CULTURE CARE: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life. By Makoto Fujimura. Foreword by Mark Labberton. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2017. 158 pages.
I am not an artist, but I do appreciate art. I enjoy wandering through a world class art museum, like the one in Detroit. We almost lost the museum, or at least much of the art due to a municipal bankruptcy. There were those who argued that since the city owned much of the art in the museum, it should be sold to pay off debts. The museum and its art was saved, but not without philanthropic help. The rationale for selling the art was that art museums are a luxury, and in time of need it should be sacrificed. I realize that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there are some pieces in the museum that don’t seem all that beautiful to me, but other works of art can be inspirational. The great thing about museums is that the art is on display for everyone, not just wealthy collectors.
These opening comments are meant to provide a context for my review of Makoto Fujimura’s book Culture Care. Fujimura is an artist and the newly appointed director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary. My initial interest in the book stems in part from the fact that I’m a Fuller alum, but the topic of culture, art, and beauty is also something that interests me. When we bring theology and spirituality into the conversation, I’m even more interested.
We live in a world often driven by utilitarian or consumerist visions. This is especially true in the United States. Culture is often understood to be a commodity that can be bought and sold. If it doesn’t sell, then it’s not productive, and therefore not of great importance (unless you’re a wealthy collector). But beauty can’t be commodified. Yes, it takes funds to support art. It takes patrons. It often takes a government that can see beyond the bottom line to the value of art, even if we don’t all agree as to what is beautiful. It’s unfortunate that at this very moment the new President's initial budget calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities. We’ve had politicians on both sides of the aisle contrast unfavorably the liberal arts with the “STEM” programs. If you can’t a job in your field, then why study the arts? The fact is that the government spends very little on the arts or the humanities. A couple of bombs are the equivalent of what is spent on such things. Nonetheless, these funds are generative to the creation of culture.
In this book, Makoto Fujimura writes to the church, encouraging the Christian community to take an interest in supporting the arts. He wants the church, especially the evangelical community to embrace the principle of “culture care,” a principle similar to that of “creation care.” This is a religiously motivated embrace of the importance of beauty. That is, it's important that we feed our souls, and art and music and other forms of cultural content help feed our souls. That is the basic message of the book. It’s important to note that Fujimura distinguishes between being a "Christian artist" and being Christian who generate beauty through their gifts. In other words, one needn’t just create “Christian art,” but instead of Christian being an adjective, it is a matter of finding one’s “creative identity in God.” He writes: “Genesis moments can be assumed simply because God is the great Artist, and we are God’s artists, called to steward the creation entrusted to our care” (p. 27).
Standing at the center of Fujimura’s vision of culture care are what he calls the "three Gs." These are genesis moments, generosity, and generational thinking. A "Genesis moment" is simply a moment that generates creativity. One of those moments for him was the day his wife brought home a bouquet of flowers to bring beauty to their apartment, even though they didn't have enough money to make dinner that night. Food is important, of course, but his wife reminded him, the artist, that food for the soul is essential. That food soul shared with him that day inspired a work of art, and a realization of the importance of beauty. The idea of generosity serves to overcome mindsets of survival and utility. Art is gratuitous, and therefore a blessing. Generosity serves to courage and enable art to be generated (patronage). Finally, there is generational thinking, that is because culture is formed over time.
There is another term that Fujimura uses regularly. It’s an old English word—mearcstapas— which can be translated as "border-walker" or "border-stalker." He speaks of artists in this way, for they live on the edges of society, moving back and forth, bringing enrichment to different sectors. He wants the church to encourage its border-walkers as part of culture care.
This word of encouragement comes in an age of culture wars, when Christians, especially Evangelicals, are often at the center of the conflicts. A more dramatic expression could be found in the Taliban’s destruction of ancient statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan or the destruction of pilgrimage sites in Syria and Iraq. Fujimura wants to change the conversation so that the Christian community can move from being captive utilitarian visions of the good, to an encouragement of cultural creation. Again, not just “Christian art” or “Christian music,” which too often is a poor imitation of the real thing. Pop music with religious words, might be safe, but not necessarily creative or beautiful. Too often it’s simply a commodity; something to sell to Christian consumers.
This is an intriguing book written to encourage Christians (and others) to discern a calling to the role of artist. It is a call to embrace a way of living that generates beauty, even if it doesn’t bring you a lot of money. That's part of the generational thing. He reminds us that Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh didn't make it big during their lifetimes. In fact, they were ignored by the wider culture and disdained by the Christian community out of which they arose. We forget that Van Gogh started out as a minister.
In the end, Fujimura writes this book to the church, to encourage the church to take up the cause of culture care. He doesn’t encourage Christians to create a separate Christian arts industry, but rather to encourage Christians who are gifted artists to use those gifts to share beauty with the world, knowing that these gifts come from God. This is an invitation for the church to value the arts and the humanities as a gift and not a commodity. Beauty is not a means an end, it is an end because it reflects the creative energies of God, even if the art is not explicitly religious.
This is a helpful book. A thoughtful book. If for no other reason, it is an important book because it points us away from engaging in culture wars to engaging in the nurture and creation of culture, and with it beauty. But, it is also important because it reminds us that beauty is a gift and not a commodity!