Review: Culture Care

culture-care

Culture CareMakoto Fujimura. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A call for a different kind of engagement with culture, one of care, of becoming generative, rather than engaging in war or battle, to foster beauty in our common life.

To read this book was a moving experience for me, one about which I wrote (“Culture Care Instead of Culture War“) while reading the book. I found a voice that resonated deeply with my longing for alternatives to the banal, rancorous and ugly expressions of culture around us. Fujimura invites us to care for our culture rather than engage in war over it, to give our selves to a common pursuit of beauty to sustain and renew our common life.

He invites all who are creative in some way to exercise their creativity generatively.  Often this involves “genesis moments” where failure and tragedy gives way to something new. It is generous in a world that often just thinks of survival. Becoming generative means thinking across generations, observing the work of those who have gone before us, working for a generation at our own creative work, and passing this along to future generations.

The rest of the book elaborates what a generative care of culture looks like. He begins by paralleling culture care with the creation care movement. He invites us to look at similar fragmentation in our communal life and the divide between technological efficiency and the love of beauty and art, or the divides between groups contending for their vision of culture, the culture wars. He proposes instead that, “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care.” Such care may begin with care for our own souls, as we face our own brokenness and understand we are wounded healers. We then begin caring for culture by our efforts to bring forth beauty out of brokenness.

He proposes the idea of artists as mearcstapas or “border stalkers.” Artists are often those at the boundaries of society, the liminal spaces between groups, an often uncomfortable place to be. They are like Aragorn, “Strider,” in The Lord of the Rings, and capable of great leadership in reconciliation across the divides between groups. He shares the example of Mahalia Jackson, an artist sitting behind Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 as he gave a somewhat “set” speech until she called out to him, “Tell ’em about the dream!” Artists can call forth the “dreams” toward which we long and live, and which we sometimes suppress. He writes of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh, both at the margins of the church, who in their art challenged the rigidities that drove them to the margins where they struggled with faith.

This leads to a striking declaration of Fujimura’s own calling that left me both breathless and saying “Yes! Yes!” He writes,

    “I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. I want Christ to be my whole being. Vincent van Gogh was not a Christian artist either, but in Christ he painted the heavens declaring the glory of GodEmily Dickinson was not a Christian poet, and yet through her honest wrestling, given wings in words, her works, like Vincent’s, like Harper Lee’s, like Mahalia Jackson’s–speak to all the world as integrated visions of beauty against injustice.

    “It is time for followers of Christ to let Christ be the noun in our lives, to let our whole being ooze out like a painter’s colors with the splendor and the mystery of Christ, the inexhaustible beauty that draws people in. It is time to follow the Spirit into the margins and outside the doors of the church” (pp. 84-85).

The last chapters of the book suggest some helpful images and practical considerations of culture care that seemed to me a generative gift to young artists. Fujimura speaks of soil care, that art is nourished in the rich soil of the whole, expansive gospel of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. He writes of estuaries, transitional habitats for apprentice artists. He commends business practices and gives practical advice for young artists, including his own example of “raising support” even while in art training. He then concludes with a vision that transcends the fear that drives culture war and asks “what if” a paradigm of culture care were to replace this.

At least part of why I resonate so deeply with what Fujimura writes is that I feel I’ve become increasingly uneasy hiding behind the evangelical culture war walls and have been drawn more to the boundaries as a “border-stalker” or mearcstapa. Like Fujimura, I haven’t abandoned evangelical faith, but I find myself increasingly drawn to care for the culture (as well as the creation) rather than war on either. Perhaps it has been the discovery that I live with two artists.

A number of years ago, I woke up to the reality that one of my wife’s deepest longings was to give herself to painting, and began to ask what it means to “husband” such a longing. The greater surprise was to discover that the other artist with whom I was living was myself as I found culture caring joy as a choral singer and a writer. I even joined my wife’s artist friends in picking up sketchpad and paint brushes and entered into their world. Instead of polemical conflict I find myself increasingly exploring the common ground of beauty which seems one of the most conducive atmospheres to conversations about the “beautiful Savior.”

My apologies for the biographical digression. What I hope this conveys is that Fujimura gave language and a clearer vision to my inchoate thoughts and images about a different engagement with culture. If that is where you find yourself, you might find this book as helpful as I did. At very least, you will know what is a mearcstapa!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Restoring All Things

Restoring All ThingsRestoring All ThingsWarren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015.

Summary: This book narrates the impact mediating institutions and efforts by Christians in bringing restoration into some of the most challenging situations faced by our society today.

Wherever we turn we face stories of huge challenges in our own society and around the world. Poverty, persistent racism, refugees, the oppression of women, evidence of the decay of our culture in some of its art forms. Often we look in vain for solutions from our political and educational institutions. This book suggests that for people of faith, there is reason for hope.

The writers begin with encouraging people to allow the biblical story of God’s redemptive work to inform four questions:

  1. What is good in our culture that we can promote, protect and celebrate?
  2. What is missing in our culture that we can creatively contribute?
  3. What is evil in our culture that we can stop?
  4. What is broken in our culture that we can restore?

They then go on to contend, drawing on de Tocqueville, that mediating institutions or voluntary associations of individuals between the individual and the state, have been part of the genius of the American experiment, and that such institutions, being led by people of faith, are having a profound impact on the most challenging problems we face today. They also argue for helping that helps that provides not a hand out but a hand up, and for a redeemed form of capitalism that unleashes people’s creative potential for the benefit of all.

Succeeding chapters proceed to narrate the stories of people living out this vision in the realms of fighting abortion, human trafficking, education reform, restorative justice, racial reconciliation, academic faithfulness, redeemed sexuality and marriage, the dignity of those who suffer and are disabled, care for orphaned and abandoned children, and the arts. They profile the often unheralded work of pregnancy care centers in helping women choose alternatives to abortion. They describe justice reforms that provide reconciliation and reparations between perpetrators and victims of crime. And one of my favorites is that they describe scholars who bring their faith to bear on their scholarship with excellence, sometimes to the scorn of their academic colleagues. Each chapter includes recommendations of further steps people can take to be informed and to act.

There is much to affirm in this book. The stories give us cause to be hopeful that everyday acts of faithfulness where our great loves meet the world’s great need can have lasting consequences for good and that we don’t have to wait for our political institutions to shape up. The areas of involvement they cite are all ones I would endorse and what I most appreciate in these is the balance of treatment–for example in spotlighting efforts both in Christian education, and in Christian involvement in the public schools. They feature both the contemporary art of Makoto Fujimura and the rap music of Lecrae. They uphold traditional views of sexuality and the dignity of, and need for respectful dialogue with, LGBT persons.

What I thought the book represented was a thoughtful and charitable Christian conservative perspective. It didn’t rail against more progressive concerns about immigration, or the environment, nor the impact of exploitative corporate and economic policies on the poor of the world. At the same time, it didn’t tell stories of the work Christians are doing in these areas. It simply didn’t include these efforts to “restore all things” and by its silence ended up suggesting an agenda that seeks only to “restore some things”. And by not articulating a vision of the faith large enough to include these concerns, it proposes only a slightly more nuanced version of the divides and polarities of choosing either column A or column B in parallel with the political fault lines in our country.

Yet I find hope in the thoughtful and charitable tone of this book and the urging throughout to engage with those with whom we may differ. I would hope for more of this between Christians doing good work in the areas enumerated in this book, and those working in some of the other areas that were not mentioned. Christ’s redemptive mission truly encompasses “all things” and warrants this expansive vision of “restoring all things.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an important book! James Davison Hunter challenges the rhetoric (and hubris) that often comes with the idea of “changing the world” that is embraced by many Christian ministries and movements. He argues first that we often work from inadequate assumptions about the nature of culture change. Secondly, he argues that either in our embrace or rejection of political power, we wrongly attribute too much to this kind of power. Third, he would argue that the proper stance for the church is one of “faithful presence.” These three points are more or less the theses of the three “essays” that comprise this book.

In his first essay, he begins by challenging what he sees as the shared assumption of many movements that “world-change” happens as you change the hearts and minds of individuals through evangelism, political, and social efforts. Related to this is often a version of a “great person” theory of culture change. Hunter argues that this view, based on getting individuals to think better and do better, is mistaken because of an inadequate understanding of culture and culture change, which he articulates in the form of eleven propositions. He would argue that culture is embedded in overlapping institutions of cultural power as much as in ideas and that culture changes as elites within overlapping networks work toward shared ends. Hunter observes that part of the failure of Christians despite some political heft and media presence to effect the changes they hope for in American culture is their absence from these elites. He also looks at the history of Christianity and notes how their influence extended into the culture when they represented the elites of education, the arts, social institutions, as well as politics. William Wilberforce, for example, was not simply an individual reformer but part of a network of politicians, educators, landowners, and industrialists who, together, helped form a social consensus against slavery. He concludes the essay with warnings about hubris as well–change often has unintended consequences.

The second essay explores what Hunter sees as a Christian embrace of the postmodern politicization of power and its reduction of all of public life to politics. One of the things he also notes in this analysis is the phenomenon of ressentiment, the narrative of injury that often drives the postmodern striving for power–whether it is the anger of the decline of values, the inequalities of society, or the disdain of politics. What he then does is apply these insights to a description of efforts of Christians on the political right, left, and the neo-Anabaptists and their apparent disdain for political engagement. Hunter would see all three as participating in the conflation of all public life into political life either by their embrace or disdain of that life. All miss the “something more” that he believes is part of the calling of Christians in the world.

That “something more” which he calls “faithful presence” is what he elaborates in the third essay. He argues on the basis of the incarnation and servant ministry of Jesus that our faithful presence is not one of grasping for power but rather of seeking the shalom of our human society through a full participation in all the dimensions of human life. He contends that Christians often lack an adequate sense of calling to living out their faith in every day life in the world, and that this is what constitutes Christian faithfulness. He also notes the struggle of this, that we participate, and share in imperfect institutions that we might make a bit better through our presence in the way that heralds the coming kingdom.

I call this an important book because it challenges thoughtfully our inadequate assumptions about culture change, it diagnoses our absence in many of the powerful centers of culture, it names what has been wrong with so many of our political engagements, and it proposes an alternative deeply rooted in the person and work and mission of Christ. Some will no doubt contend with his characterization of the Christian Right, Left, or neo-Anabaptism. What I am concerned with is the question of whether “faithful presence” and a de-constructing of the rhetoric of world-change might lead to a vision of making the world just a little better, but discourage the more drastic but sometimes needed efforts like those of a Wilberforce, or a modern day Gary Haugen in fighting human trafficking. Would those committed to “faithful presence” see an outrageous wrong and move beyond what I would call mere presence to active belligerency that engages the overlapping networks to address something that prevents human flourishing? I think that Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” is probably robust enough to include this, but I wonder how the language would translate into everyday church circles. I suspect it could easily turn into a response that says, “we should not resist evils like this but simply be faithful to the Lord.” Will “faithful presence” be understood in the terms Andre’ Trocme and Le Chambon understood it in hiding Jews escaping Nazi Germany? Or could this simply support the thin, privatized faith that goes along with tyranny?

That said, I think this one of the most important works written about Christian engagement in public life and one that deserves more attention and discussion by all who care about public life and how Christians engage the wider culture.

View all my reviews

I would also call your attention to an earlier post on this book and two review essays I learned of through comments on the post:

To Change the World

Revisiting “To Change the World” by James Davison Hunter, Andy Catsimanes

How (Not) to Change the World, James K.A. Smith

 

To Change the World

This is the title of a book I am reading by James Davison Hunter (written in 2010) that I will  post a full review on in the next week. But the title and some of his introductory material caught me up short. “Changing the world” is rhetoric I’ve lived with one way or another since my high school days. Hunter talks about this language and how many causes use this language in their rhetoric. I really cringed then waiting for him to cite the organization I work with which has in its vision statement “world-changers developed”. Thankfully, he didn’t, but he definitely caught my attention.

to change the world

What Hunter is exploring in this book is how culture changes and he says some challenging things that I am chewing on as I read the book and await the conclusion of his argument. He believes that the approaches  taken by many groups are misguided because they focus on individual change–either in ideas or practices–change the individual and you can change the world sort of stuff.

He makes a series of assertions (eleven in all) at the beginning of the book about culture change that challenge this idea. I won’t list all of them but here are several that caught my attention:

Proposition Five: Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center’ and “periphery”.  For example, a publication from Oxford University Press, even if it sells 1000 copies has far more “capital” than a publication from Zondervan that sells 100,000.

Proposition Six: Culture is generated within networks. He argues against the “great man” theory of culture change and suggests that relationally dense networks, especially interlocking networks among elites bring about culture change. Wilberforce is an example, working within a network of politicians, industrialists, ministers, and social activists at the top of British social hierarchy to abolish slavery.

Proposition Ten: World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap. One of the implications of this is such overlapping networks take time to form. We often want change and we want it now, or in the next three to five years. Yet it may take thirty years of patient work of a network of people to effect such change.

Hunter, speaking of, and implicitly to, contemporary Christian efforts of various stripes believes that most of these have occurred outside the cultural centers of influence, and have been oblivious to how elite networks actually shape culture. This reminded me of a discussion of the question of who were the public intellectuals who represented Christian faith in the world of higher education and in the wider culture. We discussed what qualities we might look for in such people. Here were my thoughts:

  • A fundamental belief in and commitment to faith in the public square and Spirit-given passion and courage for this work.
  • Credentials that give credibility. 
  • This has to be supplemented with quality work in their field of endeavor whether it be science, technology, the arts or public policy.
  • A broad fluency in the wider world of knowledge in areas of science, economics, sociology, technology, and more. I don’t think someone can be a public intellectual without being a voracious and omnivorous reader!
  • Articulateness in the idioms of the culture evident in written, oral, (and in many settings) social media settings. They must be able to speak to without speaking down to thoughtful non-academics.
  • Theological acuity that can translate the great truths of redemptive history and the kingdom of God into the political, cultural, social realities.
  • Cross-cultural competence that consists both in a growing cultural self-awareness, and a growing engagement with the cultural diversity in one’s own country and the wider world community. (I think this last is vital in transcending the political punditry that passes for much “public intellectual” work in my own country.
  • For someone who exercises this role at a national level, it involves those whose presence is regularly welcomed in our national media, both more popular and more serious. In the US this can range from Times op-eds and magazine articles in The Atlantic to visual media such as The Charlie Rose Show for serious conversation and Colbert  for more popular influence (I think of N.T. Wright’s interviews on this last outlet).

What is striking as I look at the list is that the one example of a person who I think might qualify is from Great Britain. It is troubling that for most thoughtful American Christians, their only other candidate might be C.S. Lewis, and he has been dead fifty years and is also British!

A word at this point might be in order about the “Christian” framing of this discussion, particularly for those who don’t identify as such. Any thoughtful and moral person wants the world to be a better place and cares about human flourishing. In a pluralistic context such as ours, what this looks like will certainly be contested and negotiated and all of us will pursue the flourishing of people and society according to our own lights. Often Christian efforts have been pre-emptive on the political fringe  rather than participative with others in the culture-shaping centers of our society. As Mark Noll argued a number of years back in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, we simply haven’t done the intellectual and professional work necessary to enter the public discourse. In other words, I am not proposing some effort to “Christianize” society but simply that we not settle for short cuts to avoid the hard work of joining others in seeking social and cultural goods.

As I reflect on Hunter’s book and my list, it seems at least two conclusions are apparent. One is the need for scientists, artists and those who work in business, law, and public policy and other disciplines who will give themselves to faithful excellence in their work and who skillfully use whatever platforms they have to exercise influence toward “the good society” (whatever that is, which is a challenging question for “world-changers”). As I noted earlier, this is not something that happens overnight but over a lifetime. Faithful excellence often leads to greater and greater spheres of influence.

The second conclusion for me was the vital importance of cultivating cross-professional networks of like minded people who engage with each other and and develop their influence in the wider culture. We often think individually when we need to think “network”. I think an effort promoted by my own organization called the Emerging Scholars Network a good beginning for those who work in academia. Equally, I think it important to develop skill and facility in sharing one’s work and ideas in appropriate networks outside the faith community, not in an adversarial sense but in the sense of “what am I missing and how could this be better” which is good intellectual discourse at its best.

In that spirit, I would love to interact more with others who think about this “world-changing” stuff to know what you think of these ideas, what’s missing, and what could be better. And if you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading a longer-than-usual post from me.