The “theology of making” is indispensable for modern Christians: A review of “Art and Faith” by Makoto Fujimura

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The “theology of making” is indispensable for modern Christians: A review of “Art and Faith” by Makoto Fujimura

April 18, 2022 - Mark Legg

© Marco Montalti/stock.adobe.com

© Marco Montalti/stock.adobe.com

Can God redeem 9/11?

Is it possible for God to redeem something so horrific and evil?

Makoto Fujimura, who was trapped in a train while the towers crumbled above him, recalls the traumatic experience in a personal, heartfelt way. He believes that through God’s power and the work of his saints, even something as tragic as 9/11 can be reshaped into something new and beautiful.

God doesn’t just “use 9/11” for his purposes, nor does he simply fix what was broken. He can make something new.

One way people make broken things new is through art.

Makoto Fujimura crafts massive canvases of paint using ancient Japanese techniques called Nihonga. His art displays brilliant expression, using deliberately slow techniques to preserve tradition and thoughtfulness. While his artistry is lauded by the “secular” art world, he also leads much of the art world that follows Jesus and is breaking ground with insight into art from a biblical perspective. Some of his art is inspired by the traumatic experience of 9/11.

What is the “theology of making?”

In his new book, Art and Faith, Fujimura explores a new approach to creativity and artistry he calls “the theology of making.” Drawing heavily from New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, Fujimura argues that “God is not just restoring us to Eden; God is creating through us a garden, an abundant city of God’s Kingdom. What we build, design, and depict on this side of eternity matters, because in some mysterious way, those creations will become part of the future city of God.”

He believes that when we are made to be “little-a” artists through what we make, God is the “capital-A Artist.” Art, he says, comes from abundance; artists are “gratuitous.” This means they don’t always serve a utilitarian purpose. In fact, he observes that the church has adopted a pragmatic mentality in the past century, measuring success by whether things are “useful.”

He points out that God, in the beginning, creates out of love, not necessity. God came not only to fix us, not even just to restore us, but to make us something new, “a New Creation.” And that is good news indeed.

We often think of God as “fixing” us, like a plumber would fix pipes. Instead, Fujimura asks us to think about what we were created for. In other words, why do we exist to begin with? This, he says, is at the center of “making theology.” We were made to make and imitate God. While “fixing theology” is part of the Bible’s message, it is an incomplete picture.

Fixing theology might say, “Husbands, you need to stop being lazy and apathetic. Praise God, Jesus died for you, so those sins are forgiven! But you need to cut that sin out.”

Making theology could look like a husband saying, “Let’s spend time as a family painting at the dinner table, just for fun tonight! Remember, even if we mess up our painting, Jesus loves us anyway.”

We need to preach about what to live in pursuit of—beauty, truth, love, mercy, grace, art, creativity, all to God’s glory. Fujimura talks about Adam’s first task: to go on a “co-mission” with God. One of those purposes is to name the animals, an act of creativity.

Instead of just focusing on God fixing our plumbing, we need to ask, “What was the plumbing there for to begin with?”

“What did you make this week?”

He encourages Christians to ask each other coming to church, “What did you make this week?” For artists, whether natural artists or those growing into it, he says we must “give it up” to the king in humility and as a sacrifice to him. Otherwise, our art becomes an idol.

And he’s not just talking about painting or music. He’s talking about making coffee. About arranging the simple decor of a room. We “make” talking to our spouses and children. Perhaps you “made” a beautiful lawn this week by sweat and yard work. It reframes what we are doing day-to-day as “makers.” And we should ask, are we making unto God’s glory? Are we making with intentionality?

Fujimura says that artists are often cast as assaulting traditional values in the church because the church ignores the value of intuition and experience in favor of propositional truth. Consider the doctrine of the Trinity (my example, not his).

Propositional truth would be, “God is one being in three persons.” Experiential truth might refer to when the Spirit convicts us to thank the Father for Jesus’ sacrifice and further our relationship with God. There we see the experience of the Trinity. Both are critical. Experience without proposition will stray into heresy, and proposition without experience will leave us with dead faith.

While everyone should take part in “making,” some artists are called for a specific way forward. They imagine new ways, new approaches, and new expressions of experience—but not in a utilitarian way, rather, in a gratuitous way. Artists, as much as theologians, can guide our experience and understanding of truth.

Fujimura believes that we’ve lost a great deal of our witness because we estrange artists. We’ve lost a voice in the culture because we are often hostile to art, fearing that it assaults traditional values.

Have we “missed the essence of the gospel?”

Sometimes, I think Fujimura overstates this point, as when he says debating about God’s existence with reason puts us in a false dichotomy. He says, “Instead of debating, Christians ought to be involved in Making.” While his focus on reframing art and our theology into the biblical idea of “a New Creation” is immensely important, sometimes he doesn’t do an adequate job of reconciling “propositional” statements with his view of making.

He asks, “Could it be, if I may extend this thought to the extreme, that we have missed the essence of the gospel message by focusing merely on an industrial, commoditized way to convey the information of the gospel, or even to ‘sell’ the Good News in the most efficient manner prescribed by our entrepreneurial or industrial mindset?” To have faith, he says, we need “imagination,” meaning we need to extend our minds into a future hope. In this, I think he is correct.

I often see this commoditized gospel, this cultural divide of secular versus religious. Dr. Jim Denison often speaks of this “Sunday vs. Monday” mentality. Cultural Christianity means that we lose sight of God being the absolute king over every area of our lives. I too often fall into this trap, and Fujimura’s work is convicting.

Ask yourself: Are you going to church to check off a box or to deepen your relationship with Christ and connect to the Christian community?

Beauty through sacrifice

Fujimura believes that beauty and abundance come through sacrifice. Ultimately, our salvation comes through Jesus’ sacrifice, something we remember through the remembrance of the Eucharist. He points out that even in the resurrection body, Jesus bears the wounds from the cross. Through sacrifice, we become more dependent on God, and our lives become even more generous (if we submit to God).

While some reading only the first two-thirds of the book might come away with the false impression that Fujimura tends toward “elitism” (everyone has to be an expert artist with curated taste), this is not his message. Fujimura does heavily criticize our culture of hurry and efficiency, and I think rightly so. His point is that God makes all things new through our making, not that everyone must become part of a high society of art criticism.

As he aptly says, “Beauty is not cosmetic. Cosmetic beauty will not result in lasting happiness. We need to love even more through our wrinkled faces. People like Mother Teresa prove that love is the most beautiful gift. In her wrinkles, we see God’s love.”

It is in the wear and tear of life, the nitty-gritty, and even the tragedies that character and meaning come forward. He describes the beauty of kintsugi, the practice of putting back together broken pottery with gold. This does not simply repair the object; it makes it something new and even more beautiful. This is what Christ does for us.

“God invites us not to a church program (as important as those may be) but, as N . T . Wright has noted, to a meal.”

Let’s be stewards of change in our churches toward the gospel of abundance and beauty, even in suffering and difficulty.

Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus and not on efficiency.

Let’s be inviting creatives and artists into the fold and recognize their place in the family of God.

Quotes from Art and Faith

  • “What if the entire Bible is a work of art, rather than the dictates of predetermined ‘check boxes’ for us to get on God’s good side? What if we are to sing back in response to the voice of eternity echoing through our broken lives ?”
  • “Jesus’s tears are gratuitous, extravagant, and costly. My art imitates this, through the use of expensive minerals, gold, and platinum and a reliance on a slow process that fights against efficiency.”
  • “We are created to be creative, though as fallen creatures we are bound to twist these good impulses to boost our egos and cover up our insecurities, or—worse yet—create weapons of mass destruction.”
  • “The typical theological path is Creation – Fall – Redemption – Restoration. ‘Restoration’ can assume the path back to Eden. Restoring a broken world is a noble goal, and yet biblical promises go further than even that ideal. One might say that our ‘ideal’ needs to be paradigmatically shifted to the New and that our notion of the perfected state pales in comparison to the actual reality of the resurrection. A theology toward the New Creation modifies the sequence to Creation – Fall – Redemption – New Creation.”
  • “I have argued that beauty is connected to sacrifice, more than the superficial ‘look’ of how we may seem to the outside world. To give your life away, as Jesus has done, is truly the opposite of Darwinian survival.”

 

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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