Culture Care, Makoto 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 God. Emily 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!
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.