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

Anti-Christian Bias? a book review

American Christians are oft too quick to cry persecution. The hot anger and violence that Christians across the world face is far more serious than anything suffered in this nation; however as sociologist George Yancey demonstrates,there is a growing anti-Christian bias. Yancey explores this anti-Christian bias in Hostile Environment. He calls this Christianophobia and identifies it as a very real phenomenon that Christians need to contend with. Christians with a traditional, conservative bent will wrestle more directly with this.

Yancey is a Christian academic at a secular university (University of North Texas). When he was an adjunct professor he taught classes on the sociology of race and the sociology of religion. Some collegues questioned his ability to teach on the sociology of religion given his Christian commitments; however no one questioned his credentials to teach about race, even though he was African American (12). This and other experiences and observation of hostility towards Christians led Yancey to study hostility towards Christians. In So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is there Christianophobia in the United States? he unfolds the results of his qualitative studies on the anti-Christian bias in American culture (his Appendix in this volume gives a brief explanation of his research methodology).

Yancey finds two big errors in Christian approaches to Christianophobia. The first is to exaggerate it and claim that Christians are being persecuted (24). Christians on the far conservative side of the spectrum tend to this sort of overstatement. The other error is to minimize and ignore Christophobia altogether. (25). This is done especially by more progressive Christians. Yancey advocates a third way. He demonstrates that anti-Christian bias exists, that it is real and measurable, through his research. He wants Christians to respond when and where they are discriminated against and their convictions are maligned; yet he isn’t pushing us to dig a trench and prepare for battle. He isn’t commending a renewed culture war but a place at the table for respectful dialogue between Christians and non-Christians.

The seven chapters of Hostile Environment catalog and describe the reality of Christianophobia and the response that Yancey advocates. Chapter one forms an introduction. Chapter two describes the roots of Christianophobia (i.e. those who desire change and see Christianity as an enemy, those who feel threatened by Christianity, those who think Christianity poses a threat to religious neutrality).  In chapter three, Yancey describes some of the specific grievances his research reveals about people’s problem with Christians (i.e. seperation of Church and State, proselytizing, etc). Chapters four and five explore how much Christians are to blame for Christianophobia. Yancey shares the responses of those surveyed who were personally jaded by their interaction with Christians (97) and those who are at loggerheads with Christian ‘political’ goals (98). He also acknowledges that some of the anti-Christian sentiment is driven by stereotypes from social institutes and the media (101) and the reality of Christian failure to live up to their ideals (106-110).  Yancey doesn’t absolve Christians of the blame for Christianophobia even if the reality of it exceeds the impact of Christian failure to love their neighbors well. Chapters six and seven impart advice on how the church ought to stand up against Christianophobia.

I appreciated the balance that Yancey brought. Christianity is not universally loved by American culture, art, politics or academia, There is animosity and Yancey names it and quantifies it through his research; yet he is careful to not overstate his case. I appreciated his call for a rational, measured and respectful response to anit-Christian bias. I think this makes this a very good book. Nowhere does Yancey tell conservative Christians to abandon their convictions; nevertheless he does help us to have a more magnanimous and courageous response to the wider culture. I give this five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

Why us Good People Don’t Like Bad Christians (Especially When We Are One): a book review

When Bad Christians Happen to Good People: Where WE Have Failed Each Other and How to Reverse the Damage by Dave Burchett

We all know people who used to go to church but quit going because of the way we Christians treat each other. Likewise, we know Christians who are back-biters, gossips and bitter people. We have seen these people use the gospel of Grace to make people feel like guilty, lowly sinners. We’ve seen volunteers get used up and spit out while those with special needs often are isolated and forgotten. Christians can be really big jerks and there are a lot of wounded people because of it. This is exceptionally heartbreaking because too often ‘good people’ like me, also fit the profile of the bad Christian.

David Burchett is also no stranger to bad Christians. When he and his wife Joni had their daughter Katie they knew that she was terminal, could not open her eyes and she  had a deformity which left tissue exposed at the back of her skull (which they covered with a dressing). The church that they attended informed them that Katie would no longer be welcome in the nursery because of the risk she posed to other kids and the trauma it would inflict on nursery workers if Katie died on their watch. The Burchetts were not consulted about this and no concerns were ever communicated to them until they were told that their daughter was not welcome in the Nursery.

And so Burchett wrote this book exploring all the ways we Christians do damage to each other and fail to communicate God’s love to those outside of the church. The book divides into three parts. In part one Burchett discusses the way we Christians treat one another (i.e. unfriendliness, schism, fear-based Christianity). In part two he explores how we interact with the wider culture (i.e. hypocrisy, Christianese, Jesus-Junk and ‘the culture wars.’ Part three suggests how we Christians are to be in the world (gracious, humble, well-versed in the Bible and what we believe).

I never read the first edition of this book but it is refreshing to hear how Burchett feels he’s grown since when he first wrote this book (this edition came out in 2011; the original edition is copyrighted, 2002).  As Burchett describes it, writing this book was cathartic for him because he could err his grievances about all the ways we Christians hurt one another. His own book called him to hold himself to the same standards, but something was missing.  He didn’t yet know the meaning of grace–at least as an experiential reality.  At a conference put on  by an organization called TrueFaced (also a book authored by  Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol,  and John Lynch) he  was transformed by the notion that God has already wired us to be the saints he’s making us into and is calling us to inhabit that reality. He was blown away by the reality of God’s grace.

So if you chose to read this book, you will hear stories and critiques of the way we Christians have often been saints behaving badly. You will also read suggestions and exhortations to step out and be Christians who serve the world, love one another and give their lives sacrificially for God’s mission.  But you also will hear a testimony of God’s grace–that it is the Spirit at work in us, transforming us into what we already have become in Christ.

This  book has an eight week discussion guide making it usable for small groups. The chapters are short and pithy with good humor and could be good springboards for discussion.  But when I read Burchett say, “If you only have the budget to buy one in the near future,  I would tell you to buy TrueFaced (205),” I wonder if I should recommend this book or tell you to just get the book Burchett likes. I haven’t read TrueFaced, so you get no recommendation from me, but I liked this book and am grateful for Burchett’s exhortations and practical challenges.

Readers of my blog may notice that this book covers similar ground to another of my recent reviews, Accidental Pharisee by Larry Osborne. Osborne’s book is more narrowly focused on how we become Pharisees (albeit unwittingly) with our pride, attitudes, exclusivity etc. This book does address the problem of hypocrisy but also talks about how we can be better at communicating the gospel to the wider culture. Both authors have good things to say and are challenging. I think Osborne was more personally helpful in taking stock of personal attitudes where I got off track, but Burchett offers good critique of Christian culture and the ways in which we hurt (or exclude) others.

Thank you to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.