Spotlight interview with Makoto Fujimura: Becoming culture caretakers & border stalkers
Makoto Fujimura is an internationally renowned artist, writer, and speaker. He’s the founder of the International Arts Movement. He serves as the director of the Fuller Theological Seminary Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts. He is the author of a couple of books, one of which we’re going to talk about today, but the first book is Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering and the book we’re going talk about is Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life.
Slightly edited transcript:
Carmen: Okay, so culture. Let’s just talk about this buzz word. Start us off in a conversation just related to culture, because you describe it in a very unique way as not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Talk with us about that.
Makoto Fujimura: Yeah, so culture wars will lead us to think that culture is indeed a territory to be fighting over, but that’s not really how the word should be defined. You know, the word originates out of cultas, which is really a conversation about life, it’s a thriving of life. So, that means that, wherever there is life, there is culture. I like to think of culture as a garden or ecosystem rather than this scarcity model of looking at, you know, you have to fight over limited resource environments.
T.S. Eliot said that “Culture may yet be defined as something that’s worth waking up to.” So it is something that, you know, we need to value and be thankful for every day, if that exists at all, that leads to thriving of us, thriving of humanity, and thriving of all people and Eliot believed that Christianity is at the heart of that. Without the Christian perspective, really we cannot have thriving culture.
Carmen: So, I love the image of a thriving culture. I love the image of culture as a garden or an ecosystem. I also recognize that there are times, as a Christian, that I feel like, you know, people are laying waste to the rain forest and there’s a process of desertification taking place and there’s much more a culture of death on the move than the culture of life. So, tell me, as a Christian, how do I get on the right side of that?
Makoto Fujimura: Sure.
Carmen: How do I change my perspective on what’s happening around me so that I can more positively engage on this issue?
Makoto Fujimura: Sure, and we live in a foreign world. The Bible tells us that and we need to recognize and even anticipate that the world is not the way it ought to be. But that doesn’t mean that we should lose hope or to re-define the Earth as only this cursed land of Eden, as we were kicked out of Eden. God is God of all things and God is there with us in our pain and suffering and brokenness.
So in that sense, what we need to do as Christians, is to understand that, because of Christ’s power to both restore and to renew. You know, Paul tells us that we are a new creation in Christ. Well, what does that mean? You know, is it just to fix what is wrong or is there a real possibility of a new world which the Bible is depicting and constantly pointing us towards, that we are a new creation in Christ and that we are to co-partner with the Creator and even participating in creation of that new world. And that is the message of the Gospel and, if we embrace that, then we realize that, yes, we live in a foreign world. Everywhere there are fractures and issues that would lead us to despair, but in Christ, we have this eternal hope and we are the ones that can rejuvenate the Earth and bring in the new.
Carmen: Okay, so I love this quote. You say, “Western Christianity in the 20th century fell into an adjective existence, with Christian music, Christian art, Christian plumbers.” We could make a really long list there. So you say, “Even today, artists are often valued in the church only if they create art for the church or at least quote ‘Christian art.'” Then you say, “Culture care will mean moving forward from these kinds of labels.” So, tell us what you mean by that, specifically as an artist but then sort of extrapolate that out to, I am assuming, other vocations as well.
Makoto Fujimura: Sure. If you are lining up in a farmers’ market by a stand that we love, we don’t ask whether that person is a Christian or not. We ask whether the tomato is good or not, right? And if what is being sold at the farmers’ market stand is worthy of a dollar, then we will line up to get the best. I think, in that sense, all good things, all good creation is part of how God intended for us to enjoy. Of course, if we find out that the person selling that great tomato, is a Christian, we rejoice in that and we can have fellowship over the abundance of God and how God has indeed called us to a banquet, a feast.
But really, we live in a world of very complex matrix and oftentimes, even if we say we are Christians, we’re not quite sure at what point does the work dedicated to Christ begin and end. God has said, very simply, in Matthew 6, for example, Jesus tells us, “Consider the lilies.” Lilies are not Christian lilies or Christian flowers, but it’s just flowers. It holds beauty, it holds goodness, it holds truth within them. We are to consider that as part of our exercise of following Christ.
So, in that view, what is here already is owned by God. Of course, we twist that and make it into idols. We make it into things that we might worship instead of God, but, nevertheless, you know, idols begin as God’s gift, good things that we turn them into problems. So, part of this exercise is to return to the origin of God’s goodness.
Carmen: So I’m thinking, there you reference these transcendental virtues of goodness, beauty, and truth and I’m certainly, I’m resonating in terms of the perversion of that which is good into that which is not good. I do think that, when we talk about beauty, when we talk about that the fact that, in every human being, there’s this aesthetic appetite and the reason that it’s there is because we have a longing for God and therefore we have a longing for beauty. But there’s a, it feels like to me, there’s a serious perversion of beauty in our culture today.
Makoto Fujimura: Right.
Carmen: So, I’m not looking for Christian art, but I am looking for good art that’s aligned with the reality of truth. Help me do that in our culture.
Makoto Fujimura: Sure.
So, God is not just a source of beauty, but God is beauty. So every time we experience beauty, we are drawn to God, and that means that it will be contested because the enemy also knows that this a virtue which we are drawn to and will do everything that is possible to corrupt it, right? So, artists, entertainers, people who are on, let’s say, in the front line of that, is often subject to multiple ways to corrupt that sense of the beautiful. We are experiencing that. The world has put up these tainted forms but, at the same time, we have to again remember that God is beauty. And as soon as we begin on that path toward the beautiful, we will be on the way to discovering God.
Now, how do we do this in, you know, everyday life? It’s not to go to museums or concert halls or read poetry, all of which will help us to identify the beautiful, but we can simply begin to see our lives as artworks of God, as masterpieces. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8, you know, “You are God’s workmanship.” Workmanship there is a Greek word poiema, from which we get the word poem. So we should look at ourselves as God’s poems, being sent by the Spirit into the world. If we see ourselves, God will, I think, give us plenty of opportunities to nurture a way of seeing, a way of listening, and even way of tasting, right, that allows us to tap into the deepest realm of God’s creation and to experience God’s beauty.
Carmen: Well, and even in the way I read the Scriptures. So, when you say all of that, I’m thinking to myself, “Well, if God is beauty in these ways, then to taste and see that God is good is also to taste and see that God is delicious and beautiful.” And so it even informs the way we read the Word if we would allow ourselves to have this very expanded view, which I think is honest to who God is. I just think that maybe we have narrowed it so much in our culture. And, again, I’m using the word to describe, I suppose, the reality, but we have so narrowed this conversation down that, I think what you’re helping us do, is widen it back out.
The other thing I think you really help us do, and I’d love for you to touch on this, is this idea of being border stalkers. Because I’m a person who, I want everybody who’s listening as an ambassador of the Kingdom of God. I want them to be out there in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, and you have given me new language for that. So talk about border stalking.
Makoto Fujimura: Yeah, I have a chapter on that in my Culture Care book and there’s a Middle English word, Old English word, called maercstapa which a friend of mine introduced me to. It’s a wonderful word, and in the book, Beowulf, Grendel the dragon is a maercstapa, a border stalker. And there’s a sense in which, you know, moving in between the tribes is what artists do naturally. I do that. You know, I don’t fit into, perhaps, any one tribe but I meander in between. And I have to learn to place myself, you know, on the community, to find necessary roots that I need to come back to. But, nevertheless, it is my nature to be able to meander and discover things that other people cannot.
You know, if you are a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, we have the story of Strider of the Bree, who was a suspicious character in the beginning who the innkeepers say, you know, “Watch out for that man over there sitting in the shadows, because he’s dangerous.” Well, that dangerous person, who moves in between tribes turned out to be Aragorn the king but it took Gandalf to recognize that and to empower that, right?
So, how do we get from Strider to Aragorn? Well, that requires a certain kind of mentoring, certain kind of looking at ourselves, perhaps, that affirm this journey outward from one tribal zone to another. And, because Strider was able to do that, you know, he ended up marrying an Elven to reunite the kingdoms. I see all artists this way, that they have a potential for leadership like that, that they can become reconcilers and reuniters of divided kingdoms. That they can be peacemakers, you know, and to be able to speak multiple tribal languages that can connect us, reconnect us to the whole.
Carmen: All right, friends, you’ve got to check out what he’s talking about. The website is iamculturecare.com. The book is Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life. But I also want to direct you to the Brehm Center’s website, brehmcenter.com. Because if you really want equipping in this area that we’re talking about right now, Fuller Seminary is actually doing this through the Brehm Center.
Thank you so much for being with us today on The Reconnect.
Makoto Fujimura: My pleasure, thank you.