At the Writing Center, we see writing as a way of cultivating charity toward others, a written reflection of the love of Christ. Through the written word, we are able to extend Christ’s loving embrace to others–both the audience we address and the people we engage with through our citations. Makoto Fujimura, an internationally-renowned painter and essayist, describes this kind of writing as “culture care.”
Fujimura introduces the concept of Culture Care in his 2017 book by that name. In the book, the author calls artists–particularly those operating within a Christian worldview–to become stewards of culture through their creative work. So how might we apply the ideas of Culture Care to our writing? Let’s explore it together.
Writing as a Generative Practice
One key component of culture care is “generative thinking.” Using examples from the natural world, Fujimura notes that “when we are generative, we draw on creativity to bring into being something fresh and life giving.” Generative ideas are “constructive, expansive, affirming, growing beyond the mindset of scarcity.” Fujimura highlights three specific attributes of generative thinking that apply directly to the practice of writing: gratuity, stewardship, and justice.
Gratuity: Generative thinking begins with a sense of gratuity. Fujimura observes that beauty is not necessary for the existence of humanity, yet God has provided beauty out of his gratuitous love. Fujimura contends that “because it is gratuitous, beauty points beyond itself, beyond survival to satisfaction….Beauty also connects us with 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.”
Gratuity in writing might take different forms. Perhaps we choose to devote extra time to revision–whether for an essay or a poem–in order to perfect our craft. Or maybe gratuity means using illustrations to enhance the message of our written work, such as in Gibson & Beitler’s Charitable Writing. Finally, gratuity might be simply allowing ourselves to enjoy the process of writing instead of feeling the need to rush through it in order to accomplish more “productive” activities.
Stewardship: The idea of stewardship can also be generative. Fujimura uses the concept of ecological stewardship to describe how we should steward our God-given cultural resources. All artistic acts are not truly original works of creation. Instead, “we are always acting in stewardship of something that we have been given.”
We can practice stewardship in our writing habits in several ways. First, we can steward the gifts God has given us. We can ask: Where do I particularly excel in writing? How can I use that God-given gift most effectively? Additionally, we can practice stewardship through the content of our writing, advocating for the preservation of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. Finally, we can be stewards of our physical bodies and minds by knowing when to work and when to rest.
Justice: Generative thinking also enables us to think more deeply about justice. Drawing from Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just, Fujimura comments on how artistic beauty reveals what is wrong with the world–and our culpability in such injustice. Through this insight, artistic beauty is able to spark repentance in our hearts. “An encounter with beauty,” Fujimura writes, “can open the door of perception so that we are moved to turn from our errors and begin a journey toward the authentic. What Christians call ‘repentance’–from the Greek metanoia, to turn back–is often sparked by an encounter with the beautiful.”
As we write, we should pursue a biblical model of justice. Often it may be uncomfortable to address sin (individual or generational) or to point out where injustice is present in our communities, yet it is necessary if we truly desire to care for the “soul” of our culture, as well as our own hearts. As a starting point for pursuing justice in our writing, we can consider the local communities which we are a part of. How can we respond to an injustice we notice in the community?
Writing as “Border-Walking”
Old English has a word for a person who dwells on the margins of a community, who may act as a messenger to the people inside the community. Such figures were called mearcstapas, which is translated as “border-walkers” or “border-stalkers.” Fujimura observes that many artists are naturally drawn to such roles, operating on the margins of particular cultural groups (such as within many religious spaces). Because of their liminal status, artists are uniquely equipped to walk along the borders of various cultural groups to help bring conversation and reconciliation.
Often writers–at least, writers who seek to infuse their work with charity–may resonate with the role of a mearcstapa. Those who speak loving truth through their writing can feel marginalized by others. Some may say that such writing compromises conviction by choosing to humanize opposing viewpoints, while others may criticize that for writers to make assertions about truth (even in a loving way) is presumptuous. Yet writers are uniquely positioned to walk the lines between worldviews, offering criticism and insight for both sides of a debate. Further, the unassuming, humble nature of writing enables writers to promote conversations between contentious groups about heated subjects, creating the opportunity for true reconciliatory discourse.
Dickinson’s Desk: Creating Space for Your Writing
One such mearcstapa that Fujimura discusses at length is the American poet Emily Dickinson. He reflects on the solitary nature of Dickinson’s writing life, noting how it was not until after she passed away that much of her poetry was discovered. Now her poetry is some of the most famous (and, in my humble opinion, most beautiful) in American literature!
All this was due to the fact that Dickinson had set aside a time and place for her writing practice. Each morning she would rise at 3 A.M. to write on a small, 17 ½ inch desk. Fujimura encourages artists to imitate Dickinson–to create a particular space where we can practice our art each day. Student writers may find this especially challenging, given the lack of quiet, private spaces available on college campuses, as well as the numerous time commitments that flood students’ schedules. However, such challenges make finding a space for writing all the more important. We can consider: Where (and when) can I go to write, either on- or off-campus?
Conclusion: Writing as Culture Care
When Culture Care was published in 2017, Fujimura stated that much of the “cultural fragmentation” of preceding years had led straight to the polarization that the country was then facing. As he put it, “We have no meaningful engagement with or understanding of the human beings across the divide.” Five years later, such a statement resonates even more deeply in our divided culture. Fujimura would argue that the “soul” of our culture is suffering. As writers working within a Christian framework, Fujimura contends that we are uniquely situated to tend to the soul of culture, bringing the salve of Christ’s beauty to heal the pain of humanity’s sin. We should practice generative thinking in our work, writing which will be marked by gratuity, stewardship, and justice. We should also consider how to create time and space for writing, imitating the quiet, diligent work of Emily Dickinson. I invite you to reflect: How might I nurture culture care in my everyday writing practices?
Fujimura, Makoto. Culture Care. Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 2017.