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The Art of Repentance

I'm having my whole view of art put under a microscope.

Reframing Repentance

Recently, I read Mako Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty. The artist’s reflections on Japanese culture, and Shusaku Endo’s writing take up most of the book's real estate. Oddly enough, neither subject matter particularly interests me or serves a practical purpose for my everyday living. But the book did what all good art does: it invited me to experience and see the world through a different kind of lens. A more gracious lens. It invited me to repentance. And I mean to use that word.

Of course, when that word gets brought up, a whole lot of feelings and misconceptions tag along with it. What I mean by repentance is not a tearful moment of deep guilt, followed by a promise to God hat holds as much weight as the average New Year’s resolution. I mean what I think Jesus meant when he invited all to “repent and believe” — to open my eyes to the reality of the kingdom of God and how it stacks up against my everyday kingdoms of ambition, self-preservation, and apathy.

The connection between art and repentance isn’t apparent at first glance. I tend to think of repentance as the nitty-gritty, deep work of discipleship, and art as an added bonus — entertainment, even. It’s hard for me to believe art is at all useful, especially in matters of life and following Jesus. I guess the word "kingdom" makes me think of manual labor, and art seems too luxurious to matter to building this kingdom. I'm confessing this as a person who has made a living primarily through art for the past few years.

But, something stirred in me as I read this work of art. Something in my heart was lovingly challenged to see the world a new way. Overall, what Fujimura does with his art and his writing is paint a picture of life with God, not denying reality, but attempting to see it through the redemptive lens of Christ. And I, the reader, once exposed to somebody else’s life experience with the same God I claim to follow, am faced with the choice to either double-down entirely on all my preconceived notions, or allow this new perspective to speak to me. To stand at this kind of crossroads, whether consciously or not, is to have the opportunity to practice repentance. The most mind-boggling thing about repentance is that, though it is essentially stripping away what I once thought of as security, it inevitably yields deeper trust in the security of God.

Level Ground

Fujimura’s work, along with Endo’s, is art that invites the viewer/reader to repentance. What art is wonderfully capable of doing is leveling the playing field between artist and viewer. Art is vulnerable, revealing the true nature of the soul of its creator, just as “the heavens declare the glory of God.” One major problem I notice in my own heart when somebody calls me to repent is that well-meaning pastors, peers, and parents unwittingly create a hard line of demarcation between the preacher and preached-to. The person calling me to repentance can cause me to believe they are on a moral high ground, thereby inducing a shame response in me. If I feel shame, I’m much more likely to hide than engage. Thus, what I need is not the tone of a superior to awaken my need to change direction, but the tone of somebody completely void of insecurity. What I need is the voice of Christ, who “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” If I am called to re-think the nature of my life, I need the voice of a humble and secure Savior, who is able “to empathize with [my] weaknesses.”

What art is wonderfully capable of doing is leveling the playing field between artist and viewer.

As I spend more time with art, I see that at its best, it communicates to us with this kind of tone. Anybody can look at me and tell me that I think God is x, but I really need to think he’s y. But if I am not communicated to by somebody who understands why I think God is x, I’m more apt to defend my view and stalk away than come to a soul-to-soul conversation of repentance and love. The artist somehow plays devil’s advocate to invite the audience to the side of the angels. Any great work of art that has changed my thinking, feeling, and ultimately living, has first done so by standing on the same ground as me (under-standing me).

I'll share with you how Silence and Beauty began to invite me to repentance. With reflections on Japanese persecution of Christians, and a book from the 1950s I’ve yet to read, Fujimura, a 61-year old man, stood on level ground with me. On this level ground, I began to see my way of seeing. I began to see that though I follow Jesus, I’m often tempted to follow a very insecure version of him. By insecure, I don’t mean sheepish, but frantic. The Jesus I’m quick to mentally construct is one who is always moving pedantically, and whose kingdom is always at risk. Rather than the Daniel 7 reality of an “everlasting dominion that will not pass away,” I imagine Jesus to be incredibly worried about whether or not my every action will make his kingdom come or not. Of course this is a powerful lie, because it is built on something true. God does invite me to co-labor with him. “I confer on you a kingdom,” says Christ to his disciples.

But, one thing I am certain of is that God doesn’t invite me to collaborate with him under the motivation of fear. Love is always the method of partnership God chooses, and love requires trust. My every action will lead to exhaustion under the motivation of fear. Under the influence of a deep trust that God is an Artist, weaving together even the most gruesome periods of history, uprooting and replanting all the raw materials of suffering and joy for the purposes of a tapestry of grace called his everlasting kingdom, I find the rest for which I long. In becoming a student of Fujimura and Endo, I began to step out of the life of following an insecure God, into the life of the confident and secure Father displayed in his willingness to not even defend himself from death. See how Fujimura highlights this truth:

“If we are to embrace hope despite what encompasses us, the impossibility of life and the inevitability of death, then we must embrace a vision that will endure beyond our failures. We should not journey toward a world in which “solutions“ to the “problems“ are sought, but a world that acknowledges the possibility of the existence of grace beyond even the greatest of traumas, the Ground-Zero realities of our lives. In such a journey evil is no longer equal to the good, but the stench of death all around us, pulverized by even atomic powers, will remind us that it is despite ourselves that grace and restoration can take place. In a surrender to the inevitable we dethrone evil of its power.” -Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty

If art can create the opportunity for this kind of shift in worldview, it certainly changes the trajectory of our lives, and therefore the manifest presence of the kingdom of God on earth. So, I must apologize for thinking of art as an upper-middle class luxury, serving little to no “practical” use. It is impractical only by modern Western standards, which typically equate practicality with forcefulness and control of outcomes. Prayerfully crafted art can become a wonderful invitation to repentance. And I find even in such a truth, that God is not a God nearly as concerned with practicality as we may think him to be. For us to live as though that is his primary concern is to succumb to the same insecurity we believe him to possess. God is gracious enough to let his kingdom come through the beauty of a painting, the heart-gripping nature of a story, and, as Fujimura states, even the silent redemption of the deepest traumas in history.

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