From Culture Wars to Culture Care: a ★★★★★ book review

I grew up with a brand of Christianity which saw culture as a threat. We engaged in culture wars to combat secular humanism and political correct pluralism. We were suspicious of cultural decay—immorality, socialism, science,  heavy metal, the new-age, permissive poitical policies,  guys with baggy pants and other pernicious attacks on our Christian worldview. Artists, for their part, were engaged in a culture war of their own—  iconoclasts deconstructing institutions, tearing down conventions, destroying the status quo. When my tribe of Christians engaged in the arts, they either imitated secular artists with a thin Christian veneer or produced syrupy, saccharine Christian images (à la Thomas Kinkade).  Neither artists or the Christians I knew were doing much to ‘care for culture.’

9111Makoto Fujimura is a new breed of Christian artist. He is deeply steeped in Nihonga (traditional Japanese painting with specialized pigments and dyes). He is renowned for his artwork hanging in galleries around the world. He also founded the International Arts Movement and is currently the Director of Fuller’s  Seminary’s Brehm CenterFujimura’s art is more icon than iconoclast. In fact, one recent project of his is an edition of the King James Version, illuminated by Fujimura’s paintings. Fujimura’s newest book, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty in Common Life, exemplifies his approach to Arts & Culture, one decidedly different than that of a culture war. Instead, Fujimura looks for ways to steward culture, nurture beauty and generative creativity.

This book consists of nineteen short chapters which give a framework for artists and creatives, advice and encouragement. The first chapter, On Becoming Generative ( previously released as an ebook), gives an overview of what he calls ‘generative thinking.’ He describes a scene from 1983. Fujimura was a near-starving artist struggling to make ends meet, his wife Judy was in grad school. One day when Fujimura was worried about where their next meal came from, his wife walked in with a bouquet of flowers. Fujimura was indignant, but his wife’s response was, “we need to feed our souls, too” (15).

His wife’s bouquet became a metaphor for the generative—a fruitful generating of new life and hope.  He describes how that experience was a genesis moment, a simple act which fed his soul and renewed his conviction as an artist (17), and generousity in valuing beauty over the worries of the day-to-day and scarcity (18). However, Fujimura also sees the need for generational thinking—”the inspiration to work within a vision for culture that is expressed in centuries and millennia rather than quarters, seasons or fashions” (19-20). In other words, our conception of arts and culture is shaped by the generations before us.

Fujimura goes on to describe what culture care is, “Culture care is to provide care for the culture’s ‘soul,’ to bring to our cultural home a bouquet of flowers so that reminders of beauty—both ephemeral and enduring—are present even in the harshest environments where survival is at stake” (22). Fujimura’s generative approach set him on a journey to ‘create and present beauty’ against the harsh, cynical backdrop of the New York city art world (26).

While Fujimura is not ‘cultural warrior’ he does stand in opposition to trends that are destructive to culture. He identifies two major pollutants in the river of culture as fragmentation and reductionism. “They are what I call overcommodification of art and utilitarian pragmatism” (34). They have the effect of causing artists in our ‘stressed ecosystem’ to sell short their artistic vision and output and become bottom feeders of culture for their own personal survival(36). Fujimura’s encouragement is to enlarge our vision for the arts.  The answer is not culture war but intentional stewardship of our cultural ecosystems. “Destruction and dissolution are far easier than creation and connection. We need vision, courage and perseverance” (43).

Fujimura discusses the need for personal soul care for artists, how beauty feeds our soul, working from the margins (‘border walkers,’ the meracstapa). calling and the ways business leaders, patrons, and investors make generative art and tending beauty possible. There are tons of practical advice, inspirational stories, and thoughts about culture, aesthetics, and theology.  Fujimura illustrates his approach through opening up parts of his own journey as an artist and curator for the arts, and the wisdom he learned from philosophers, pastors, theologians, and fellow creatives.

Fujimura is one of my favorite contemporary artists (my wife was lucky enough to take a class with him at Regent College one summer). I cherish his thoughts on the creative process and culture care. While his focus is on culture care for artists (broadly defined), his discussion of beauty needs to be recovered by the whole church (artists lead the way). I give this book five stars and recommend it for artists, poets, musicians, pastors, business leaders and anyone else that has a stake in shaping culture. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of this book from InterVarstiy Press in exchange for my honest review

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