In his letter How to See My Painting, Makoto Fujimura exemplifies a remarkable vision of stewardship towards, of all things, an oncoming truck:
“You see the truck, and the truck's rusted fenders and license plate, and begin to think about the beauty of how things rust, and the story behind that old truck."
Whether creator, interpreter, or critic, a good steward envisions a depth to their subject. Old, oncoming truck and intricate painting alike, Fujimura’s vision highlights his subject’s hidden beauties while simultaneously creating opportunities for new ones.
I, like many, savor the visual, literary, and culinary arts. Yet, I also find myself unusually captivated by the idea of modding and tuning my car. It was after a long, very educational brake job with a friend that I realized, aside from the escapist adrenaline rush I get from driving a well-tuned vehicle, it is that very notion of stewardship that has drawn me into the automotive world.
Most, myself included, don't tend to treat mundane, economic things with the same gravity of care as those of obvious beauty. Traditionally though, stewardship has never been relegated to the arts or conservative efforts, but has been extended to the whole of Creation. If one believes that God has truly “reconcile[d] to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross”, then one must strive to appreciate and promote the kind of stewardship that draws every piece of Creation, culinary or automotive, into that reconciliatory fold.
We must address, as Wendell Berry says, “not how to care for the planet, but for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.” Of course, my Saab is a form of transportation; but much like Fujimura’s painting Silence is an improvement, a maturation, of the blank canvas, so my car possesses its own potentialities and can be stewarded toward something better with the right guidance.
When I modify my vehicle with a caring hand, I am loving these various “small pieces” of Creation. For example, an ECU chip (Electronic Control Unit) is used in many vehicles to find a healthy balance between an engine’s fuel economy, performance, and wear and tear. Even just this one piece, when properly tuned, brings a car into better relationship with its environment via improved fuel economy. It can provide a more responsive, connected drive for the driver; the difference between pushing a pedal knowing your car is accelerating as opposed to feeling your car’s acceleration. It is one way in which my vehicle can do more with less.
Not every modification is economic, of course. A vehicle’s exhaust system, while mainly designed to filter out harmful chemicals, can also manipulate sound waves using specially crafted materials and designs to create specific sounds. Sounds, like color, impress upon our emotional consciousness in a variety of ways. From a concerto to sizzling bacon to the tailored sound of a muffler, my emotional response changes based on those sound waves. So, when I tinker with my exhaust system I'm not just making it loud, I'm awakening an emotive potentiality by adjusting the sound and, as a result, the way it makes me feel. I am helping to bring about more, with less.
There is a unique feeling I derive from working on my Saab. It isn't necessarily pleasant, nor is it always frustrating, but when my abdomen is cramping from leaning over that engine and my knuckles are sore from tight, sharp places, I can feel my car’s growing pains as it matures in my hands.
That feeling doesn’t always reside in the sensation of cold concrete on your back or greasy, bloody knuckles, and so for many it’s hard to understand, and for most even harder to describe. Yet, like Fujimura’s oncoming truck, my Saab has a history all its own, from the memories and emotions I have laced into its frame to Saab’s legacy of greater power and fuel efficiency through the use of smaller turbo charged engines. When I opt to custom-tune the engine’s ECU chip or exchange the exhaust systems, I am taking an active role as steward; painting the canvas, in addition to appreciating the oncoming truck.
If we can show care-filled stewardship to our arts, our food, even our furniture arrangements, why is applying the same concept to things like our vehicles so foreign? Whether we realize it or not, every time we act, we steward pieces of Creation. To exist is not a question of if we will steward, but if we will steward well. Will I pass through this world oblivious to the consequences of my own actions, good or bad? Or will I learn to steward some piece of this world further into that reconciliatory fold?
At its roots, positive stewardship is as simple as taking time to thankfully appreciate a piece of Creation. It is taking ten minutes to sit quietly, “beholding the work before our eyes” as Fujimura says, and then maybe another twenty before we see the prisms in grains of pigment; the history grasped in greasy fists. At its completion, stewardship is the beauty of a small piece of Creation brought deeper into the reconciliatory fold. It is Fujimura's layers upon layers of pulverized minerals fearfully and wonderfully applied to the canvas. It is the carefully cut and bored rotors I picked out specially for my car, and even the space you may work in every day.
Taylor Crawford holds a B.A. in philosophy and is looking to return for an M.A. in English and Literature next spring. Until then, he spends his free time reading, writing, and cooking with his wife and daughter, and enjoys contemplating questions of faith, life, and the arts.
If you liked this, you might like Staying Rooted in an Uprooted World.
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