Fujimura's refracted light

A major discovery for me over the last few days has been the work of the visual artist Makoto Fujimura. I had vaguely heard about the International Arts Movement established by him in New York after my friend and SDG advisory board member Jeremy Begbie made a presentation hosted by IAM in 2007. I recently decided to do a little probing into Fujimura’s work for two reasons. Firstly, I saw his writings constantly quoted by a number of groups involved in the current burgeoning theology-arts dialogue on both sides of the Atlantic. Secondly, SDG’s own Chandler Branch mentioned that he had just attended the launch of Fujimura’s ‘The Four Holy Gospels’ project (see image above) sponsored by Crossway Books, illuminating the English Standard Version of the four canonical gospels in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the King James Bible. After watching some captivating video about this remarkable initiative I immediately realized that this was something I would have to investigate further; Fujimura’s comments about the way in which a painter (especially working in an abstract idiom) needs to allow the colours to speak rather than forcing them into pre-determined combinations resonated very strongly with my own sense as a composer of the need to listen to the notes as they ‘tell their own story’ in the course of the compositional process. As I have noted in recent posts on musicians such as Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov, what Fujimura is articulating seems to relate to a more general re-discovery at the end of modernity of a contemplative artistic tradition that has largely been excised from modern Western culture. The virtues of patience and receptivity, at odds with the prevailing logic of ‘domination of the material’ that has characterized much art since the Enlightenment, are making an avant-garde comeback that is not synonymous with cultural conservatism. Nor is this purely an artistic phenomenon – the re-emergence of what much Christian tradition would term ‘Marian’ values (which have of course always survived in various pockets of Christianity in opposition to prevailing cultural trends) in our time has profound spiritual implications.

‘Find what you must obey’

The analogy between the creative process and the life of faith is the central theme of Archbishop Rowan Williams magisterial Grace and Necessity, a compelling series of ‘reflections on art and love’ published in 2005. Drawing on the novels of Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor, the work of Anglo-Welsh artist/writer David Jones as well as on Williams’ own experience as a published poet, Grace and Necessity is undergirded by the exploration of the nature of creative intuition by French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of Fujimura’s formative influences. In it the Archbishop describes artistic praxis in terms of a certain humble ‘obedience’ to the material, without which the artwork has no depth, ‘no sense of an imperative’,[1] being little more than an expression of the artist’s personal will:

‘You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose […] Imagination produces not a self-contained mental construct but a vision that escapes control […] The degree to which art is ‘obedient’ – not dependent on an artist’s decisions or tastes – is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer’.[2]

What the artist is searching for, according to Archbishop Williams, is ‘the ‘necessity’ in the thing being made. It can only emerge ‘when the actual artistic form somehow lets you know that the necessity is not imposed by the hand of an artistic will but uncovered‘.[3]

My impression that Fujimura is an artist and writer driven by just this sense of an ‘imperative’ was confirmed once I began to browse through the materials at www.makotofujimura.com, which not only include hauntingly beautiful images from the ‘Four Holy Gospels’ collection, but also thought-provoking essays entitled Refractions to which I will hopefully be returning in future posts. Fujimura is clearly not only a cutting-edge arts practitioner (who has been involved in collaborative projects with musicians such as the percussionist/composer Susie Ibarra, about whom he writes in Refractions n.32) but falls into the category sometimes termed ‘interdisciplinary thinker’ or ‘public intellectual’, interested in anything and everything viewed from a Christian perspective which is at the same time deeply grounded in Asian thought.

Double Exile

One piece of writing not included in Refractions but which has caused quite a stir since its appearance a few months ago is a ‘Letter to North American Churches’ which Fujimura delivered at the Eighth Letter Conference for the Epiphaneia group in Toronto. The contributors had been asked to present a letter to the churches of North America modelled on the seven letters of the Johannine Apocalypse, and Fujimura responded with one written from an artist’s standpoint which is highly stimulating reading (even if, like me, you do not live in North America, as Fujimura’s consciously provocative comments are arguably relevant to the West more generally).

The letter opens with an arresting indictment of the way in which the institutional Church has tended to alienate artists:

‘Our relationship with you has not been easy. Artists are often misfits, dwelling in the margins of your communities. They are often seen in the back pew, if they come to church at all, wearing black. Maybe they look menacing to you.’

If this sense of dislocation is problematic, it is redoubled in the case of consciously Christian artists, who are ‘often exiled twice: once by the church, and then, because of our faith, by the world’ (when reading this, I thought of a conversation a few years back with a prominent young Christian ‘classical’ composer whose portfolio included commissions from ensembles such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, who mused on the fact that the artistic community loved his music but distrusted his religious convictions, whereas it was the other way round in the Church). Fujimura goes on to give his analysis of the roots of the problem as lying in Western modernity’s obsession with rationalism:

‘Our exile by you started a long time ago. In the late 18th century, you began to believe that we needed rational categories to try to protect “faith” from “reason’. Reason began to win the battle in this false dichotomy and the mystery of our being and the miraculous presence of God behind the visible were put under suspicion. Ironically, this division fragmented the Body of Christ and gave “secularism” her power.’

Makoto Fujimura, 'Countenance Three'

The only thing I would query here is Fujimura’s dating of the expulsion of mystery from the life of the Church to the late 18th century. It is admittedly tempting to see a watershed in the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750, the disappearance of the last representative of the pre-modern Christian belief in a Divinely ordered Cosmos, who ‘heard the echoes of the music of the spheres and sought to synthesize what he heard’, as Fujimura’s letter asserts. However, building on the insights of the Nouvelle Théologie of the 1950s and 60s within Catholicism (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu), many contemporary theologians such as those associated with Radical Orthodoxy (John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock) have adduced powerful historical evidence to suggest that the breakdown of the essential unity of mystical Christian spirituality and rational reflection is a long-term trend with much deeper roots. They argue that this theological severance of heart from head began as early as the late thirteenth century following the death of Thomas Aquinas, the last major Christian thinker to maintain a satisfactory balance between the two.[4] Indeed, Eastern Orthodox scholars such as Chrestos Giannaras have delved back further, consistently and often forcibly contending that the seeds of Western rationalism can be traced to the long-term theological preference of the West for the intellectualism of Saint Augustine as opposed to the more holistic approach of the Greek Fathers.[5] Be this as it may, there can be little contesting the validity of Fujimura’s assertion that the Western Church (and here his comments are unmistakably directed against more austere forms of Protestantism, particular in its North American variants) has often proved itself largely unsympathetic to art’s taste for intuition and paradox, wanting ‘proof instead of mystery, justification rather than beauty’. The perverse consequence, he argues, is that artists threw their lot in with a secularism that offered them an ersatz priestly status that the Church refused, in turn reinforcing the latter’s prejudices against art and thereby creating a vicious circle:

‘”Secular” powers took over the instutitions created by the church’s retreat from culture creation – they ask us to be gods in their museums, concert halls [think of Wagner or Karajan…], and academic arena. In turn, you erected walls to shield you and your children from these “dark forces”.’

To make matters worse, even the concept of art as a secular transposition of a religious impulse has now collapsed (logically given its origins in a belief in transcendence which secularism has progressively discarded, leaving art without a spiritual raison d’être). In Fujimura’s opinion galleries no longer function as surrogate temples; instead they are ‘sterile, minimalist boxes’, with artists nothing more than ‘celebrity merchants, selling their goods.’ Imitating the style of the book of Revelation, Fujimura lays the blame squarely on the Church for having abandoned a sacramental approach to reality in which the realm of the senses is neither idolized nor dismissed as spiritually irrelevant, but rather points beyond itself:

‘Artists have insight into the invisible qualities of Reality, but you have forced them to serve only the visible, the utilitarian, and the pragmatic.’

As examples of the exile of artists from the Church – the very place where their gifts ought naturally to have been embraced -, Fujimura points to the disturbing cases of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh. The experience of the young Emily is held up as an illustration of the pitfalls of well-meaning but mis-directed evangelistic strategies. As a teenager she attended Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1847/1848, where the 230 students in her year were compelled to declare themselves as either “Christians” (150), “Hopers” (50) or “No-Hopers” (30) unable to profess faith in Christ. Emily belonged to the latter and despite – or maybe because of – the intense proselytizing efforts of the school authorities remained in that group, despite unmistakable evidence in her personal correspondence of an intense spiritual desire on her part. The exertion of religious pressure upon her merely resulted in her alienation from institutional Christianity.

As for Van Gogh, Fujimura’s reference to his exilic status with respect to the Church has an irrefutable historical basis. The son of a Dutch pastor, Van Gogh pursued a religious calling in the 1870s, driven by a passionate desire to minister to the working poor, and was given a six-month trial position in 1879 in the Belgian mining village of Wasmes by the Eglise Chrétienne Missionaire Belge. This was however not renewed. The reasons cited in the report of the Union des Eglises Protestantes de Belgique make for extremely instructive reading; the key issue was not one of character, but of Vincent’s perceived inability to preach, which the Church placed above his evident pastoral gifts:

‘If the gift of eloquence, so indispensable to one who is placed at the head of a congegation, were added to the admirable qualities he displays at a sickbed or with the injured, to the devotion or self-sacrificng spirit, of which he gives constant proof… M. van Gogh would certainly be an accomplished evangelist.’ [5]

It is clear that Van Gogh fell foul of the Church’s limited concept of evangelism, which the Union des Eglises Protestantes perceived primarily in terms of converting French-speaking Belgian Catholics.

Fujimura illustrates Van Gogh’s subsequent alienation from the Church by pointing to his famous ‘Starry Night’, painted in Arles in 1889. He is not the first commentator to point out that the white-steepled building in the centre is incongrous with the southern French landscape, rather recalling the Dutch Reformed churches of Van Gogh’s childhood. However, Fujimura goes further, offering a startling symbolic reading of the painting. Visually, the church holds the picture together, but its centrality is only formal:

‘Notice that the church is the only building in the painting that doesn’t have light shining inside. He’s trying to tell you through this visual parable that though the church still holds these disparate matters of the Spirit and Nature together in the world, the Spirit has left the church and went swirling into Nature and the Cosmos.‘ (emphasis added)

Fujimura’s message is unambiguous – by alienating the very people called to exercise an artistic ministry at the heart of its life, the Church has impoverished itself spiritually. Given their rejection by Christian religious institutions, it is understandable that artists should have looked elsewhere in order to express their innate spiritual longings. Looking for a musical parallel, the case of the young Karlheinz Stockhausen springs to mind. A pupil of Olivier Messiaen, he was like his teacher a practising Catholic; in 1954 he wanted to compose an mass using electronic sounds for liturgical use in the Cathedral in his home town of Cologne and suggested the idea to the ecclesiastical authorities.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1991. Photo Kathinka Pasveer

When it was refused out of an opposition to the presence of loudspeakers in the Cathedral, he turned to the Book of Daniel’s song of the children in the fiery furnace, producing what is arguably one of the few undisputed masterpieces of electro-acoustic music, Gesang der Jünglinge. But this was a concert rather than liturgical work, and without saying that the Archbishop of Cologne should necessarily have agreed to Stockhausen’s proposal, it is not hard to see a connection between the Church’s incapacity for constructive dialogue with avant-garde art and the composer’s decision to leave Catholicism in the 1960s. After exploring Sufism and Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, Stockhausen’s thinking in later decades was largely shaped by the esoteric ‘Urantia Book’, which provided a key source for his monumental cycle Licht.

Right-brained in a left-brain world

Makoto Fujimura’s own artistic roots may be in traditional Japanese Nihonga techniques, but there is a very obvious tradition within Western Christianity of illuminating the Gospels, as I mentioned in my posts on ‘Celtic Orthodoxy’, exemplified by the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, to which Fuijmura appeals explicitly in the preface to ‘The Four Holy Gospels’.[6] I therefore think it not too far-fetched to seek certain parallels between the Celtic tradition and the current resurgence of the arts in certain sectors of the Church; this came home forcefully to me recently when reading some insightful and challenging comments in a book by George G. Hunter (Asbury Seminary Distinguished Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism) entitled The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West … again (10th anniversary edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010)). Hunter’s principal interest in the Celtic Church lies in its remarkable success at evangelizing the ‘Barbarians’ at the edge of Europe whom missionaries with a Roman model of cultural engagement deemed simply too uncivilized to be able to respond to the Gospel. His basic thesis is that the Roman approach to apologetics was based on the strategy of offering rational proof of Christian truth claims. It appealed to ‘left-brain’ cultures valuing ‘logic, concepts, abstractions, language, rationality’,[7] but proved ineffective at communicating with peoples such as the Irish, whose culture was ‘predominantly right-brained’, setting store by ‘intuition, emotions, imagination, art, music, poetry, experience’.[8] By contrast, the genius of the Celtic Church leaders lay in their ability to engage the ‘right brains’ of Barbarian tribes, believing, in the words of an old poem attributed to Saint David, that ‘no man is the son of knowledge if he is not also the son of poetry’. Here Hunter quotes Celtic Church historian Ian Bradley: figures such as Saints David and Patrick

‘excelled at expressing their faith in symbols, metaphors and images, both visual and poetic. They had the ability to … paint pictures in words, signs and music that acted as icons opening windows on heaven and pathways to eternity … They have much to teach Christians today seeking to rekindle their imaginative faculties.‘[9]

This remark seems extremely pertinent to Fujimura’s plea on behalf of a ‘right-brained’ artistic community that feels itself exiled from the rationalizing, exclusively ‘left-brain’ culture of the Western Church of recent centuries. Fujimura’s letter should be interpreted as far more than a self-seeking call for attention, since artists can be seen as representative of a much broader population of ‘right-brainers’ outside the Church’s walls. In The Celtic Way of Evangelism Hunter suggests that we are currently surrounded by unchurched ‘postmodern New Barbarians'[10] including all sorts of groups traditionally made to feel unwelcome by Roman left-brain Christianity ( ‘preliterate people, addicted people […] bikers, […] people who are blind, deaf, mentally disabled, or mentally ill […]’).[11] These bear a remarkable resemblence to the populations reached by Columba, Aidan and Patrick back in the early centuries of the Celtic Church, but with an interesting postmodern twist. The accelerating demise of the ideology of the Enlightenment has both made these social groups resistant to forms of religion smacking of authoritarianism and yet also made them as some of the most spiritually receptive people in our communities. Art can play a key rôle in reaching out to them in a way that dogmatic propositions cannot:

‘As the Enlightenment has faded, postmodern people are increasingly suspicious of people and institutions that claim authority, and they are increasingly dubious of ultimate explanations. They are rediscovering their intuition, and they own and trust their feelings more. They take in the world through what they see, touch, and experience – not just through what they hear – and they explore spirituality and the supernatural.'[12]

Put theologically, taking as a starting-point the idea that human beings are created in the image of a Trinitarian God, what seems to be going on here in the Christian circles associated with artists such as Fujimura is the search for a new equilibrium between Word and Spirit (corresponding very roughly to the brain’s left and right hemispheres [13]). As I have hopefully shown in previous posts, the Celtic Church – rooted in the Christian East, with its emphasis on the Threeness of God as no less important than the Divine Unity, seems to have been more aware of the need for this balance than most of Western Christianity. What we find with Makoto Fujimura, who after all is both a painter and an ‘artist of the Word’, (or for that matter with that most prominent contemporary Celtic Christian Rowan Williams) can be viewed as a quest for a healthy Logos-Spirit complementarity. From the lofts of New York to the monasteries of Ireland or Wales and the shores of Japan there is a message welling up to which we would do well to pay heed.

‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 2:29)


[1] Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (London: Continuum, 2005), 143.

[2] Ibid., 147.

[3] Ibid., 148.

[4] See John Milbank and Simon Oliver (eds), The Radical Orthodoxy Reader (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2009), especially Simon Oliver’s prefatory chapter ‘Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: from participation to late modernity’ (1-27), Rupert Shortt’s interview with John Milbank (28-48) and the latter’s ‘Afterword’ (367-404).

[5] See Christos Yannaras, Philosophie sans rupture (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1986), passim., and Elements of Faith: an Introduction to Orthodox Theology (London: Continuum, 1991). One of Eastern Orthodoxy’s major philosopher-theologians who deserves to be far better-known in the West, Yannaras was the subject of some of Rowan Williams’s earliest theological work.

[6] Quoted in Kathleen Powers Erickson, At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent Van Gogh (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1998), 42.

[6] In his account of his collaboration with Ibarra, Fujimura also refers to a concept from Celtic spirituality: ‘every time we collaborate, the sound of her gongs grows within me, pointing me to an invisible reality, to what the Celts called “Thin Spaces”, a space between heaven and earth.’ (http://www.makotofujimura.com/writings/refractions-32-emanuels-heartbeat/).

[7] George G. Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West … again (10th anniversary edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010)), 66.

[8] Ibid..

[9] Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1993), 84, quoted in Hunter, 67. Emphasis added.

[10] Hunter, 103.

[11] Ibid., 92.

[12] Ibid., 103.

[13] I owe this correlation to a discussion with Methodist pastor and writer Larry Kalajainen.




2 thoughts on “Fujimura's refracted light

  1. I just spent the past weekend at the International Arts Movement Encounter ’11 in NYC. Great group of folks and it is always a pleasure to hear from Mako.

    Mako’s work is inspiring to say the least and is rich in theological depth and meaning. His craftsmanship is impeccable and the beauty he captures within his work is unmistakable. The caliber of his work is unquestionable in my opinion.

    He Mako been able to identify many of the woes and maladies that lie at the heart of the American Evangelical movement but at the same time do so in a pastoral voice that seeks to draw people in rather than drive them away. The American Church has abandoned the concept of beauty except in the cases where it can be manipulated for utilitarian purposes. Mako has been renewing the Church’s attention in these and has been drawing interest form many of the mainstream corners of Evangelicalism.

    Thanks for a great post and a great read of Mako’s work.

    Your connection as well to the “time” in which we find ourselves and the connection between it and the endeavors of the Celtic church are, I think, illuminating. There is much to learn from those kinds of interpretive movements that seek to correspond the church and her theology to the contextual reality in which we find ourselves.

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