Culture Care part 2: Our Calling into the Starry Night

In his seminal book, Culture Care, visual artist Makoto Fujimura explains how Emily Dickenson and Vincent VanGogh “struggled to fit into the context of their churches” and cultures. “Their vision was creative and artistic, but it was also theological and intimately connected with what they considered to be true worship.” He adds, “I see in their works a pilgrimage towards the margins of their society.”1

“I have found, as a local leader in communities and churches, that others do not know what to do with you if you identify yourself as an artist. Things go much more smoothly if you are a lawyer or accountant. In church and parachurch ministry leadership training, those who do not ‘fit into’ the agenda of preset programs are often marked as hard to disciple, or even as unfaithful.”2 In the cases of Emily and Vincent, their vision and spirituality was rejected outright, yet the power of their perception lives on, ministering soul care to future generations.

Fujimura points out how Vincent’s painting, Starry Night,  addresses a shortfalling: “The painting is set in Arles, France. Notice at the very center is a white Dutch Reformed church … the dominant cypress tree on the left … and the church are the two forms that connect heaven and earth. Without the church … there is no visual center to hold the painting in tension” and yet “the church is the only building that is completely dark.”3 Even so, Fujimura points out, the power of God’s creation swirls all around, in testimony of sun/moon worlds not yet fully realized.

Van Gogh Starry Night

Van Gogh Starry Night

What is “our calling into the starry night” as artists who follow Jesus, the “shepherd-artist, (who lived) border-stalking our tribal existence”?4 Fujimura states “The Psalmist tells us ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ (Psalm 19). If the church is darkened, perhaps we should focus on where the Spirit is moving and pay attention to where the colors are most intense.’”5 As a fellow believer, Fujimura offers these cultural mandates both to artists and their spiritual communities:

Open the gates: “all of us in the sheepfold (that is the institutional church) need to ‘go in and out’ (John 10:9) for our flourishing” into “the green pastures which exist outside our tribal norms.”6 Jesus’ heart was for other sheep, “not of this sheep pen.” (John 10:16)7

We need the sheepfold: “a solid grounding, a secure place to which [border-stalkers] can return.” That sheepfold should be  “A healthy community … secure, anchored in tradition and faith, but also allowing for a dynamic movement outward, sending forth artists and missionaries, caregivers and entrepreneurs. It is centered and confident of its identity as a flock because it knows the purpose for which the Good Shepherd has gathered it: to serve and bless and transform the wider world.”8

We need cultural estuaries: Serving and blessing the wider world with the gift of art can best occur when “The ideal conditions for the arts include a communal recognition that they are a gift to society and need some protection.” Fujimura then presents the best analogy for this sort of microcosm is not a greenhouse, but an estuary. “Estuaries offer buffer zones for many species” Fujimura points out. They are microcosms of protected aquatic diversity between saltwater worlds and freshwater. “Their purpose is not so much protection as preparation.”9

The estuary incubation model offers “a way to release the full generative efforts of these creatives, who can offer much to our churches and communities and the wider culture. They can cast the appealing vision of beauty in the face of injustice, revealing brokenness and need, modeling love for the unloveable, revealing complexities, brokering reconciliation, teaching us to speak appealingly and persuasively, guiding the whole community through the challenges of engaging with the culture, leading us away from fragmentation and onward to reintegration, and— perhaps— even uncovering again the Spirit’s light in the churches.”10

1 p.51
2 p.54
3 pp. 56-57
4 pp.59 & 64
5 p.63
6 pp. 67 & 69
7 p. 70
8 pp. 71-72
9 p. 82
10 p.86

Read Culture Care part 1: On Becoming Generative

Culture Care book review part 1: On Becoming Generative

“Still Point – Evening” by Makoto Fujimura

“Our culture is broken and needs care to be restored to wholeness.” declares internationally renowned painter Makoto Fujimura. Culture Care is this artist’s deep and dense manifesto, written to provide “a necessary conceptual framework and the beginnings of practical responses to repair that rift.”

Fujimura asks that we begin with the attitude of “a loving servant toward culture rather than treating it as territory to be won.”1 He then explains how his own journey towards cultural stewardship and nurture began when his wife, Judy, brought home a bouquet of flowers at a time in their early married life when they were struggling to pay rent and eat. Her response to his accusation of waste was “We need to feed our souls, too.”2

The connective power of beauty

Judy had chosen that bouquet to reconnect with beauty, and more deeply with what makes us fully human. Her generous act became generative, a catalyst of creative life and growth in her home and Fujimura’s studio, and the seed of soul care not only for himself, but in his heart for the nurture of society and culture.3

Fujimura invests several chapters stating American culture’s degenerative problems of utilitarian pragmatism, commercialism and authoritarianism that sap our love of life and beauty. He then proposes the antidote of “generative thinking” where “the reality of beauty can help integrate … fragmentation.”4

Charis-Kairos by Makoto Fujimura

Charis-Kairos by Makoto Fujimura

“Beauty points beyond itself, beyond survival to satisfaction … When we encounter beauty, we want to slow down and partake of it’s refreshment, to let it reorient us to our deepest longings and reconnect us to our deepest selves.”5

Fujimura points out that our universal connection to beauty can better connect us to one another.

The bridge-building potential within artists

Artists, who are often marginalized from systems of power, whether political or religious, can become bridges between the bubble communities of philosophical and doctrinal sameness from which they are marginalized. He explains “Artists are instinctively uncomfortable in homogenous groups, and in ‘border-stalking’ we have a role that both addresses the reality of fragmentation and also offers a fitting means by which artists can help people from all our many and divided cultural tribes to learn to appreciate the margins, lower barriers to understanding and communication, and start to defuse the culture wars.”6 As border-stalkers, artists have the potential to “be reconcilers of division and fragmentation. They can release great generatively and flourishing.”7

To strengthen our generative potential, Fujimura recommends forming artist communities where we can encourage one another towards creative thriving and cultural leadership from the margins with support and training. He references the character Aragorn or Strider in Lord of the Rings, an exile who was trained by a community of rangers who received their training and support from one another and the elves.7

Empathy, that ability to see the different perspectives of others, is also a common trait of the border-stalking artist. And with empathy comes the desire for justice. Fujimura states that generative thinking is not limited to the appreciation of beauty, but also includes a desire to create flourishing for all humans. Artists can and should lead from these generative desires. “Connecting justice with beauty is essential,” Fujimura says. Artists “are leaders by the sheer fact of their awareness and observation.”8

Artists who desire to care for culture have the observation, awareness and empathy needed to build bridges and become a positive generative force to repair the social fragmentation around us. Part 2 of my book review will address how we can strengthen one another by flourishing in cultural estuaries, in order to repair and care for our culture.

1 Preface
2 p.1
3 p.7
4 p.12
5 p.33
6 p.39
7 p.41
8 p.49

Further reading “From Culture Wars to Culture Care” blogpost by Makoto Fujimura