“Hope is disruptive.”Mark Labberton
This is quoted from the Foreword in Makoto Fujimura’s book, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life. Man, is that a word! And I would say that Culture Care is a dose of beautiful disruption. The main audience of the book is artists of all kinds. It’s an awakening to how art, and artists or creators, steward and cultivate community.
He begins the book with a story from when he was a teacher’s assistant and struggling artist and his newly wed wife was a graduate student. They were struggling to make ends meet. As he is stressing over an empty fridge and what food they can afford for the month, his wife comes home with a bouquet of flowers. Upset, he asks her how she could even think of buying flowers if they can’t even eat. And Judy replied, “We need to feed our souls too!” This encounter with generosity was a transformative moment for Fujimura. He saw that he failed to be who he actually was—an artist, someone who should recognize the need for beauty to live. Artists feed souls, in a sense, with beauty. And this is how he proposes that we need to care for the culture we are in (a culture that has even over-commodified art itself)—with “a generative approach to culture that brings bouquets of flowers into a culture bereft of beauty.”
I’m not going to do a full review of everything in the book here. I think it would actually take away from the beauty of reading it. I do want to say that I appreciate how, without even addressing it, Fujimura cuts through the whole transformationalist verses two kingdoms paradigms that most Christian theologians use in talking about culture. Sure, there is a transformational aspect to his philosophy, but it isn’t to Christianize art or society. It’s to participate in the great honor and calling of seeing and creating beauty. This means that we have to see past our ideologies and culture wars that fragment and dehumanize us.
“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.”
He borrows from Dallas Willard’s definition of beauty as “goodness made manifest to the senses.” Without an appreciation for beauty, Fujimura says that culture loses its appetite for truth and goodness. He even proposes that repentance itself is provoked by an encounter with the beautiful. He lays forth a framework for beauty that involves gratuity, stewardship, justice, and sacrifice.
Beauty moves us to be honest about suffering and injustice. And good artists are ones who see and express this. Fujimura refers to artists as “boarder-walkers” or “boarder-stalkers,” translated from the Old English word mearcstapas used in Beowolf. “In the tribal realities of earlier times, there were individuals who lived on the edges of their groups, going in and out of them, sometimes bringing back news to the tribe.”
“Artists are instinctively uncomfortable in homogenous groups, and in ‘border-stalking’ we have a role that both addresses the reality of fragmentation and offers a fitting means to help people from all our many and divided cultural tribes learn to appreciate the margins, lower barriers to understanding and communication, and start to defuse the culture wars.”
I so resonated with this as a writer. It reminded me of something I wrote about a while ago on what I called shot glass communities—counter-public engagement that is needed in Christian celebrity culture. Fujimura takes this in a direction that is generative and dynamic. It doesn’t always feel that way for the artist, or is recognized so from the community, but he gives the artist vision, encouragement, and fortitude towards this disruptive hope of insisting on not settling for less than truly serving our neighbors freely with our gifts. And seeing others as gift (which is so in line with Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body).
This book challenges the way the church and the world views success, which is often measured by efficiency, consumption, and utility. Artists easily get caught up in this mindset with their own work. He encourages the church to disciple their artists rather than viewing them as outsiders or nuisances, treating them and collaborating with them as border-walkers who can speak both to the church and the outside culture. They are often specially gifted in seeing brokenness and bringing light into it, articulating the unspeakable, rousing our senses, and can possibly be mediators to better engage with the culture and start bringing bouquets of flowers in to suffering, fragmentation, and spaces that reduce our humanity.
To do this, we have to “open the gates,” and not close ourselves off by our tribes. Hope is disruptive. The good news is much bigger, much more expansive, than we can even imagine. But we are called, with all of our senses, to eschatological imagination. How does that change the way we relate to our neighbor?
“A culture of fear has never produced great culture. We do not create great art in response to fear and anxiety; we create great art by loving culture, loving the materials and stories from which to create art.”
This book made my heart sing. Beauty can’t be reduced to a manufactured message or an unmoored pietism of our safe groups. Beauty helps us see. It disrupts in the best way and shows us glimpses of true light. True reality. The future breaking into the present. Artist are called to help us catch these glimpses—visually, by song, taste, poetry, story—and that would lead us to want to participate, creating beauty in our relationships. Beauty reminds us of our trajectory—communion with the triune God and one another.
Beauty leads us to love because it comes from Love. And as Fujimura quotes Vincent van Gogh, “I feel that there is nothing more artistic than to love people.”