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Refractions

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When I received Makoto Fujimura’s Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture, I was wowed by the evident care that had gone into it’s design. It is the loveliest paperback book I’ve ever seen. I expected to find it interesting, perhaps a little challenging, and certainly full of beauty.

But life intervened, first in the form of a traffic collision, then in the form of a layoff from my job. I found myself with more time on my hands than I was accustomed to having, but the last thing I wanted to do was read a collection of meditations by a Japanese-American artist. I read some, found myself foundering, and put it aside. Then, driven by a sense of responsibility to the publisher for sending me a free copy, I tried again. And again. And again.

I found after all my trying that the book was better than I wanted to admit. It isn’t that I don’t like art. It is that I do like logical, well-reasoned argument. I like a straight highway and a car with plenty of horsepower. Instead, I was forced to meander on a country path through unfamiliar landscapes, never knowing quite where I was going or how I was going to get there. It struck me that this was the sort of book my artistic wife would like. I’m not sure she has ever read a book straight through. She reads the beginning, jumps into the middle, skips to the end, backtracks, quits for a week, resumes from a different spot than where she left off, and generally leaves me dumbfounded. If I tried to read like that, my brain would turn to pudding.

(Full disclosure: My wife reminded me that she read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck straight through and enjoyed it immensely. Incontrovertible evidence that she is a better person than I.)

Refractions is a book of meditations. I find that I cannot simply read it; I have to join in the meditation. Some of Fujimura’s insights are penetrating. Much of what he has to say has been shaped by his proximity to the collapse of the Twin Towers. His studio was covered with dust from the Towers. His child was evacuated from school. He sees the gap where the Towers used to form the backdrop for his working life every day, a gap that seems to him more momentous and intense than any of the presences that still fill his life. Living, as I do, in Minnesota, the fall of the Towers was distant, like the wars that have come since. In fact, the war in Afghanistan has been more present to me because my son spent a year and a half there and is slated to return this fall. But the wars are also outgrowths from the gap where the Towers stood. For Fujimura the absence of the Towers signifies all the absences in our lives that make us incomplete or broken. Every return to Ground Zero is a kind of repentance, acknowledging that brokenness and calling for redemption. He believes that art can facilitate the healing required; that is one of its purposes both for the artist who creates something beautiful and meaningful out of the brokenness and for the one who responds to that creation with understanding and empathy.

Fundamentalist Christians may find Fujimura’s Christianity too inclusive. For example, he draws inspiration from Matazo Kayama, who was a Nihonga master. But like those who say, “All truth is God’s truth,” I think Fujimura would say, “All beauty is God’s beauty.” Wherever the creative process is at work, making something beautiful out of broken pieces, God is also at work because God is an artist.

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American Unreason

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Reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason made me very uncomfortable. The book chronicles the history of anti-intellectualism in American culture from the Revolutionary period to the present. It’s an excellent book, well-written, carefully researched, intelligent, and witty. Jacoby, a self-avowed secularist and freethinker, is evenhanded in her treatment of what she calls “junk thought” whether it comes from the political right or left. Hardly anyone comes off blameless, regardless of their supposed credentials.

What made me uncomfortable, though, was her criticism of Christian fundamentalists. I found it too well-deserved.

Jacoby defines a Christian fundamentalist as anyone who believes that the Bible is literally true. This makes it easy for her to lump together all the right-wing Christians, since most would in fact agree that they believe the Bible quite literally. She doesn’t care about most of the miracle stories because believing them does not have consequences for public policy except insofar as those who believe them must be anti-rationalist or at least irrational. She focuses most on the first part of Genesis because a literal understanding of it conflicts so obviously with evolution. Jacoby points out that America alone in the developed world has a sizable portion of the population that still rejects the descent of humans from earlier, non-human primates. Why? Biologists, geologists, and geneticists know that the theory of evolution is true. The evidence that all life on earth has a common ancestry is overwhelming. Yet “just 26 percent accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Fully 42 percent say that all living things, including humans, have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” (p. 23).

There can be no doubt that the theory of evolution has problems, especially for Christian conceptions of sin and death, regardless of how metaphorically one takes Genesis. However, scientific credibility is not one of them. Scientists use what they know about evolution to make predictions about where to look for additional fossil evidence. They go to those places, look for fossils, and find them. In the same way, unraveling DNA has confirmed again and again that certain species are closely related, descended from common ancestors. Is it possible that God created the world in six days and filled it with living things as Genesis says? Yes, of course it is, but not in any scientifically meaningful sense. It is possible that God concealed his creative act by adding a backstory, going all the way back to the big bang, to everything he made. If so, then one of the aims of science is to unravel this backstory. I am not saying that this is what I believe; I am merely offering it as a way for biblical literalists to reconcile their faith in Genesis with scientific evolution. Unfortunately, this leaves no place for creationism in science and hence no place for the teaching of creationism in schools.

To her credit, Jacoby exposes the pseudoscience of social Darwinism, which came to prominence in the early twentieth century. It was used in ways never intended by Darwin to promote eugenics and justify exploitative capitalism. To this day, there is still confusion, not only among Christian fundamentalists but also among supporters of evolution, between biological evolution and social Darwinism.

Despite her attempts at fairness, however, Jacoby cannot conceal her contempt for fundamentalist Christians. Biblically attested miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth of Christ, and his resurrection are just so many fables told and believed by naive and intellectually unsophisticated people. She finds the tenacity with which Christians adhere to their faith baffling, though she never says so in so many words.

Despite her careful research, she attributes the origins of the Jesus Movement in the late sixties and early seventies to Campus Crusade for Christ, which she later refers to as the Christian Crusade. She says nothing of Calvary Chapel and appears not to know about the struggles of organized denominations to accommodate the sudden influx of young people who had renounced drugs and alcohol and sexual promiscuity but wanted to keep their rock-and-roll, long hair, and communal living. She also claims that Roe v. Wade occurred in a cultural climate that offered almost no opposition, which, while true, neglects that fact that abortion was presented almost universally as a way to protect young girls and women from the devastating injuries caused by “back alley” abortions. No one foresaw in 1973 that within a decade nearly one in four pregnancies would end in abortion.

Despite these shortcomings, I highly recommend The Age of American Unreason. The chapters on junk thought and the culture of distraction are especially worth reading. Jacoby uncovers the pernicious influence of the ubiquitous audio-video culture. It is not what we expose our children to, though that is certainly bad enough. It is what we fail to expose them to because they are always distracted by what’s on television or on the Internet or playing on their iPod. Previous generations valued quiet. My children think I am odd because I turn off the radio while I’m driving, but I just get tired of always having to listen to something. All my children, thank God, are readers. We have always valued reading in my home, and when they were young, I read to them. We have also deliberately gone without television and video at times just to have time for other pursuits. But there is no denying that we are exceptions. Most families live in a cocoon of entertainment, constantly bombarded by sound and video. Not many people I know read for pleasure. Fewer still spend time in silence listening to their own thoughts. Among Christians there is a tradition at least of prayer, meditation, and Bible-reading, but for many this tradition has been brushed aside. Christians are as likely as anyone else to fill their time with self-medicating entertainment and thoughtless absorption of the prevailing audio-video culture.

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Uncompromised Faith

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I’ve been reading S. Michael Craven’s newsletters for a long time now. He takes on thorny and contentious issues in Christianity and writes about them with thoughtful clarity and compassion. His first book, Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity, shows the same intelligence and passion I have come to expect from his other writings. Despite tackling hot-button issues that usually inspire strident rhetoric—for example, homosexuality and same-sex marriage—Craven almost always presents well-reasoned arguments without shrillness. Even when he sinks to ad hominem attacks, such as linking Carl Jung to Hitler and the Nazis, he forgoes lurid and inflammatory language. He writes about Jung’s pseudo-scientific spirituality:

The popularity of the Volkish movement, with its foundational concept of an Aryan elite, actually may have contributed to the preconditions necessary for the rise of Nazism in Germany. One scholar wrote, “By 1933 the German right was captured by Volkish ideas. It was a trend in German thought that became so strong that millions accepted it as the only solution to Germany’s problems.” Jung was regarded as an important proponent of Volkish thinking, a connection that many followers of Jung have worked hard to conceal, for obvious reasons.

It’s hard to find a Christian writer today who can write any kind of cultural critique without invoking the Nazis. They are to us what demons were to Jesus’ contemporaries. At least Craven sticks to references that have a plausible connection.

Craven identifies three isms—modernism, postmodernism, and consumerism—that in his view have most hindered the spread of the gospel and the effectiveness of the church in America. His book is unconcerned with the global impact of efforts in the American church to spread the gospel beyond the United States; he instead tackles the obvious decline in Christian influence in the public sphere in America. He does not mean political influence but cultural influence. The Christian right may have a stranglehold on the Republican party, but Christianity—right or left—certainly has little influence in Hollywood or Wall Street.

The book is long on critique but short on solutions. Craven identifies the cultural and ideological trends that have most harmed the effectiveness of the church, but he offers little as an effective strategy for combating those trends. Nevertheless, he provides a good start, and those who give serious thought to where the American church will be in 40 years should read this book. For the United States has been overtaken by a modern form of paganism, characterized by a diffuse belief in an impersonal God, confidence in progress, suspicion of history, and radical self-reliance.

Craven is not alone in his judgment that America is becoming increasingly pagan. Eccentric art critic Dave Hickey writes in a recent article,

Citizens of ancient Rome made sacrifices at the temple of the god most likely to find them a mate or cure erectile dysfunction. We Americans conflate the shops of Rome with its temples. We shop for dreams in galleries and boutiques–and every cent we pay for an object that exceeds its utility may be taken as a pagan sacrifice to the power of that specific object to lend us some assistance.

No wonder Craven calls consumerism idolatry. In America where do we turn in a time of crisis? What will save us from an economic tailspin? Shopping! When the politicos and pundits tells us our salvation will come when we break out the credit cards and cash and head to the nearest retail outlet, then we know we are no longer a nation that trusts in God, despite what it says on our currency. An earlier generation would have repented (or at least been urged to repent) of avarice. But now avarice, no longer a vice, is our greatest virtue—as long as it’s a democratic avarice and not elitist like those AIG bigwigs who reaped obscene windfalls after gutting their own company.

The promise of the subtitle is that readers would learn to overcome their culturalized Christianity. The book certainly helps with recognizing how our culture has not only influenced but actually subverted the message of the gospel, but it does little to help us overcome this subversion. For that we may have to wait for a prophet with more fire in his belly.

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