Last month I participated, as a Fellow of the Fujimura Institute, in artist Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care Summit. It was held on the beautiful campus of Cairn University, a room adjacent to a tiny but winsome gallery of art work—including Mako’s massive Walking on Water: Banquo’s Dream.
I had little idea, in advance, what the Summit would be. I rightly imagined that it would be a time of serious strategizing to live into Mako’s vision of Culture Care, as announced in his 2014 book, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Fujimura Institute). As it turned out, I feel that I was offered a golden chalice brimming over with gems. I, along with Institute Fellow Dr. Pete Candler, contributed a portion to the chalice stem. I am grateful to have been so placed.
The major portion of programming for 2 days was given over to 15-minute presentations by people from around the world who have been living out the vision of culture care from long before Mako designated it. “Artists and other creatives,” they were all both working artistically, and creatively connecting with others beyond their discipline or way of seeing the world, to create cultural gestures and foster cultural estuaries (Mako’s spectacular metaphor), committed to Dostoyevsky’s claim that “beauty will save the world.”
A 3-week artistic event in Hong Kong; multiple artistic outreaches in Beijing, including a Chinese American fusion band with Chinese dulcimer embellishment having entirely too much fun with the pentatonic scale, and a Japanese ensemble dancing out repentance and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation in the distant wake of World War II’s ravages; a Julliard-trained organist offering musical concerts for grieving and healing in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami and nuclear catastrophe; an Australian artist traveling the world to encourage culture care, including in India: people in Bangalore, and in Delhi doing just that—including a “Walking Gallery” on the streets of Delhi to display art that Delhi citizens ordinarily would never enter a gallery to consider, and fostering an ever-growing, massive biker club; an opera singer in Kansas City instituting an annual Restoration Arts conference, and an Iowa artist designing conversation installations, including for us in the Cairn Gallery; a Grand Rapids installation artist annually showing in that city’s massive ArtPrize event, contributing pieces that visitors storm in droves to grieve and process losses such as cancer, PTSD, and sexual violence, as they add notes to her installation; a poet who gathers artists in Rock Hill, South Carolina, promoting discussions and producing artistic events, leading to an artistic restoration of the city’s old courthouse and downtown spaces; a movement in Charlotte to create beautiful books and other artistic ventures for children, including refugee children—and Mako told me that this is not even half of the culture care ventures he knows of. These are Christian believers.
And then there were artist performances and contributions among the gems: the organist from Japan; the opera singer from Kansas City; a Gregory Hines protege tap-dancer extraordinaire, performing with a dulcimer player; a rapper; a world-famous folk band; a blues singer/photography artist; a poet and novelist who is 13 volumes into publication; the conversation installation artist, who also worked with beeswax. Oh—and the great artist, Makoto Fujimura, talking about his work, talking about and sharing his friends, in a conference that was his own vision and his own creative venture. He’s used to painting with precious stones.
And the thing about an arts conference, I found, as opposed to, say, some scholarly conferences: it doesn’t take you apart; it puts you together. You leave feeling whole.
All of this is, worldwide, “reconnecting with beauty for the common life”—the subtitle of Mako’s book. Culture care is a concept designed to replace what has been a prevailing motif of culture wars, adversely impacting especially Christian believers’ involvement in culture. The culture war mindset has not helped matters. It has rendered fragmentation adversarial. It has not fostered the common good. Culture care, by contrast, runs, not away from, but toward the rubble, as Mako wrote in the wake of the 9/11 attack near his Tribeca studio. Of all people, Christians, who are what they are only through extravagant, sacrificial, boundary-crossing, other-embracing, beauteous grace, should get this and live it.
It’s not just culture wars which have rendered our culture toxic for artists and all of us; modernity has too. Actually, the culture war mindset itself is rooted in the modern mindset. The modern mindset, beginning in the 1600s and continuing prominently through and past whatever might have been called post-modern, up to the present, is a way of seeing the world that sacrifices just about all that is human and all that is real, to leverage progress, utility, power and control, through breaking things down into 2-dimensional, manageable bits. To be born into the West is to be born into modernity. All dimensions of life bear its debilitating mark. Oh, modernity has been wildly successful; the question is, at what cost to the things that matter, including ourselves?
What this means for even a great and successful artist such as Mako is marginalization and a continual fight for sustainability. What’s more, artists themselves often succumb to modern toxicity, esp. with respect to their relationship to reality and to beauty. Their art and their lives display more profoundly the ravages of fragmentation. Artists are an endangered species, Mako says. He wants others to join him in strategizing to protect their existence and foster their flourishing. For artists, so nourished, hold a critical key to culture care. They can be “mearcstapas,” people who help us and culture because they move easily from one tribe to another, understanding their ways and communicating them to others. They can offer leadership from the margins.
As a freshly designated Fellow of the Fujimura Institute, I see that covenant epistemology offers and connects with culture care. Here are the touchpoints I noted in my talk at the Summit:
Modernity is modernity by virtue of its underlying epistemology. So cultural healing must attend to epistemological therapy. Epistemological therapy is my mission in life, and I feel that covenant epistemology offers it. Covenant epistemology, I believe, holds a key to cultural change.
At the Summit there was no time to explore the joyous and juicy components of covenant epistemology, apart from its anchoring thesis of Michael Polanyi’s claim that all knowing is subsidiary-focal integration. All knowing has a two-level structure: we integrate from particulars-turned clues-turned subsidiaries we rely on, to shape and attend to a creative, integrative, focal pattern that we then submit to as a token of reality, and that transforms us and our world. Recognizing how SFI describes how knowing works everywhere is key to epistemological therapy, to reorienting our epistemic default from something diseased and defective to something healing and true. Where coming to know is going well in our lives, and we are not deceived about what we are doing, what we are doing is always SFI. It’s freeing to see it.
Why is SFI so therapeutic for modernity? Just to take one key implication. Knowledge simply cannot be exhaustively articulated and “certain.” The things we rely on we can’t therein express, even though they are palpable and foundational—just think of what it is to balance on a bike. SFI accredits and helps us become more intentional about the subsidiaries we rely on and therein cannot articulate. SFI describes all knowing, in every area. SFI successfully redraws modernist epistemology.
When you see what goes on in SFI, you see that every such act of knowing, often typified by an aha! moment of inbreaking insight that changes everything, intrinsically involves things that Fujimura’s Culture Care and personal vision call us to: Genesis moments. Generativity. Integration. Imaginative creativity. Boundary crossing. Being a mearcstapa. Openness to the Other. Listening. Sacrifice. Beauty. Taking ashes and making beauty. Enriching the cultural soil.
Places of absence and failure can prove to be genesis moments. All subsidiary-focal integrations are preceded by the emptiness of futile focusing on what needs to become subsidiary in order for you to understand. If I were trying to learn to read Chinese, for example, staring at the beautiful characters would be more and more frustratingly futile until the moment of breakthrough arrived, and I was able to shift from staring at them to relying on and attending from them to their meaning. There is no linear way to get from Point A to Point B. The “failure” of Point A must give way to the gracious inbreaking of Point B. And that aha! of insight is a fresh beginning. SFI is, at its core, a genesis moment.
It is also inherently generative, birthing a fresh way of seeing things that is transformative of self and world, and that is pregnant with future prospects that we sense but cannot yet even name. Covenant epistemology renders the redemptive encounter—the Christian believer’s having been graciously and transformatively known by Jesus Christ—the paradigm of all acts of coming to know.
SFI just is imaginative creativity. It just is integration. SFI is both the act of scientific discovery and also the creative act. It makes for superb entrepreneurial ventures, library cataloguing, and athletics. This accords dignity to all of these, and for fostering creative and integrative connections among disciplines, as Culture Care enjoins.
SFI involves a logical leap between the particulars you first focus on and are trying to make sense of, that then become clues, signposting a farther pattern, and then become subsidiaries embedded in the pattern as parts in a transformative whole. That means that SFI inherently requires boundary crossing.
For that reason, all coming to know what you do not yet know requires openness to the other. In a sense, aspiring to know what you do not yet know requires you to be a mearcstapa, a border stalker. The better you are at it, the more understanding will graciously come to you.
In covenant epistemology, I talk about inviting the real. We should see knower and yet-to-be-known as persons in relationship, and knowing as cultivating an interpersonal relationship. So best practices are those which invite the real. Mearcstapic openness to the other itself invites the real, as do a host of other practices of “epistemological etiquette”—including listening. This is not listening as some passive procedure, a not-so-patient letting another take their turn so that you can take yours. Listening itself actually evokes reality’s self-disclosure. Loving to Know identifies a plethora of such practices, grouped loosely in the five loci of love, composure, comportment, strategy and communion.
SFI inherently calls for surrender or sacrifice. As Mako’s precious minerals give themselves as he pulverizes them, liquefies them, and spills them across a gently self-giving paper that receives them and honors them, so all the particulars we are trying to make sense of must yield their limelight focus to become subsidiary to the larger integrative pattern. And it is a sacrifice fraught both with freeing humility and with heightened dignity: the minerals and paper become themselves in a grander way, as does Mako himself, for the sacrifice.
Also you can easily see SFI as taking ashes and making beauty (God’s own signature move—Isaiah 65). Or a seed falling into the ground and dying, sacrificing itself for the plant or tree that comes to be. Thus it enriches the soil of life and culture in the process: as things become subsidiary, connected creatively in more and deeper patterns, they become more and more freighted with meaning.
Finally, beauty attends SFI throughout. The pilgrimage that is coming to know (as per The Little Manual for Knowing) begins with a wonder, a puzzlement, something beautiful that beckons and woos. It culminates in an elegantly integrative reconfiguration that is itself beautiful, gleaming with a generative splendor of prospects of future implications. And because it involves self-giving pledge and sacrifice throughout, SFI is intrinsically a beautiful act, and a beauty-making act.
So covenant epistemology’s subsidiary-focal integration itself engenders healing culture care for Western modernity. I offer it as epistemological therapy in hope of cultural healing. I’d love nothing better than for it to support artists and other creatives in their work, as a chalice’s stem the overflowing gems it contains. May it be as Summit attendee, youthful composer Dr. Kyle Werner said: “This changes everything!”
Thank you, Makoto Fujimura, for casting this vision and inviting us into it. Thank you for inviting the real.
I first published this piece on Glenn Lucke’s Uncommongrounds Online, May 16, 2010. The Aliquippa story has more recent chapters! I’ll fill you in at the end.
When I moved to Western PA the summer of 2004, I thought I was settling in Center Township. I didn’t realize that I was also settling in Aliquippa. Had I known this at the time, I might have been off-put; as it is, I feel that God was locating me here to be part of his unfolding mission of love for this little corner of his world.
The first I heard of Aliquippa was the common refrain around Beaver County: “Don’t go to Aliquippa; you’ll get shot!” Indeed, the county paper chronicles more shootings in Aliquippa, and fewer positive stories, than for any other town here. Also, as I learned my way about my new locale, I found it full of quaint towns with main streets and park gazebos. But Center didn’t seem to have such a main street. Brodhead Road is the closest thing—a curving 40 mph 2-way named for Fort Pitt’s horseback courier to the French-and-Indian-War era Fort McIntosh outpost on the Ohio River a mile from my house.
It took me a year to make it down to Aliquippa, even though my post office is there. What I saw was the cutest little main street/ghost town ever. And I realized it was MY main street. But what had been its former glory? And what went wrong? My heart started longing for healing and restoration.
I learned Aliquippa’s story: Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill, whose works sprawled seven miles along the Ohio, had built this company town. Franklin Avenue cuts down through a steep-sided valley to the mill; company housing plans still crest the surrounding bluffs. Some-teen-thousands—Italians, Serbians, Polish, and African Americans, found lucrative employment at J&L…until the summer of 1985. Overnight the company disappeared, leaving the city with the mess and with no pensions. In the interim, races clashed, and white people fled up the hill…to Center Township. In the wake of J&L’s disappearance, poverty and despair fueled the devil of a drug trade. Now city residents number far fewer than the mill’s employees, and a sizeable percentage lives below the poverty line. It’s as if the county has consigned this forlorn town to the dustheap.
A couple years later I met two remarkable people who were already doing what my heart was longing for. One is the colorful Australian, Captain John Stanley, of the Church Army USA’s baseplant outreach to the poor, the equally colorful Uncommongrounds Café. (www.uncommongroundscafe.org) When the Stanleys came in 2000, they realized that Aliquippa didn’t need a 49th church, but rather a safe community space in which stories could be heard and healing take place. “How do you help a city grieve?” says John. “Aliquippa needs to honor its past, but let go and take responsibility for its future.”
He also asks, “What would it look like if the kingdom of heaven we pray repeatedly will come actually comes to Franklin Avenue?” One thing it definitely looks like is several grass roots organizations webbing together in solidarity in incarnational ministry. The other remarkable person I have in mind is Joel Repic, Copastor of Crestmont Alliance Church, and Executive Director of Aliquippa Impact Ministries. (www.aliquippaimpact.org) AIM is a youth development organization that targets at-risk youth, furnishing mentors for individual students, and running a top-notch summer program emphasizing literacy, global awareness, and the arts. Growing out of daily street presence, AIM staff have gained respect and welcome and are able to be involved strategically in Aliquippans’ lives.
But that web, the evident working of the Holy Spirit, continues to grow. I have mentioned only two of its key players; there are others. Plus, for a year now, every Saturday morning at 6:30, members of the white ministerium and of the black ministerium have met together for prayer at the Café! And also now, people who love the Lord and the prospects of his work in Aliquippa are moving back down the hill. Some AIM summer staff have chosen Aliquippa as their permanent home. Another young couple, 2010 Geneva College graduates, are buying their first home there, to be part of what God is doing. And another couple my age, already AIM mentors, are moving down to Franklin Avenue to manage AIM’s residential properties.
I’ve been able to house three spring break mission teams from Geneva College to work at and around the Café. Also, I now serve on AIM’s Board and as a writer of “stories that tell the story.”
There was a day I learned that Joel, then a college student, had started AIM in 2004. My spine literally tingled: that was the summer I had moved…to Aliquippa. I pray, write, and watch for the Spirit from my front doorstep. And I invite you: come to Aliquippa! The Lord is there.
John Stanley and family returned to their home in Australia, and many feared the end of the Café. Not so! God has brought Herb (and Angel) Bailey as Ministry Director, and Scott (and Sue) Branderhorst, as Operations Director. Herb is too large a man to give the teddybear hugs he does. He has dreds that are ten years old. He rides a Harley. He paints amazing art all over his house. Angel is from the Ragu family (as in spaghetti sauce). Together they pursue racial reconciliation, throwing “’Erb’N Angel” dinners. New supervised homes for people recovering from addiction are about to open.
My own church, elsewhere in Beaver County, and other churches, send mission teams to help repair homes and farm in the city garden.
Aliquippa Impact has expanded to offer in-school mentoring, and now after-school programming. AI’s first cohort of kids graduated from high school; some are pursuing their dreams to go to college.
The Lord IS there in Aliquippa. AI’s most recent board meeting met a month ago, in gathering room of the Community of Celebration. I remarked to the board about the deep blessing of the Lord on AI. Joel reminded me of the story of the Community of Celebration. Back in the hippie era, there was a movement of the Holy Spirit in Houston, Texas. Among joy and healing and miracle, and prolific song-writing, a community was born. They chose to formalize as the Community of Celebration, adopting an Episcopal, Benedictine Rule of life. Celebration had cells around the world. One cell settled on an island off the coast of Scotland, until the Lord called them to urban ministry. That call led them to relocate to Aliquippa! In 1985!—just as J & L was abandoning the town. They settled into a row of houses on the “elbow” of Franklin Avenue, added an elegant little octagonal chapel, started growing flowers, opened their doors in hospitality, and prayed the hours—in the heart of Aliquippa—for Aliquippa. Of course there is no pinning down the movement of the Spirit, but Joel is right to postulate that that blessing on Celebration is now flowing out in Aliquippa.
If you want to know more, or want to come and see, check out these websites: