Cultivating a Beautiful Future

Written by Michael Wright
Apr 15, 2022

 All images are copyrighted to Mako Fujimura and licensed to The By/For Project under Creative Commons.

Art and Faith: A Theology of Making

A few years ago at a faith and art conference on the West Coast, I ran into an artist in the middle of campus. She was sitting alone on a bench with her shoulders slumped, as if she carried a heavy burden. As both a Christian and a practicing artist, this seemed like the perfect gathering for her, a place to drink deeply of theology and art and community. So why did she feel alone?

 She told me that back home in New York City most of her friends thought faith was a barrier to making art, something to avoid in order to pursue creative freedom. They couldn’t understand why she had faith or how it might inform the art she made. Yet here at this conference, she felt equally misunderstood where most every speaker or panel focused on art for worship services or art depicting biblical scenes. “I feel eclipsed by both communities,” she told me. She was too religious for the art world, and she was too artistic for the Church.

I’ve thought about that conversation often over the years. How exactly did she feel eclipsed? Or, to ask a more risky question, why did a Christian artist feel alienated from the church? Maybe one step toward an answer here is that we confuse worship with art in general. The artists at this conference were making liturgical art, i.e. art in the service of corporate worship, theological education, etc. This is not a bad thing—Christians have a long history of hymnody and icons and making sanctuaries beautiful in order to inspire worshipers and to glorify God. But it can alienate artists and writers and musicians and other creative people when it’s the only approach to the arts.The music of Sunday morning can be a gift, but there are so many more gifts artists want to share beyond the walls of the sanctuary. 

Or to put it another way, making and enjoying art is a gift from God to everyone, not just Christians. So when we assume art is only for us and our own worship, that’s where artists can feel stuck between worlds, forced to stifle their creativity and curiosity for subject matter, processes, and contexts that simply don’t fit the work they feel called to do. Isn’t there another approach churches can take to support artists?

 

 All images are copyrighted to Mako Fujimara and licensed to The By/For Project under Creative Commons.

Art and Faith: A Theology of Making

A few years ago at a faith and art conference on the West Coast, I ran into an artist in the middle of campus. She was sitting alone on a bench with her shoulders slumped, as if she carried a heavy burden. As both a Christian and a practicing artist, this seemed like the perfect gathering for her, a place to drink deeply of theology and art and community. So why did she feel alone?

 She told me that back home in New York City most of her friends thought faith was a barrier to making art, something to avoid in order to pursue creative freedom. They couldn’t understand why she had faith or how it might inform the art she made. Yet here at this conference, she felt equally misunderstood where most every speaker or panel focused on art for worship services or art depicting biblical scenes. “I feel eclipsed by both communities,” she told me. She was too religious for the art world, and she was too artistic for the Church.

I’ve thought about that conversation often over the years. How exactly did she feel eclipsed? Or, to ask a more risky question, why did a Christian artist feel alienated from the church? Maybe one step toward an answer here is that we confuse worship with art in general. The artists at this conference were making liturgical art, i.e. art in the service of corporate worship, theological education, etc. This is not a bad thing—Christians have a long history of hymnody and icons and making sanctuaries beautiful in order to inspire worshipers and to glorify God. But it can alienate artists and writers and musicians and other creative people when it’s the only approach to the arts.The music of Sunday morning can be a gift, but there are so many more gifts artists want to share beyond the walls of the sanctuary. 

Or to put it another way, making and enjoying art is a gift from God to everyone, not just Christians. So when we assume art is only for us and our own worship, that’s where artists can feel stuck between worlds, forced to stifle their creativity and curiosity for subject matter, processes, and contexts that simply don’t fit the work they feel called to do. Isn’t there another approach churches can take to support artists?

 

The music of Sunday morning can be a gift, but there are so many more gifts artists want to share beyond the walls of the sanctuary.

These are the kinds of questions the artist and writer Mako Fujimura has been asking for decades. I first learned of Mako from his book Culture Care, a series of reflections on art and faith that came from his time living and working in New York City during 9/11. What is the role of the arts in a world fractured by suffering and violence? For this painter steeped in a history of contemplative Japanese painting traditions, keeping the arts within the four walls of the church building wasn’t enough. Instead, art and faith could be twin tools of cultivation in a world all too ready to draw battlelines. This is his vision of culture care: to transform the “culture wars” into an invitation to cultivate goodness, truth, and beauty. Culture care is about tending to culture in the same way that God tends to creation itself: with care.

Now, decades later, Mako explores these same questions in Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, a book that expands and deepens his holistic vision of the arts and the church. It’s a poetic book, and, like his paintings, Mako invites readers to slow down so that the wisdom emerges from the page. In it, he argues that the reason why artists feel stuck between the gap of art worlds and churches is a rational way of thinking about theology and art: we are trapped by “utilitarian pragmatism” and an obsession with usefulness and fixing problems. This goes deeper than just building maintenance—it’s a way of thinking about God and Christian community, a “plumbing theology” where the purpose of the Christian life is to solve the problem of sin through tidy theological formulas. When this way of thinking encounters art, it’s almost inevitable that our first question is “how can we use this art for our own needs?”

Let me give you another example. I know of a recent Christian student group that took a trip to a local Minneapolis museum. It’s one of the largest in the city, and it’s filled with vibrant and diverse art from around the world. On this field trip, they skipped most of the museum, went to a single room displaying Christian art, and then left. What a tragedy! Yes, looking at icons can remind us of a deep history of faith, help us meditate on the mysteries of the gospel, and even entice us into prayer. But did God not also create every other artist whose work hangs on the walls? Isn’t learning about all the diverse histories and cultures and artworks of the world a way to honor God by loving the larger human community? In our utilitarian and pragmatic assumptions about art, we can miss God’s wider Creation and the dignity of all types of people and art within it. That’s plumbing theology.

A more generous approach to the arts has to begin much earlier than looking at the final artwork and wondering what art can do for us. That’s where Mako explores his central thesis: a theology of making. Instead of starting with doctrinal theology or worship (which are indeed important), a theology of making begins further upstream at the place where all artworks originate: creativity and intuition and imagination. In other words, the postures artists take while they create can itself be an approach to faith. The Word was made flesh—not the Word was made into more words and ideas. This is a kind of making that artists and theologians share.

In other words, Mako is trying to name the limits of theo-logos (words about God) and exploring the possibility of theo-poetics (discovering God through what we create). With this line of thinking, the studio itself can be a place where prayer and creative work can happen simultaneously as artists explore materials and their bodies and imagination. The artist studio can be a place that “opens new doors of theological illumination.” He continues:

“I consider what I do in the studio to be theological work as much as aesthetic work. I 

experience God, my Maker, in the studio. I am immersed in the art of creating, and I 

have come to understand this dimension of life as the most profound way of grasping 

human experience and the nature of our existence in the world.”

Instead of viewing paintings and sculptures and films and books as isolated cultural artifacts, Mako is inviting us to go upstream to where art emerges, to the “somatic knowledge” that emerges from creativity and making things and exploring the world through the disciplines of the artist. The final result—the painting, the song, the poem—is not an isolated object. Rather, it’s the result of a deep and prayerful engagement with artists and their creative process. This, too, can be an act of faithfulness, even worship.

This is his vision of culture care: to transform the “culture wars” into an invitation to cultivate goodness, truth, and beauty.

  Now there’s an important caveat here. While every human being is made in the image of God and creative in the most general sense, not everyone is called to be professional artists. Not everyone makes paintings or songs or films. This is a good thing. There’s a larger invitation here for the whole Body of Christ: some people will make paintings, others will admire them. Some people will write songs, others will sing them. Trying to make everyone into a capital A-Artist also limits the diverse ways we all can be faithful to God in our lives. A theology of making isn’t the role of one person; it emerges from a community of people responding with embodied hospitality to the objectifying and dehumanizing currents of culture. “Caring and loving are the fundamental elements of the act of making,” he says. “Love demands creativity; love draws out our call to make. Love is the language of the Holy Spirit; and through love, the Spirit guides us.” A theology of making, then, includes both artists making art and the wider community of support making room for their work. 

At its core, this more relational approach to the arts de-centers our own expectations and needs and instead invites us to join in with what God is already doing in the lives of artists themselves. This is a distinctly missiological vision. Or as the missiologist Amos Yong said in an interview with Fuller Studio,

Hospitality is about being guests. That’s challenging on a number of fronts. It challenges us to not be in charge, it challenges us to go, but more than that it challenges us to go in ways that make others comfortable about inviting us, hosting us. And then it challenges us finally to now enter into those spaces as appropriate guests.

In other words, a missiological approach to the arts is less about being in charge and pulling the arts into the church but instead risking new friendships and looking for where God is already at work in the lives of artists. This is an invitation to be guests of the artists themselves, trusting that as we’re invited into their studios and lives that God is already at work shaping the world toward goodness, beauty, and truth. As one artist told me, “my studio is my cathedral.” If that’s true, let’s join them there, and see what happens when we look for God together. What would happen to our larger culture if we started with this kind of generous love? What would happen if a Christian vision for the arts started with making tea and making friends? What might this approach tangibly look like?

“Caring and loving are the fundamental elements of the act of making,”