Culture Care: An Assumption of Abundance

culture care illustration by Denise Klitsie

“In solving a problem, any problem, you must start with the universe.” This oft-repeated quote from Bill Brehm—who, with his wife, Dee, gave the major gift that allows the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts to exist—invokes an abundance that seems increasingly rare in our fearful world.

The philosophy of “Culture Care” assumes, with Bill Brehm, a world of abundance. Culture wars begin when the notion of scarcity prevails. Common sense seems to indicate a Darwinian model of a zero-sum game of survival. But could there be an alternative? Do we dare even to ask that question?

It’s not just benefactors and those with abundant resources who live with the perspective of the universe. Surprisingly, it is most often artists who live in the assumption of abundance, despite what the world tells them. They have to. In order to create anything, one has to assume that we are not just “fixing” the universe and “righting it back”; instead, we are creating a new universe.

In Isak Dinesen’s story Babette’s Feast, Babette, a haggard 19th-century refugee exiled to a fjord in Norway, assumes abundance despite the darkness and obvious scarcity that envelops her. “A great artist is never poor,” she emphatically states. Michelle Hurst, who played Babette in a recent off-Broadway production, pronounced the line with a stare of a stubborn confidence earned not from winning the world, but by losing it; not out of fear-filled resignation, but with extravagant generosity. Michelle, as the first African American actor to be cast in the role of Babette, would know something about that decision to choose abundance, to assume that grace is indeed infinite—that we can still choose to speak against our fears despite the world of scarcity we experience every day.

Artists fight against that fear. “A great artist is never poor.” That’s why artists, possessing this invisible capital, are first to be targeted when dictators take over; they know how powerful this belief in abundance can be to free the captives. Smart despotic leaders like Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (605–564 BC) knew that it was better to bring the artisans into exile first, as he valued their contribution to society (see Jeremiah 29). Artists and artisans of all faiths bring the aroma of abundance into any world, even a world of exile. It is in creating beauty that we find the antidote to our fears and state control; it is in the theater of humor that we find resilience. It is in music and dance that we survive our Holocausts.

“Culture Care” is my cultural translation of Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 5 for us to live a “Spirit-filled life”: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such love there is no law.” What kind of culture would be “filled with the Spirit,” and what qualities would that culture manifest?

When I pondered that question, it became evident to me that the world we live in—and, even more critically for us, our church culture—do not often exhibit these qualities, but instead seem driven by fear: to choose to fight culture wars instead of caring for and loving our culture. As a result, we display the face of fear instead of love; project hatred instead of joy; reveal anxiousness instead of peace; exhibit judgmentalism instead of forbearance; build walls with jealous exclusion instead of kindness; invite bitterness instead of goodness; celebrate celebrity instead of faithfulness; invoke rage instead of self-control. Can there be an alternative?

At Fuller, we are embarking on a journey of seeing Culture Care as one of the critical values of the seminary. As an artist and Culture Care Director at the Brehm Center, I am pursuing what it means to live and create by “being filled with the Spirit” and invoke those values into the greater culture. I call this theological journey into Culture Care a “Theology of Making.” It is a journey of Christ-centered creativity and hope, of Spirit-filled experiments and innovation. But in order to gain this effect fully, we need to also be willing to be exposed to disappointments, failures, and challenges.

Artists, living in the assumption of abundance, can learn to be artists of the feast, to be wedding planners of the great cosmic wedding to come, to stare into the zero-sum game of the abyss and claim that “a great artist is never poor.” But equally important is that all Christians, however artistic they may or may not be, can view the world and the cultures they inhabit—and can lean into them—with a posture of love and care, not fear and rejection. What great abundance of love might the Spirit afford us then? “Against such love there is no law.”

Worship illustration by Denise Klitsie

Makoto Fujimura’s concept of culture care as the “restoration of beauty as a seed of invigoration into the ecosystem of culture . . . a well-nurtured culture becoming an environment in which people and creativity thrives” may well mean a strategic undoing of Westernized visions of culture that limit non-Western human beauty and co-opt their creativity. Such a process begins with epistemic healing. What is a colonized culture to heal from? The answer is the colonial wound: in the words of Walter Mignolo, “the feeling of inferiority imposed on human beings who do not fit the predetermined model in Euro-American narratives.”

Culture care in the context of the Global South, then, may be imagined as the restoration of the imago Dei in the erasures of coloniality—and the propagation of an ecology of ancestral and contemporary knowledges coexisting as embedded beauty, goodness, and truth in stories, artifacts, and independent cultural histories for centuries negated by the logic of Western logo-centrism.

+ Oscar García-Johnson, Assistant Provost for Centro Latino and Associate Professor of Theology and Latino/a Studies

Psalms Illustration-David Taylor

The most influential “culture care” text ever written is Deuteronomy 6:4–9, known by its first Hebrew words as the Shema Israel:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Here we find all the essential elements of enduring culture: artifacts and patterns of life, external discussion and internal reflection, personal commitment and multigenerational transmission. The people of Israel, now dispersed throughout the world, “keep these words” to this day. And because Jesus of Nazareth underscored the importance of the Shema—adding the command to love the Lord with all one’s “mind” as well—it is not just Jews, but Christian believers as well, who see this as the greatest commandment.

This text, as taught by Jesus, also gives us the best compact definition I know of what it is to be a human person. A person is a complex interrelation of heart, soul, mind, and strength, designed for love. We combine heart (not just emotion in the modern sentimental sense, but the Hebrew sense of affective will—choices made to achieve one’s desire), soul (the capacity for depth or fullness of self), mind (the capacity for cognition and reflection), and strength (the capacity for embodied action). This heart-soul-mind-strength reality of personhood is at its best when it is oriented toward loving God and, as Jesus emphasizes, loving neighbor. To care for culture, then, is to care for those cultural patterns, artifacts, and institutions that most fully allow human persons to express their love for God and neighbor.

+ Andy Crouch, Author, Speaker, and Fuller Trustee