Why is wabi hot? Why do folks on the trail of hipness find themselves eyeball-to-eyeball with Christians already using this word?
Before I introduce wabi, it's important also to understand its twin, sabi--which means, among other things, forgotten. Sabi can be translated as solitude, the imbalance of the new or unfinished, simple and unattached in a spiritual and psychological sense, primitive, lonely, and rusty. Wabi refers to the pure in form, the rural, the minimal. It is lonely in the material sense.
Together, they form an aesthetic called wabi-sabi. The concept of wabi-sabi emerged about 500 years ago, in Japanese culture that had been spoiled by an aesthetic of opulence. Wabi-sabi was a way to bring back the natural, the poverty of simplicity, the organic nature of the untamed and unfinished. It was represented by the Tea Ceremony (Wabicha) in a simple hut.
Similar contrasts could be made with the monasticism of St. Francis, who challenged the extravagant Roman Catholic Church, or the minimalist aesthetic in contrast with Rococo style.
Leonard Koren presents wabi-sabi as an alternative worldview to modernism (pictured below).
Over the centuries, the aesthetic of wabi-sabi lost prominence. Last year, I taught in Japan and was disappointed to find little written evidence of wabi-sabi. This is probably because it is a difficult concept to articulate, and the Japanese are reluctant to reduce such a lofty aesthetic to a few sentences.
But there are plenty of definitions in the Western world.
The most common description is taken from the Japanese and used by Leonard Koren: "[Wabi-sabi] . . is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional..."
Wabi-sabi is a trip through western Kansas. Rural living is wabi-sabi. Quakers seem to like the concept.
Danny O'Brien, The Sunday Times Culture Magazine, April 9 2000: "DafyddRees describes XP [Extreme Programing] as having the following wabi-sabi properties: intuitive worldview, imperfection, one-of-a-kind artefacts, present-oriented, organic."
I have used Wabi Sabi in previous articles to talk about blogging, house churches and lomography, all of which value the immediate, the unfinished, the process as valuable and not just the finished product. I also started a simple, unfinished, unprofessional blog at wabisabi.blogspot.com.
Richard's Wabi Sabi World is a good source of wabi poetry. Many Western artists, poets, gardeners, potters and other creatives have already been exposed to the wabi-sabi aesthetic.
But the most common usage of the word wabi-sabi on the Internet right now comes from an Emergent Church conference March 28-30 in Austin, Texas, called wabiSABI. The conference is being organized by 20-somethings (Jessica Stricker, Shannon Hopkins, and Kerry Sutton) from the Emerging Church Network. Their sponsors are the (seemingly unhip-who knew?) Baptist General Convention of Texas, which is intent on working with avant-garde artists to start new models of church that make sense in today's world.
The wabiSABI leadership team is also creating the Texas Baptists' first urban "monastery," and is finding new ways for pilgrim-missionaries to start businesses around the world. They expect to help 1,000 of these pilgrim-missionaries get overseas in the next five years. The meetings at wabiSABI will take place in a revival tent, a church, and will include a Gospel brunch in a downtown club. There will be a mix of older and wiser thinkers, as well as young artists and new Christians. DJs, VJs and young artists will join theologians and futurists for a discussion of new forms of church.
How does one describe this confusing mix of concepts and people under one roof? Wabi-sabi, of course.
The conversation about wabi-sabi comes at a good time. There has been a lot of discussion among evangelicals lately regarding the word "post-modern" and its misconceptions by Christian authors and speakers. Kevin Miller, of Leadership Journal, recently published an article in which he suggested the word was overused and should be trashed. Emergent's Chris Seay responded, agreeing that the word "pomo" should go, but the church still has to face the realities of a changed world.
Now the search for alternatives has begun. Or perhaps it started a long time ago, but now the church is beginning to notice young people on the cutting edge of culture who are not using the word "post-modern" to describe what they are doing.
Will wabi-sabi be the ultimate replacement for "post-modern"? I sure hope not. Today's culture is far too complex to sum up with a single word, even a hot word. But if we have to choose an aesthetic that is non-western, responsive to modernity's excesses, and is noticed by the media after the church is already examining it, then wabi-sabi may be a good place to start.