Art and Faith: A Book Review (Sort of)

Art and Faith: A Book Review (Sort of)

Art and Faith: A Book Review (Sort of) 1024 1024 Andrew Hicks

I recently read the excellent book Art and Faith: A Theology of Making by Makoto Fujimura. This book is a culmination to his larger “culture care” program. Famed New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, writes the forward. In it, he connects his emphasis on resurrection with Fujimura’s theology of making. This connection is an endorsement for the articulation of creating into the new creation as Fujumura develops it.

Here are my highlights and interactions from this stimulating book:

The big “a” Artist and the little “a” artists. Fujimura says that “usefulness” can be dangerous. It is dangerous because there is a trend in the broader post-industrial culture to view something as having value only when it is deemed useful. As an artist this horrifies Fujimura. He reminds that upon our deathbed we do no boast about our résumés, or our net worth, or our degrees and accolades. We speak of the beautiful and eccentric. In fact, Fujimura goes so far as to claim that what is often deemed extra or unnecessary may actually be the most essential. He says:

Could it be that what is deemed marginal, what is “useless” in our terms, is most essential for God and is the bedrock, the essence, of our culture? Could it be that our affinity for the utilitarian pragmatism of the Industrial Revolution created a blind spot in culture that not only overlooks great art, but if purity of expression is compromised could also lead us to reject the essence of the gospel? Could it be, if I may extend this thought to the extreme, that we have missed the essence of the gospel message by focusing merely on an industrial, commoditized way to convey the information of the gospel, or even to “sell” the Good News in the most efficient manner prescribed by our entrepreneurial or industrial mindset? (Pg. 17)

To prove this point Fujimura reminds that God did not create out of necessity or even out of “usefulness.” God created out of an exuberant and generous act of love. God creates out of abundance and exuberance and thus all things exist because God loves to create. Thus, God is THE creator and we are the creations, but we are also given the ability to create (Pg. 7). God is the capital “a” Artist and we are the lower case “a” artists. Thus we have a loving stewardship over creation as we create and make and usher in the new heavens and new earth (Pg. 11). Sounding a lot like N. T. Wright in his, now famous, Surprised by Hope, Fujimura says, “What we build, design, and depict on this side of eternity matters, because in some mysterious way, those creations will become part of the future city of God” (Pg. 12).

Making as the fullest integrated knowledge. If we are indeed made by the maker and created by the creator then we are also makers. Christians have always acknowledged that humanity is made in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27). If we are Imago Dei then we are created to be creators like our Creator (Pg. 14).

For these reasons, Fujimura argues that making is the most integrated form of knowledge (Pg. 19). With philosopher Esther Meek, he argues that we need an “epistemological therapy” so that we can reevaluate what is and is not “knowledge” (pg. 20). Some things are just not worth knowing. When we are mere consumers of someone else’s creations we are at the mercy of their imagination to determine what is and is not worth knowing. When we create for ourselves we start to truly know.

Fujimura argues that when we create for ourselves we solve the problem of “fake news.” We no longer have to follow informational “recipes,” but rather we are free to train our own imaginations and be effective messengers of hope (Pg. 24-25).

“What have you made this week?” 

The essential question is not whether we are religious, but whether we are making something. When we stop making, we become enslaved to market culture as mere consumers. (Pg. 24)

According to Fujimura, the most important question we ask each other when we come together as a church is “What did you make this week?” We are made to make and created to create. In order to fully know God we must create like God. This does not have to be the typical things that we consider art. This can be anything that makes goodness and beauty where previously there was none. We sing, dance, paint, draw, preach, perform, cook, decorate, design, act, construct, build, cultivate, plant, and anything else. Indeed, we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Eph. 2:10).

Kintsugi and a new newness.

Kintsugi Cup

Chapter 4 is about the Japanese art of Kintsugi. It is the mending of tea ware by reassembling the broken pieces with gold lacquer. Thus the broken cup is not really simply “restored.” It is made into a new newness. It is beautiful and valuable in a way that it was not before.

Taking his cue from 2 Corinthians 5:17, Fujimura argues that this is what God through Christ has made us. We are “new creations,” but this creation is both like the original and not like the original. We have been broken in order to be mended. We are filled with Gold and made into a new newness. These cups are mended in order to be used again, but their use will never be quite the same as it was before. “It is the ‘resurrection’ into use again of what is broken that is profoundly at the heart of Kintsugi” (Pg. 52).

Our brokenness is only redeemable because Jesus is the prime example of Kintsugi. His wounds are those broken spots highlighted in gold by his resurrection from the dead. Thus, “A journey toward the New begins with such an experience of raw authenticity of brokenness, tears, and healing” (Pg. 59).

The tears of Christ in the cultural river.

As part of an art commission for the four hundred year anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, Fujimura painted a series on the Four Holy Gospels. The aesthetic theme of the series was set by a painting called “The Tears of Christ.” This is based on the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Fujimura says this is the lens through which he viewed the gospels for his series and that it has subsequently changed the way he reads the gospels.

By the same love that God created, Christ wept (Pg. 102). These tears of Christ reveal that Christianity is not a set of doctrines to mentally assent to, but an experience that invites us to see our journey alongside Jesus’s journey. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is invoked to illustrate this point. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic that sees beauty in what is passing away and broken. For example, a well-loved object would exemplify this quality. A wallet that has been broken down from its daily and continual use has a beauty to it that a brand new wallet at the store does not. This concept of wabi-sabi is a Kintusgi bridge between creation and new creation (Pg. 104). Christ’s tears are the gold paste that holds the brokenness together and so honors our humanity while Christ cries with and for us.

Where the Theology of Play and the Theology of Making overlap.

At one point, Fujumura says “without beauty and mercy, the gospel will not change the world” (Pg. 28). I would add that without play the gospel will not change the world. And those two things are not so terribly separate. Play is beautiful. Play is merciful. Play is ethical.

My Wife, Hannah, was recently planting flowers at the foot of a big cedar cross in our front yard. She was planting flowers of all different kinds and varieties. It was such a normal, average thing and yet it was a creative thing – a playful thing. She made something that would not have and could not have been there without her creative touch.

This lady drove by, rolled down her window and hollered, “Hey! That’s beautiful! Thank you!!” and then drove off. Hannah shouted back “You’re welcome!!” Then we giggled together. We delighted and marveled over the small touch that something as simple as flowers could bring to a passer-by.

Hannah created something. She brought beauty and goodness into the world. She made the good works she was created in Christ Jesus for just by planting some flowers. She played. For her, planting the flower garden was not a chore to cross off the to-do list. It was the delightful creation of a flower garden. You can not separate making from play. Even when we make “serious” things we are still playing.

If Fujimura is right that making is the deepest form of integrated knowledge and if I am write that you can not separate making from playing then I argue that playing is also one of the deepest forms of integrated knowledge. Think about it. Poetry requires an advanced knowledge of grammar in order to “play” with the language and make beautiful turns of phrase. Good musicians are so skilled with their instrument that they play around and see what happens. I have had several friends who would say they “played around” with their guitar when they discovered a tune and then wrote a song based on it. We can not make or play until we have a deep knowledge of the things necessary to make or play.

Without play, the gospel will not change the world. Because the gospel has an inherent playfulness. The whole world has an inherent playfulness to it. Those who follow the Divine Dancer are more likely than any other to be able to dance and invite others to dance. Those who play with the Playful Potentate are more likely than any other to be able to invite others to play. Those who giggle with the Giggling God are far more capable of inviting others to giggle.

The closing benediction for makers:

Fujumura closes his book with a beautiful benediction for those who make. I have pictured it here as prayer that we would learn to make and play for the glory of God:

Here is Makoto Fujimura’s website.

Here is the completed volume The Four Holy Gospels.

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