Finding beauty in the silence

To understand movies (or any cultural text), it can be helpful to look inside the “world behind the text” — learning about an author and the themes that inspired their writing. In this essay, Amy Sherman examines the themes in the film Silence (directed by Martin Scorsese) through the lens of Makoto Fujimura’s book, Silence and Beauty. In addition, here is an interview with Martin Scorsese, Makoto Fujimura, and Kutter Calloway with the Fuller Theological Seminary. 

For some, the suffering that provokes frustration at the seeming silence of God is physical, for others, it’s emotional, relational, spiritual, or vocational. We lose our jobs for no good reason, and despite repeated efforts and diligent searching, no new offer of employment comes. We persevere in a long-range project, only to have it fail, or its funding cut. We realize, perhaps at a “milestone” birthday, that we’ve been at our job for a couple of decades and we wonder whether we can genuinely say, “My work has made a difference for good.” These fears and frustrations, these defeats and the sense of futility, are some of the thorniest thorns of work in cursed ground. They can be made even more painful when God seems to take no notice of them, and fails to speak into them.

Dealing with the silence of God is what Makoto Fujimura’s book, Silence and Beauty, is primarily about. The book grew out of Fujimura’s reflections on the book Silence by Shūsaku Endo, a Japanese author writing in post-atomic Nagasaki. The book, which was developed into a film directed by Martin Scorsese, describes the persecution of Jesuit missionaries and “hidden Christians” in 17th century Japan. Accompanying Fujimura’s book are a series of short videos in which he discusses a variety of themes raised by Endo’s classic: identity, inclusion, beauty, faithfulness, ambiguity, leadership, trauma, failure, betrayal, and grace. The material is dense and thought-provoking, well-suited for a serious book or discussion group. A church in Hong Kong used Fujimura’s book and videos as their Lenten discussion material for small groups. It’s an apt choice for Lent, when we all reflect on suffering and hear Christ’s cry of “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” and try to find comfort in our very human high priest in the midst of our own cries.                                                                                                          SPACE

Ambiguity and the honor of silence

The principal subject of Fujimura’s reflections is the query, “Why is God silent in my suffering?” He argues there is no right answer to the question. Rather, in Christianity, we must deal with ambiguity. His offer of hope is simply this: God’s silence is not equal to his absence. Rather, God is present and working in the midst of his silence. Fujimura urges us to not allow our experience of God’s silence to lead us to the conclusion that he is distant.

Drawing on his Japanese heritage, Fujimura teaches readers that in his culture, silence is sometimes the only appropriate expression of the deepest and most important truths, experiences, and relationships. To attempt to articulate these in words necessarily reduces them and thus it is best to leave one’s mouth closed. In this cultural approach, silence honors that which is precious.

Finding beauty in the silence is the reward, Fujimura asserts, that awaits those willing to persevere through the journey of darkness that suffering — particularly in the midst of a seemingly absent God — is. Meditating on God’s own beauty, and on his profligate, gratuitous spreading of beauty into our world, can bolster our faith in the times of silence. Considering the results of our suffering, which can grow us in resilience and compassion, is another helpful practice.                    SPACE

Betrayal and grace

The Christians in Endo’s book (and Scorsese’s film) endure repression and cannot hear God in the midst of their suffering. They are forced to recant their faith publicly, standing on fumi-es, images of Christ or Mary that suspected Christians were forced to trample upon to repudiate Christ. This act of betrayal, Fujimura argues, is universal: We all at one time or another tread upon the very things we treasure most. We step on our loved ones and on our ideals. Our own experience of failure and cowardice bring a kind of suffering that is particularly intense, for it is layered with guilt and shame. It is easy to want to protect ourselves from this particular pain and so we deny or negate or blame shift. But acceptance of our failures and even of our betrayals can lead us to the mercy seat. We find that God’s grace is big enough to handle this. Indeed, as Fujimura says in one of the videos, “the place of vulnerability and weakness is exactly the place where God’s grace can be poured into you.”

Recognizing our own proclivity to betray can also engender compassion in us for others. We admit that we are weak, and so it’s not surprising that others are as well. This mercy is part of the beauty that can emerge from suffering as long as we’re humble.

These realizations about failure can be profound helps to us on the job, as we encounter our own failings or those of others. Can we learn to show ourselves, and others, God’s abundant grace?                                                                         SPACE

Brokenness and beauty

Fujimura has been widely recognized for his art. He practices the ancient Japanese craft of nihonga, a technique using coarsely crushed mineral pigments applied to hand-crafted paper. The fine minerals used in the paintings act as prisms refracting light and changing the artwork’s appearance depending on the light source and angle of the viewer. Beauty and suffering marry in his works because it is in the crushing, in the brokenness, that the light shines. For him, the brokenness can be beautiful. In explaining Endo’s work to modern audiences, he argues that silence, too, can be beautiful. For in times of silence our roots of faith can grow deeper.

Strangely enough, without ever having read Fujimura, my friend with cancer is a living testament to his convictions. Long before Fujimura ever taught me about the beauty in brokenness, this friend did. And this was when she was healthy, seemingly ages ago. By the help of God’s grace, she maintains her convictions about how a loving God sometimes works in us in crushing ways. I see the light refracted in her tenacious faith and find myself able to hope again, and pray again — trusting that the God who seemingly is not speaking now is nonetheless hearing, and present, and real.

Topics: Christian Life, Suffering

About the Author

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).