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Culture Care - Alexandra Harper

Culture Care

by Alexandra Harper

 “At the heart of every good theology lies not simply a plausible intellectual vision but more importantly a compelling account of a way of life.” (Miroslav Volf, in The Way of Life: Practicing Theology, 247)

The Biblical Story is about a homemaking God who crafted a world with beauty, creative excellence and hospitality. When mankind rejected him, the Creator pursued our world through the Incarnation despite suffering all blasphemies of theft, betrayal, and abandonment. Christians celebrate the Son who became part of our world and made himself at home with us. God became a local. Now, Jesus Christ continues to gather believers through classic homemaking activities such as the Lord’s Table. Food is a necessity but the sign and performance of the Table transcends survival. The Table is a gift of homecoming, the place-making activity of shalom. Shalom is the fullest expression of the goodness of life, what it means to be free and to flourish. As such, the Christian life expresses the fullness of God in a flat, dystopian and disenchanted world.

The Church has taught this vision since her birth following Christ’s great commission to “go and make disciples teaching them all I have commanded you” (Matthew 28). Jesus is saying that every single thing we make, buy, sell and do is about ethically-bound relationships. In Culture Making, Andy Crouch states that everything we make tells a story. “We make sense of the world by making something of the world. The human quest for meaning is played out in human making…. Meaning and making go together—culture is the activity of making meaning.”[1] As such, everything in our daily practice reveals our commitment to care for the life of the world as God’s image bearers (imago dei).

In practice, many American churches struggle to bridge the gap between teaching and forming practicing communities that care for creation, creativity and artistry. This gap occurs when churches offer a superficial treatment of our identity and work as image bearers, disciples and gifted members of the body of Christ. This results in a stunted discipleship that treats creation, creativity and artistry as periphery ministry issues. Yet the arts are instinctual forces that reclaim the purposes of life. The dancer Andrew Nemr states, “The arts are a heightened expression of our experience of life. They serve to amplify our current experience, retell past experiences, or envision future ones."

Orthodox theological commitments without artistic sensibilities and earth-keeping virtues promote a culture of compromise, injustice and ideology. Ideology occurs when a Christian view is affirmed (e.g., welcoming refugees) but not intentionally practiced in meaningful ways. Today, the two movements of Creation Care and Culture Care both spring out of a felt need for the Church to return to the ancient practice of hospitality. Recovering artistic and earth-keeping sensibilities that engage imaginative apologetics in a discipleship community is key to recover who we are as image bearers on God’s good earth. Then, by making and performing great works today, we anticipate and prepare for Christ’s return (Ephesians 2:10).

Culture Care is an invitation to create space within the local church to invest our talents, time and tithes in works that lean into the Kingdom of God as creative agents of shalom. My work as Creative Director for Culture Care with Artists in Christian Testimony, Intl began out of an ongoing conversation on culture care since 2013 with the artist Makoto Fujimura, who wrote the book Culture Care (2014). His meditations on faith, creativity and beauty permeate his thesis that Culture Care can serve as a generative paradigm to create a more grace-filled (and thus less pragmatic or instrumental) view of our spaces, resources, and practices. This will fund our worship and our witness to create possibilities for surprising partnerships and alliances with artists and food producers, bridging this strange disconnect between “Creation” and “Culture” and “worship” and “missions.”

His three marks of Culture Care are 1) genesis moments, 2) generosity, and 3) generational thinking. Culture Care is a type of applied theology of friendship and sacrifice. For example, the paradigm takes shape from a Creator who is also a Father who offers new beginnings. Then, the extravagant splendor of the Incarnation acts out of generosity and fills the four Gospels with stories of beauty and sacrifice. Last, the Lord’s Table reveals generational thinking as the feast is prepared in advance for unknown but hoped-for guests.  

While Culture Care leads us towards a discipleship that fosters hospitality, beauty and justice, we live in a time when the correlative economic term for today is known as the Age of Resource Depletion. Alongside fossil fuel depletion, there are competitive theological and philosophical forces in churches that foster negligence in creation, creativity and artistry.

For example, I’ve asked Christian groups what the phrase “homeless culture” meant to them. The current European refugee crisis and the local homeless were offered, but the main response among American Evangelicals is that Christians are the true homeless culture, Heaven’s citizens and spiritual refugees. This foreigner identity finds support in various texts (e.g., Eph. 2:12, 2:19; Gal. 6:10; Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:13, 12:22, 13:14; 1 Pet. 2:11), but an overly simplistic interpretation (e.g., mainly that of personal righteousness and salvation for the purposes of a Heavenly home) leads to the abandonment of local culture and creation.  

This posture is a break with Jesus’s principle work for the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is the renewal of Creation and is an unfolding event expressed through Sabbath-keeping practices of care and worship that governs all facets of life. “Homeless culture” is both the cause and the outcome of this mischaracterization of God’s hospitality towards us and calling of us. Creation begins with God making the world as a place to be inhabited and hospitable to the fullness of life and humans are called to be caretakers of world.

Through Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, we can have “genesis moments” instead of fragmentation and utility. Through the prophetic visions, the covenants and Christ himself, there is a vision of shalom, the wild hope within an ecology of grace goes out to the desecrated lands and heals the deepest wounds. Jesus is the prime example of someone who was actually homeless and yet wherever he was, there was home and he was ‘at home’ (John 1:14).

When we look at images of homeless spaces or refugee camps in Africa, along the borders of Europe and Asia, there is little beauty or architecture of transcendence. There is only utility and survival. But what if Christians responded to the real need of refugees within our cities with commissioning local artists to create beautiful works that say you are not only surviving, now you are part of our family? What if a church commissioned refugees who are craftsmen, artists, poets and musicians to create community transformation stories? Instead of limiting ourselves to a lecture on refugees, what might it look like for us to artistically collaborate, to hear their stories and expand our sense of storytelling and imagination? The poet Maya Angelou said, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”[2] If we challenged the silos in our lives and ministry and instead loved like a family, the church would look like home.

Many ministry leaders affirm the theological connections that I have shared here, but they do not see ways that an economic philosophy of scarcity has shaped their approach to ministry. Few doubt that economic forces have shaped the way people work, but many fail to understand that utilitarianism and a language of scarcity have reordered the way Christians view and participate in culture formation.

What is rushed and poorly crafted, what is out of touch and out of tune with the world is a joyless culture. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s greatest criticism against Christians was that they had no joy. It is little wonder that many church buildings look more like Costco than a place of Sabbath, celebration and beauty.  A pastor was quick to tell me that “we are not about the building.” What he was saying is that his church rejects materialism, but this statement shows a dissonance with Christ’s generative kingdom activity that is grounded in a legacy of generosity and hope-filled service as we make and give shape to a just and generous community. In a subversive act of civil disobedience to this mentality of scarcity and survival, culture care practices are imbued with a language of abundance and generosity.

In The Gift, Lewis Hyde speaks of a necessary harmony in the relationship between commodity and gift. He states, “A work of art can exist without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.” The problem with viewing the arts and environment as a commodity is that it psychologically alienates self and community from a sense of place. For example, I shared a meal with a teenager and her two babies at a homeless shelter that hosts families so the mothers can go to school. At first, my guest “Amy” showed very little emotion or interest in sharing her life story. But when I asked her if she liked to make things, she started to smile and speak with real feeling and confidence. Amy loves to crochet and learn new patterns but she hasn’t made anything for ten months, because she lacks the materials and training. After all, how many homeless shelters stock art supplies? One reason why the homeless shelter struggles to find mentors for their residents is that many do not feel equipped to mentor girls like Amy. Right now, Amy is disconnected from a creative discipleship and practice that can help her lean into joy. But how many churches have textile artists or crochet enthusiasts that could share material and skills with those like Amy?

Last spring, I attended a big city-wide farmers event where I asked farmers if there were any churches supporting local agriculture with their food pantries or fellowship meals. I was told that not one farm had any connection with a local church, although a few farmers said they knew of some Christians who invested in community supported agriculture (CSA). Instead, churches are shopping from big corporations that rarely show care for the land, animals or the field and factory workers.

I share these encounters that are within Christian contexts, because art and environment have been largely disconnected from a larger narrative of sacred meaning in the church. In Jeremiah 18, God tells the prophet to go to the potter’s house and watch him work, because God will speak to the prophet through a creative work. I’ve met with ministry leaders that say they are passionate about the arts and affirm the doctrine of Creation, yet have no credible relationship with local artists or earth-keeping practices. Of course, it is possible that they only mean that they like to watch movies, listen to music and watch the sunset.

It is a mistake to limit ecological concerns to politics and industrial technologies or the arts to a special interest group. Scripture presents a high view of creation and human responsibility to wisely cultivate the earth and bless the nations with all our creativity and work. Many ministry leaders have not adequately accounted for the profound spiritual implications of a culture of individualism, isolation and homelessness which exacerbates ecological and cultural suffering.

When a ministry defaults to a reactive survival mode, it no longer welcomes and builds up different gifts of the church body. Culture Care seeks to recover the sacred distinction of the Christian tradition: virtuously inhabiting a time and space in such a way as to create a hospitable community in the local landscape. It is not about “getting artistic” or becoming “cultural” in an elitist sense. It is a way of life that is free to rediscover the image in which we’ve been made. Culture Care calls us back to behold God in fresh expressions.

The gathering of believers is to be a generous, grace-filled space for creating, caring, feasting and sending. Makoto Fujimura states that the gift of imagination (through creative excellence and beauty) is at the core of humanity. As such, he argues, that all forms of artistic validation and expression should be at the center of Christian worship, “For this gift helps us understand the Greatest, the one who also cannot be marketed.”

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Alexandra Jean Harper is the Creative Director for Culture Care, a ministry department of Artists in Christian Testimony International (A.C.T. Intl). Her work explores the relationship between creation, creativity and Christian ethics. She focuses on theological aesthetics and creating hospitable, imaginative environments that create space and ways in which the church and the arts of life reinforce each other. She leads collaborative projects and initiatives that equip churches to engage in strategic outreach, discipleship and create in-depth partnerships within the local community. She studied Apologetics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. She then went on to study Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews in St Andrews, Scotland. She has also interned with the artist Makoto Fujimura as part of the Fujimura Institute based in New York City. She lives in Durham, North Carolina, USA. For more information, see www.culturecarerdu.com.

[1] Andy Crouch, Culture Making, p. 24

[2] Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.