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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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Achieving Dreams

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Yesterday as I was taking Nelly to a friends house for a sleepover party, she was singing a song from Disney’s Cinderella:

No matter how your heart is grieving
If you keep on believing
The dream that you wish will come true.

“Do you belive that?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said firmly.

“But it’s not true.”

“Yes it is.”

“No,” I said. “There are people all over the world whose dreams don’t come true no matter how much they believe.”

“Well,” she said. “It’s true in Disneyland.”

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True Fiction

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I picked up Baby Jack at a Borders in the Detroit airport. I was needing something to read while waiting for my plane and during the layover in Chicago. It looked about the right length, and I figured I’d finish it before touching down in Minneapolis. What really hooked me, though, were the blurbs on the inside cover that touted the book as “true.”

The book is a novel about a young man, Jack, who joins the Marines against the wishes of his parents. It’s about what motivates young men to serve their country, and how it affects those who love them. It’s also about the self-centeredness of America’s cultural elites. In it God is a tough-as-nails Marine drill instructor who doesn’t care about human suffering but only about good drama. Some Christians might find Schaeffer’s depiction of God offensive. But I couldn’t help smiling at this paragraph about the shock some people get in the afterlife:

Sometimes the dead are so bummed they even argue theology with God. A few days ago, a newly arrived Southern Baptist preacher was so shocked by God’s profanity that he told God that he thought God needed to repent and accept the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal savior. “What are you talking about?” God yelled, “I’m an atheist for Christ’s sake!”

I don’t think Schaeffer intends his theology to be taken seriously. He’s writing about the meaning that sacrifice gives to our lives, and he thinks Marine drill instructors have the straight skinny on it. I think his intention is to honor drill instuctors, not to dishonor God.

One of the characters, Jack’s sister Amanda, wants to know why our news media are so skewed toward whatever is dishonorable and rarely mention what is honorable. She makes a scene in the newsroom, demanding of the reporters there:

“Why is Jack’s name only in this shitty [newsprint] box?” Amanda yells, as she waves the clipping. “Why do you piss yourselves every time Tony Kushner farts but you can’t be generous to one American hero? Why is a Pulitzer a big deal but not a Silver Star? Who makes those rules? Does anyone in this room have a family member in uniform?”

The book also has a study guide at the end for book clubs. Schaeffer is sure that his novel is true, and he wants to make sure his readers get it.

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