Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Four Quartets: Eliot, Fujimura, & The Gift Of Culture

"Still Point" by Makoto Fujimura

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable."
- T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton," Four Quartets

In undergraduate school I signed up to take a poetry writing class with Susan Ludvigson. Coming into that class my idea of poetry was stuck in the Romantics (Byron, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth), so my feeble first attempts resembled that outdated style of writing. This class, while breaking me of that habit, would never magically make me into a poet since I struggled to distill my thoughts to the very essence needed to create a poem. During the class, however, I managed to write one that reminded my professor of "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." Never having read T.S. Eliot, this was my doorway into the most celebrated poet of the 20th century. From that poem, I slogged my way through The Wasteland (if only Google existed then so I could research all of the literary and historical references made in that poem), on to "The Hollow Men," "Ash Wednesday," and, ultimately to my favorite, Four Quartets. Never had I encountered poetry like this before and it made a huge impression on me. What I've discovered with Four Quartets is that the older I get, the more I bring to this poem and can connect with its themes of time, memory, and mortality.

"Fire and Rose are One"

From 1941 to 1942, towards the end of his career, T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets was published. Written over the course of eight years, Eliot wrote these poems to give hope during a time of war and to inspire a religious revival in England. 

Shortly after 9/11, the artist Makoto Fujimura began to read Four Quartets. He did so because a friend, George Wolfe, gave him a copy, telling him, "If ever you find yourself disoriented or lost in a dark woods, read this poem." Fujimura would reflect on these four poems for ten years before using them to inspire his paintings, which then led to a collaboration with painter Bruce Herman, composer Christopher Theofanidis, and theologian Jeremy Begbie entitled "QU4RTETS." When asked why they chose Eliot's Four Quartets and why at this moment in time, their response was:

Four Quartets is relevant to our own cultural moment because of its powerful testimony
of grace and vision of the Gospel message in a multicultural milieu. In Eliot's vision all
hinges upon the "still point" where the human experience of time evokes wonder, fear,
and longing for continuance and redemption, and where Christ's presence is the pivotal
point for the entire Creation.

Both artists, Eliot and Fujimura, created great beauty out of a time of terror.

T. S. Eliot is considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Makoto Fujimura is one of the most important modern artists painting today. Both men have taken their craft and their faith as integral, important, and not disconnected. Their faith impacts their work and their work impacts the culture. 

Born in Saint Louis, he would emigrate to England where he would spend the rest of his life. T. S. Eliot struggled with religious belief. He was raised Unitarian, but while he was at Harvard he began to study Buddhism, later he would investigate both Hinduism and Confucianism before converting to Christianity. Along with being a trained philosopher, he studied a wide range of subjects from Sanskrit to advanced mathematics to Greek. He was friends with the Bloomsbury Group (such as Virginia Woolf whose writing he would influence), English painter and writer Wyndham Lewis, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. In 1948, he would go on to win the Nobel Prize.

Makoto Fujimura is one of the foremost modern painters in the world today. His painting is a mix of fine art, abstract expressionism, and the traditional Japanese art of Nihonga. Along with the numerous awards and honorary doctorates he's received, Fujimura was appointed to the National Council for the Arts in 2003. Fujimura would go on to help create the International Arts Movement to address faith in the arts. It's mission is, "Caring for culture through wrestling deeply with issues of art, faith, and humanity." 

What both Eliot and Fujimura have understood is that Christians cannot impact a culture they are not a part of. Both men view their art as a calling. Eliot once said:

It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have been rooted. It is a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning . . . I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the compete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole culture goes.

During the same time that Four Quartets was published, C.S. Lewis, a friend of Eliot's, was giving a series of talks on the BBC radio on his defense of Christianity that would not only impact England but would become, when published, one of the most important influential Christian books of all time: Mere Christianity.

Both Eliot and Lewis were highly educated men with a wide and varied intellectual interests, yet they both fundamentally came to understand, as Fujimura later would, that as much as they could appreciate beauty, they could not hold that beauty deep within them until they began to understand that it was all contained within Christ. To reach past the beauty to Jesus is, as Eliot writes, to "think anything out to a conclusion." That's why, in his Four Quartets, he writes interlinked meditations on man's relationship to time, the universe, and to God. This is the principal of great art.

All great art should work on three different levels:
1. personal
2. societal
3 spiritual

"Zero Summer"

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
- T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets

Through these poems, Eliot was transforming his real world into a spiritual one. Like Julian of Norwich, he was reflecting and meditating on the nature of time and of his own, both past, present and future. As he wrote, "all time is eternally present" and "in my end is my beginning." He did not shy away from spiritual awareness, transformation, and incarnation. Yet he does not write in a way that bludgeons one with theology or dogma, but rather through beauty one reaches a transcendence. Artists should not give all the answers but merely provide the right questions that causes someone to wonder and ponder on the nature of reality and of God. Great artists do not tell, they show and by doing this, cause the viewer or listener or reader to assess for themselves the meaning.

Another such artist who blended his art with his faith was the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Deeply religious, Tarkovsky made films that were embraced by great filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman (another director who wrestled greatly with God) who considered Tarkovsky the "greatest" filmmaker.  His films (Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, Stalker, The Sacrifice) are considered some of the greatest movies ever made. The son of a poet, Tarkovsky presented his faith through imagery, metaphor and paradox. "Modern mass culture aimed at the 'consumer'," he wrote in Sculpting in Time (his masterpiece on art, faith and culture), "the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people's souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being." This sentence reminds me of one written by Saint Augustine in his Confessions in which he writes that people suffer from "a famine of that inward food . . . God."  Tarkovsky believed that art should encompass the fullness of our beings and, to do that, one could not ignore the soul.

Andrei Tarkovsky saw so much of culture as shallow and that "people cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual, and consume films like bottles of Coca-Cola." His films are ruminations on God, Christ and scripture. His journals are filled with prayers like this one:

Lord! I feel You drawing near, I can feel Your hand upon the back of my head.
Because I want to see Your world as You made it, and Your people as You would
have them be. I love You, Lord, and want nothing else from You.

In what is considered one of the greatest films, Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky recreates 15th century Russia as he tells the tale of the famous icon painter as he deals with artistic freedom, faith, and political oppression. In it, Tarkovsky presented his belief that, "Art affirms all that is best in man - hope, faith, love, beauty, prayer . . . What he dreams of and what he hopes for . . . What is art? A confession. An unconscious act that none the less reflects the true meaning of life - love and sacrifice." He saw that in Christ and translated it to his films.

"Between Two Waves Of The Sea"

"The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire."
- T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets

When artists join in the act of creation it is a form of "on earth as it is in heaven." Even Aristotle understood that, "The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things but their inward significance." Art is more than mere transaction, it's transformation. It is not about pragmatism and utility but as Fujimura states, "wasteful extravagance."

What does he mean by that?

"God somehow demands of us so much more than this transactional nature. It is really about the gift we've been given, and the only response we can give back is with extravagance, with gratuitous beauty."

It's about using our talents to glorify God through our very acts of creation. Faith provides a deeper context for our art because we understand that we are joining in a form of communion with the "artist-Christ," as William Blake called him.  This is an expression of both our humanity and the divinity that created us, called us "good," and as the Spirit hovered above the waters, so, too, does the Spirit over the artist as he or she expresses themselves through painting, music, dance, or writing. Certainly Christ spoke to his own culture through the use of story. And why wouldn't he? "In the beginning was the Word..." that is a poetic God; a God who speaks creation into being, who values the meaning of words and the desire to create simply as an act of love. From chaos, form. From nothingness, the universe. From brokenness, beauty. From pain, grace. This is God as artist.


There are many who would deride an artist from expressing their faith, but why shouldn't they? The mere act of creating is sacred and is a form of communion with God. Certainly novelist Marilynne Robinson does not shy away from writing novels that believe the vocabulary of faith is a rich, diverse one as she "tracks the movements of grace" (The Atlantic).  She sees the sacredness of things and said that prayer often leads to thinking and thinking to writing. All are an act of faith. All are a form of vocation or ministry. She articulates what the culture fails to do so in their inarticulateness about the things of faith. In novels like Gilead, Home and Lila, Robinson deftly writes stories that show the beauty and largeness of faith. 

"People say to me, 'I'm religious. I'd like to write about religion but . . . everybody would hate it, nobody would read it.' You're a coward, is what you feel like saying . . . Faith is one of the great structuring elements in civilization. It has fascinated the best minds of many centuries. If it happens to fascinate yours also, there is no reason to be afraid. Of what, a bad review?"

She has not faced that. Her novels have not only got glowing reviews but she has also won most of the major literary awards (including the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction). All of her novels have made the "best of" lists each year that they came out. Diane Johnson, of The New York Times, wrote of her, "It's courageous of Robinson to write about faith at a time when associations with religion are so often negative and violent."

Yet Robinson does and does so with great artistry, even loosely basing her novel Lila on Ezekiel. She is part of a long line of authors of faith: from Dante and Milton, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to more modern writers like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, John Updike, Madeleine L'Engle, Wendell Berry and Leif Enger.

All of these people are artists who are Christians. Notice I did not write "Christian artist." As Makoto Fujimura has said, "Christian is a noun, not an adjective." All of them strive to a full understanding of the meaning of existence, of God, of faith, and doubt. The creative act in all of its forms is sacred because they are intentional in their desire to present a beauty and truth that connects us to God. Each of these artists are devoted to God and their craft. The spiritual awakening that artists like Eliot and Fujimura have experienced through grace has led them to a richer, fuller and more productive creative life. From that starting point, they all find in art a way to express that which is deepest and most permanent about humanity. All of them honor beauty in their lives, their work and their faith. 

In both art and faith one must practice the art of active surrender. It is vulnerability and opening oneself up to the both the visible and invisible, the secular and the sacred, the salvation from the darkness. Epiphany, transfiguration, transcendence, grace, and resurrection are all apart of the Creation and our own minor creations. All is parable. It is Jesus telling hearers, "Pay attention. Notice. Listen." These are the gifts and skills an artist needs to create and then portray in their own works to the culture around them. It is an offering of the sublime and the eternal. Even the Eucharist, itself, is art, is poetry, is metaphor. "This is my body. This is my blood." Making the ordinary (bread, wine) into the extraordinary, causing all to "Do this in remembrance." Be a witness.

As Madeleine L'Engle wrote in her classic Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, "In art we are once again able to do all things we have forgotten, we are able to walk on water, we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars."

Christians need to engage the culture through the arts. They need to present what is significant, what is beyond us, to symbols of the Spirit, and to that which is wider than the world we occupy, towards the ultimate measure of significance.  As Wendell Berry suggests, we should, in our lives and our art, "Practice resurrection." 

How would the world be transformed if we truly did this?

Or the Church itself?

That is the work of the artist who embraces both Christ and craft. We make the invisible, visible. Art is the process to wholeness, a pointing toward the glorious God who invites us to join Him in creation.

Makoto Fujimura's official site:

To learn more about International Arts Movement:

To purchase Qu4rtets: 

To read his article "From Culture War to Culture Care":

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