Book Review: Culture Care

I recently read Makoto Fujimura’s latest book, Culture Care. His is one of the most profound, succinct definitions of beauty I’ve ever read:

Beauty is the quality connected with those things that are in themselves appealing and desirable. Beautiful things are a delight to the senses, a pleasure to the mind, and a refreshment for the spirit. Beauty invites us in, capturing our attention and making us want to linger. Beautiful things are worth our scrutiny, rewarding to contemplate, deserving of pursuit. They inspire— or even demand— a response, weather sharing them in community or acting to extend their beauty into other spheres.

Beauty may not be embodied in an enduring form— a given bouquet of flowers will soon wilt, though a painting or poem can last for generations— but it is something we want to remember and something we would not want to change. Beauty is thus connected with satisfaction— which may point to the way beauty feeds the soul.

Beauty touches on some combination of qualities, difficult to quantify, of pattern, design, form, shape, color, sound, light, integrity, and relationship. It appeals to us at multiple levels, speaking to our intellect and our logical capacities as well as our emotions and spirit.

Truly great. His phrasing that “beautiful things are worth our scrutiny” is something I’ve spent a hundred pages trying to articulate. I am thankful for this definition.

A motivation of his work, Fujimura shares, is to end the idea of the “Christian artist.” He seeks to break Christian identity out of the adjectival box. What is the alternative to which he seeks to lead such artists, though? This is unclear.

Other aspects of this work were troubling. First, a theme of the book is that artists are by nature maercstapas, or “border-stalkers.” Fujimura elevates anecdotal themes to a necessary characteristic of an artist. He confuses what has become a cultural stereotype—the tortured, distant, unsettled artist— with the truly diverse nature of a people group. To be a “border-stalker” is to live on the outskirts of your own society, in isolating communication with other societies; it is to never feel at home in your own culture, to be a perpetual outcast. His hope seems to be to redeem these outcasts to their own society as valued, contributing members. But in effect, he limits in his mind who is an artist. What of artists who are at home in their own culture? Can they not aptly comment on their own society, while still calling it home? While functioning healthily in it? It is a silly line to draw, and one that perpetuates a destructive stereotype which has arguably drawn the very wedge between the church and the artist which Fujimura claims to seek to bridge.

Second, in his examples of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh, Fujimura bemoans the church’s handling of such great artists. The split between these artists and the church is read to be the result of the church neglecting to listen to these maercstapas who, by being such, have a better view of the world and what might be best for it. While Dickinson and van Gogh are both phenomenal artists, the idea that their issues with the church (each distinct, but substantial) should result in the church being deferential to their views simply because they are artists, is troubling. Nowhere in scripture does God tell us the artist ought to inform the ministers of the church in such a way. Scripture is quite clear that to the pastors and elders of the church is given the role of prophecy and discipline. That being said, has the church mishandled their treatment of orthodox artistic members? Yes. However, Dickinson and van Gogh are poor examples, and the remedy is not that an artist ought to be elevated in authority as an informant to the pastor simply by virtue of being artistic.

I share Fujimura’s befuddled unrest at the church’s relationship to art. I share his hope of artists thriving in the church as valued, contributing members of the body, comfortable and thriving. I do not think the pastors deferring to them in matters of what the church needs is the way to this particular vision. Namely, because to the church is given the role of proclaiming, interpreting, and applying the Word of God to the people of God. This is the role of pastors and elders: to be ministers of the Word. This role comes, by the grace of God, with supernatural help to achieve its end.

Artists and pastors can certainly have a mutually beneficial relationship within the body of Christ. Together, they can work toward the goal of “culture care.” To the pastor belongs the role of prophet, expounding and applying the Word of God to his people. Fujimura seems to want to elevate the role of artist to a another office of the church, and this is troubling. We must not need to add to scripture to validate what scripture has deemed good. Artists can do what is good— perpetuating what is beautiful, blessing society with the truth, cultivating the common good, for the glory of God. But artists, truly all the people of God, ought to be subject to the ministry of the Word in the church, submitting themselves to the teaching and discipline which God has promised to fuel and preserve (for his glory and our good!). Artists do not need to be elevated in this system to be validated. The church need not submit to artists to value and support them.

Poem 5/26

God is righteous, judge of all;
God is shepherd, seeks the lost;
God who set the sun shines forth
from beauty– at peace with his people.
God is he who speaks to call,
and weary, evil, repent, all.
His silence, his relent, would doom;
yet he comes nigh to save.
Now those who hear and see fall, joyful;
offer thankful lives.
Their chaos broken, now nearby;
salvation fills their eyes.

Poem 5/25

Does the bronzing of leaves or
the brief bloom of spring
reek of sin or keep pace in resistance?
Would the unchanging God
make a shadow of truth
in a form not his own and yet lovely?
Does all change need death; or
is all death of evil?
Would we know of the sun
that our God is eternal?

De Ordine, Part 1

“Some cauterize the wound of disordered opinion inflicted on them in day-to-day life by retreating into solitude. Others do the same by cultivating the liberal arts.”
-St. Augustine, De Ordine

In one of his earliest works, Augustine debates the accident of order with a few students and his mother. The questions which fuel their pursuit of understanding are that of unity. How can we reconcile that “on the one hand, God takes care of human affairs, on the other these same affairs are shot through with so much evil,” that God is good, that he is omnipotent, that nothing occurs outside God’s order, and yet that evil occurs? If evil contradicts the nature of God’s order, we cannot then hold that it occurs within it, but neither can we say evil is powerful to overcome God’s order and thus act outside of it, for then God is not omnipotent. If God causes evil, he is its author, and thus cannot be called good. So mankind observes in his world orderliness: that it does occur, that it seems good, and that it appeals to the wise as worthy of imitation and perpetuation, and he is haunted by the persistence of disunity. If this “clashing of contraries gives body to the overall beauty of the universe,” then is evil necessary for beauty? Is it necessary for the occurrence of order? If all was good, would all be order, or would order not exist? Then, what of God’s justice?

The work of Christian philosophy is discerning the eternal from the midst of a broken yet hope-filled world.

Work of the Holy Spirit

In the conversational argument around liturgy, I often hear the more charismatic/evangelical side stress a concern to be more “open to the movement of the Holy Spirit” throughout the church service. A more scripted service is constraining to those who anticipate new movements, new words, new inklings from God to arise in the midst of worship. The liturgical camp seeks to lean upon and learn from that which God has revealed and worked out with our brothers and sisters before us, and that to which the Holy Spirit guides us in careful and prayerful planning.

One group trusts that their whims during worship are inspired, the other goes to great efforts to subdue their whims to that which is practiced and studied. One group longs to be lost to the movement of God, outside of themselves in the moment, while the other seeks to be consciously reshaped in practicing habits of worship. Both deeply trust the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church to worship God in spirit and truth. Both long to worship in a manner shaped by scripture. Both long to be shaped by their worship, more so into the image of Christ their lord. Yet, hermeneutic leads them to such differing practices, the one often does not recognize the other as worship.

Poem 3/6

Silences fill full with
sweet words spoke softly;

Time breaths in sighs, and
the door holds back winter;

The warmth of their room
heats the days of their lives;

Where they meet, moons and myst’ries
meld one to the other.

The Fullness of God and the End of an Era

I was recently asked by a middle schooler, “Why did the Bible stop being written?”

Simply put, because Jesus was enough. All scripture leading up to the Jesus’ incarnation looked forward to that day. God’s people lived in hope for the coming messiah, being guided and prepared by God’s Word and acts to receive Jesus, who, “being by nature bodiless and existing as the Word, by the love for humankind and the goodness of his own Father he appeared to us in a human body for our salvation.”1

The Gospels give us witness of his incarnation, of the fullness of God in Jesus enfleshed, culminating in the ultimate act for salvation: death of the righteous one for the lost, and resurrection– proof of death, of sin, being conquered. The risen Christ revealed at last the fullness of God’s name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, that the Spirit might come to comfort, guide, and grow to maturity the people of God who await the final coming of Christ in the Day of the Lord.

So the Gospels bear this witness, and the rest of the New Testament applies what Christ did and said to the life of the church. The NT writers take what Christ said and did, test it by the text of the Old Testament, find that it is good, learn more of what had been revealed in ages past as it pointed to Jesus, and teach the church how then we might live as those whose hope has come in Christ. These writings are labeled scripture due to the author’s status as Apostle, their faithfulness to and consistency with the rest of scripture, their faithfulness to Jesus, and by their works “hav[ing] considerable value for church life and ministry.”2 To a large extent, we trust the brothers and sisters before us who were nearer to the writings themselves, to have been guided by the Holy Spirit to discern the Word from twaddle.

The mark of the age of the church is evangelism and growth. The scriptures are sufficient for God’s people to know and worship him in spirit and in truth, because it is centered on Jesus Christ. With a well-founded, deep-rooted faith, we gather as the body for the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, to confess our faith, to pray, to sing, to encourage one another in the Lord. Scripture ceased to be written because God is revealed truthfully and sufficiently (though never comprehensively) in Jesus, and his Word we have is powerful to prepare the world for his return.

 

  1. Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation.
  2. McDonald, Lee Martin, The Biblical Canon, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 401.