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