From the perspective of North American Christianity, it's easy to forget that Christians elsewhere may see both culture and theology differently.
NCR's Tom Fox reminded us about that in his insightful 2002 book Pentecost in Asia: A New Way of Being Church.
The shape of world Christianity has continued to change since then, and today North America and Europe have become minority voices within the faith. Christianity is growing in Asia, Africa and the Global South, but the future of the faith is not in New England, the Pacific Northwest or the Bible Belt.
A new book has helped me see some of this more clearly as it also reminded me how much we owe to some spectacular Catholic authors.
In Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, artist and author Makoto Fujimura explores the ways in which the work of 20th Century Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo shaped not only Fujimura's life and work but also brought a Far Eastern perspective to the terrible questions about suffering and evil.
Fujimura's new book is a luminous response to Endo's 1966 historical fiction book Silence, which tells the story of a 17th century Jesuit missionary in Japan, a nation that was then deeply hostile to Christianity.
Fujimura says his book "is about the movement of our souls into Holy Saturday, waiting for Easter Sunday. Endo, in many respects, is a Holy Saturday author describing the darkness of waiting for Easter light to break into our world."
Among Catholics, Fujimura writes, "Endo's work has become one of the consistent resources of twentieth-century imagination, alongside Flannery O'Connor and Endo's main influence, Graham Greene. These authors, divided across the oceans, paint a consistent image of the alienation and endurance of twentieth-century Catholic writers."
I don't recall how I first encountered Endo's work, but I was smitten by his 1973 book, A Life of Jesus. When I found it, I was reading a series of books on that very topic as I worked on a never-finished book I playfully called The Unauthorized Autobiography of Jesus Christ.
Endo's book on Jesus was written for a Japanese audience that held an image of father as strong, powerful, even dictatorial. His task was to help readers see that when Jesus spoke about God as father, he had in mind someone rather different -- someone loving, forgiving, merciful.
Endo believed that Japan was, as he said, haunted by Christ in the way that Flannery O'Connor had described her subject as the "Christ-haunted South." Indeed, Fujimura says he believes that "Japan is still a Christ-hidden culture, haunted by the past, with a developed sense of hiding well what is most important."
Fujimura, a Japanese-American who as an adult converted to Christianity, is, like Endo himself, intrigued by the mysteries of pain, failure, paradox, ambiguity and trauma. Theologians call answers to these old questions theodicies, and the stark truth is that all theodicies fail because we never finally have an exhaustive answer to the question of why there is evil and suffering in the world if God is good and loving.
But that is the question that Endo, O'Connor and many other Catholic writers have focused on because it is the question that will not let us go.
Indeed, it is a question that rings out into the world from the very cross of Christ himself. The torture that Jesus endured is mirrored in the torture of the 17th century missionaries at the center of Endo's dark novel Silence.
As Fujimura writes, "Endo plays a game with those who taunt faith, and with the world that denies God: he first convinces us of a violent, corrupt world in which faith cannot possibly survive -- but he also weaves into his writing the possibility of another reality. …"
The world of faith can be complex and puzzling. Both Fujimura and Endo understand that and work to help us accept that frustrating reality.
Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Bill Tammeus' column, "A small c catholic," is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.
Join the Conversation
Send your thoughts and reactions to our online Letters to the Editor column. Learn more here