My Name is Asher Lev

Makoto Fujimura’s “Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture”

Refractions_coverE-380x570Makoto Fujimura is one of those rare animals — a Christian and an artist thriving in the secular world while holding firm to his faith. Born in Boston and trained in the United States, he received his MFA from Tokyo National University as a scholar in Nihonga, a Japanese-style of painting. His excellent work there earned him a chance to be the first non-Japanese citizen to take part in their lineage program. While studying, he became a committed Christian, which changed his direction in life and art.makoto fujimura

This book is a collection of essays, mainly culled from his “Saturday morning essays.” As with any collection of essays, some will strike the reader more than others. In addition, many are stronger within their cultural context, while others escape such limitations. Nevertheless, all of them raise questions and offer insight which will challenge the reader to re-see the world.

One of Fujimura’s greatest strengths is seen in an essay such as “Dances for Life,” in which he makes an impassioned argument for the importance of dance. Although a visual artist, Fujimura clearly loves art of all genres. “There is something primal about dance that transcends all of the conventional concerns. Dancers embody the very ideal of the arts and fuse the spirit with the body. In other words, dance incarnates, and dancers bring this fusion into their bodies.” Many Christians are uncomfortable with dance companies and dance as an art form (and I say this as someone who has booked many dance companies in our Christian community), and Fujimura challenges them. “Christians should be the first in line to see and applaud this fusion of body and soul. Christ is not an ideology, a sentiment, or a mental image, but a fusion of body and Spirit.”

From his "Grace" series

From his “Grace” series

A natural educator, Fujimura also sees art teaching us how to live daily. In “Surfacing Dolphins,” he talks about visiting art students at a college, and their reluctance to share their art. When he asks for works they are not proud of, they bring out plenty of examples. “We live in a culture of perfection, or at least in the superficial resemblance of things perfect….Failures teach us more than successes.” As he does in all these essays, Fujimura relates his experiences to his faith, and with failure ties in the idea of repentance. “I have learned from Scripture to pay attention to works in my life of which I am not proud. They speak to teach me. I have learned that what the ancients called ‘repentence’ is a journey of coming home to a place where all our wretched works rest, but also where that our wretchedness is overcome by light.”

four quartets a

From his “Four Quartets” series

Perhaps Fujimura’s commitment to art is summarized best in a speech he gave in 2005, published here as “Why Art?” “By continuing to create and imagine a better world, we live. We have no alternative today. The path of apathy, the path of cynicism, and the path of terrorists have incarnated their realities in our backyards. To have hope is no longer an optimist’s escapism–it is the only path to the future.”

A reader will find a range of topics, including many essays on the visual arts, in these 23 essays. After reading these (or before) visit his excellent website at http://www.makotofujimura.com/  and watch his 6 minute video on his latest work (which also gives you some background on him).

As is clear, this is a book I highly recommend. It is refreshing to see Christian faith and art seen as supporting one another. Side note: Having just finished Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, I’m curious if Fujimura has read the book (and if so, his thoughts on it). The struggle to balance faith and art are essential to that novel.

 

 

 

12 Years A Slave

12 years a slaveFull disclaimer: I’ve not seen the movie.

Okay, usually the disclaimer goes with a film review of a book turned into a movie, but this movie was so successful I thought I should mention it.

Being a book person, I thought I would read the book. I was quite moved by Harriet Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl” many years ago, and have returned to Fredrick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” more than once. Histories of slave life can be informing, but hearing about the experience from a slave gives us a new perspective.

Like many books in this vein, Solomon Northup’s “12 Years A Slave” sounds almost dispassionate in its description. It is likely a matter of style and time that Northup can describe his experience almost objectively. His impassioned pleas sound formal, but this was not a time for emotional storytelling. However, one cannot read this book without hearing Northup’s struggle to survive this living hell. What is most insightful by Northup is that he realizes his unique position in the slave world (a free man taken into slavery) and he is sensitive to the plight of others. When you can look with compassion on others in the midst of your own suffering, you are a rare individual.

Northup’s patience with waiting for the right time to reveal his free status is amazing. He questions himself a bit in the book, but even his one failed attempt shows how little trust he could put in others. It also gives you a glimpse into how trapped slaves were, especially those like Northup who was not even near a city.

As a music lover, I was thrilled to see the advantages his musical skills brought him. The chance to travel off the plantation, to earn some money, and even find solace, all speak to the power of music. Even in the midst of the slave system, both masters and servants seek good musSolomon_Northup_engraving_c1853ic.

What is disconcerting to modern ears can be his praise of nice slave owners, or those who treat them in a Christian fashion (slavery aside). Again, Northup views these people as victims of the system, which in a way they are. Of course, we hold them more responsible for their actions today. But it is interesting, and difficult, to hear a former slave speak well of slave owners.

But in those words you find the honesty which makes this a good book. I had hoped to have my 14-year-old read it, but it will be a tough read. Northup at times gets into details which are historically interesting (how he caught fish), but make for slow reading. But those with patience will be rewarded.

Having read the book, I do want to see the movie. Adding more of a “story” to Northup’s writing could make for a moving story on film.

If you want to read more about Northup, the Wikipedia page has a good summary.

Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader

 

Hildegard cover Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess,  composer, and mystic. She is known by many today because of her music, but her creativity was born of mystical experiences which found their expression in a variety of ways. The book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader, is a reader which includes selections from her songs, theological texts, drama, liturgical music, and letters. Each section is introduced by the translator and editor, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, who also provides an introduction to this German woman who challenged the Church while producing in an astonishing range of artistic outlets.
 
Her songs can be especially moving, and Butcher says we may take that as a sign of being written in happy times. “But there were no such periods for this nun. She lived from illness to illness, conflict to conflict, responsibility to responsibility, and perhaps that is why we feel close to her, because, despite Hildegard’s many accomplishments, her life was clearly filled with the daily grind we all experience; and she through it.”
 
One example, her song “The Most Sanguine Moment” (Note: she did not give them titles — this is from the translator):
 
When the Creator actually spilled
His blood on the elements,
earth, air, water, and fire
screamed,
collapsed with grief,
shook from sadness.
Now, Father, with this gift
anoint our weaknesses.
 
Her letters show a very human side, and she never hesitated to direct people (including royalty

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

and Popes) as she thought best. Her drama seems unusual to our modern ears, but is worth reading as it is the earliest known morality play ever recorded.

 
It is in the theological works where her mystic self, as seen in visions, is most clear. She has tremendous visions which she describes in detail, and then explains. Giant people, piles of excrement, and speaking fire, water, earth, and air, are all part of what she sees. At times, her visions seem grand for the simple lessons, but at times they make us rethink our most basic beliefs. In explaining how one vision teaches us about the soul’s power, she says, “A person’s physical body is bigger than their literal heart, just as the soul is stronger than the body. This is what I mean: A person’s heart lies hidden within their body, just as the physical body is surrounded by and hidden in the soul’s powers, which cover the entire globe. Your body is in your soul, not your soul in your body.” 
 
In both her visions and her life, she was willing to turn things upside down to help profess God’s word. Although she battled with Church leaders, she was greatly respected and is now recognized as a Saint. In 2012, Pope Benedict the XVI recognized her as a Doctor of the Church, meaning one to study as well as imitate.
 
As such, this book is a great introduction as it provides a wide selection of her work, and just enough background to give it some context. 

Quarantine

quarantineJim Crace’s novel, “Quarantine,” centers around a 40-day fast in the desert. But this is not just any fast — it is the time when Jesus heads off for his 40 days of fasting, culminating in his resisting of the temptations. But Crace is not writing a religious novel in the Christian sense. Instead, we see Jesus as one of group of both intentional and unintentional pilgrims.

 
We have Musa, a bullying trader who is on the verge of death when Jesus appears and places a drop of water on his lips. Instead, of dying, he comes fully back to life, much to the dismay of his pregnant wife, Miri, who is off digging Musa’s grave when Jesus shows up. Musa and Miri had been left behind by their caravan, but now stay so Musa can make money off of three other pilgrims: Shim, a young, ascetic want-to-be; Marta, who wants to become pregnant before her husband throws her out; Aphas, and elderly Jew seeking a cure for his cancer, and an agile peasant who is unable to speak.
 
Jesus is not the center of the novel or the group. He traveled apart from the group, and chooses a cave separate from the others. His only direct interaction with them comes toward the end of the novel. As we watch the others as they progress through their 40-day fast, which is broken an sundown, we also see Jesus, refusing any subsistence. His prayers become part of his body and breathing, while at times he struggles with madness. He strips off all his clothes, sees the offers of food from the others as a temptation, and dreams of glory even when he knows he should not.

 
This is not a Jesus of miracles, but a young man wrestling with God’s intentions for his life. Crace sounds like the novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, in his earthly portrayal of Jesus. But Kazantzakis clearly sees the divinity of Jesus, while Crace does not take that step. Instead, it is up to the reader to impart their own beliefs on the struggles of Christ. Crace leaves the reader options to do so, even right to the end. But Crace will not be seen as supporting the divinity of his creation.
 

There has been some “controversy” about this book, which is certainly guaranteed when Jesus is a character and looks less than divine. But Christ is large enough to envelope such descriptions, and works, such as this novel by Crace, remind Christians of the humanity of Christ. We focus on the fully divine at the loss of the paradox, which includes being fully human. And the understanding of what Jesus faced from the human perspective makes our faith even clea

Jim Crace

Jim Crace

rer. While some can see Jesus’ loss of rational thought in the book as a sign of disrespect, the fact is that the Christian faith calls for a fierce irrationality which can look foolish to others.  

 
In addition to the controversy, “Quarantine” has also won both praise (NY Times Notable Book)and prizes (Whitbread Novel of the Year and Booker Prize finalist). I question if it would have done so without the insertion of Jesus as a character, although most of the novel does not involve him. At times the story seems as lost as its characters, although it always finds its way back to the center. The 1997 novel has also been adapted for stage. You can learn more about Jim Crace and his work at his website.

The Land of Spices

ImageKate O’Brien’s novel, “The Land of Spices,” does not offer much in way of a summary. Published in 1941, the novel is set in an Irish convent of a French order and run by an English nun. But outside of the upsurge of Irish nationalism and some politics in the order, nations play a small role. Instead, the convent is its own world, which deals with the outside world through the students who go home for vacations. Mere Marie-Helene is the nun, and throughout the book we also see the growth of young Anna Murphy, from six to sixteen, as she moves through life. There is a bond between the two, but the relationship is intentionally kept at a distance. In fact, as readers we are kept at a distance, watching a story unfold slowly. Although there are two events which occurs to each of them near the end of the novel, and these are life-changing events, we still see at the end what looks to be a natural parting of ways. Natural, because, indeed,  it is natural. Roles changes. Life experiences change us. We all make different decisions.

 
Hardly a description to sell a lot of novels, but it is still a novel not to miss. What goes on in these pages show a great deal of the human character, the thoughts and events which shape us, the faith which challenges many of us, the relationships with present and past people, the choices we must make, and the pressures we face. And it does so without the unnecessary drama of self-obsessed people. 
 
There are many themes which could be explored here. We have the challenge of personal obedience and personal freedom, without either side being shown as a preference.  Mere Marie-Helene understands her obedience to God and her order come from a personal choice, her personal freedom. She also understands that not everyone will make the same choice, which is expected. 
 Image
From there rises the theme of humility and judgment. If she teaches her young charge nothing else, it is to be humble about oneself, which leads to less judging of others. “You will make what you must of the life for which we have tried to prepare you. And you have gifts for life. Spend your gifts, and try to be good. And be the judge of your own soul; but never for a second, I implore you, set up as a judge of another. Commentator, annotator, if you life, but never judge.” 
 
Other themes grow even stronger, including the impact of death, but to say more would be to give away too much of the plot. But O’Brien’s desire to face life is tied up in the comment, that “You cannot accept the mystery of life and refuse that of death.” 
 
Finally, as a fan of 17th century poetry, it was wonderful to see the importance of literature in this novel. The connection between the two characters comes because the six year old can recite a poem the nun learned as a child from her own father. The title itself comes from a George Herbert poem, which I provide simply for an excuse to sneak such a poem into my writing.

Prayer
Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days’-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.
 
The novel itself has a challenging history. The book was banned for lewdness because of the line “in the embrace of love.” Of course, it is not the line itself, but the context which caused the commotion. O’Brien herself fell out of popularity, and this novel (and I believe others) went out of print. It would have been a loss for this novel to remain unavailable, so the return is welcomed. 

The Will of God as a Way of Life

the will of god Jerry Sittser has a remarkable gift for taking complex theology and applying it to everyday life. Many people are good at telling you how to live a Christian life, but  their theology may be weak. Sittser is a theologian, and he supports his points with numerous scripture references. In his book, The Will of God as a Way of Life: How to Make Every Decision with Peace and Confidence, the only thing not to like is the title. The subtitle makes it sound like a self-help book. While you will walk away with a new insight, this is no simple, “follow these three steps to better decisions” book.

Instead, Sittser dives head on into the theological issues surrounding the will of God. God’s sovereignty, our free will, calling, and the role of suffering in our lives, all get ample attention.
But what grabs me the most is his opening conversation about God’s will for our life. What do we mean we say “it is God’s will?” And how about following God’s will. What if we make the wrong decision and head down a different path? Sittser explores these questions, and provides an answer.
“As I struggled with the issue of discovering God’s will, I came to a startling conclusion. The will of God concerns the present more than the future; it deals with our motives as well as our actions; it focuses on the little decisions we make every day even more than the big decision we make about the future. The only time we really have both to know and to do God’s will is the present moment. We are to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. These are the basic responsibilities Jesus challenges us to pay attention to.”
In other words, that job we are deciding on, that relationship we are struggling with, that question about our direction in life, are missing the point. Following God’s will is reflected in how we live now, not in what the future holds for us. “We can, in good conscience, choose from among any number of reasonable alternatives and continue to do the will of God.”
And just as how this no simple self-help book, Sittser encourages us to seek God’s direction in scripture, but not as as how-to book. “The Bible does not tell us what to do in every situation. It establishes guidelines and principles, not a long list of rules. It sets the overall direction.”
I should also note his strong work in the area of suffering and God’s will. I reviewed his book, A Grace Revealed, which explores this topic in depth. He also deals with it in A Grace Disguised. Sittser’s entire family was in the car when it was hit by a drunk driver, and he lost his mother, his wife, and a daughter, in an instant. He understands suffering.
He sees God’s story in our lives as a story of redemption. Like reading a novel, the author knows the plot, but the characters are learning as they go. But here, the characters know the ending, and it is a good ending. “Sinfulness and tragedies and suffering and everything else never have the final word. God has the final word. The cross is irrefutable proof that God’s hidden will, mysterious and unfathomable at times, is real and redemptive.”
Sittser never dismisses suffering, but he recognizes our limited viewpoint. It is a humble viewpoint, and thus better focused on living God’s will in the present, confident in the future.