We rapidly come up against the problem of the utility of basic distinctions: Games are games and not art.
In recent years, the idea of “making” and lauding the “makers” has grown in prominence. At some point, seemingly everyone involved in artisan work or similar creative endeavors scrambled to adopt the title for themselves as a term of distinction, and every museum, school, and library had built a “maker space” in which children could undertake craft projects. The harsh realities of branding and marketing made this a natural turn for many. Why be a manufacturer or a software developer when you can be a maker? The trouble is that trendy concepts grow so ubiquitous that they tend to wear out their welcome; they invite cynicism about their substance.
And there is substance to be found. A look at recent events easily confirms that there is something that calls us to the work of creation. After toilet paper, craft supplies were the first section of many stores to be sold out early in the pandemic, and countless families returned to half-forgotten artistic pursuits, or immersed themselves in the practice of baking bread. Shaken out of our routines, we returned to making—and that ought to tell us something important about ourselves.
In Art and Faith, painter and writer Makoto Fujimura aims to guard us against cynicism about the practice of making, and show us the depth of this concept. He offers what he calls “a theology of making,” and suggests that viewing the world from this perspective might renew our hearts and rescue our culture from the perils of a soulless pragmatism that colonizes our thought and action.
As an artist, Fujimura offers numerous examples and analogies from his career. Those working in what are usually thought of as “creative” professions may find this aspect of his writing particularly compelling. But this is not a book narrowly aimed at artistic types: Fujimura’s theology of making is broad indeed, and he suggests that the creative element of human life is the one most essential to understanding who we are and what our purpose in life really is.
Creation and Love
Fujimura opens Art and Faith with a striking reading of Genesis centered on God’s creative work, one focused on how “God the Creator sang the creation into being,” and the ways that “Creation is more about poetic utterances of love than about industrial efficiency.” Fujimura emphasizes that God does not need His creation. We are the creations of a sovereign God who made us out of nothing, and then saved us from our sins—a gratuitous act of overflowing abundance followed by a work of unearned mercy. Made in the image of God, we in turn are endowed with creative abilities that reflect our Maker.
This sense of the gratuitousness of creation shapes how Fujimura understands human life. He views the work of human creativity as a gift we might offer back to God in gratitude, but he adds to this the notion that 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.” The new city will not be a simple garden, but a beautiful creation adorned with the products of our imagination, and that bring the unique gifts of every nation and person to its common life.
We should, therefore, understand human beings not only as reasoning or speaking beings but as making ones. Man was called to labor even before the Fall—think here of Genesis 2:15, where God put man “in the garden of Eden to work and keep it”—and our work after the Fall now serves as a path to restoration. Considering human life in these terms suggests that living well is not simply about getting right with our Creator, but that we ought to respond in gratitude for all that has been done for us. This is a high and creative calling with distinctive challenges, one defined by the “hard work” of “generative love, and it is what we are made for: to paint light into darkness, to sing in co-creation, to take flight in abundance.”
Many economists tell us that scarcity defines human life. Scarcity’s constraints force us to constantly make decisions about what matters most to us. But this is not the final word for all areas of human life. Fujimura believes that when human beings engage in acts of creativity, “we invite the abundance of God’s world into the reality of scarcity all about us.” At first glance, this might seem like a kind of fuzzy optimism disguised as serious theology.
However, while scholars debate why the miracle of the modern economy happened, it is nevertheless clear that our world’s incredible and relatively new wealth is the product not simply of new resources exploited, native populations oppressed, or simple shifts in the distribution of wealth. Fujimura certainly has critical things to say about the utilitarianism of modern economies, but he praises how the economy emerged from the creation of new value—the application of vast creativity and the invention of entirely new uses for the raw materials our planet offers. The theology of making is not simply concerned with salvation, but a new life. In the midst of our creative work, we wait in patience for a new city and a new creation.
Broken Things Made New
While that teaching is specifically Christian, Fujimura observes the ways that the creative process mirrors this logic. He frequently points to the Japanese art of kintsugi to illustrate this idea. Kintsugi is the practice of repairing broken china with epoxy containing rich materials like silver or gold so that the remade pieces “are treasured as objects that surpass their original ‘useful’ purpose and move into a realm of beauty brought on by the Kintsugi master.” More than simply repairing an object to make it useful, the practitioner of kintsugi crafts it into a practical kind of art.
Fujimura uses this image to illustrate one of his most crucial theological insights—that the new life for which Christians hope will carry with it elements of the old.
Thus, our brokenness, in light of the wounds of Christ still visible after the resurrection, can also mean that through making, by honoring the brokenness, the broken shapes can somehow be a necessary component of the New World to come. This is the most outrageous promise of the Bible… not only are we restored, we are to partake in the co-creation of the New.
Fujimura’s own traditional Japanese style of painting (nihonga) dictates that the artists themselves transform pulverized minerals into paint. That is to say, the art itself involves both destruction and remaking, something he thinks common to virtually all creative work in one way or another: “Characters of a play must be tested beyond bearing…. A dancer’s body will be broken over and over again for that one miraculous leap.” The truest art, he suggests, is that which beholds the broken and uses the power of imagination to contemplate what we might remake.
Yet what is true in artistic practice—and theologically—also holds in curious ways with economic life. Fujimura does not neglect this; he takes pains to draw attention to the ways that the high calling of making extends into our ordinary working lives. But we can extend his essential insights further than he does Art and Faith. Virtually every form of manufacture, production, and business transforms elements in our world. Works of creative entrepreneurship tend to unsettle and remake elements of the old into the new. In other words, much of the value-creating miracle that made the modern world depends on the work of making that Fujimura holds up as essential to the full realization of human personhood.
Utilitarian Reductions of Personhood
At the same time, Fujimura demonstrates a keen awareness of how the rote logic of business has colonized areas of human life that we ought to see in very different terms. He contends that the reasoning that drives much market behavior tends to distort our vision, leading us to understand our lives and works in terms of their usefulness.
Could it be that what is deemed marginal, what is “useless” in our terms, is most essential for God and is the bedrock, the essence, of our culture? Could it be that our affinity for the utilitarian pragmatism of the Industrial Revolution created a blind spot in our culture that not only overlooks great art, but if purity of expression is compromised could also lead us to reject the essence of the gospel?
This is the sort of dangerous logic that leads those of a utilitarian cast of mind to discard the seemingly weak and unproductive, or to embark upon business plans based upon exploitation or destruction.
The utilitarian and pragmatist logic of business tends to lead us to frame almost everything in terms of cash value or end results—and we can observe the ways that this magnifies the market’s sins. We ask people what they do for a living rather than what they find joy in doing or making. Many of us rate careers not on their potential for creative service to others but simply on their earning potential. And we commonly look to systems and techniques—patterns formed in industry—rather than to a spirit of creativity for inspiration in how to deal with the most significant challenges facing our companies, our governments, and even our churches. This can be an all-consuming mode of devaluing human life:
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, how we view the world, how we educate, and how we value ourselves have been all about purposeful efficiency. But such bottom-line utilitarian pragmatism has cause a split in how we view creativity and making. To what purpose, we ask, are we making? If the answer to that question is “we make to be useful,” then we will value only what is most efficient, what is practical or industrial.
Put another way, Fujimura calls us into awareness of the subtle ways that utilitarian, market logic suffuses the way we think and talk. Consider: How many stay-at-home mothers qualify telling people what they do almost as an apology? How often do we justify our leisure pursuits or creative endeavors in terms of what they provide others, or put them to commercial purpose as a “side-hustle”? And even in mission-driven institutions of faith or higher learning, we might ask how often are essentially moral or spiritual decisions made with utilitarian reasoning rather than in light of higher purposes?
But if life itself is a gratuitous gift from our Creator, Fujimura insists this must shift our perspective: “We see our existence and value only in terms of ‘fixing the world.’ The gospel of a Creator who acts out of love, not necessity, liberates us from this bondage.” He suggests that most churches fail to understand how this changes things. Where progressive churches direct their congregants’ attention “toward political and other activism,” more conservative ones “are heavy with marriage seminars, programs to share the Good News,” and other evangelistic work. Each of these tends toward what he calls a kind of “plumbing theology,” where both God and man are tasked with certain works, and the aim of faith is to just redress problems with our lives and souls.
Making a New Common Ground
By opposing the process of “fixing” to the transformative act of “making,” Fujimura suggests that neither the typical approach of progressives nor that of conservatives escapes utilitarian logic. Progressives seem to think that once the churches (and especially the state) fix the injustice in the world, we can live with a good conscience. Similarly, conservatives think that since God has done the soul-fixing work, we need to get on with bearing fruit for the kingdom. If the former sometimes lose God in their pursuit of this-worldly justice, the latter often lack all imagination in choosing what “fits” the work of evangelism. Both, Fujimura strongly implies, suffer from their failure to understand that renewal requires acts of creativity, making, and novelty.
This is a book of creative theology, so it shouldn’t surprise us that Fujimura’s suggestions about what our life together needs are often abstract—and indeed, they require something of a creative response from us. He suggests that one antidote to the tyranny of utilitarianism is to renew the idea of a gift economy operating alongside and within our market-driven one. I take this to mean that people of faith need to become far more serious about supporting creativity (and building new creative institutions) rather than the same causes and organizations they have historically gravitated toward.
This is a challenge that transcends politics in some respects, as both progressive and conservative Christians sometimes orient their gifts and their giving in light of straightforwardly utilitarian reasoning more than a spirit of gratuitous abundance. Fujimura suspects this is partly a function of the way “fix-it” theology undermines the imagination:
Much has been made in the pulpits of churches of the “spirit of the world” as a force of willful rebellion against God’s will and Creation standing against culture. Imagination and art have been seen as suspect, as human arts have been associated with the “spirit of the world”… or “flesh”… rather than the Holy Spirit.
This suggests that those who wish to foster appreciation for creativity and making must undertake a generational educational effort in their schools, churches, and the other places we gather and learn from one another. Too many of our existing educational institutions were built on explicitly utilitarian grounds and cannot be counted on in this endeavor.
One need not share Fujimura’s theology to understand a broader point in this respect: Those concerned with the direction of our culture ought not simply fund struggles against their opponents. They need to direct their energy and wealth to entirely new cultural ventures that challenge our assumptions—and that could create new social ground on which to stand.
One last point: Fujimura observes in his discussion of kintsugi that we often talk about “finding” or “rediscovering” common ground. The trouble here is that this presupposes that there is a place or position of this type just waiting to be discovered, which seems idealistic in our current cultural moment. We need cultural innovators who can imagine, and then create a new common ground upon which Americans can stand together. Fujimura’s ideas might help guide us into where to make a start.