Beauty, Silence, Suffering…

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I wrote about Armando Valladares last week, and surprisingly, a few days ago, I found out my son had read his book, Against All Hope, a couple of years ago. My son was practicing an intro for one of his speeches, I was listening/critiquing, and I was surprised to hear Valladares’ name come up. He doesn’t remember how he learned about the book, but he read it. It’s one I’d like to read, too, but I just finished several books on death and suffering, so while it’s on my list, I need to find something a bit different for now.

I recently read Silence by Endo, and then read Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura. I don’t have time (unfortunately) to write the kind of post I’d really like to write about all of this, taking time to reflect and synthesize it all, so here are some quotes and excerpts; there are many I bookmarked with little slips of paper.

In elementary school, I remember decorating half-gallon milk cartons for Valentine’s Day. Then in class, we’d exchange Valentine’s day cards. There was less candy back then, and more paper. And there was no Pinterest, so it was mostly paper cards, whether store-bought or homemade cards. Here’s something Beth Moore said: “…I hate days that make a lot of people feel lame and lonelier. Sorry but I’m a bit of a Valentine Scrooge.” I’m in her camp and have been for a very long time. I just can’t get into this “holiday”. It’s commercial and superficial and extreme. (I know it’s not all superficial- I know there is some genuine sentiment being expressed out there. But overall, the holiday is exaggerated.)

So I need to get this post written quickly- because I am visiting some single, widowed neighbors today and must take my son to one of his classes, and to a piano lesson, etc. One neighbor turned 100 recently, and the other was just recently widowed this past summer (I haven’t written about that incident here on the blog but a few of us in the neighborhood were there when the ambulance came.)

Silence was a quick read, but it was a bit hard for me to stick with Silence and Beauty; I thought about quitting halfway through. It’s written well, excellent, and provides helpful background context for the book Silence, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading. I did stick with it and I’m glad I did- though I enjoyed the last third more.

Here are a few quotes and excerpts from the book:

I believe that all art responds to what is holy. (p. 88)

(I agree with the statement above!)

Deep communication can only take place through a path of vulnerability…. Beauty, one might add, is a gift given through this vulnerability. Beauty that integrates virtue, nature and religion can guide us into wisdom. (p. 133)

Fujimura wrote the above quote while relating the story of Sen no Rikyu, an ancient tea master, an expert in the “way of tea”.

In considering Rikyu, then, in terms of missions, we must ask, What cultural forms and practices can we weave into universal symbols of freedom? In considering Silence, we may ask, What are our own fumi-es? (p. 140)

Rikyu intentionally served a black tea bowl as a gift to the leader. It was subversive- it showed Rikyu’s opposition, and it was known that Hideyoshi did not like black.  This challenge to Hideyoshi resulted in an order that Rikyu must kill himself. After the suicide, a samurai severed Rikyu’s head from the rest of his body. (gruesome story!)

Fujimura says Father Rodrigues would have heard of Sen no Rikyu, and also writes:

Rikyu’s black bowl signifies a language of hidden power….What I am speaking of is highly intuitive language of hiddenness in a culture that is oppressed, and in so many cases traumatized, and must remain stoic about that trauma. (p. 165)

The book Silence is about the persecution of the Christians in 17th century Japan; the story itself is fiction but the persecution was real.  For 250 years, the Japanese, each year, were required to step on the fumi-e.

Just as in Valladares’ case, Fujimura writes of others who have endured torture and abuse:

Human expression and imagination can never be trapped within the closed walls of dictatorial forces. History has shown that in prison the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Martin Luther King Jr. crafted words that broke through the oppressive reality of their day. Words and images are powerful.  (p. 159)

Indeed!

When I was in college, I was introduced to Solzhenitsyn and his book The First Circle. It had such a profound effect on me at the time. I re-read it a few years ago; it didn’t have the same effect but I wanted to remember what it was that made the book so memorable to me. I also read Man’s Search for Meaning a year or two ago by Victor Frankl. All of these examples exhibit different characteristics of a prevailing spirit. Not all  of these are Jesus followers- but we see examples of resilience, fortitude, and hope. What can we learn from them?

And here is the struggle of the artist, as Fujimura explains:

An artist is often pulled in two directions. Religiously conservative people tend to see culture as suspect at best, and when cultural statements are made to transgress the normative reality they hold dear, their default reaction is to oppose and boycott. People in the more liberal artistic community see these transgressive steps as necessary for their “freedom of expression.” An artist like me, who values both religion and art, will be exiled from both. I try to hold together both of these commitments, but it is a struggle. (p. 161)

I do understand what Fujimura is expressing above. I came across a quote the other day by G. K. Chesterton: “I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.”  I realize people may have different interpretations of what that quote means. I understood it to mean what Fujimura explains above. It means stepping out, speaking out, and even straddling the line an artist must cross in order to express something of truth – perhaps even in a startling way. Each (religious) artist chooses his or her distance from that line according to his own calling. (An artist like Scorcese, in my view, crossed the line in some of his previous work- and that was the context of this particular discussion in the book.)

Typically, in Protestant missionary culture, a book or film like Silence can seem questionable. How can the story of a church leader who abandons his faith be edifying? Isn’t the whole point of our mission to keep our faith?

What is faith? How does art help us to journey on?

After twenty-five years of thinking about these issues, I have come to understand that Silence drives a reader (or viewer of the film) to wrestle deeply with faith, art and culture. It provides an essential link between our journey of faith and our experience within culture. Silence creates a possibility 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 creates us for this gratuitous love, and therefore we are loved deeply by the master Artist.  (p. 163)

A page or two later, he writes:

In a world where religious freedom is increasingly considered a frontline issue, we will do well to learn from the multifaceted stories that Endo crafted to deal with such a time as ours, whether on a page or on a screen. Cinema can create a cultural moment, an opportunity to step into some of the most pressing issues of the day. (p. 165)

What Endo gets at, and repeatedly obsesses over in all of his writings, is the fate of those who are pushed beyond the normative categories of experience. Martin Scorsese’s script, very faithful to the book, reveals the deeper artful way of pushing us out of normative categories of experience as well. Endo seems to argue that none of us are exempt from the possibility of complete failure if we face extraordinary torture and dehumanization. Scorsese translates this trauma to a hidden, and therefore more powerful, view of fear. Neither of them discounts the possibility that even in such circumstances one may rise above all the darkness and achieve heroic heights-or true martyrdom. But Endo’s focus is on the weak, those who cannot rise above their fears and whose circumstances expose their inner demise. Given the worst scenario, the most nightmare-filled turn of events what virtue and faith remain?  (pp.165-166)

Endo created, and Scorsese translates to film, a narrative that runs counter to the usual heroic storyline. Endo and Scorcese strip the characters of Silence of all they have desired and depict a worst-case scenario for them. The novel and the film expose the dehumanized, the corrupt, the cruel in the world. Yet what appears beyond such a torturous path is not despair and nihilistic cynicism.

Dark, despair-filled works of art like Endo’s writing or Scorsese’s films lead us to an important question: given the reality of torturous conditions, can anything good come from them? What makes evil and suffering meaningful even when we cannot manage to remain faithful? (p. 166)

I did not have the opportunity to see the film- I wanted to read the book first, and by the time I obtained the book and read it, I found myself in the midst of a busy tournament and travel season (for forensics competitions), and with other obligations, that left many weekends the past two months already accounted for, as well as days before and after.

As an artist I notice over and over that the machinery that transmits the message of art, or even the ultimate message of the good news, has been reduced to mechanisms. These fall far short of the fullness of human experience. Consumerism will always  reduce the human experience to marketable soundbites. These mechanisms will not allow our souls to be transformed from caterpillar to butterfly. Artists, on the other hand, often amplify as an experience by giving wings through their imagination. (p. 167).

Fujimura goes on in the next pages to explain the story of Princess Masako. Before she married the Crown Prince in 1993, she was a Harvard graduate, and had become a trade negotiator for the Japanese Foreign Ministry. But a decade later, a mother of a young daughter, she was absent from public view and suffered from an “adjustment disorder”.

But becoming part of the imperial family and transitioning into a highly restrictive environment constraining her clear leadership abilities also must have contributed to a perfect storm of tension. In a culture that forbids the expression of free will, a woman of such exceptional ability will stand out, and any effort by her to represent her country will be seen as “a nail that sticks out,” an unwelcome intrusion in the established order….

Princess Masako’s plight is only the tip of the iceberg. Japan is experiencing an epidemic of adjustment disorder among youths who are literally shutting out the sun in what is now well-known as hikikimori syndrome. (p. 171)

“Frustrated and disaffected, many young Japanese just abandon their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of others wander around like nomads outside the rigid traditional system, refusing to work, go to school, or accept job training. Even more disturbing-perhaps most disturbing- is the cadre of more than one million young adults, the majority of them men, who literally shut themselves away from the sun, closing their blinds, taping shut their windows, and refusing to leave the bedroom in their home for months or years at a time.” (pp. 171-172)

No one can live shut in a box. Even God gives us free will… he didn’t stop Adam and Eve from sinning, did he? I am amazed at God’s love and restraint. He could have intervened; but chose not to. What a story: God restrained Himself, but this restraint gave Him the opportunity to die for us, which subsequently displayed His love- and incredible strength.

Refusing to allow individuals to be who God made them to be (within the context and freedom of God’s law) is stifling and deadening. If someone wants to take everything from you, your freedom, your expression, tries to tell you what you should think, what to say, demeans and diminishes you, and your words, thoughts, and existence, tries to break down your will, what is left but to physically die?  You become a shell of a person, and death becomes an attractive option… perhaps not just for you, but it is also only the next step for the person subjugating your existence.

We see it in Silence, but it’s everywhere… though it may not be so obvious.

To be stifled and living in such a way in a fatalistic and conformist culture like Japan must be akin to dying. It is akin to dying no matter where one lives, but in the Japanese culture, even more so. No wonder the suicide rates are so high:

‘Suicide rates are now so high that the government, an communities, are taking measures to intervene. Withdrawal is noteworthy as well: another form of refugeeism that has become only too ‘ordinary’ these days in Japan and is symptomatic of the times.’ (p. 178)

It was interesting to me to learn the fascination the Japanese have with Bach:

When Bach wrote at the end of his composition “Sola Dei Gloria” (Glory to God Alone) it was not just a sentiment or a spiritual embellishment. The words of the title meant to Bach exactly what they say: he wrote his music only to God. In some sense he was not making music, or composing music, but discovering the music already in God, and only by hard work and attuned listening would he be able to capture it. He composed not that he could be famous and many people would hear his music; he made and discovered music for God alone. (p. 190)

I love all of that, and especially that he was “discovering the music already in God.” But, it seems to me all art, all music, all scientific discoveries, mathematical equations, etc., are the same: artists simply discovering aspects of God, by the grace of God making known aspects of Himself to them, and are the vessels God uses to make that beauty and expression known and visible to the rest of us, whether that artist is aware of it or not. Beautiful and astounding. Isn’t that why we are drawn toward these things? It’s really God; all of those beautiful things we enjoy (the music, art, science, all that is lovely, good, worthy of praise, etc.) are simply bits and pieces of God reflected in this physical world.

I have a few more pages of the book to quote, and maybe I’ll get to that soon. But for now, today, I have to end right here.

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