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

Why Evangelicals don’t do confession.

If you had the will or inclination to comb through the Christian blogosphere yesterday you would have seen many Lenten and Ash Wednesday reflections about Sin, Confession and our mortality. Many have observed, and to which I add my voice, that among current Evangelicals there is a discomfort with confession and penitence. I preached a sermon a couple of years back on Psalm 51 and observed that our discomfort with sin, is really discomfort with talking about our own sin and confessing it. My friend Axel tweeted yesterday, “Why does penitence seem so foreign to evangelicals now? It’s certainly in the Bible!” I tweeted back that evangelicals no longer read their bibles, a fact of which we are in sad agreement.

So if we can agree that confession of sin is something that is part of the biblical (and Christian) spiritual life, why don’t we do it?
I can think of several cultural factors which contribute to us getting honest with God and one another about our sin:

1. We’ve over-corrected our bad evangelism

    Years ago Evangelicals thought the way to get people see their need is to show people how bad they were (because otherwise why would they want a God?). There is a certain internal logic to this and people do come to Christ being brought by the Spirit under conviction of Sin. Unfortunately preachers and evangelists have seen fit to do the Spirit’s work and have employed every method they know how to make people feel guilty, sinful and rotten to the core. Evangelicals today look at some of these methods as manipulation, judgmental and they cringe and rightfully so. Unfortunately this has signaled a retreat in addressing personal sin, almost all together.

2. We live in a self-help, therapeutic culture.

    Most of us have not read I’m Okay, You’re Okay but we have imbibed its message (I think, I haven’t read it). Our culture is infatuated with helping people achieve their best, be their best, be comfortable in their own skin and follow their bliss. And the church follows. Do you want to write a Christian book that no one will read? Write about holiness or write about repentance. It won’t make the Christian best sellers list. What does? Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now and books of that ilk. Whatever the merits of books like that are (I don’t know I haven’t read them) they are written to appeal to our longing for self fulfillment but do not face our weaknesses.

3. The church has a leadership fetish.

    Everywhere you look there are books, conferences, speakers, personalities which tell us how to be effective and successful leaders. You can take tests which gage your strengths, your Emotional intelligence, your gifts, your leadership style. I have taken some of these tests and read a lot of leadership books and see their value, but they don’t tell the whole story. Tom Rath’s Strength Finder 2.0 urges you to play to your strengths and leadership and not spend all your time and energy developing your ‘weak areas.’ There is a certain logic to this, but when applied to our moral life and character it is deadly.

4. We live in a culture of tolerance .

    The motto of our current culture is: different strokes for different folks. Nobody wants to be seen as intolerant and judgmental of other people’s decisions (unless they infringe on us personally) so we have grown accustom to not addressing issues of sin in our culture. Is it any wonder that we do not recognize the sin of our own heart?

5. But this is who I am and it feels right

    Without starting a debate on my blog on hotly debated political and theological issues the assumption that activities that feel natural should always be enjoyed is flawed. We live in a culture where personal preferences and desires exert a tyrannical rule over our lives. We all want the freedom to pursue the things we enjoy, but a disordered desire always takes us down a tangled path. With the wider culture, evangelicals have lost the ability to name internal sin. We are still good at pointing out when someone has crossed the line, but we have grown lousy at naming the ways our own passions bring us to ruin.

Put together is it any wonder that evangelicals no longer give much thought to penitence? Certainly there are issues and emphases in the history of evangelicalism that we are wise to not repeat, but naming our own sins is not one of them. As you enter this season what are you doing to reign in the sin of your own heart?