We admire those willing to die for what they believe, and we pay attention to the last words of those we admire. The book, Martyrs Mirror, consists primarily of final messages from Christians in jail, joyfully waiting to die for their faith. – Introduction to Martyrs Mirror
I’ve generally thought of martyrdom as “the ultimate act of faith.” I even wrote about it that way in an earlier blog post on Love Letters from Prison and the Ultimate Act of Faith. As Jesus said to his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). In his death on the cross, Jesus did just that, and by extension, I’ve always thought of laying down one’s life for the Lord as the ultimate expression of commitment.
In sixteenth century Japan, the Christian church was barely a generation old when it experienced severe persecution, as foreign missionaries and Japanese Christians were crucified in cruel imitation of Jesus’ death, while others were forced to recant their faith each New Year’s Day by stepping on portraits of Jesus and/or his mother, Mary. These bronze portraits in their wooden frames were called fumi-e, and those preserved in museums today have been worn smooth by so many feet that the portraits themselves have almost been erased.
In the history of the Christian church, the stories of martyrs who have remained faithful even as they were being put to death have been told as heroic stories of faith. But what of those who stepped on the fumi-e, or recant under persecution today in some other way? Is that the end of faith for them? Is there any kind of heroism in their stories or only cowardice?
Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence (published in 1966), explores these questions as he relates the story of persecuted Christians in Japan. Martin Scorsese’s film version is scheduled for release later this year. I don’t know that I’ll read the novel or see the film, but I love the way Makoto Fujimura brings them both into dialogue with art, culture, and Christian faith in his book, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (InterVarsity, 2016).
This is a book to savour, to ponder, to reflect on the mystery and power of hidden faith to persevere in the human heart and endure through the years. With great compassion, Makoto acknowledges that we all have experiences of trauma and suffering, our own personal Ground Zero. As an artist painting in the Japanese style of nihonga in which precious minerals are pulverized into prismatic shards to make paint, he knows that crushing can release beauty both in painting and in the human soul. In building layer upon layer of pigment, he understands the precious beauty of hiddenness.
And so in Silence and Beauty, the difference between martyrdom and recanting is not cast as the difference between faith and no faith, between heroism and cowardice. In Makoto’s view, Japan as a country is neither “Christian” nor “pagan” but what he calls a “Christ-hidden culture.” Instead of a strict dualism, he writes (163):
[Endo’s] Silence creates a possibilty of a nondualistic world, one not framed by an oversimplified, black-and-white assessment of the nature of faith. Ultimately, faith is not forced on any of us; it is a gift of grace given to us by a gratuitous God. God does not need us. He created us for this gratuitous love, and therefore we are deeply loved by the Master Artist.
For those looking for the personal and practical relevance of this, Philip Yancey’s foreword offers some specific examples:
Every one of Jesus’ followers, from the first disciples down through history to the present day, knows the feeling of betrayal. Sharp-edged gossip, the stab of envy, that colleague we humiliated, the racist comment that drew a laugh, a sudden and inexplicable cruelty, apologies to our children deserved but never made, a furtive fantasy, a stolen kiss, callousness toward another’s misery, an addiction to what demeans or even destroys–in ways small and large we too step on the fumi-e. Our only hope is the forgiving gaze of the betrayed Savior, the still point of Endo’s novel.
A friend has Endo’s Silence on her reading list, and asked me to let her know if Silence and Beauty is worth reading. Definitely! Whether or not you read Endo’s novel, read this book for its thoughtful reflection and for the important questions it raises. What is our hope? What will lead us out of despair? (179) How do we remain faithful in a context in which dying for Christ is possible, but living for Christ is made impossible? (195) And know this: “for ordinary, weak, broken human beings, there is grace at the base of the universe operating to catch us as we struggle” (from the video at the end of this article).
While on vacation in New York City earlier this year, I made a point of visiting Waterfall Gallery to see the exhibit of Makoto Fujimura’s work, including the above painting. The private gallery was once an artist’s residence and is open to the public only on Saturdays. It was my great pleasure to meet gallery owner Kate Shin, to catch part of her women’s empowerment exhibit also on display at that time, and to learn of her vision to highlight international artists.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Silence and Beauty from InterVarsity Press. As always, the decision to write a review and the opinions expressed are my own.
Writing/Reflection Prompt: How would you answer my title question, Is a hidden faith just as genuine as the faith of a martyr?
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Categories: Book Reviews