Beauty in Life
An important word for artist Makoto Fujimura is generative, by which he means anything that brings beauty into life to bring forth hope and human thriving. It can be as simple as fresh flowers during a hard time, as ordinary as reading a poem aloud to friends on a dreary evening, as complex as a series of artwork that takes months to execute, or as surprising as finding ways to brighten the lunch hours of workers who eat in solitude at their desks. We must be about more than mere survival, Fujimura argues, and seek to flourish.
Fujimura lays out his vision in Culture Care, a short, rich book addressed to artists and anyone who is creative because they are created in God’s image even if they think they aren’t creative in any way that warrants the term. Over the past few years most of us have heard about Creation Care (stewarding God’s good earth) and Soul Care (stewarding our inner resources so we grow spiritually and emotionally). Culture Care is similar, Fujimura suggests, and provides a way for us to steward the culture in which we live. The goal in each instance is living and working so that God is glorified, relationships are life giving, and human flourishing is enhanced. It is a vision of reality that takes serious the implication of the biblical story. Beauty and creativity is redemptive in a fallen world, providing a glimpse of the restoration that is to come.
Fujimura provides a fresh way to see and be involved in culture that rescues us from the shortsighted alternatives we usually hear about. He rejects the narrow conservative v. liberal arguments, the misguided culture war mentality and the “Christian art” movement, all of which are rooted in ideological, political and survival agendas rather than a robust scriptural perspective. “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost,” Fujimura argues, “but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated” (p. 22). This notion does two things simultaneously. First, it provides a perspective that is directly related to biblical categories. And second, it provides a perspective that allows us to see how each of us might be able to be part of the greater whole. I am not the Gardener, but I can infuse my little corner of the garden with my creativity and so make culture for the common good. I can bring touches of beauty to whatever slice of life I inhabit and pray they bring glimpses of hope to those who feel overwhelmed by the brokenness. Your corner may be much bigger than mine, but that only makes it different, not more significant. The boy’s lunch of fish and bread wasn’t large, but Jesus’ blessing multiplied it beyond his imagining.
Another reason to read—and reread—Culture Care is that it is replete with sentences, paragraphs and sections that simply beg—even demand—to be reflected on and discussed. Rather than a book that presents a single idea, Culture Care unfolds a way of seeing and living that is rich and suggestive. Fujimura has indwelled that perspective deeply enough that his writing brims with ideas and insights that are like treasures waiting to be unpacked, explored, and then fleshed out. This process itself is life giving, and challenging because the church has not tended to think of creativity, the arts and culture in these terms.
A Christian understanding of beauty begins with the recognition that God does not need us, or the creation. Beauty is a gratuitous gift of the creator God; it finds its source and its purpose in God’s character. God, out of his gratuitous love, created a world he did not need because he is an Artist.
Beauty itself is not, in this sense, necessary…
But even if we would agree that beauty is not necessary to our daily survival, it is still necessary for our flourishing. Our sense of beauty and our creativity are central to what it means to be made in the image of a creative God. The satisfaction in beauty we feel is connected deeply with our reflection of God’s character to create and value gratuity. It is part of our human nature. This is why our soul hungers for beauty.
Because it is gratuitous, beauty points beyond itself, beyond survival to satisfaction. We think of it in opposition to narrowness, scarcity, drudgery and constraint. We think instead of what is expansive, generous, abundant, connected, and expressive. Beauty also connects us with the why of living. It points to discoveries waiting to be made about the creation. It points toward questions of right relationships, of ultimate meaning, and even of eternity. It points backward and outward and forward to our ultimate Source and Sustainer. (p. 33)
Effective stewardship leads to generative work and a generative culture. We turn wheat to bread—and bread into community. We turn grapes to wine—and wine into occasions for joyful camaraderie, conviviality, conversation, and creativity. We turn minerals into paints—and paints to works that lift the heart or stir the spirit. We turn ideas and experiences into imaginative worlds for sheer enjoyment and to expand the scope of our empathy. (p. 34)
A healthy community is one that is 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 in 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.
Where are such healthy communities? Do any exist today? (p. 70-71)
In 1970 somehow I stumbled on a copy of Hans Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Instead of dismissing contemporary art as hopelessly decadent and mindlessly irrelevant, Rookmaaker demonstrated a love for culture and helped me see that in art the deepest questions of human existence are posed and investigated in terms of form, metaphor, line and color. Art is part of an ongoing cultural dialogue, for blessing and for curse, and participating in the conversation is part of the Christian’s calling. The fact that much art in recent decades has tended to dwell on the brokenness is no reason to turn away because the scriptures explore the same brokenness, if we only have ears to hear. Fujimura argues that the modern tendency in artistic circles to resist the idea of beauty is an opportunity for the people of God. By stewarding beauty, whether we are artists or not, we can point to something beyond ourselves that can be satisfied only in the promise of the gospel. This beauty will not be sentimental or easy, for grace is neither, but will be healing because it takes into account the full story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. In Culture Care Makoto Fujimura shows us how to bring this vision into daily life, whether we are artists or not, so that perhaps by God’s grace we and our neighbors might find ways to flourish a least a little in this fragmented world.