Art, Reframed


The culture wars we have with us always. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. The cultural front must be considered just that, a front — the scene for endless battles between the forces of morality and the forces of immorality. Though Christians know that Christ will ultimately have the victory, in the meantime we must contest every bloody inch of the cultural battleground, striking back — or striking preemptively — wherever the enemy appears to be gaining a foothold. Whether it’s a movie that needs boycotting, or a celebrity who needs calling out, we must always be ready to mobilize and fight.

But sometimes the conventional wisdom is wrong.

In his book “Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life,” Makoto Fujimura makes a strong case for an entirely different kind of cultural engagement. Fujimura is an artist, writer, and committed Christian. He is the founder of the International Arts Movement, and serves as director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary.

In short, he spends a great deal of his time dealing with the relationship between faith and art, and helping other Christians to understand it better. Thus, he and his work serve as a bridge between two communities that are very often at odds with each other.

From his long experience in this role, Fujimura has drawn the conclusion that “cultural fragmentation” and the ideological polarization that goes with it are among the great crises of our time. Yet as serious as it is, he believes we can find a way out of that crisis if we learn to look at culture through a new framework. He puts it this way: “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.” (Emphasis in original.)

If we allow our thinking to shift in this direction, we begin to get a whole new perspective on culture. It doesn’t matter less than we thought; it matters more, because it’s the environment in which we all live, and our emotional, moral, and spiritual health depends in large part on its health. But we also start to see that constant cultural hatreds and battles don’t help to restore that environment. Instead, they pollute it.

Fujimura uses a wealth of images from nature to convey his points — comparing culture not just to a garden, but also to an estuary, “a complex system with a multiplicity of dynamic influences and tributaries . . . [with] many nurturing — but not isolated — habitats.” But the main image he keeps coming back to again and again is that of a simple bouquet of flowers that his wife, Judy, once brought home in the early days of their marriage, when the two of them were struggling to get by. To his shocked question about how she could spend money on flowers instead of food, Judy simply responded, “We need to feed our souls, too.”

Those words, Fujimura writes, have been “etched in my heart for over thirty years now.”

Culture exists to feed our souls, which God designed to need beauty and grace. But then, why has the relationship between the church and artists become increasingly toxic? Why are the two camps increasingly hostile toward each other?

As a man with a foot in both camps, Fujimura identifies faults in each. The church, he observes, often doesn’t know what to do with the artists in its midst. They have a way of seeing the world differently, of asking uncomfortable questions, of not fitting neatly into preconceived categories. (He cites the well-known examples of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Goth, both of whom had severely strained relationships with the church.)

So artists are pressured to conform, and if they don’t, they tend to be pushed aside and devalued. Artists, in turn, react to marginalization with ever more transgressive and shocking ideas and behavior, which push the church even further from them.

To stop this vicious circle, Fujimura proposes a new model for those who love the church and the arts:

Recently I was speaking with my colleague and collaborator Bruce Herman. He introduced me to an Old English word used in Beowulf: mearcstapas, translated “border-walkers” or “border-stalkers.” In the tribal realities of earlier times, these were individuals who lived on the edges of their groups, going in and out of them, sometimes bringing back news to the tribe.

He uses Strider in “The Lord of the Rings” as an example of a mearcstapa: “It is in large part his ability to move in and out of tribes and boundaries that makes him an indispensable guide and protector and that helps him become an effective leader, fulfilling his destiny as Aragorn, high king of Gondor and Arnor, uniting two kingdoms.” The mearcstapa may seem a marginal figure, but he or she in fact can be playing “a role of cultural leadership in a new mode, serving functions including empathy,  memory, warning, guidance, mediation, and reconciliation.”

Fujimura offers some practical suggestions for would-be mearcstapas who want to practice culture care, whether they work in the arts, or in business, or elsewhere. I would have liked even more such suggestions, but his ideas for how artists can bless their culture and how others can support and nurture artists — spiritually, emotionally, and financially — are an excellent place to start. His fervent belief that we can make our present cultural crisis into a “genesis moment” is convincing and inspiring. This book is an invaluable guide to how we can nourish our cultural soil and plant good seeds that will contribute to the “common life” of us all.

For Further Reading:

Gina Dalfonzo, “Hope in the Silence: Makoto Fujimura Sheds New Light on a Classic Novel,”, August 26, 2016.

Image copyright IVP Books. Review copy obtained from the publisher.

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of and Dickensblog, and the author of “One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church” (Baker, June 2017).

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.

  • David Haddon

    This perspective calls to mind the work of Francis Schaeffer and H. R. Rookmacher. I remember having been mystified by the movie “Blowup,” which I saw while at UC Santa Barbara in the mid-1960s, but Schaeffer’s review clarified its existentialist denial of the categories of logic and morality.
    But he and Rookmacher also saw the need to enlist the beauty of art and the talents of artists in the church.

  • Joel Stucki

    This is fantastic. I have long felt that the Church (at least in America) no longer offers a context for artists to use their gifts. I’m pleased to see that someone in Fujimura’s position is also saying it out loud.

  • Joel Stucki

    I am curious: how is it that BP will publish this post, which is a wonderful call to recognize the importance of the arts and the non-conformism of artists, and on the other hand also publish stuff about a Chris Tomlin song being bad because it doesn’t have the name of Jesus in it (which is a call for artists to conform in a very petty matter)?

    I realize there are several different authors for Breakpoint, and they will have different points of view. But is it the intention of breakpoint to contradict itself? Or does breakpoint not really take a position of its own and instead only publish the private opinions of its many writers?

    • David Carlson

      That’s a great question, and thanks for asking. Our writers do indeed have their individual opinions and styles, which come out clearly in their columns online. While they have a lot of latitude, they do try to be consistent with positions the Colson Center has taken on various issues. The BreakPoint commentaries and The Point commentaries reflect the opinions of John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas.

      That said, the Point commentary on “Good Good Father” and Chris Tomlin was taking issue specifically with the song’s use in congregational singing and worship, as it lacked anything specifically Christian. It was not a commentary about the artistic merit of the song.

      • Joel Stucki

        But by that logic, no instrumental music is appropriate for a Church service at all, only vocal music, since without words no music can be “distinctively Christian.” C’mon, we all know what (or rather who) the song is about. For Pete’s sake, the Psalms don’t use the name of Jesus either. For the record, I don’t even like Chris Tomlin’s music. But I think it’s petty to bother commenting on whether or not the name of Jesus is in that song.

        The reason I ask the question is that the point of view about congregational singing which you raise here is frightfully narrow and unnuanced, flying in the face of everything Fujimura seems to be saying about art and artists. To quote the article, “The church, he observes, often doesn’t know what to do with the artists in its midst. They have a way of seeing the world differently, of asking uncomfortable questions, of not fitting neatly into preconceived categories. (He cites the well-known examples of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Goth, both of whom had severely strained relationships with the church.)

        So artists are pressured to conform, and if they don’t, they tend to be pushed aside and devalued.”

        Any way you slice it, you’re still trying to put art and artists in a box, and marginalizing their efforts on behalf of God and the Church. We’re not talking about using a song with profane or offensive lyrics here. It’s just the absence of a single word, which by the way is also absent from many great hymns of the Church throughout history. No wonder artists feel disenfranchised in the Church. We aren’t allowed to challenge people anymore, we have to spell everything out and do everyone’s thinking for them. And you just can’t create great art that way.