Culture care and the prophetic artist...

"Culture Care," writes artist/theologian Mako Fujimura, "is to provide care for our culture’s “soul,” to bring to our cultural home our bouquet of flowers, so that reminders of beauty—both ephemeral and enduring—are present in even the harshest environments where survival is at stake. We may need to learn to cultivate these reminders of beauty in the same way flowers are cared for and raised. Culture Care restores beauty as a seed of invigoration into the ecosystem of culture. Such soul care is generative: a well-nurtured culture becomes an environment in which people and creativity thrive." (On Becoming Generative)

It is essential for me to hold Mako's wisdom about culture care close to my heart these days for this is a season of ugly fear, relentless exploitation, cruel manipulation and bone-chilling despair. In contrast to what some Buddhists tell us is creation's organic state of suffering, a reality in which any hope of justice and shalom are as much an illusion as "reality" itself, my experience suggests otherwise: I have known moments in my culture and our history when compassion and hope were stronger than fear and pain. A careful exploration of our past points to other eras more grounded in truth and beauty than our current state of the union, too. To be sure, "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and all things "like grass soon fade and whither like the spring flowers" (Psalm 37:2) Yet simultaneously, we can see seasons of generativity woven through the fabric of time like gold in a tapestry of earth tones.

Again, Mako is helpful in his definition of what is generative and de-generative:

We call something “generative” if it is fruitful, originating new life or producing offspring (as with plants and animals) or producing new parts (as with stem cells). When we are generative, we draw on creativity to bring into being something fresh and life-giving. We can also approach generativity by looking at its shadow, “degenerate,” the loss of good or desirable qualities (a term also frequently used of generations). What is generative is the opposite of degrading or limiting. It is constructive, expansive, affirming, growing beyond a mindset of scarcity.

To be generative, therefore, requires a commitment to creativity and self-criticism. Fr. Richard Rohr recently observed that the Hebrew prophets are unique in religious traditions because they lovingly - and even generatively - critique what is degenerate in their culture, religion, politics and economy. He writes:

 The presumption for anyone with a dualistic mind is that if you criticize something, you don't love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite. The Church's sanctification of the status quo reveals that we have not been formed by the prophets, who were radical precisely because they were traditionalists. Institutions always want loyalists and "company men"; we don't want prophets. We don't want people who point out our shadow side or our dark side. It is no accident that the prophets and the priests are usually in opposition to one another (e.g., Amos 5:21-6:7, 7:10-17). I think it is fair to say that the prophetic charism was repressed in almost all of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity. None of us have been known for criticizing ourselves. We only criticize one another, sinners, and heretics--who were always elsewhere! Yet, Paul says the prophetic gift is the second most important charism for the building up of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11). (Richard Rohr)

Perhaps that is why it is usually only those outside our institutions who are able to prophetically  articulate in a loving way what has become degenerative within and among us. This morning I read Chris Hedges' biting critique of the film "Fifty Shades of Grey." He entitles his commentary: "Pornography Is What the End of the World Looks Like." (http:// www. what_ the_ end_of_ the_ world_ looks_l ike_20150215I confess that it often pains me to read Hedges. It physically hurts to take in his conclusions. And not simply because I am repelled by his flirtations with rhetoric. No, what is agonizing for me about Chris Hedges is his brutal expose of the degenerative nature of our culture. He is a prophet, pure and simple. He loves what is true, what is good, what is noble. He loves people as only a prophet can. That is why he has been marginalized and ridiculed by those with much to lose. He loves real people profoundly.

 “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the book and the movie, is a celebration of the sadism that
dominates nearly every aspect of American culture and lies at the core of pornography and global capitalism. It glorifies our dehumanization of women. It champions a world devoid of compassion, empathy and love. It eroticizes hypermasculine power that carries out the abuse, degradation, humiliation and torture of women whose personalities have been removed, whose only desire is to debase themselves in the service of male lust. The film, like “American Sniper,” unquestioningly accepts a predatory world where the weak and the vulnerable are objects to exploit while the powerful are narcissistic and violent demigods. (Chris Hedges)

Artists of all types have a calling - and it is neither to distract and titillate nor sentimentalize and white wash reality. Rather, it is a prophetic calling that takes us deeper into the complex truths of our era. It helps us discover the truly gratuitous nature of life - the reality of grace even in our hardships and hope within our fears -- and shows us how "gratitude can galvanize us to  ask and welcome questions beyond our own context and experience."

Artists at their best help us with such questions by presenting an expansive vision of life that reveals beauty in ever-wider zones. They can reveal new facets of human flourishing even in the midst of tragedy or horror, pointing toward hope and meaning. (Mako Fujimura) 

One of the most insightful and prophetic artists of our era, Leonard Cohen, knows of a time when culture was not frought with fear and angst.  He, like myself, is haunted by the stark contrasts and describes the new world order in the terrifying song: The Future. Like Hedges "he's seen the future, brother, and it is murder!"

He isn't kidding when he laments for all of us: "When they said REPENT.. I wondered what they meant." And so he keeps at it - creating a catalog of the culture's degenerate truths - but never for shock or pornographic value. He is too much the lover - and prophet - for anything so shallow. No, what Cohen aches for is a change in direction - repentance social as well as personal - as only a practicing 21st century Zen Buddhist Jewish prophet could proclaim in song. 

There'll be the breaking of the ancient western code 
Your private life will suddenly explode 
There'll be phantoms 
There'll be fires on the road 
and the white man dancing 
You'll see a woman hanging upside down 
her features covered by her fallen gown 
and all the lousy little poets coming round 
tryin' to sound like Charlie Manson 
and the white man dancin' 

Give me back the Berlin wall 
Give me Stalin and St Paul 
Give me Christ 
or give me Hiroshima 
Destroy another fetus now 
We don't like children anyhow 
I've seen the future, baby: 
it is murder 

The artist - the prophet - must awaken us to what is degenerate and then nurture us in what is grace-filled, life-giving, creative. Another Jewish poet/prophet, Isaiah, said "I have come": comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

Rohr concludes his essay in much the same way Mako does: when we name and ache over what is broken - when we face the paradox of hope and fear in our hearts and confront the degenerate - we can break into something deeper. 

Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with your shadow. I wish someone had told me that when I was young. It is in facing your conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that you grow up. You actually need to have some problems, enemies, and faults! You will remain largely unconscious as a human being until issues come into your life that you cannot fix or control and something challenges you at your present level of development, forcing you to expand and deepen. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding, that we break into higher levels of consciousness. I doubt whether there is any other way. People who refine this consciousness to a high spiritual state, who learn to name and live with paradoxes, are the people I would call prophetic speakers. We must refine and develop this gift.

Such is the calling of the artist - always - but especially at this moment in time. Cohen's most recent contribution gets it right.

 I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape

I couldn’tmeet their glances
 I was staring at my shoes

It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues
It was almost like the blues

I have to die a little
between each murderous plot
and when I’m finished thinking
I have to die a lot

There’s torture, and there’s killing
and there’s all my bad reviews
The war, the children missing, lord
It’s almost like the blues
It’s almost like the blues

Though I let my heart get frozen
to keep away the rot
my father says I’m chosen
my mother says I’m not

I listened to their story
of the gypsies and the Jews
It was good, it wasn’t boring
It was almost like the blues
It was almost like the blues

There is no G-d in heaven
There is no hell below
So says the great professor
of all there is to know

But I’ve had the invitation
that a sinner can’t refuse
It’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues
It’s almost like the blues



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