The Future of Artists of Faith

How art–if we realize its potential in today’s context–can bring hope amid suffering.

At a National Council on the Arts meeting some years ago, a thirteen-year-old Asian boy recited the famed lines of Henry V.

The hours and hours of time he had spent memorizing and incarnating a world of Shakespeare onto stage as a middle school student may not seem, at first, to have direct link to pragmatic “bottom line” thinking, our society’s utility-driven mindset. They would not appear to be of any practical value in “solving” the problems of a world that knew too much of hunger, of war and death, of man-made ugliness and perversion.

Yet the boy had spent that time, and put that love into his craft. His words and intonation carried with them hope and enthusiasm and goodness. They carried with them a very different understanding of art and imagination than has been common in recent years–an understanding our world desperately needs. And the result mesmerized the Council members and First Lady Laura Bush.

In his novel The Idiot, 19th century Russian writer Dostoevsky wrote a line that people have been puzzling over ever since: “Beauty will save the world.” Converted to Christianity in a Siberian prison camp, Dostoevsky knew more of ugliness than most. He knew that, theologically speaking, we are all in our Waste Land (to borrow from T.S. Eliot). But he also knew something that the people at that Council meeting glimpsed in the young boy’s inspired recital of Shakespeare: we carry the dust of Eden in our DNA.

As I have noted elsewhere, Bishop N.T. Wright calls the reality of post-resurrection “Life after Life after Death.” We are to bank on the future, storing our treasures in Heaven. But that is only the beginning. Heaven comes then to fill the earth, transforming the old earth into the New Earth. In describing “Life after Life after Death,” Wright notes that God will use our earthly effort, done in faith, as a conduit for that transformation to come. In this post-resurrection reality, apparently, we can learn to create backwards, not out of our wretched humanity, but out of our full humanity to come. Christians have this to offer the world.

Today, as we face a world with tsunami and earthquakes, with despair and bullet holes in schools, many artists prefer to depict angst and darkness. For artists of faith to do this is to fall short of our calling. We need to understand that our imaginative capacities carry both a power and a responsibility to heal.

Instead of exercising the artistic imagination to destructive, exploitative ends—showing the cynicism and ugliness few need help seeing—we need, as in Fra Angelico’s paintings, to sow the seeds of renewal and hope in the darkness.

The boy who recited those lines from Henry V was a student of Rafe Esquith, a teacher at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. Rafe is no “culture warrior”—he holds a perspective Christians must revive: that of culture care. He runs a Shakespeare program for non-English speaking children. His students commit to staying extra hours and days in school to memorize lines of Shakespeare, and later perform them with remarkable facility.

Rafe’s students—who on paper do not even speak English yet—demonstrate what is possible through giving prominence to the voices of civilization. Rafe is a steward of culture; he and his students cultivate the beauty that can speak truth and hope to the generations.

The people who are hurting most in our society—the widow of a fallen soldier, the 20-something looking for love after a decade of meaningless sexual activity, the immigrant child living in the dilapidated ghetto of a city—are bombarded by messages that there is no hope, no community, no love, no beauty. It is creators, and not politicians, who can show them otherwise.

A few stories from my own experience will suffice to show how this can work. Notice how in each of these examples, it is not trite oversimplification that touches lives—rather, beauty reaches into the darkness and brings hope.

Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston, who helped start the Mayors’ Institute on City Design with the National Endowment for the Arts, once said:

We mayors exhaust ourselves with lots of decisions—political, personnel, and budget. But 100 years from now, there will be no real evidence of how we made those decisions. In contrast, a decision about the physical design of a city will influence the city and its people for generations.

And in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a Council grant funded a collaborative venture between the Institute and Habitat for Humanity, not only to rebuild houses but to rebuild beautiful, well-designed homes—not merely temporary shelters, but a long-term vision for human dignity through beauty.

Up the coast, in New York, there are many places that seem cold, gray, busy, or even dying. Yet the newly reinvented space of an abandoned train line above Chelsea has now become one of the most impressive garden/art walks in the world. Today thousands walk on the High Line, experiencing the city from a contemplative path, which leads back to the arts mecca of Chelsea—bringing stillness to an ever-moving metropolis.

The third example I see before me every day. At the Fujimura Institute (the name honors several generations of my family), we are building a guild system to train and mentor art apprentices, promote catalytic conversations, and spark cross-discipline projects—in a world that rewards fragmentation and specialization, we are encouraging artists and thinkers to collaborate, cooperate and inspire their audiences to piece together a whole view of the world. It is a movement of culture care. In one project that was the result of this mindset, I collaborated with artist Bruce Herman and composer Christopher Theofanidis to celebrate the 70th anniversary of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets with interpretations of the poetry in painting and music. Eliot’s master work, like our world, doesn’t show you answers immediately—it is confused, searching. His voice speaks from a heart that has experienced darkness. By meeting us in the darkness—but not leaving us there–he was able to write the most comforting poem.

As these examples show, a new creative generation, connected to and sustained by one another, can inspire hope—and more than hope.

In today’s unhealthily competitive art world, we need the creative and the faithful together to incarnate their creative gifts in the hearts of human reality–in the hearts of today’s Ground Zeros. We need those centered souls to find their identities in collaboration. We need, in short, a movement: not a movement of multiphrenic activities, but a movement of stillness; building “still points of the turning world.”

Back at Rafe Esquith’s school, in Hobart’s gym now hang banners of major universities that its students have attended. Whether Rafe’s students become actors and actresses is not important; rather, the collaborative creativity that they experienced through the discipline of theatre will shape them into better people, no matter what profession they choose. The internal pulse of life, an audible drama of depth and clarity, will remain with them for the rest of their lives. And their lives will touch others.

Makoto Fujimura is an artist, writer, and speaker who is recognized worldwide as a cultural shaper. A Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003-2009, Fujimura served as an international advocate for the arts, speaking with decision makers and advising governmental policies on the arts.