On Culture Care & The Unsettling of America

Maybe it's because we've been going through a pandemic, or maybe it's because I'm facing 40 this year, but I've been on a bit of an existential quest, truly curious about what it means to be fully human and dwell well here in time before eternity. 

Guilty of overlapping my reading materials, I often find myself having several books going at once. But I've found the juxtaposition of the works I'm digesting in concert to be like the pairing of a nice dinner and a thoughtful glass of wine - each enhancing the notes of the other. 

Recently I've taken in quite a few books on culture, including Makoto Fujimura's Culture Care and Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. And I've been awed at how these books have really helped me better understand who I am and what good works God has ordained for me to fulfill.

Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura had come up several times in conversations with artist friends, and I took it in like a rich and satisfying multi-course meal - the kind you rave about and tell other friends they have got to try! And if I haven't already told you "You need to read this book!," I'm telling you now. :)  Seriously, this book is so important - whether you're an artist, businessperson, or spiritual leader. The main idea is that we cannot just receive the culture we've inherited, but rather we must be shapers and makers of our culture in order to care well for one another and thrive as humans.

Another set of conversations with a combination of farming and writing friends (as well as the mention of Wendell Berry in Fujimura's book) led me to Wendell Berry. I began sipping his Sabbath Poems (and writing a few of my own). And then I drank in his well-aged essays on culture and agriculture in The Unsettling of America. The essays are a little academic in places, but they were timely and thought-provoking for me as I've found myself involved both in advocating for responsible development in our rapid-growth county and in learning to grow things sustainably. 

Both Berry & Fujimura address the stewardship of culture from their unique vantage points: Berry, from his background in agriculture; Fujimura, from his experiences in art. 
"Beauty is a gift that we discover, receive, and steward" (Fujimura, 26).
"Beauty is found both in nature and in / culture. It is something that is given to us, and it is also something we human beings can add to -- something we can cultivate. God asks us to continue as he began" (Fujimura, 52-53). 
"In anything we make, we bring our creative energies, but we are always acting in stewardship of something that we have been given. At our best we work with our raw materials, honoring their properties and respecting their limits, not working against the grain or twisting them out of context. In short, we need to love both nature and culture to exercise a proper stewardship" (Fujimura, 53). 
"Effective stewardship leads to generative work and a generative culture. We turn wheat into bread -- and bread into community. We turn grapes into wine -- and wine into occasions for joyful camaraderie, conviviality, conversation, and creativity. We turn minerals into paints -- and paints into works that lift the heart or stir the spirit. We turn ideas and experiences into imaginative worlds for sheer enjoyment and to expand the scope of our empathy" (Ibid).

"A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well" (Berry, 47).

"A healthy community is one that is secure, anchored in tradition and faith, but also allowing for a dynamic movement outward, sending forth artists and missionaries, caregivers and entrepreneurs" (Fujimura, 92). 
Both write from a faith perspective and demonstrate a high regard for the protection and creation of beauty.

"Our sense of beauty and our creativity are central to what it means to be made in the image of a creative God. The satisfaction in beauty we feel is connected deeply with our reflection of God's character to create and value gratuity. It is part of our human nature. This is why our soul hungers for beauty. / Because it is gratuitous, beauty points beyond itself, beyond survival to satisfaction.... Beauty also connects us to the why of living. It points to discoveries waiting to be made about the creation. It points toward questions of right relationships, of ultimate meaning, and even of eternity. It points backward and outward and forward to our ultimate Source and Sustainer" (Fujimura, 51-52).

"It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil for very / long without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit. No les than the faithful of religion is the good farmer mindful of the persistence of life through death, the passage of energy through changing forms. ... It is the nature of the soil to highly complex and ariable, to conform very inexactly to human conditions and rules. ... Because the soil is alive, various, intricate, and because its processes yield more readily to imitation than to analysis, more readily to care than to coercion, agriculture ca never be an exact science. There is an inescapable kinship between farming and art, for farming depends as much on character, devotion, imagination, and the sense of structure, as on knowledge. It is a practical art. But it is also a practical religion, a practice of religion, a rite" (Berry, 90-92). And then Wendell waxes eloquent about the etymology of the word agriculture and its root connection to worship

"Beauty can show us what could be, and can make us rightly dissatisfied with the way things are. In the face of the undeniable and often unbearable human suffering all around us, we must still affirm beauty and work to make our culture reflect it. This is why a culture care approach will encourage truth telling about alienation, suffering, and oppression alongside truth telling about justice, hope, and restoration" (Fujimura, 56). 

Both also interestingly discuss the valuable insights of people who live and work in the margins, one highlighting Amish agrarians and the other, artistic mearcstapas (a German term used in Beowulf meaning "border walker"). 
"Artists who come to embrace the role of mearcstapa and find support and training to walk it out can become leaders who make possible the reunification of divided kingdoms; they can be reconcilers of division and fragmentation. They can release great generativity and flourishing" (Fujimura, 60). 
And this is where I find myself. A writer and fledgling farmer, I am forever observing, making connections, and seeking not only to understand but also to communicate what I'm seeing. I'm also quite literally living in that space between city and country, with just under four acres of forest and farm land but within a few minutes of an emerging downtown. For me, this is home - the baffling and beautiful in-between. 

Some of the most important encouragement from these books personally was to patiently engage in the work that it takes not only to generate art (for me, to write) or to grow things but also to build community. I needed Fujimura's explanation of a mearcstapa and his encouragement to push through the awkward and difficult and graciously share perspective. I needed Berry's example of finding his place in the world, balancing academia, writing, and a thoughtful agrarian life.

As I contemplate what it looks like for me to "work out [my] own salvation with fear and trembling," I am thankful for the example of two very different individuals - Fujimura and Berry - who are each doing just that in their own ways, and I'm inspired to keep figuring this out, to continue pursuing God, and to keep pressing toward the goal.

There were other lessons too, of course, but it's your turn. I'd love to hear from you how these books have impacted your life - and what other books have helped shape you in your journey...

Multiplied grace and peace, with love, 


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