A Week of Listening: Makoto Fujimura on Hope, Beauty, and Justice

Today let me invite readers to listen to a different kind of voice. While the artist Makoto Fujimura was speaking the night before the grand jury decision and subsequent protests in Ferguson, his reflection on faith, beauty, truth, and — above all — hope couldn’t have been more timely in light of what was happening in Missouri.

Fujimura, Charis-Kairos
According to Fujimura, “Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)” is inspired by the chapter of John’s gospel immediately preceding the story of Mary of Bethany, and finds him attempting “to illumine the darkness with prismatic colors.”

Invited to address the members of the American Academy of Religion on Nov. 23, after receiving the AAR’s 2014 Religion and Arts Award, Makoto Fujimura started by explaining that “This speech is a prayer: a prayer uttered in the liminal zone between art and religion, a prayer to repair the schism between the two, a prayer to be-in T.S. Eliot’s words – ‘reconciled among the stars.'” (Fujimura quoted from Eliot’s Four Quartets, which inspired one series of his paintings.)

He prayed for a world in which “the artist will no longer then be considered a marginal entity but a critical center of our pursuit of knowledge, of our journey toward abundance and creativity,” giving off an aroma like that of the perfume Mary spilled — gratuitously, extravagantly, wastefully, and lovingly — at the feet of Jesus in John 12:

I pray that in the days to come, this aroma will fill the air whenever the words of Gospel are spoken, that outsiders to faith will sense this extravagant air and feel it, particularly for them. I pray that when our children speak of faith, this gratuitous, intuitive aroma of the love of Christ will be made manifest in their lives.

I’d love to linger on this vision. But Fujimura, like Christena Cleveland, then turned from light to darkness:

But even as I pray these things, I know that it is quite possible that darkness may be approaching on the horizon, may cast shadows over the lives of our children and our grandchildren.

Their faith and their art may be tested. The world might grow colder; they may find their senses deadened. The world may grow more sense-less, violent, may lose completely its ability to contemplate.  The world may become more driven by consumerism, pragmatic utility and superficial, shallow trinkets. Worse still, it may be increasingly full of a despair that whispers into our ears that there is no hope at all. Our children’s convictions may be not only be challenged, they may be persecuted.

In “a world full of ‘Ground Zero’ ashes, a world still struggling to understand why God remains silent,” Fujimura prayed on, that “this sweet aroma of Christ will envelop us, hold us; that even in the darkest hours, this aroma will remind us why it is that we are here, why it is that we can lose everything and yet gain so much.”

Fujimura, "12th Night"
Part of his “Post 9/11” collection, Fujimura describes “12th Night” as his “personal symbol of enduring hope during dark times.”

Quoting from the poet Emily Dickinson, Fujimura observed that “When our horizon is darkened, when we have lost even our self-esteem to become that crumb, hope still perches in the soul, as a ‘thing with feathers’ which does not stop our ‘tune without the words.'” While art and poetry can “awaken us to the inevitable reality of our senses, the aroma of the new,” hope requires us to “learn to see, hear and feel beyond our senses: We must learn to see with the ‘eyes of our heart.'”

* * * * *

It’s a feast of a speech, not to be consumed quickly. My first reaction was to relate it to my ongoing thinking about higher education. In an age when one says “STEM” to sound like a visionary, I pray that art will again be seen as “a critical center of our pursuit of knowledge.” I pray that the “gratuitous, intuitive aroma of the love of Christ will be made manifest” in all the ways that a Christian college proclaims the Gospel. I pray that we will help our students understand the culture around us as “a garden to be lovingly tended by stewards, not a territory to destroyed by ravenous wolves.”

But on the second and third passes, I set such thoughts aside and instead heard Fujimura’s prayer like a quiet melody emerging from an angry cacophony. While people on either side of #Ferguson tweeted words like justice and truth past each other, he refused to set them at odds — or to detach them from beauty.

He spoke of being asked by Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor to say a bit about himself. His mind turned to the meaning of his name in Japanese:

My mind went blank at that moment, and I ended up saying, “My name means ‘the Truth’ and my art is a way to seek that Truth, by connecting beauty with Truth and Goodness.  In that way, beauty accompanies truth and goodness, on a journey to justice.” Thus, my given name has always been a light unto my path.  Beauty accompanies Truth and Goodness.

What do you hear from Fujimura? Does he have something unique to contribute to the conversations swirling around #Ferguson? What do you think he means that “beauty accompanies truth and goodness, on a journey to justice”?

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