A Conversation with Artist Makoto Fujimura on Beauty, Mission, and Culture Care

Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura

“Beauty is a gratuitous gift of the creator God;
it finds its source and its purpose in God’s character.
God, out of his gratuitous love,
created a world he did not need because he is an artist.”

—Makoto Fujimura in Culture Care

Throughout his celebrated career as an artist, Makoto Fujimura has been creating beauty. His luminous paintings made using the traditional Japanese nihonga technique have been featured in exhibitions around the world, including at the Dillon Gallery in New York City, the Contemporary Museum of Art in Tokyo, and Vienna’s Belvedere Museum.

He is also a committed Christian who integrates his faith into the whole of life. His vision for healthy Christian engagement within culture encourages a renewed appreciation for the vitality of the arts as a way of knowing and experiencing truth. He currently serves as Director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary. And his thoughts on culture, creativity and Christian faith were catalytic in his founding of the International Arts Movement, a global community of artists, entrepreneurs and educators that exists to be a source of healing in broken places.

We wanted to hear from Makoto about his recent book, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life (IVP, 2017). So we corresponded with him to get a sense of the possible implications of his thought for cross-cultural ministry.

The Contours of Culture Care

Eliza: Culture care is about embracing and generating beauty, but it has so many other dimensions. Could you briefly define culture care for our readers and describe ways you believe culture care creates a climate in which the gospel can thrive?

Makoto: Culture care is an act of generosity to our neighbors and culture. Culture Care is to see our world not as a battle zone in which we’re all vying for limited resources, but to see the world of abundant possibilities and promise. It’s “practicing resurrection” and a Spirit-filled life and culture.

Eliza: In Culture Care you reveal that “the reality of beauty” prompted your journey to faith and that in Christ you discovered “an integrating premise behind beauty.” Do you think Christians today underestimate the power of beauty in communicating truth?

Makoto: Yes, and the power of the mystery of God emanating in our fallen world has not been appreciated in modern churches. Beauty has been exiled and artists are marginalized as a result.

Eliza: How could a rediscovery of beauty as intrinsic to the gospel impact Christian witness?

Makoto: God is not just the source of beauty; God is Beauty. That means Beauty sits outside of time and space, breathing into our fallen world as an eternal whisper of our Maker.

“Our sense of beauty and creativity are central to what it means to be made in the image of a creative God.”

Faith Expressed Within Culture

Eliza: Christians called to cross-cultural mission often focus most of their energy and efforts on evangelism and church planting. How do you think culture care relates to these endeavors?

Makoto: We cannot do missions without culture. We cannot communicate at all without incarnating what we believe into some form of expression.

Eliza: In Culture Care you make the provocative observation that, “We cannot use the arts for evangelism or discipleship any more than we can ‘use’ a human being for utilitarian purposes.” Can you unpack this idea for us?

Makoto: Many Christians are stuck in an Industrial Revolution mindset. We create mega churches and huge church programs thinking that efficient “bottom line” thinking will advance the Good News. Such utilitarian pragmatism dehumanizes us. To grow in Christ is to be re-humanized to become fully alive, fully human.

Stalking Borders

Eliza: I love your idea that artists are mearcstapas, an Old-English term lifted from Beowulf that means “border-stalkers.” You note that artists are particularly adept at moving between various tribes within a culture in a way that engenders empathy and creates opportunities for building bridges. The concept of being a “border-stalker” resonated with me as a Christian living cross-culturally. We often move between various tribes and cultures, never feeling we fully belong to any one. Do you think there is a similarity in the experience of artists and missionaries in this sense?

Makoto: Artists, missionaries, and entrepreneurs are all mearcstapas, border-stalking the margins. We need to “go in twos” (Luke 10:1) and discover what our tribes need in terms of cultural nourishment and cultural language. Missionaries in Japan communicated Christ to me early on and I am grateful for that.

“The biblical vision for the flourishing of our lives, lived fully under God’s love, includes the beautiful.”

Eliza: Christians committed to mission must think deeply about the complex way their faith relates to culture. In your opinion, what are some of the most interesting books on the topic?

Makoto: I’d recommend

Eliza: You recently returned from a trip to Japan where you visited the site above Nagasaki where twenty-six Japanese Christians were martyred for their unswerving allegiance to Christ. Can you share some of your reflections on your experience there?

Makoto: It was a life transformative event for all who went with me. We have Windrider’s film documentary of the trip coming out soon at www.silenceandbeauty.com.

Eliza: Thank you so much for taking the time to correspond with us. Let’s close with a blessing that appears in your book: “May we stalk the borders and margins, accepting our own deputized call to carry good news to the poor.”

Makoto: Amen, and let us co-create into the feast to come.

Read more from Makoto Fujimura:

Eliza Thomas is a writer serving with IMB. She has lived with her family in Central Asia for more than a decade.