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Makoto Fujimura and the Beautiful Gratuity of Art

Over the last fifty years or so, the question of art and its relationship to mass culture has taken on increasing importance in Protestant circles. Historically, the best-known treatments of the subject have tended to focus on contrasting the glories of the classical tradition with the desiccated state of modern creativity. Most famously, Francis Schaeffer—with his feet firmly planted in the Kuyperian tradition of cultural analysis—argued at length in How Then Shall We Live? that the ambiguity and fragmentation of contemporary art exemplified a larger cultural breakdown. And Calvinist scholar H.R. Rookmaaker echoed that conclusion in his influential book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture.

While not always saying so explicitly, critiques along these lines tend to express an important corollary presupposition: art is not intrinsically valuable or worthwhile, but is only meritorious insofar as it illuminates biblical truths. The artist’s creative impulses must be in some sense chastened and restricted, lest one’s output lead the viewer or reader away from truth. As such, the artist must always remain a figure who can be embraced only warily by the church. And it is this tension that pervades the writings of Christian art scholar Daniel Siedell, most notably in his shift from a “Schaefferian” approach to cultural analysis in 2008’s God in the Gallery to his adoption of a much bleaker view of the contemporary church’s relation to the arts in 2015’s Who’s Afraid of Modern Art?

In his new book Art and Faith: A Theology of Making [1], internationally acclaimed artist Makoto Fujimura aims to diffuse that tension altogether. From the outset, Fujimura argues that to be valuable, art need not be didactic. Indeed, the essence of art as such is that it is not necessary. Creation itself was not necessary for God to be fully God, and yet the world in all its beauty stands before human beings who are capable of responding in wonder.  Art, over and above any concept of utilitarian worth, participates in that same glorious ontological bounty and points toward its full consummation. By nature, the artist is always striving toward what Fujimura calls the “New”—the eschatological glorification of the entire created order—and thus to freely create, as an artist, is to bring realities into being that express the profoundest truth of existence.

In developing what he describes as a “theology of making,” Fujimura places particular weight on the very shortest verse of the Bible, John 11:35—“Jesus wept.” As Fujimura points out, this pause to “weep with those who weep” was not strictly necessary to the accompanying story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus could have marched to the tomb and summoned forth the dead man at once. Nor is the verse necessary to the literary structure of the Gospel itself. Instead, it is a moment of gratuitous overflow, an instance of God’s gracious presence alongside humanity over and above anything that could be expected. So too, Fujimura argues, for the work of the artist.

And just as Jesus’s tears flowed forth in an instance of profound suffering, so the artist may echo that suffering in his or her work. In the dark, thickly layered canvases of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Fujimura finds an opportunity to truly enter into the experience of those broken by modernity, the necessary condition for Christians “to learn to lament and weep deeply for the reality all around us.” It is no good to simply characterize modern works as simply expressions of cultural decay or moral alienation—or, similarly, to move too swiftly from the experience of loss to the celebration of future joy. Rather, such works must be understood as facets of the truth experienced by individuals in the throes of suffering.

A central theological metaphor of Fujimura’s book is kintsugi, the Japanese method of repairing and beautifying shattered ceramics by sealing the cracks with precious metals. (Indeed, one of the high points of Art and Faith as a whole is its detailed look at Fujimura’s artistic practices and their roots in the Japanese tradition, much of which will likely be completely unfamiliar to Western audiences.) For Fujimura, there is a powerful analogy between this style and the work of Jesus: like a kintsugi artisan, Christ in his sacrificial work is sufficient to heal the brokenness of the world, without obliterating the memory or individuality or distinctiveness of its inhabitants. And the artist, in turn, recapitulates that truth through his or her work.

Fujimura, in short, explicitly argues for the centrality of poiesis—in Greek, “making” or “doing”—to the Christian life. And yet interestingly enough, it is precisely this concept—contrasted with mimesis, or the imitation or reflection of preexisting forms or patterns such as natural law—that Carl Trueman, in his recent The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self [2] (see my review of Trueman here [3] and MR’s review here [4]), identifies as the root of much cultural decay. On Trueman’s account, pathologies like endless attempts at “self-creation,” and the pursuit of technical mastery and transformation over epistemological or cultural humility, follow from an undue emphasis on poiesis as such.

It seems to me, though, that it is Fujimura’s framing that serves as a corrective to Trueman’s, rather than vice versa. On occasion, natural law-driven critiques of modernity tend to imply, more or less explicitly, that with the right rulers or laws in place, the cosmic order could work like a well-oiled machine, with everything in its proper place until the end of days. The implication here is that achievement of perfect mimesis in creation is just a matter of setting up the right conditions for flourishing, like a Rube Goldberg contraption. But it seems to me that this view does not quite do justice to human beings’ interiority, or their capacity for genuinely creative response to their God. If mimesis and mimesis alone were the point, God ought to have created a world of automata rather than humans.

What keeps Fujimura’s argument from falling prey to Trueman’s critique is its connection of poiesis to the non-necessity of art, and to the radical rejection of utilitarian categories such as domination over the created order. Human beings do and make in response to the outpouring of God’s beauty that is the cosmos: what is the creation but the greatest work of art of all? One might even say that in their very poiesis, artists engage in mimesis of the Creator of all things.

Within magisterial Protestant circles, conversations about art and its significance have not had pride of place for many years. Indeed, Reformed spaces continue to be roiled by divergent views on the regulative principle of worship and the extent of the Second Commandment’s prohibition on image-making, and on the whole Lutherans tend to simply be more interested in doctrinal debates than artistic pursuits. In light of that fact, Fujimura’s book offers a compelling invitation to consider questions of God and art anew. Indeed, a theology of beauty like Fujimura’s may well prove best suited to speak into a cynical age longing for hope.

John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post [5], an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms [6]. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.