‘ART AND FAITH’ REVIEW: MAKO FUJIMURA’S CALL FOR THE CHURCH TO EMBRACE ART

On the sixth day of my solitude and silence retreat I picked up a paint brush and began to paint in watercolor. And it was good. Decades past held my last attempt at painting anything. Why watercolor? It was my only option. The retreat center was quite isolated, and the Family Dollar around the corner from my retreat had a cheap, child’s-tray of paints. 

I deeply regard of the arts. I ask the Lord occasionally for at least one of my three children to become an artist. It is a totally selfish longing. My son, Brooks, at my urging, participated in a summer art camp. At summer’s end, Brooks tossed his sketchbook. I grabbed it to save his early work to offer Leslie Stahl for his 60 Minutes profile one day. Yet, I also knew it would call to me.

With the sketch book and my $2.49 watercolors, I attempted to capture the moss on both the rocks and walking paths around my wooded cabin. It was February, dark and damp. The trees were leafless, and fallen leaves blanketed the ground. From among the hues of brown, grey, black, and taupe popped an incredibly verdant moss. A pop of yellow-green overthere on a rock outcropping. A burst of emerald green clinging to the side of the creek wall. A carpet of lime green paved winding trails.

The life bursting around me stood sentinel amidst the dormant winter landscape. This immediately took me to Genesis 9:3 where God told Noah and his sons, “Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” The moss showed new life among the dark decay of winter. I took comfort knowing what God could do during retreat, and was doing.  My Heavenly Father gave me the gift of moss to assure me of His fecundity remaining in my heart. 

Now, weeks later reflecting on Makoto Fujimura’s latest book, Art + Faith: The Theology of Making, I can articulate the power of both the moss and the longing to paint it. “Can one hear a painting?” Fujimura asks the reader. They can, and more, when following Fujimura’s instruction manual for a theology of making.

Makoto Fujimura (b. 1960) writes after decades of creating internationally recognized paintings. His art brings the ancient Japanese method of Nihonga to contemporaneous conversations. Over the years his invitations to speak and reflect on his work have become speeches, articles, books, and now a seeming series of books that build out a theology of making.

Fujimura offers us in Art + Faith a further, even deeper volume on the intersection of theology and art. One benefit from reading his earlier works (Culture Care, Silence and Beauty, On Becoming Generative, Refractions) is to become familiar with his theological perspective and assumptions, his depth of vision as an artist, and the language he both creates, builds upon, and nurtures. Yet, as a stand alone work, Art + Faith sets out to, in his words, “outline a path toward culture care via what I see as flowing out from a biblical model of flourishing toward the New.” 

BASIC PLOT SUMMARY

“What if our lives are artworks re-presented back to the Creator?” This question is a primary force behind this book, and Fujimura creatively seeks to articulate an answer. In reaction to industrialization’s impact on faith, theology, and the church, Fujiumra’s answer rests not just in new starting points, reformed convictions, or reignited passions. His vision, well bathed in N.T. Wright’s popular eschatology, repeatedly comes back to the church and her mission, one’s individual faith and practice, and the call to be makers as our God is the maker/Creator. 

Fujimura seems to be borrowing the style of cultural theologian and author Steven Garber (The Fabric of Faithfulness, Visions of Vocation, The Seamless Life) whereby the book builds concept upon concept and culminates in a grand thesis statement. Rather than following the traditional method of stating one’s thesis and then defending it in subsequent passages. Fujimura offers in the last chapter of the book the notion of the “Lazarus Culture,” both the method and vision for how to execute a theology of making. It is as if he started with the Lazarus Culture chapter and a friend said, “Wow, now take this apart and tell me how you got here.”

To craft his theology of making, Fujimura builds each chapter with essential theological concepts for a theology of making, yet he does so quite aware of the power of imagination and its formative role in such making. Fujimura forms the reader with vivid imagery, historic pieces of art, and moving stories of redemption while at the same time educating us. He, in a way, makes us different, new while learning how God makes and calls us to make. 

The key theological concepts begin with God’s very nature, as a Creator, and the subsequent result for his creation—humans are made to be makers and creators. The important components of making entail beauty and mercy, and to see with both our heart and eyes while engaging one’s imagination, generativity, and ability to exegete the culture. 

Fujimura defines a new post-industrial understanding of making. Rather than the commonly adopted idea that making is for the purposes of being useful or efficient, he reclaims the Biblical perspective that making is inherent to our being, rooted in our call by God, and the dynamic exercise of our participation in God’s mission of redemption and restoration. There is little use here for fast fashion, environmental degradation, and utilitarian reductionism. 

Fujimura wisely orients his theology of making with purpose and vision. His purpose is clearly the church and her mission, and his telos is the coming New Creation described in Revelation 21-22. N.T. Wright provides a preface, and through this work Fujimura deepens and refines Wright’s eschatology. Fujimura eschews what Jurgen Moltmann calls the popular “apocalyptic fantasy” in American evangelical churches, and shows the place of art in reforming our lingering heresies:

Art should capture the hypostasis or “substance of things hoped” that the writer of Hebrews speaks of, to serve our culture to reveal the “evidence of things not seen (emphasis his). As the Kintsugi metaphor conveys, on this side of eternity it is important for us to see even the end as a new beginning. Such generative thinking trains our hearts to see. Rather than spending all our time coming up with arguments to prove the enemies of our faith to be wrong, we should cultivate awareness of the Spirit, a discipline that leads us to create. (p.86)

As any academically trained theologian does, which Fujimura amazingly is not, we are offered both theological categories and fresh interpretations to build an emerging theology. Yet, as few extraordinary writers can do, Fujimura forms us with the methodology he advocates. As he makes a theology of making, he leads us in the movements of making.

Fujimura offers in each chapter, and with each new point, an image or an art form (painting, poem, or vivid story) from which he draws observations and questions of a theological nature. He turns next to scripture to glean insights and principles that are firmly in God’s Word; true to his formation in the Reformed tradition. From there the reader is offered conclusions, calls for action, and creative application. These convey Fujimura’s passion along with the depth of his heart and wide experience in the world. 

After taking us repeatedly through these very movements of making, by the time chapter 10 arrives, Lazarus Culture, the reader has experienced the very methodology that Fujimura argues is more effective. He writes, 

…God cannot be known by talking about God, or be debating God’s existence (even if we “win” the debate). God cannot be known by sitting in a classroom, or even in a church taking in information about God.

I am not against these pragmatic activities, but God moves in our hearts to be experienced and then makes us all to be artists of the Kingdom…God the Artists communicates to us first, before God the lecturer.

Indeed.

Art + Faith is to be commended. Like Fujimura’s previous works, he brings fresh ideas, vulnerable introspection, and inspiring artistic education all the while elevating his audience. I am confounded by his theological mastery minus a formal theological education. He reminds me that there is much to learn from the laity, which I know, but can get lost in the myriad of academic letters that seem to dominate our field. His reading is wide as evidenced in those he cites and shares conversation. Yet, the flip side of this coin is that one likely needs substantive theological categories in place and an understanding of how theology is written to appreciate Fujimura’s project. I would not recommend Art + Faith for the average Christ follower. I do plan, however, to incorporate it as required reading and the primary text for future discipleship opportunities with artists particularly. In my experience many artists suffer from an imposter syndrome, and need to know, as Fujimura reminds,  “Makers are experienced at navigating the gap between ideas and reality. Makers can help us to love more deeply.” The church needs her artists.

Fujimura’s achievements in this book shine in four ways: theological scholarship, his love of the church, new language to craft a greater conversation, and an introduction to new art forms and the spiritual meaning they provide, a unique aspect to his work that touches my heart most.

This book fulfills its title’s proposition: art is paired, and paired closely, with Christian faith. Fujimura advances N. T. Wright’s eschatological work by exploring further the implications of the New Creation promised in Revelation 21 and 22 while considering who it is revealed in the imagination and work of an artist. Besides the scholars Fujimura cites, it is evident that the author is in dialogue with unnamed masters and their foundational concepts like Martin Buber’s I and Thou proposition and Simone Weil’s attention

Finally, bountiful is Fujimura’s command of the holy scripture. He remains close to the text, and utilizes it often while building his case. One could not accuse him of veering from the witness of the Word into philosophical wanderings, as reflections on art often do. Such adherence to the guiding text of the Christian tradition also enables Fujimura’s language and word choice to bolster credibility with the reader. This appropriately challenges him or her to be more open to a thoughtful adoption of a theology of making.

With a firm theological foundation, in Art + Faith Fujimura closely ties his theology of making to the character, conduct, and witness of the church. He does not dwell on ecclesial concepts to the neglect of the real, everyday  church. The following are inspirational warrants and hopes for his church and ours:

What kind of church would we become if we simply allowed broken people to gather, and did not try to “fix” them but simply to love and behold them, contemplating the shapes that broken pieces can inspire?

The body of Christ provides the Christian ecosystem for teaching the New Creation, and this can happen if the church once again becomes a place of making, the heart of beauty in the world, and a witness to mercy.

To build the city of God, we need to be a fiery body of Christ. 

Fujimura eschews esotericism by applying his theology of making with how the church addresses the issues of the day. He writes, “In these days of #BlackLivesMatters and #MeToo, it’s important to remember that the goal of such movements is not to fix an inequity, but to seek a new way for us to see beauty – as in ‘fair-ness’ – in all peoples.”

Movement leaders are keen to develop a language for insiders to take the efforts further than a founder ever could, and Fujimura advances the language he introduced so many books ago. We learn in Art + Faith of plumbing theology, Kintsugi theology, the aforementioned theology of making, and Lazarus Culture. His border stalkers, first introduced in Culture Care, reappear and incarnate as artists. These new or refashioned concepts enable greater conversation and application, and thus movements, if not the birth of new arenas of theological exploration and ministry application.

Finally, one is introduced to the art of Kintsugi, and inspired by the timeless works of Mark Rothko, T.S. Eliot, and Emily Dickinson. Sadly, the book does not have any pictures to pair with the many paintings Fujimura references. Both his own and others are used for considerable contemplation and meaning. I found myself searching the internet and reading while observing the work. High quality images to accompany the art references are needed for maximum impact. 

Any review of this book would be remiss not to mention the jewel at its center, Fujimura’s theological reflection on Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the ancient Japanese art form that takes broken tea sets and re-glues them using a metallic substance. These pieces are not just fixed, but rather made new. These renewed ceramics are considered more beautiful and more valuable than before. We learn,

The Japanese kin stands for “gold” and tsugi means “to reconnect”, but tsugi also has, significantly, connotations of “connecting to the next generation.”…Tea master designer Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637) saw the broken shapes of valuable tea ware as invoking landscapes and is known to have contemplated them before applying Kintsugi. Kintsugi does not just “fix” or repair a broken vessel; rather, the technique makes the broken pottery even more beautiful than the original, as the Kintsugi master will take the broken work and create a restored piece that makes the broken parts even more visually sophisticated.

The overtones between this ancient artform and the Christian embrace of  redemption amidst our brokenness are powerful, as Fujimura wisely extrapolates the depth of meaning from this artform. As stated previously, he leads the reader from art to scripture to our relationship with God. It is an engaging journey, for sure, as the starting point is not a philosophical principle, a scripture, or doctrine. We take away from our experience with Kintsugi, a tangible material in real time and space, a deeper appreciation that, “Christ came not to ‘fix’ us, not just to restore, but to make us a new creation.”

RECOMMENDATION

I highly recommend and commend this book for the right audience. Artists and mature Christ followers will enjoy Fujimura’s tone along with his substantive insight. Publishers will likely  repackage his many books, I predict, pulling together a significant corpus of theological work. More contributions will surely come from our author and his International Arts Ministry and Fujimura Institute, adding depth and maturity to a theology of making. 

Capturing the moss by watercolor on my retreat was more than making a memory. It was tapping into my Eastern Orthodox flirtation from a lifetime ago; I was writing an icon. Orthodox icons are not painted, but written. Their theological tradition entrusts artistic theologians to write their faith in the faces of the saints and through the events of scripture. In the writing one tells the world what they see in God and His good creation, and they are also speaking to themselves. I was telling myself on retreat in the thick presence of the Father: there is new life peeking out from the leaves of my heart. Find it, paint it, embrace it and wait; spring is around the corner. After reading Art + Faith my appreciation for the retreat, the Father’s presence, and my remaining soul-work still to complete touch the deepest parts of me. Thanks be to God.

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