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Like a slice of brie cheese dressed with fig jam, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making by Makoto Fujimura is not only delicious, but dense. Art and Faith offers deep, paradigm-shifting ideas that are best eaten slowly. There is much to ingest in these pages. Emulating the abundant God whom he extols, Fujimura lavishes striking insights, images, and biblical reflections, to the point that it would be impossible to explore all of the book’s major points clearly and concisely here. This review can therefore only serve as an appetizer. With those caveats in mind, let’s dig in.
Makoto Fujimura, a Christian with feet firmly planted in both the Japanese and American creative scenes, is an acclaimed visual artist known for his practice of “slow art.” He’s also an award-winning author. In 2014, Fujimura won the “Religion and the Arts” award from the American Academy of Religion, and he globally promotes arts advocacy as a means of “culture care” (which is also the title of one of his previous books).
Towards the beginning of Art and Faith, Fujimura asks, “Why did God create?” This question has high stakes, so much so that “our view of the creative process and the role of art hinges on how we answer this question.” If God created out of necessity, because somehow God needed humans and the rest of the cosmos, then our relationship to the divine is a codependent one. Thankfully, however, Fujimura reminds us that God created not out of need, but out of love. As its subtitle declares, Art and Faith offers a Theology of Making, one in which all art proceeds from a view of God as the True Artist, creating out of love.Before we can explore that statement in-depth, however, we need to clarify a key term: What exactly does it mean to make? Fujimura often (though not always) capitalizes the word “Making” in his book, which speaks to his efforts to broaden and strengthen conventional definitions of this word. To do this, Fujimura also highlights the frequent occurrence in the Bible of the Greek word poieo (to make, to do), including passages like Ephesians 2:10, which he translates as “we are God’s masterpiece [poiema].” The generative and creative potential of poetry and poieo saturate the Bible. As people made in the image of God, what will we poieo in response?
Fujimura’s Theology of Making (a phrase he often uses, always capitalized) refutes the utilitarian mindset that we have inherited from the Industrial Revolution. Such a mindset has often neglected artists, reducing poieo to a mechanical “doing,” and concluding that any art that isn’t “useful” is a waste of time and resources. Through this lens, the tears that Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus are the ultimate waste, since such tears cannot bring back the dead. So why, Fujimura asks, did Jesus cry before raising Lazarus?
Utilitarianism also stands with scoffers like Judas Iscariot. Judas demands to know why Mary “wasted” precious nard, worth a year’s worth of wages, to anoint Jesus shortly after Christ summons Lazarus out of the tomb. Yet Judas tellingly betrays his teacher for a mere thirty pieces of silver, pittance compared to the nard. I can hear the mic drop as Fujimura declares, “The justification of extravagance…does not hinge on the amount of money or the number or roses; it has everything to do with the object of our extravagance, the object of our devotion, or the object of our grief.” Simply put, Mary loved Jesus; Judas did not.
In addition to reducing art to a false standard of “usefulness,” utilitarianism has enervated our understanding of God’s character and activity in the world. Fujimura argues that the Industrial Revolution has narrowed our exploration of the Divine to a “plumbing theology” that simply seeks to fix the pipes of the universe. Yet why, Fujimura asks, are the pipes there in the first place? Why tears, why nard, and why cosmic pipes? The answer is always: love.
Even as Art and Faith blasts the pragmatic idolatry of “usefulness,” the book nonetheless demonstrates that art does serve a purpose: The act of Making, which involves using our hands and our bodies to craft physical objects into something new, is actually our deepest epistemological path. As Fujimura explains, “Artists do not seek proof of God’s existence; artists explore the unknown in search of deeper meaning. The mystery of God opens up to those who create.” In other words, there are truths and knowledge that we can only gain through the act of Making.
Other artists have affirmed this same sentiment. In his 1962 “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” James Baldwin declared, “The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.” As poet and critic David Lehman explains in Great American Prose Poems, Edgar Allan Poe “intuitively grasped the big bang theory” in his 1848 prose poem Eureka, several decades before such discoveries occurred in the scientific community. The arts offer an often-neglected source of knowledge that speaks to love and to science. And also to justice. Because of their connection to that deepest realm of knowing, Fujimura concludes that “artists and poets are the first to intuit, before anyone else, the encroaching darkness of dehumanizing forces.” Art and Faith reveals that one reason that we Make is to learn how to live in a proper relationship with God, creation, and each other. “When we stop making,” the book warns us, “we become enslaved to market culture as mere consumers.”
Fujimura exhorts us to see culture not as wartorn territory, but rather as a garden. If culture is a garden, then we need healthy soil so that our culture can bear good fruit. Jesus declares that each tree is known by its own fruit, and Fujimura reminds us that this sentiment applies to cultures as well as to individuals. What if we asked ourselves in churches, “What did you make this week?” What kind of beauty would flourish in response? Art and Faith declares that beauty is a more efficacious change agent than the “‘zero-sum game[s]’…in the culture wars mindset.” By relinquishing our outdated culture war worldview, one of shrinking territories and insufficient attempts to stake out middle ground, Fujimura invites us to a new, more abundant perspective. Art and Faith explains that artists, who act as “‘border-stalkers’ in our cultural ecosystem,” create new, not-yet-existent spaces for peacemaking efforts.
Art and Faith has much to say about the “new.” Turns out, Greek has two words that both get translated into English as “new:” kainos and neos. Fujimura clarifies that neos isa simple word, like an upgraded iPhone, but kainos is much more dramatic. Kainos is a word of transfiguration, “akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, but more.” Kainos is not just a new species, but is “a new concept of what a species [even] is.” Not surprisingly, the New Creation of the Bible is a call to kainos. Fujimura’s use of foundational biblical terms is occasionally more muddled than helpful. For example, Art and Faith never clearly defines the Hebrew term dmuwth when discussing “a path that God intentionally took to ‘re-present’ us.”
I also found Art and Faith’s talk about the “temporary resurrection” of Lazarus, a man who did eventually die again, to be confusing. What does the astounding magnitude of kainos mean for the very definition of the word “resurrection,” especially when applied to the body of Jesus? Fujimura himself demonstrates concern with this question when he explores the body of Jesus through the lens of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the ancient Japanese art form of repairing broken teaware by reassembling ceramic pieces, binding them together with lacquer and gold gilding in a process that enhances, rather than minimizes, the breaks. Kintsugi makes the mended piece even more valuable than the original. Fujimura invites us to see Christ’s resurrected body, crucifixion scars and all, as Kintsugi art. As Art and Faith explains, “every art recognizes that the work must be broken to be made new.” Chinese pastor Watchman Nee expressed this same idea in his 1948 work, The Breaking of the Outer Man and the Release of the Spirit, asking, “If the earthen vessel is not broken, who will find the treasure within?”
While all shards are meant to be contemplated, however, not all are meant to be mended. “The ultimate act of a Kintsugi master is not to even attempt to fix the broken vessel,” Fujimura explains, “but to behold its potential, to admire its beauty.” Given the large pile of political and cultural shards I see around me now, this sentence almost sounds offensive. My first reaction is to run back to that old plumbing theology, and start fixing. But perhaps I first need to cry with Jesus, to lament over Lazarus in the grave, and then like Mary, to break jars. Perhaps I first need to see those shards as Christ sees them. I’ll conclude this review with a final question from Art and Faith: “What kind of a 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?”
This review was originally published in Vita Poetica.