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).

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