Fallen Towers and the Art of Tea: faith, culture, art and cities

Makoto Fujimara has an incredible essay reflecting on NYC post-911, his Christian faith, and the origins of the modern Japanese tea ceremony:  Fallen Towers and the Art of Tea.  I was stunned by this essay. Here are some (lengthy) excerpts:

I had sat with C.J. only a month before, in the summer night in front of elementary school PS 234, sharing a verse from Jeremiah 29. We were looking at that red maple tree, with the lights of the World Trade Center windows glowing in the evening haze. “Jeremiah told us to build houses and settle down, and plant trees in Babylon,” I said. “Do you think New York City is like Babylon or Jerusalem?”

It was a lead-in question. The answer would be yes, for both. The Israelites were exiled from their identity as God’s people having forsaken God. Neither the desolate Jerusalem nor the exilic land of Babylon would hold any promise for them. The false prophets are speaking words of encouragement that it would be a short exile. But God instructed Jeremiah to buy a field in Jerusalem, as a step of faith and as a seed of restoration. And God spoke through Jeremiah that this would be a long battle in the foreign land of Babylon. So the battle would be long, even generational, in New York City as well. “You helping to plant a tree, and being here with Daddy, living in New York City,” I said, ” is being faithful in a foreign land… I suspect we have it much better than those Israelites though.”

I did not realize that my question to my son, would be a lead-in question for me as well. Yes, New York City is like Babylon and Jerusalem at the same time, especially now. I survey the damage done to our “backyard.” Only three blocks away, and the stadium lights set up to recover the bodies cast hallowing white lights upon the remaining rubble. Smoke continues to rise, like incense, from the remains of the fallen towers. Witnessing the devastation day by day, I have somehow crossed the chasm of history, and I am lead back to a scene of fallen Jerusalem that Jeremiah must have witnessed. But at the same time, in this exilic land called New York, how do we remain faithful even among the rubble? Reading the New York Times on one hand, and reading the Bible in the subway one day, I kept on noting the voice of despair of the prophets of Babylon echoed in the very headlines I was reading….

It has been said that we worship what the tallest buildings in our cities represent. The spires of churches defined the landscape in previous centuries, but had been replaced in our generation by those “punch card” twin towers, as our pride of progress. The Twin towers were the twin visions of technology and commerce flowing right out of modernism. But on 9/11, airplanes boomed directly above the school yard in a cloudless, azure sky, and cast sinister shadows upon our modern presumption, even our innocence of that trust. The Trade Centers literally shaded us on hot summer little league games in Murray Street field nearby. Like those shadows, the towers gave us respite, and lead to dependence on the economic system based on the tower’s security.

Post-modern art, too, was very much sustained by the capitalistic nurture of modern technology and economy. Post-modernism depended on modern ideals that were rarely challenged until 9/11. Build a higher, more impressive building; build a city that will surpass others both in economic status and technological vision. Arts require such a presumption, and innocent belief in our powers, founded upon the structure of the city’s economy. Like Jeff Koons sculptures, or Andy Worhol silkscreens, postmodern art prospers by mocking, like a child, the very hand that feeds them, the hands of modern idols.

How crafty were the terrorists who masterminded this catastrophe. Their “art,” we must admit, was too powerful and explosive, and all the more sensational. The terrorists accomplished in a single second, what no art movement could have dared to accomplish in a century. Their vengeance transcended and shattered the language of ironic distance, a most important contribution of post-modernism. Takashi Murakami, a darling of 2001 Chelsea and contemporary art world with his anime -based installations(and Nihonga – we attended Tokyo National University of Fine Arts Japanese Style Painting Department together), stated “The ‘rules’ and ‘conventions’ I learned over the years to use…have experienced a seismic shift. I must choose now whether to create in the chaos of ‘new rules’ or not” To many artists I have spoken to, the fires of 9/11 revealed the core of post-modern reality, exposing these “rules” as irrelevant and narcissistic. Fendrich even calls for a type of restraint on art making. “Art and images need to be postponed. (I certainly can’t think of painting right now.) We need, I think, to achieve intellectual control of our feelings, and direct our actions according to what is right and just, instead of to what pleases us as ‘personal expression’ or intrigues us as convoluted theory. ”

What became a death-knoll, finally, to these twin symbols of modernism was not the insipid relativism of the post-modern agendas of our age. The terrorists cleverly turned the technology against its makers, and injected poison to the heart of those modern idols. And this poison has an ancient flavor. This taste is familiar to Adam and Eve. For in the garden, the Devil also twisted what was given by God to be used for good by injecting terror into their hearts. It is a terror to doubt God’s love and goodness. It is a terror that takes away innocence. But having swallowed the poison ourselves, we must remember that the flip side of fear is our own desire to enslave and be in charge of our destiny.

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote his lamentation “My Lost City” from the top of the Empire State Building in another “dark autumn” of 1931. Looking at the view which must have echoed the post 9/11 cityscape now, he wrote:

From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood-everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed, but that it had limits – from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.

The “crowning error of the city” resides within all of us. For the artist, like for Fitzgerald, cities represent both the height of our success, and depth of our failures. Both success and failure expose the error within, leading to the realization that even the greatest of cities has its limits. But the city of man is not limited because of her boundaries. No, the city of man is limited because her foundation is selfish ambition, to want to be the “captain of our ship”. We are all “terrorists” in that sense; attempting to twist God given gifts to serve our greed, leaving Eden poisoned, but still wanting full control. The falling towers were foreseen in Fitzgerald’s sobered imagination long before The World Trade Centers were built.

But it would be a mistake to judge the city, to call it Babylon, and call the fall of the towers as a judgment of God. Jesus exposed this tendency to rush to judgment among his followers in Luke 13. He told his disciples to repent when they saw the tower of Siloam collapse, rather than explain it away as God’s judgment upon those who died. We do not see that in our own lives, no matter where we live, we all have our own “ground zeros.” Babylon and Jerusalem, the exilic and the destroyed, overlap in our cities today. It is through these ruined cities that the City of God will be built. In running away from the debris, we need to remind ourselves that early Christians moved into a plague infested Rome to assist. The City of God is built upon such radical repentance and love.

Repentance, or the Greek word “metanoia,” means turning 180 degrees back to God. But to develop a habit, a culture of repentance, requires us to face and walk toward the darkness head on, toward our own “ground zeros”. When we face the serious power of imaginative vengeance there, we need to remind ourselves that it is our acts of terrorism toward God that drove Jesus to the cross. Jesus’ slain body absorbed our anger and defiance, but more importantly, also God’s just anger towards us. God stands ready, then, to turn our dark imaginations into a vision for The New Jerusalem on Easter morning. Post-911 days, here, are filled with fresh reminders of the fallen towers, fallen idols. It is not enough to turn from our idols. We must now run toward the “tower of Jesus.”…

Sen-no-Rikyu, the 16th Century tea master who is most responsible for development of distinctively Japanese way of art of tea, lived and died at Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto. His tea house still stands there. Tea was a form of celebration during a banquet in China, but in Japan, Sen-no-Rikyu and his predecessors refined tea as a unique form of communication and the tea house as a minimal conceptual space. In a war-torn period of cultural flux, Daitoku-ji became the center of activity, and Sen-no-Rikyu became this new culture’s main voice.

His tea house had a distinct entry called “nijiri-guchi,” build so small that a guest would have to bow and take his sword off. It is no coincidence (but a historic fact ignored by most in Japan) that one of his closest confidants, one of his wives, was one of the first converts to Christianity, the fruit of an influx of missionaries into Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries. He went to observe a mass being celebrated in Kyoto with his wife. There he saw the Eucharist being celebrated, with a cup representing Christ’s blood being passed around. This experience affirmed his vision for tea. His tea would be an art form: and this art of communication equalized any who would stand in his presence, whether a shogun or a farmer, male or female. As a cup filled with green tea was passed, his tearoom would become a place of Shalom. Five of his seven closest disciples were Christians. They were exiled by Shogun Hideyoshi who gave power and prestige to Sen-no-Rikyu, but who later hardened his heart. Hideyoshi realized, quite correctly, that the egalitarian nature of tea would be dangerous to his power, and he became, by no coincidence either, one of the greatest enemies of Christianity in history, ordering the execution of thousands of believers, and closing the country for several centuries. He ordered Rikyu to commit Seppuku at the end, the most cruel art form of suicide, at the very tea house of Shalom….

Andras Visky, a Romanian playwright and scholar who was once imprisoned for his faith, told me that “without Communion, there will be no community. Without Communion, there will be no communication at all.” Every time we break the Lord’s bread and the wine, we affirm a foundation of Christ which was shaken but not moved, broken but not destroyed. He is the “strong tower” we run to, and find true refuge in, even as our own towers collapse all around us. This refuge, this communication, this community was what Sen-no-Rikyu desired in his struggle to express humanity in a war-torn time.

With this Eucharistic foundation, we do not need to “postpone” art because art flows, for us, right out of that Table, from the very heart of our universe. If we center ourselves there, then we can go as far as the end of hell and still return home. We can even dare to have the innocence of a child in a world filled with fear and darkness. Jesus’ command not to fear flows out of that Table as our promise towards true Shalom. At the table the great sheep still resides, inviting us to enter the Beautiful through His suffering. No restraint is needed for expression of hope in that morning light.


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