Art + Faith, Makoto Fujimura, foreword by N. T. Wright. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021.
Summary: A series of reflections connecting art and faith in the act of making.
Makoto Fujimura is a world-class painter and committed Christian. Many would not make this association in contemporary art but in this work, Fujimura offers a series of reflections on the seamless connection of these in his life, beginning with the act of making. Fujimura declares, “I have come to believe that unless we are making something, we cannot know the depth of God’s being and God’s grace permeating our lives and God’s creation.” The creator we come to understand through making is one who creates out of love and not necessity. God doesn’t need us but in love invites us to collaborate in God’s creation. We enter into this when we make.
We labor in a fallen world, but our work is not to “fix” broken plumbing but to be restored and participate in creation’s renewal empowered by the spirit restored through the sacrifice of Christ, and refreshed by God’s new wine. Fujimura illustrates this in his own creative process of Nihonga. It is not so much a technique but a kind of imitatio Christi of attending to the materials one works with, as part of a community of those who make the brushes, the paper, and powders with which he lays down wash after wash in creating, slowing down to work at the painstaking pace required of the materials.
It is a process that takes him into sacrifice and an understanding of brokenness, evoking another Japanese art practice, that of kintsugi. This practice works with broken cups and pottery, using lacquer covered with gold to mend the broken pieces, creating new beauty out of brokenness. This art points toward the New Creation of Resurrection that doesn’t obliterate brokenness but shines light and beauty through it.
Art helps renew our understanding of work. Fujimura observes that work wasn’t cursed but rather the ground and the serpent. Art points us toward work as gift, and toward the greatest Gift of the gospel. In the Eucharist, we make the very elements that reveal God’s gift of resurrection through sacrifice. We make not for it all to be burned up but toward New Creation.
Fujimura proposes that imagination and faith are closely linked. We often think of Christian theology and leadership in rational, propositional terms. Fujimura notes how much of scripture is in metaphor, in symbol, and description requiring imagination for understanding. As he has argued elsewhere, this imagination invites us into culture care, contra the culture war, battle of ideas that has framed much of our cultural engagement.
In another reflection, he likens the words “Jesus wept” to the “pinhole lens” that captures the whole story of God from loving creation to weeping over the broken creation to be restored through Christ’s suffering and resurrection. He offers a beautiful reflection on John 11 and 12, and the art form of wabi-sabi, the use of well-worn but well-loved objects like a well-worn wallet. He goes deeper into the tears of Christ in the art of Mark Rothko, the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and his own traumatic experience of 9/11, which displaced him from a studio in the shadow of the Twin Towers. He weds tears and fire in a discussion of artistic renewal out of the devastation. He concludes with a chapter on “Lazarus culture” reflecting on what it means to practice resurrection. To make in a fallen, broken world is to enter into Christ’s suffering and be enabled by the resurrection to point toward the New Creation.
The power of this book is in the contention that as we enter into the making of art as people of faith, we open ourselves to a way of knowing the story in which we live. His most trenchant words are those where he asserts the vital importance of imagination and making in the life of faith. His reflections remind me of what a vital role artists play in the life of the church, and perhaps the value of all of us finding ways to be makers and not just consumers, of culture.