Tag Archives: culture

Book Review: Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, by Makoto Fujimura

Silence and BeautyWith a mix of exposition, critique, biography, and memoir, Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering wrestles with Shusako Endo’s 1969 novel, Silence, providing empathetic insight into the past, present, and hopeful future of Japanese culture. Though many may disagree with and even criticize both Endo’s and Fujimura’s theological perspectives regarding Catholicism and authentic Christian faith in Japan both past and present, one need neither agree nor disagree in order to benefit from taking this journey with Fujimura. Yes, there may be times when one questions the validity of arguments and perspectives expressed in Silence and Beauty, but the reality of shumi-e culture still exists in varied forms, and Fujimura encourages us to see both tragedy and beauty in the brokenness. One may be left with more questions in the end, but they are questions worth asking and wrestling with.

For those who have not yet read Endo’s novel, Fujimura provides a synopsis at the end of the book (Appendix 3). There’s also a glossary of Japanese terms and definitions since they are not all defined in the text. I recommend reading all three appendices and the glossary before taking the journey. This will only take a few minutes and will serve you well.

Further resources may be found at silenceandbeauty.com.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from InterVarsity Press via NetGalley.

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Book Review: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, by Kenneth E. Bailey

Jesus Through Middle Eastern EyesKenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels is a treasure trove of cultural insights on the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ. Bailey pulls together writings, traditions, and perspectives both ancient and contemporary to help us better understand Scripture. Though it is written more for the academic, I would recommend this to anyone wanting a deeper understanding of Scripture. He writes that neither separating “the exact words of Jesus from the careful editing of the Gospel authors” nor authoring a “full-fledged technical commentary” are purposes of this book (20); rather, “My intent is to contribute new perspectives from the Eastern tradition that have rarely, if ever, been considered outside the Arabic-speaking Christian world” (21).

The book is presented in six parts, each worth the reader’s time and energy:

  1. The Birth of Jesus
  2. The Beatitudes
  3. The Lord’s Prayer
  4. Dramatic Actions of Jesus
  5. Jesus and Women
  6. Parables of Jesus

Most people I know read the Bible solely from a Western tradition and perspective heavily influenced by the Enlightenment period, completely unaware of over a millennium’s worth of culture and writings predating those views that have been virtually ignored, often intentionally. Many thanks to Bailey for making some of this more accessible and bringing these things to light.

Book Review: Culture Care, by Makoto Fujimura

Culture CareI’m proud to have been a part of the Kickstarter effort to launch Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care. This is a much-needed work for artists of all kinds to encourage, facilitate, and bring about a beautiful, healthy, and generative culture. Though artists in the typical sense of the word will find it especially insightful and motivating, Fujimura here expands the definition of an artist to the creativity found within us all as image bearers of our creator, thereby necessarily including businessmen, janitors, and all walks of life as equal participants in the cultivation of culture’s soil.

Mako powerfully and explicitly states, “I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective” (65). We create because it’s who we are, and we glorify God in all we do. In a commercially driven society that creates a thing and then the soon-to-follow “Christian” version of the thing, we’re all too sucked into marketing in a sacred vs. secular divide. A painting does not need to contain a cross to be “Christian,” nor a song mention any part of the gospel to be called the same; in fact, we don’t even need this adjectival language! If it glorifies God, it is beautiful and that for which we strive in caring of and for culture through creativity and artistic expression. When left in the hands of commercialization, art becomes something else, a mere commodity that is cheapened on so many levels. When “gifted” to the world for the sake of others—for the sake of glorifying God—then artists (of all kinds) will do more than fill an order, get a check to pay a bill, or simply please a customer: they rightfully care for their culture.

Weaving scripture throughout the text, Mako does anything but ignore our rooting in Christ as the motivation for Culture Care (both as title and concept), but writes and argues in such a way that should be convincing and convicting for believers and nonbelievers alike in working toward better cultivation. Though nowhere stated as a goal and purpose of the work, I see many artists discovering a window into our creator, the author of their gifts and talents, through Culture Care. I highly recommend it for all formal artists, those desiring such, and those who simply want to better understand how they are or are not positively, creatively, and lastingly impacting their culture.

Thanks for this one, Mako. It’s pulling me back into my artistic roots, and with healthy motivation. Blessings to you and yours on the farm—keep digging and cultivating all types of soil.

Scattergories™, Bible Students, and Really?

If you’re not familiar with Scattegories™, it’s a fun little game wherein all players have a common list of descriptions, a die is rolled to choose a letter of the English alphabet, and within an amount of time (determined by the provided device) all players must write a word that begins with the given letter and matches each description. Those who come up with an appropriate word that does not match that of another player get a point. When everyone tires of rolling the die for subsequent rounds (or needs to get back to work), the person with the most points wins. Unlike SCRABBLE®, wherein any word may be challenged with the simple use of a dictionary, a group’s determinant of the appropriateness of a given word, thus being legit, lies within the realm of reason—or compassion. Some may consider this in more objective terms than others, but it’s a game, and therefore subject to the subjectivity of its players.

Yesterday some students at a local Bible college were playing a game of Scattergories™ between campus activities. I happened to be in the immediate vicinity and overheard part of the game. While comparing their answers at the end of a round, one particular student offered, “knuckle sandwich.” This spawned immediate controversy. Seeing that the first word is used adjectively, it is not the thing itself, and reason, it would seem, dictates that it would have scored with the roll of an S, which was not rolled. Part of the student’s argument included the rule that an answer with multiple words beginning with the same letter is awarded multiple points (e.g., steak salad), and since the first word in these circumstances is not necessarily the thing itself, it was argued that the first word in the given answer began correctly and should be awarded a point. In the end, logic lost and compassion conquered: a point was awarded. (The letter rolled was N—#fail on two counts.) This gesture, however, did not shock me. Though many of us within the church are often sticklers for rules, even in times of fun, I’ve come to appreciate many students at this (intentionally unnamed) school for their compassion. They must adhere to so much rule and regulation on campus and in their Bible classes that they are often much more compassionate, gracious, and forgiving toward one another.

It’s the next answer that piqued my concern.

“Found in amusement parks,” was the next description in the round. Again, the students took turns giving answers. This time the student above answered, “Niggers.” What followed was a strange mix of shock, amusement, giggles, and dismay. Seeing that the answer was about to be unanimously shot down (on several grounds), the student announced, “They can be found there!” There was some verbal shuffling, but the possibility was quickly conceded and a point awarded. I could tell not all were satisfied with the democratic consensus, but it was obvious no one wanted to push the discomfort any further. So, trying to be fatherly rather than authoritative, I chimed in with a series of questions, hoping to spark a bit of conversation and reasoning on their own behalf as to other reasons why one might (should) not provide such an answer to anything similar. “Can you guarantee they may be found at all amusement parks? Can you guarantee your safety after using the word at said amusement parks? Can you guarantee your safety after calling anyone that?” Of course, my concern and implication was not and is not primarily one of safety, but I hoped to get others talking. Perhaps someone would offer that they don’t exist—that the label and idea should be so dead to us as to not be a part of our language? The response I got was, “I’d never say that word!” My response, “You just did,” was met with awkward, dismissive laughter and the continuation of the game. One student in particular maintained a demeanor of disturbance, but again, compassion (fear or avoidance?) prevailed…or failed miserably, as the case may be.

This is tough stuff. Tender hearted Bible students, all in their late teens to early twenties, playing a game and not knowing what to do with offensive language in the absence of those referenced and presence of perceived authority: What to do? What to say? Perhaps, in their minds, it wasn’t one of their own culturally offensive curse words for which they’d be reprimanded by the campus powers that be? There’s much we could discuss here in the way of appropriate action, discipline, and the like. I’m often seen more as a friend, brother, father, and/or mentor around here, but I have no official authority over them other than that which they themselves give me. So, I don’t think this would have been an issue if a member of the faculty or staff had been present—it wouldn’t have happened—but what if it had? What would you have done? What do you think the consequence(s) of your action would have had on the student(s)? Would it remedy, educate, perpetuate, or maybe even infuriate? Would it be a response or reaction? I’ll let you consider that. My mind went elsewhere.

I believe this is indicative of a deeper problem with education. I’m not sure where and at what point it begins with any given person, but at some point we learn to disconnect ourselves from our words and actions so as to claim deniability of any wrong doing. “I am not the thing. The thing is the thing. There it is, all on its own. I just put it there.” As it goes, the disconnect inevitably breaks down, but not all can see it. “I just put it there,” or some similar sentiment, brings personal involvement back into the equation. We are responsible. We must be responsible. For those of us in the Kingdom of God, we should consider ourselves to have even fewer (perceived) claims of deniability, for all we do must be seen through the lens of glorifying God and furthering the Kingdom through our mutual expression of love, in Christ, as guided by the Spirit.

This idea of deniability is, perhaps, most prevalent in our “it’s just business” mentality, wherein anything goes in the name of profit margins and efficiency with little regard for what is actually honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise in the eyes of our Lord. For those of us in the USA, wherein companies are, for all intents and purposes, treated as people and not just the “things” we claim them to be, it has become even easier to deny the part we play in the actions of the company “person.” We’re often guilty of talking out of both sides of our mouth when someone claims a company “person” is evil when we respond with something like, “The company is amoral, a mere systematic entity with no sense of right or wrong.” We quickly bring relativity into our definitions to suit our selfish needs—anything to promote deniability and the absence of responsibility. Lawsuits are so commonplace and often our initial response to any perceived wrongdoing, so we must find ways to say, “It was the company, not me. Sue the company, not me.” The company can die and the individual walk away clean—so clean that the same individual or group thereof may birth another company the next day.

So, what was going on in the mind of this student? I don’t know, but I’m going to speculate for the sake of my argument. (I’m allowed to do that because I’m the one writing!) Perhaps there was a sense of deniability because it’s “just a word,” “just a game,” or “technically valid” (we’ll get to that). Obviously, “I’d never say that word!” implies the student knows it’s not acceptable and ought not be used, that there is some stigma with the word and those who use it, but to what degree is apparently uncertain. For some, it’s okay to use it in “innocent fun” (really?) but not in “real life” (what’s not “real life?”). We sometimes place ourselves in these “hypothetical realities” for periods of time in order to get away with something we would otherwise abhor, all the while remaining in our present reality. Again, we disassociate ourselves from the thing. But we still have yet to address the deeper issue.

The more we practice deniability and our disassociation with the thing, the easier it becomes to dehumanize another person—to consider him or her (just) the thing. It becomes even easier to disassociate ourselves from the thing and the person if we begin with dehumanization. Once that happens, it becomes easier to talk about the thing about the thing (Get it?) without remorse. With respect to the student and word in question, we can only use the word “nigger” in reference to others if we believe the thing exists—even hypothetically. Once we bring one’s human dignity back into the picture—re-associate the person with the thing—we must see that this particular thing does not exist, therefore denying and ceasing the use of the thing. (Others may argue a particular people group may use the word and others may not, but I still do not find this to be God-honoring, even from a cultural perspective. I, and others much more influential than myself, say, “Change the culture.”) In the aforementioned game, the word was used because it was believed to exist—that was the argument made and the reason for the award. So, at some point there was a failure to communicate to this (these) student(s) the fullness of humanity and the purpose for which we were all made as the image of God.

Who or what is at fault? I don’t know, and we don’t need to know. Let us instead move from this point forward in lovingly educating and encouraging our youth (at the earliest age of understanding) and one another in the ways of humanity, accepting responsibility, and being the image we were created to be. Let us not wholly place the blame on the company—the collective; let us impart just, individual responsibility as participants within the whole. Let us not make a case for separating ourselves from the thing (or the thing from the thing); let us see the thing, one another, and ourselves through the eyes of Christ. We are a community, the body of Christ, individually and collectively citizens of the Kingdom of God. Let us show one another the same grace, mercy, loving admonishment, and forgiveness toward one another that is shown to us by our God.

 

 

Scattergories™ and SCRABBLE® are trademarks of Hasbro, Inc., with which I have no affiliation. Don’t sue me.

Book Review: Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture by Makoto Fujimura

RefractionsIf you don’t know Makoto Fujimura, you should. Until recently, I didn’t even know of his existence; however, that all changed when a fellow scholar, art enthusiast, and friend, Jeremy McGinniss, invited me to join him and his students to a joint art lecture/presentation of “Qu4rtets” by painters Makoto Fujimura and Bruce Herman. It was a small, intimate setting, rather informal, and quite open to dialogue—not just Q&A. I felt an immediate connection to Fujimura as he spoke of culture and the Kingdom of God at one point and another as he described spending a long time with a painting until you begin to “see” and “under-stand” it—things that may escape casual viewing. Afterward, Fujimura and I had a couple conversations on things like visio divina, spiritual formation, and the connection between jazz and theology. It was then that I picked up Refractions in hopes that I may find it useful for students in The Jacob Institute of Christian Spiritual Formation’s Spiritual Formation Academy, founded by my good friend Jamie Overholser and for which I have been assisting in recent months and am looking to soon create a new course or two. That night I “Googled” Fujimura and discovered much more of his art and organizations of which he is a part or founded to further his passions. I recommend you do the same. Many thanks to Mako for his time, passion for art & culture, and foremost passion for “Jesus Christ, the Author of Creativity” as we journey toward shalom.

 

Now, on to the actual (short) review:

Fujimura paints with crushed minerals, which refract light differently than typically used inks, oils, and acrylics and age in such a way that change the way paintings look over time. Refractions is a collection of twenty-three essays spanning the course of several years, reflecting through his writing the same kind of refracting found in his painting. However, much more than painting or writing, Fujimura explains that “Refractions is . . . a whole underlying philosophical framework for creativity and life that I’ve been developing. I now realize I have been unconsciously expanding this theoretical and theological grid as I wrote these essays, not only to describe the creative process, but also to develop a communication style suited for my temperament and to advocate for community vision for the church to honor artists, and even to argue for democratic ideals” (167). Fujimura’s passions and concerns for how faith, art, and culture work together and speak into one another are evident in every essay, but even if it stopped at the first two I’d want this book on my shelf and recommend it to others. This is not a book about Fujimura’s paintings; it’s a book about experience and encouragement written with eloquence and conviction, using his own paintings for context only when necessary.

Living only three blocks from “Ground Zero” of the September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks in New York City, several of Fujimura’s essays stem from the artistic and cultural aftermath thereof, but that of which he writes transcends those experiences and offers itself to further context and application, making such essays accessible to those who may not share the same contextual experiences. Of course, this goes for his time in Japan, China, and everything else of which he writes, taking the reader on a journey, and after having reached the shore gently pushing him or her off to continue the journey, all in the larger context of living out our faith in Jesus Christ. For those who share our faith and have any interest in art and culture, read this book. It will encourage and inspire.