Book Review of Mako Fujimura’s ‘Culture Care’

A Review of Mako Fujimura’s ‘Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty For Our Common Life’; Intervarsity Press, 2017

By Case Thorp

“It’s not enough to just build tools. They need to be used for good,” said a repentant and scared Mark Zuckerberg before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees. Facebook embodies today’s cultural zeitgeist, and its disregard for privacy coupled with its mammoth influence have caused our nation to question how its unhealthy practices are impacting culture. Mako Fujimura, surely, is pleased with Zuckerberg’s comment, as he has painted a vision for such and more in Cultural Care.

In this short, accessible book Fujimura provides the first in a series of works that explore what he calls culture care. He entices the reader by mentioning a forthcoming work on the theology of making, but for now settles on sharing generative principles that build up a good, just, and beautiful culture. His career as a globally successful contemporary painter continues now as the leader of the IAM, International Arts Movement, and the Director of the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary, and he writes for Christian and non-Christian environments. These varied roles and environments certainly shape and often have cameos in Culture Care.

Fujimura borrows from the common notion of creation care, the theology of creation pioneered by Jurgen Moltmann and recently advanced with a 2018 publication by Douglas and Jonathan Moo. Fujimura’s culture care is meant for the purposes of encouraging “cultural – and human- thriving.” Fujimura is foremost an accomplished artist, not a philosopher, formal theologian, or anthropologist. He does not clarify what he means by culture, or necessarily root cultural and human thriving in Christian thought, but like the artist he is, he describes what he sees and feels, and aims to help others see and feel the same.

Fujimura defines generative as “fresh and life giving” and the opposite of that which is “degrading and limiting.” One man’s art is sometimes another man’s graffiti, no doubt. Being generous and a good steward, however, are ways Fujimura suggests generative evaluation can be done. A generous spirit that sees beyond one’s preference is also encouraged to see the generous amount of talent, resources, diversity, and gifts of humanity culture can encompass. With such an abundant perspective, rather than a “culture of scarcity”, one must steward such gifts well so that they continue to creatively contribute, offer, and generate.

As with beauty’s impact on soul care, cultural care must engage that which is beautiful. Fujimura uses an artistic approach here. For the philosopher, beauty in the classical sense is the combination of the good and the true. Yet, Fujimura seeks the appealing and desirable which bring refreshment.

Fujimura appropriately identifies reductionism and hyperspecialization as plagues upon today’s culture. These squash the beautiful, and therefore the opportunity for a culture, and the people therein, to flourish. Zuckerberg’s Facebook has reduced me and my connections to commodities upon which to capitalize commercially, and I experience  hyperspecialized ad targeting in an attempt to eke out more capital spending. Zuckerberg’s hard earned billions are not bad in and of themselves, yet did I know, or should I have known, that my own commodification was happening? Fujimura would likely suggest that generous privacy rules and stewarding online content would give us a flourishing social media culture rather than what we currently have. At this rate, Tim Keller, Fujimura’s former pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, may be deemed prophetic for his opening words at a training session for church planters, “Don’t you look forward to the day when you say to a friend, ‘Remember that Facebook thing?’”

My memorable take away from this illustrative work will be Fujimura’s call for the reader to live as a mearcstapa. A mearcstapa is a term found in Beowulf translated from the Old English as a “border-walker” or “border-stalker”. These are characters in medieval stories who “lived on the edges of their groups, going in and out of them, sometimes bringing back news to the tribe.” Fujimura uses a majority of this book to examine the work of mearcstapas, and encourage the Christian church to become a society of border-stalkers. It is through this role, Fujimura argues, that sub-cultures learn about diversity, nuance, and paradox, three essential cultural qualities if greater cultural flourishing is to occur. For when a group’s mearcstapas do their job well, sub-cultures develop empathy and seek reconciliation with others. Peace and flourishing become common place. The common good is achieved.

Fujimura identifies both fictional and historical mearcstapas: from To Kill a Mockingbird’s Harper Lee, to Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh. The reader soon begins to realize that Mako Fujimura is, too, a mearcstapa, painting an alternative option for culture and culture makers.

The last quarter of Culture Care describes three metaphors for the Jesus-following mearcstapas, the church. The church as garden is a place of constant generative activity and growth. For the greater culture to thrive, Fujimura argues, the church must become “a creative force to be reckoned with.” From there it needs to become cultural estuary, and finally a custodian of cultural care. In her responsibility as a custodian, business care is but one of many ways the church engages societal sectors to unleash the work of the Gospel.

Social media is but one of the many polarizing fields in need of cultural renewal (do I need to mention Congress?). Yet, Fujimura’s text is a fresh, easy start to excite the mind and ignite the heart. A scholarly work it is not, but Culture Care is an artistic dream of hope and challenge. It left this mearcstapa encouraged to bring more of the borderlands back to my people.

This post originally appeared on The Green Room Blog.

Dr. Case Thorp leads The Collaborative for Cultural and Economic Renewal, and is the Senior Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

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