShÅ«saku Endō
  • An interview with Makoto Fujimura by Natan and Nick

Image from Vimeo capture.

Natan Mladin

Natan Mladin

Natan joined Theos in 2016. He has just completed a PhD in Systematic Theology at Queen’s University of Belfast with a thesis on divine action in dialogue with theatre studies. He is the author of the chapter on Václav Havel in The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God (Biteback, 2017) and co–author of That They All May Be One, a report looking at inter–Church relations in England. Current research interests include theology and economics, with a focus on debt, ethics of AI/robotics, theology and contemporary art.

Posted 15 January 2017

Art, Faith

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