The 2005 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
Today’s young people are awash in a sea of brand logos, movies, advertisements, and pop-culture icons. These forces shape them to be consumers. In the midst of the noise, the Church is called to immerse young people in the waters of their baptism, unleashing the creative power of the Holy Spirit who has called them by name and commissioned them to “go into all the world.” Christ calls young people (all people, really) to share the Gospel with their God given creative abilities.
The theme for the 2012 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture is “Create”. The lecturers include an artist, New Testament scholar, professor of communications, theologian, and film studies expert. Each lecturer contributes their expertise to a conversation about the Creator, creation, creativity and the creative potential of young people as builders of the Kingdom of God. They tackle questions such as, “What does it mean to understand God as Creator, and what does it mean to be made in God’s image?” “How does the increasing influence of the entertainment industry communicate values to young people, and how should we respond?” “How might aesthetics and artistic expression grow and deepen ministry with youth?” We hope the insights offered in each lecture will fuel your own creativity and strengthen you for ministry.
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary
- Cecilia González-Andrieu
Taking Back the Aesthetic
- Makoto Fujimura
- Marianne Meye Thompson
Made and Making in God’s Image: Biblical Reflections on the Creator, Creation, and Creating
- William D. Romanowski
Gotta Cut Loose: Youth Culture and Entertainment Media
Off to See the Wizard: Cinema and Salvation, American Style
- Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: The Dark Side of Beauty
The following lecture is a transposition.Paintings from ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
It’s wonderful to be here. I am a new resident of the Princeton area. We lived in New York City for over 15 years and raised our children there. We just bought a farmhouse nearby, which has been quite a change from living in downtown Manhattan. My wife is a psychotherapist (www.judycares.com) and I have been and continue to be part of the church planting movement of Redeemer Church in Manhattan. We have always been interested in this area, as my wife is from south Jersey and I am from north Jersey. I was born in Boston and went to grade school in Japan. I then went to middle school and high school in New Providence, New Jersey. I attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where I met my wife, and then returned to Japan to complete six and a half years of study in a very traditional lineage program called nihonga. Nihonga is translated “Japanese-style painting,” which traces back to beyond the year 1100. I call Nihonga “slow art” because it involves grinding up pigments and making your own paint, then working in multiple layers on paper and silk.
I want to first invite you to my studio by showing you a video that was created for my latest project. I was somewhat sequestered for a year and a half working to illumine the four Holy Gospels for the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible. I received the commission from Crossway Publishing’s president, Lane Dennis. When he called to discuss the commissioning with me, he told me I would be working on the project in my own style with full artistic freedom and then added, “By the way, there has not been a commission to a single artist to do this in 400 years.” The project was so incredibly daunting, as it was quite a task to soak myself in the 400-year gap. This video was created to explain the process of how I work. You will see me grinding up malachite, then using a mixture of azurite and malachite in high glue spread over paper. You will see me starting one of the five major pieces for the commission. There are the five very large paintings as well as eighty-nine letters for the first letter of each chapter and 149 pages of illuminations. It took me two years to even come close to completing the project.page 2
You will see four people in the video. One is Susie Ibarra, my dear collaborator who
keeps pushing me up on stage, including Carnegie Hall. This summer we will be doing a
River to River Festival in New York City. Another person is Alissa Wilkinson. She is a
young scholar and critic who teaches at The King’s College. Her comments relate visual art
and Protestant thinking. Third is Tony Carnes, a sociology professor at Columbia, who will
talk about the sociological dimensions. Last but not least is Vallerie Dillon, the owner
of Dillon Gallery in Chelsea who discovered me in New York and made my career what it is.
Please take a listen.
Video Link: http://www.makotofujimura.com/four-holy-gospels/
During the last year, the project traveled throughout the United States, then to Japan as they have been going through this horrific time in the aftermath of 3/11. Tomorrow I will go to Yale to discuss the next phase of this exhibit, which will be ready early next year. The project continues to travel. I feel as though I fell into a rabbit hole where I had to deal with some of the discrepancies and fragmentations that our culture has possessed for the past century, beginning with the Enlightenment.
You heard in an earlier lecture about St. John’s Bible, which is a wonderful collaboration among illustrators, artists, and calligraphers, including Donald Jackson. We were on stage together at Union Theological Seminary. I was very envious of them because a task like this is one (to illuminate the Bible) is one that should not be undertaken alone. It needs to be done in a communal setting because the battle you are dealing with is spiritual and artistic. The materials involved require a set of skills beyond those an individual possesses. Traditionally, illuminated manuscripts have been done in the context of community and in the context of theological synthesis. I will go through these images fairly quickly, though I could do a full presentation on the project. I want to have time to touch on cultural issues since you are dealing, with the culture at large, particularly youth. I am a father of three children—the younger two are in college and the older one made this film, so he is already doing a lot of this culture work as well.
There are two versions of this Bible of the Four Holy Gospels. One is the leather version and the other is a cloth cover. Both are presentation size, and the cloth version has embedded gold and vermilion, which I love. The Reverend Greg Brewer, a good friend of mine, has just been consecrated to be the bishop of central Florida in the Episcopal church. I am still blown away that a guy I had coffee with every month is now the bishop of central Florida. He was kind enough to use my work in his procession when he was consecrated. I was so moved by his generosity in honoring me by using the Four Holy Gospels. It occurred to me when I witnessed the presentation of the Bible in the procession that many creative artist types in your milieu, your congregations, are not aware of how divorced from congregational life we are in general as artists, creative types, dancers. Musicians have it a little better in the church, but your typical artist walking into a church, or even a para-church setting, is intuiting immediately something that is not hospitable to their own personality and creativity. So, like me, they will usually sit in the back or in the balcony, as I do at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which has grown to be so large. Sometimes I feel that I am not an integral part of it, that I don’t want to be there with so many people around. Artists are like that. They dwell in the margins; they sit in the back. They may even look menacing because they are uncomfortable. But when Greg walked to the front of church with this Bible, I felt a deep sense of relief, that there is a place for an artist. I was so happy to be present for him personally as a friend, but it meant more than that. It was an affirmation, “Yes, you do belong here in this important place and time for the church.” I realize once again that this project, this rabbit hole that I fell into, was so much more than just my working on a project to completion and my own satisfaction; it has ramifications for general culture, and ramifications for the church in particular.page 3
The exhibit stopped at MOBIA, Museum of Biblical Art, in Columbus Circle in New York City. The museum is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to wrestle deeply with visual arts and their historical precedents with biblical matters. They do a wonderful job, and the exhibit was there for the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible last year. The exhibit, titled On Eagle’s Wings, is in front of the library of the American Bible Society, which holds some of the most important collections of the tradition, from the King James to Gutenberg to medieval illuminated manuscripts. It was a privilege for me to be in the backdrop of this because when I came to New York in 1992, one of the first places I visited was the American Bible Society to look at the collections. Dr. Lupas, the curator for the recent exhibit, showed me around for two hours so that I could see the many manuscripts. It meant so much to me to see these masterpieces of Western art combined with biblical texts, made with essentially the same materials that I use in my own work. There is an immediate intuitive connection through materials that spans East and West. It was a joy.
I will now show you individual pieces of work. I told you earlier that I was very daunted by this project. Any project like this commission is daunting because you are dealing with several things. It is not just about your expression but about the purpose for which the commission was created. You want to serve whatever context that provides, whether it be space or purpose or intent of the person commissioning you. You think about everything and try to assimilate and intuit many variables. It was bad enough that there are no contemporary precedents, though there have been notable exceptions like the St. John’s efforts, or William Blake in the nineteenth century, or Barry Moser who did some wonderful woodcuts illustrating biblical texts. Mine was an effort to come up with some kind of visual theology. The reality is that there is no visual language that is a theological match to the theology of the Bible. I am a follower of Christ, and I understand certain ways and certain paths in order to understand the gospel. As Valerie Dillon said in the video, this made my journey more daunting. I was prepared for this by my training in Japan and my coming to faith there, then my assimilating my new faith into the contemporary art setting in New York City and worldwide.
I have been very privileged to be able to make a living as an artist, to support my family as an artist, to be able to pursue what I love in the realm of the art world. This project explicitly brought out my faith. There was no visual language on which I could rest or build upon, but I realized that both the Japanese and American traditions, especially the twentieth century and abstraction, have a lot to do with spiritual longings of artists in the post-atomic age in which photography, videos, and film have taken over the role of depiction. Art of the twentieth century has become more about the inner-scape, as one artist would call it. There is a landscape within that is more metaphysical, more spiritual. Artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning have dealt with the reality of wanting to describe something deeper using the language of abstraction.page 4
I have also been overlapping the language of abstraction in my work, particularly this one called “Charis-Kairos” (Grace Time). It is also called “The Tears of Christ.”
When I take on any project, I attempt to narrow the scope enough by creating rules for myself, which I then try to break. For this project, I needed confined, focused parameters to avoid getting lost. I was so daunted that I chose John 11:35, the shortest verse in the entire Bible: “Jesus wept.” I have been meditating on “Jesus wept” for four lenten seasons, and I cannot seem to get out of John 11. I recently spoke at Biola University’s chapel about the story of Lazarus in John 12. There, again, is a deep mystery that opens up to me. “Jesus wept” is the most profound and perhaps the most important verse for my work and my life.
The story of Lazarus describes the family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. Jesus comes to Bethany to show forth God’s glory through resurrection. After he had told his disciples and Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he comes to Mary and she is angry and weeping. She cannot understand why he arrived so late. And instead of explaining why he was late, as he did to Martha, Jesus remained silent. And Jesus wept.page 5
I pause to ask you, “Why?”
Why did he weep? If God gave me the power to go back to 9/11, or to go back to 3/11, to go back to all of the atrocities of the twentieth century and wipe them away, I would use that power. If God told me, “You show my power, show my glory; go back and make it right,” I would use that power immediately. Jesus could have done that. He could have gone to the tomb, dragging Mary along, and said, “Why are you so worried and upset with me? Don’t you believe in me? I have the power!” But Jesus doesn’t do that. He pauses, stands, and weeps with Mary. He wastes time. There is no utilitarian pragmatism to his weeping. There is no reason. He does not need to do this. So why?
It is in that place, that place of mystery and discovery of something we do not fully understand yet, that is the place where the artists dwell. I’m not talking about only Christian artists. I’m talking about all artists: poets, dancers, playwrights, actors. They all have an intuitive longing for mystery, for non-utilitarian space where art is utterly useless. It is because it is useless that it is utterly indispensable to humanity. Art cannot be explained away. Art can be ephemeral, like tears that disappear, and yet because they are ephemeral they can also be permanent. Think about this. “Jesus wept.” His tears went into the ground, into the hardened soil of Bethany, and then evaporated. You and I, right now, are breathing those tears. They are still with us. On 3/11 in the tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed, 22,000 people lost their lives. Since then there have been 50,000 suicidal deaths in Japan. We have lost more people to despair than to the tsunami itself. Do people need a rational reason? Do they need us to explain, “No, no, no. You don’t understand. God is at work. I have good news for you.” Or do they need tears? Art fundamentally brings that liminal space, liminal experience, the mystery of our being, to the very place where we weep, where we laugh, where we celebrate our humanity. That is why art is necessary.
For this series of paintings, I imagined myself collecting, probably like Mary did in her heart, the tears of Jesus. I imagine Mary thinking about Jesus’s tears. In that time and tradition, tears were so valuable they had jars for tears. I imagine that Mary understood how valuable Jesus’s tears were. His tears were tears shed for humanity, but his tears were also shed for her. They were a sign of his friendship with an angry, discouraged woman. How much she needed those tears. Looking at her response later, she brought the alabaster jar that she meant to save for her wedding day, the most important possession she had, and broke it open. She transgressed against the cultural reality with the male disciples surrounding her because there was no doubt in her mind that it was the only thing she could do. Imagine the horror of the disciples because they knew the only time this should be allowed, the only time they should smell this aroma, was on the wedding day. Mary’s extravagant gift, like my pigments, was expensive. Gold and silver and silk are expensive materials. People ask, “Isn’t that wasteful, what you do? Shouldn’t you be feeding the poor instead of buying gold?” Jesus responds to Mary, who broke open her jar and wasted expensive perfume, by commanding his disciples to leave her alone. He says, “She has done a beautiful thing to me. And wherever the gospel is preached, what she has done will also be told.” I think about those words as I pour my pigments onto a very expensive paper, as you saw me do on the video. These paper-makers are dying in Japan. They are 80-year-old craftsmen who have been working for many years. I have been saving up paper that was made ten years ago and was privileged to be able to use it for this. This was the final painting that I ended up with after the first pouring of expensive malachite:page 6
This frontispiece for Matthew is called, Consider the Lilies. I am pointing particularly at Matthew 6, which is a very important passage for me. Do not be anxious about what you wear, or what you drink. Do not be anxious about how you’re going to support your family as an artist. My son Ty’s middle name is Matthew because he literally answered my prayers. I had prayed, “God, if you want me to have a child, I don’t know how I will do this. If it’s humanly possible to be an artist, to be a Christian, to support my family, if you want me to, I am willing.” Taylor Matthew, then Clayton Jesse, then Lydia Mary. Three children. It is amazing what God has done, and I think about the lilies.
Emily Dickinson once said, “Considering the lilies of the field was the only commandment I never broke.” I feel like Emily at times, prone to go in between, in liminal space like a humming-bird—Emily’s hummingdash- bird—stitching my way in and out of the experience of life, not knowing if anyone will read my poems. Emily’s poems were like recipes for her, written in the same handwritten style as the recipes that she gave away with cultivated flowers and her poems written on the back. Very few of those poems were kept. She had no idea that many years later, there would be an anthology of her works. She didn’t know if anyone was going to read them. She stitched them together in what we now call fascicles, created a chest, and buried them beneath her deathbed as she lay dying. She didn’t tell anyone they were there. Her sister, Lavinia, discovered them later and was astonished to find 800 of Emily’s poems under the bed.page 7
This next painting is the frontispiece for Mark called Water Flames. It is made with layers and layers of Japanese vermillion, with platinum and gold mixed in. It is difficult to tell on screen, but if you are able to see the actual painting, once your eye is accustomed to it, you will see 60 layers that are like flames. As I said on the video, I wanted to consider the flame as I grappled with the 9/11 flames, trying to somehow find Jesus through Ground Zero. Flames of destruction turned into flames of sanctification. My imaginative journey has always been in and out of the Ground Zero conditions of our lives, which all of us have. It may not be a public catastrophic event like 9/11 or 3/11, but it could be personal and private, deeply imbedded in our lives, events we simply do not know what to do with.
Flames. Twentieth century metaphysical language of people like Mark Rothko demonstrates such despair. You can see this at his chapel in Houston or in any of his paintings, whether in the National Gallery or in the Phillips, in Washington, D.C. or New York or London. You stand in front of his deep anguish. I want so much to turn that into a proper way of grieving and lamenting with culture while at the same time imbuing that with hope. That is what this painting is about.page 8
The painting for Luke is called Prodigal God. I stole that title from my pastor, Tim Keller’s book Prodigal God. Whenever he preaches on the famous story of the prodigal, he doesn’t refer to the son as the prodigal. He talks about the prodigal father, explaining that the word “prodigal” in Shakespearian times was a good word. To be a prodigal meant to be recklessly spendthrift, to be willing to spend everything one had to benefit another. The real prodigal is not the youngest son but the father. How do we understand the father’s heart? How do I, as a father, understand my own heart? There is a tension between legalism and control and waywardness.
Our children naturally have this creative space, and we either whitewash it away, pretend it’s not there, or push it away. For many years in New York City I ministered to artists and came to realize that these are not secular or pagan artists; they are children of the church. They have run away to Greenwich Village. I meet them, I listen to them, I weep with them. I realize that this cultural condition of the secular sacred dichotomy that we have created does not exist. It is pluralistic. It is complex. It is an estuary. Where salt water and fresh water mix, strange and glorious creatures swim. It is dangerous and endangered. It must be protected because both the ocean and the river system depend on the estuary. How does one navigate that?
In this painting I’m doing something that an artist is not supposed to do. In art school you’re told, “Never, never, never put a line in the middle of the painting, because you cannot create visual dynamic movement. You killed it.” I found the story of the prodigal was very much about that, drawing the line straight in the heart of the father between the legalistic older brother and the wayward younger brother. He would dare speak to both at the risk of his prosperity, at the risk of his identity, at the risk of his sanity, perhaps. He was willing to go there. This is the kind of God that we have.page 9
This painting, called In the Beginning, is based on the Gospel of John. Part of this painting was done in collaboration with Susie Ibarra, with whom I only collaborate live. I have learned that there are few people in the world with the ability to hear sound through color. Her music, which is in the background of the video, is something in which I see color. It does not take me long to lock in, whether in Carnegie Hall or privately creating something. This is part of that, based on John 11.page 10
This is the letter for the piece John 11. It is an “N,” so abstract that you can hardly distinguish it as such. I called the publisher to make sure that was okay and he said it would not be a problem. My favorite painting in the Bible is this one, “Jesus wept.” What happens when you paint with Jesus’ tears? When I looked at all of the letters I painted for the beginning of each chapter, I realized that John 11 is the still point of the churning, turning world. Every time I see it, I am grateful for Jesus’ tears holding everything together.
The illuminations on the side margins are very light and abstract. Sometimes there is representational imagery, like stars or a snake. Many times I use gold and silver as symbols; gold as a symbol of the divine presence, the city of God descending into our lives, silver which will tarnish as a symbol of humanity and the entropy that is happening to us. This is the last page, a wounded Tree of Life:
It has been a tremendous privilege to work on these paintings. Here is one that will be exhibited in November in my gallery in New York. This work, called Golden Sea, literally hovers between earth and heaven in the thin places the Celts say angels dwell. I want to end by talking a bit about culture at large. Perhaps we can start a question and answer period that will become a dialog.In recent lectures, I have been talking about the principle of culture care, which is a term that my editor, Caleb Seeling, suggested to me. Culture care is a very simple idea. Over the years, we have learned to take care of our environment, though we still fall short. We have, however, learned the significance of environmental care and how we need to leave this earth for our children and their children. It takes work on the individual and collective levels, as well as systemic change, to prevent pollution. It takes raising awareness and so many other things. The idea of culture care is exactly the same. Culture is an ecosystem, and we need to tend the soil of culture. If you have a garden, it requires constant attention. I was with an abbot of Shotokuji Temple, a prominent temple in Kyoto, who told me about their zen garden. The workers there are constantly watching for weeds every single hour. I think that’s true of everything, so wouldn’t it also be true of culture? It is a simple premise, and I began to overlap a lot of environmental language and discoveries to culture.
When you talk about creation culture you must begin with self-reflection. What do I want? Is the world as it ought to be? The tag line for the International Arts Movement is, “creating toward the world that ought to be.” We are so careful when it comes to art as anything that needs to be managed or stewarded because, in our country, we value the freedom of expression. But every artist knows that there are parameters that must be fixed in order for one to be creative. While there may be disagreement about what the parameters are—we may even disagree that dandelions are weeds—but we must care and cultivate what we care about. So we move into the world and teach our children to move into the world confidently, knowing that in the right climate, the right environment, they can fully thrive as human beings. They need to learn to look for these environments, and they need to learn to create microsystems for themselves if they are to succeed in life. Self-reflection is necessary. If culture is neglected, the weeds will take over. I think that has been happening. Take Whitney Houston as an example. She was an enormously gifted individual, but her gift has left her because she did not place herself in the right environment in which she could thrive. She had an operatic voice and should not have been singing pop music. That is my opinion. Those are my “weeds.” But what a tragedy! How did it happen? Another example is Amy Winehouse. We see these types of figures come and go, and we mourn their passing, yet are we individually and collectively doing what needs to be done to battle this dehumanized culture?
There are those who want to actively destroy whatever blessing others have. We have the example of 9/11. Our world is hesitant to talk about the responsibility of artists, but I say we need to talk about that. There are two uses of imagination. The terrorist use of imagination is to destroy life. They spend an enormous amount of time thinking of and imagining destruction. On the other hand there are firefighters and rescue workers. Their imagination is to save life. They spend an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources developing and refining that, so when it counted the most, they were able to climb up the falling towers to save lives. We swim in this ecosystem of imagination. It was made very clear on 9/11 that there is no option here. We have to choose. We can dwell in despair and hatred, carrying out our imagination for vengeance, or we can, I believe, save lives. If our imagination is fed with the right nutrients and we go in the right direction, we are allowed to grow and thrive as human beings. I could go on and on about that, but I will stop there.page 13
Check out the International Arts Movement because it is a place where we try out these ideas of culture care. We are a non-profit arts organization. We are not a Christian ministry or Christian arts organization, and many people are shocked by that. Rather, we are an arts organization with biblical principles, run by Christians. The culture does not need more Christian arts organizations. There are already plenty of good ones out there. What we need are people who take seriously the idea of Christian as a noun, not an adjective. I am not a Christian artist. I am an artist and a follower of Christ. “Christian” is a noun; it is who I am at the deepest core of my being. It doesn’t matter to me whether a person is going to reject me because of my faith because I always have my “cards out on the table.” Valerie Dillon got to know me when she came to my studio because she was spiritually sensitive and open and so asked questions. I display who I am. I say that I am not a Christian artist because that label is a cultural device to make things easy and marketable. It is purely a marketing device. This over-commodification, these Whitney Houston tragedies throughout the world, will continue if we and if art continues to be over-commoditized. That is one pollution that we experience in culture. We need to return to a place where art is valued as a gift and not a commodity.