Stepping into Silence

It is hard to miss the banners, posters and various cards placed around campus with blood-red Japanese characters thrown against a banner of black, promoting Shusaku Endo’s modern classic “Silence” as Wheaton’s “Core Book.”
Wheaton’s plans for discussing this novel go beyond encouraging the whole campus to read through the book together. Faculty members invite members of the community to participate by visiting “Stepping into Silence,” an exhibit in the Billy Graham Museum.
Associate professors of English Tiffany Kriner and Miho Nonaka, and Sarah Miglio, director of core curriculum studies and assistant professor of history, were all involved in different stages of developing, crafting and implementing the Core Book program and carrying out its goals.
Endo’s “Silence” is a novel of historical fiction that follows a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Rodrigues, as he travels to Japan to investigate claims that his mentor, Ferreira, has committed apostasy.
Rodrigues arrives in Japan to find that the Christian population is under intense persecution and is primarily operating underground. In order to weed out the Christian population, authorities are forcing individuals to step on the “fumi-e,” or a carving of Christ, to demonstrate the renouncement of faith. The novel tracks Rodrigues as he attempts to reconcile his faith and the seeming silence of God with his intense suffering and the suffering of those around him.
Reading “Silence” need not be an isolated activity, however. In fact, there is ample opportunity to engage with its “literary and theological themes” outside of the text as a community. Makoto Fujimura, a 21st century artist and author, became an “active conversation partner” in formulating the exhibition in the Billy Graham Museum, even including his own works of art and reflections on “Silence.”
Miglio shared that Fujimura’s book, “Silence and Beauty,” “proved to be an essential resource” as she, Kriner and Nonaka collaborated to bring the exhibit together. The student body and community will have the chance to hear from Fujimura during a chapel address and a subsequent talk on his book.
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“Stepping into Silence” displays related material, like “fumi-e,” from the historical persecution. The goal of the exhibit, Nonaka said, “was to create an exhibit that is not merely a collection of historical artifacts, but a kind of spiritual narrative and meditation, like Stations of the Cross.”
The exhibit on display in the BGC, Kriner said, is “vitally interdisciplinary.” She explained that “The exhibition itself is literary, historical, theological and artistic.” Its progression leads the viewer “into the world of the text and artifacts, and then they lead the viewer out again, to personal connections and responses.”
As a result of the new Christ at the Core curriculum, first-year students will read four texts relating to the “themes of vocation, suffering, the good life and the formation of character,” according to Miglio. “Silence” was first chosen by the Shared Core Task Force in spring 2015 as a required text for the new first year seminar course that replaced BITH 111. The novel, Miglio explained, “seemed like a great way to bring our entire campus … together in conversation.”
Because of its engagement with themes that are integrated into the seminar, the book offers an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to grapple with these ideas beyond the scope of the first year course. Wheaton’s goal with the program is to “[foster] a shared experience across the campus community as we read, reflect upon and discuss ‘Silence,’” according to Wheaton’s website.
Though students outside the seminar are not required to read the novel, Nonaka considered this an opportunity to exercise “imagination [as] a spiritual discipline.” While “Silence” may be accessible, thinking of it on those terms is “not the point.”
“If you only choose the kind of literature that mirrors your own world, sensibility and values, reading will become merely a narcissistic exercise,” Nonaka said. Reading through “Silence” presents an occasion for drawing near in empathy through imagination.
Kriner said the novel caused her to ask “questions about [her] own vocation and failures.” As the title suggests, a theme of the book is silence, but Kriner added “the novel is much less about God’s silence than about the silence that comes with personal and cross-cultural failure.”
Miglio added, “I hope that as we engage the novel, the exhibit and the other events … we would be open to the hard but freeing truth that God is not absent in our suffering but present and ready to speak to us.”
In addition to the text itself and the exhibit, Wheaton’s website offers orbiting texts, articles, lectures and guides to walk alongside individual readers and encourage them to bring their responses  into the context of community.
Director Martin Scorsese has a new film coming out based on the novel, which will be shown on-campus in the spring semester and will be coupled with a faculty panel that will discuss themes and implications of the novel. For the remainder of the fall semester, Wheaton’s website supplies a full list of events, including reading guides and lecturers. “Stepping into Silence” will remain on display in the BGC until Sept. 30.

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