In his excellent book Culture Care, artist Makoto Fujimura says that culture is a garden to be tended, not a battlefield to be won or lost. This thought has been like a thorn in my brain—it constantly nags at me, it won’t let me pass on by.“Culture is a garden to be tended, not a battlefield to be won or lost.” – Makoto Fujimura
I’m part of a generation that was taught to fight and win the culture wars. I see that mentality continuing on, steering the artistic endeavors of many Christians, setting the agendas for churches and organizations, fueling much of Christian Twitter and Facebook. There’s something good here: it’s right to desire that God’s character be reflected in the world around us.
But the battlefield approach is wrongheaded from the start. It implies enemies: there’s a world full of people that Jesus died to heal and reconcile to himself, and instead of offering those people the grace and love of Jesus, we’re attacking. It implies victory and defeat: rather than reconciliation, this approach has us either gaining or losing territory. It implies weapons and strategies: people and groups and cultural landscapes become projects and pawns and leverage. I’m not saying you can’t find any biblical statements that lean in any of these directions, but I do think that Fujimura’s garden metaphor is more in line with our overall calling.
When we view culture as a garden, we’re not saying that we don’t care if there are harmful elements in culture. Every garden in this fallen world must be tended. Weeds must be rooted out. Vines must be trained. Harmful insects and vermin must be managed. But the goal is not to defeat the enemy and claim the realm. The goal is flourishing. Growth. We enter the cultural space not as generals or soldiers, but as gardeners. We are there to tend and bind up and train.
I see a strong echo of this concept in Philippians 4:8, where Paul says, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things” (CSB). Sometimes we (rightly) put the emphasis on the adjectives true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, etc. That approach yields a lot of insight. But we can also read it with the emphasis on the “whatever is.” The Greek term (hosa) means “as many things as are…” So don’t just focus on the true things that come from your own small subgroup. Whatever is true, focus on those things. As many things as are lovely, dwell on these things. It has often been said that truth is truth wherever it is found. The same is true of beauty. Sure, we’ll find truth and beauty and morality distorted in every place we find them (including in the church)—I think this is the clear implication of Romans 1:18–25. But that does not cancel out the truth and beauty and goodness around us.
Here’s the reality: this world is brimming with truth and beauty and goodness. We can walk through life as pessimists, blinkered to every bit of God’s goodness and light and beauty that does not flow from those who think exactly as we do. But let’s not pretend that this pessimism is virtuous or that this approach is something God calls us to. God made human beings to be gardeners. This world is a great garden that needs constant tending. So when God made the first human being, “The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it” (Gen. 2:15). That’s literally our job as human beings. Culture, the physical world, society, is a garden to be tended, not a battlefield to be won or lost.
Notice that this change of metaphor does not call for inaction or resignation. There is still much work to be done. But it changes the goal of our work and the nature of our interactions. Other people cease to be my enemies and instead become part of the garden that I am called to tend. They are even fellow gardeners with whom we can and must collaborate. I’ll find many fellow gardeners with whom I will strongly disagree and who will be trying to build something that I find harmful. But the answer is not to attack and reclaim the garden for my tribe. The answer is to affirm all that is good and beautiful, to work to amplify those positive elements, and to continue working to remove the weeds and cultivate a healthy garden. The call here is simple, yet profound: stop fighting to dominate culture, start tending and nurturing so that we can all live in a culture in which health, growth, and reconciliation thrive, as God intended.