Grappling With Religion in Authentic Ways: Interview With Image Editor Gregory Wolfe
Image Journal demonstrates the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engages with the religious traditions of Western culture.
Each year, Image Journal sponsors an innovative and enriching week combining the best elements of a workshop, an arts festival, and a spiritual retreat.
Interview by Erendira Ramirez-Ortega
Tell us a little bit about your literary journal.
Image is a quarterly, featuring poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, a major Paris Review-style interview with a leading writer, books reviews, and, as we can find them, essays on other art forms, including visual art, dance, music, and architecture. We’ve published dozens of Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning authors. Our editorial board includes Carolyn Forche, Patricia Hampl, Ron Hansen, Marilyn Nelson, Kathleen Norris, and Richard Rodriguez.
Our particular “beat” consists of the Western religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Given the number of excellent publications covering Eastern traditions, including Tricycle, Shambala Sun, and others, we felt we could make the biggest contribution covering the Western faiths.
While we are interested in the way that contemporary artists and writers and grappling with these traditions, we don’t define or limit the nature of that engagement. As long as that grappling feels authentic, it might emerge out of anger and alienation with religion just as easily as it might come from a more settled belief.
How did Image Journal get started?
In the late 1980s, in conversation with a few friends, I began asking questions about a rather weird convergence. On the one hand, we noted that that millions of religious believers had become so alienated from contemporary culture that they condemned everything “modern” as godless and corrupt. For these faithful, the notion that faith itself could inspire great literature and art was strictly a thing of the past. On the other hand, we noted that the gatekeepers of high culture—most of them secular intellectuals—also believed that art inspired by faith was a thing of the past. These intellectuals, leaning on Freud, thought of religion as mere escapism or wish fulfillment—and obviously art needs to be grounded in reality, not fantasy.
We thought both sides were wrong. After all, some of the greatest writers and artists of the twentieth century were in fact deeply religious, including T.S. Eliot, Igor Stravinsky, W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, Simone Weil, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and many others. So we decided to launch Image as a showcase for the very best contemporary work that was being created in this vein. The pilot issue appeared in April of 1989.
What are your goals for Image Journal?
To be a literary journal every bit as good as The Paris Review or any other leading international quarterly. (A goal I believe we achieved a while back, IMHO!) In short, whatever your personal take on religious faith may be, we believe that Image is a continuing demonstration that great art informed by faith is still being created all over the world.
So a related goal would be to help change perceptions—because, to be honest, there are still plenty of pockets of resistance to this, both from secular intellectuals and the pious believers.
Yet another goal would be to show that art itself is absolutely fundamental to the renewal, reform, and reinvigoration of any religious faith that supports human flourishing—that faith without imagination is always going to end in fundamentalism and ideology.
What distinguishes your journal from other Christian-themed journals?
This is going to sound horrible, but...excellence. I know: that comes across as really arrogant. But the simple truth is that Image was the first of these publications to get started—and if you combine that with our unwavering commitment to world-class aesthetic quality it has given us a leg up in terms of actually securing the best work. This is in no way to dis these other journals, which often do very fine work discovering new voices and reaching constituencies Image hasn’t yet reached.
We are also inter-faith and ecumenical, so our range of interests is broader than just Christianity.
What is the readership comprised of, as far as you know?
This is one of the things I’m proudest of about Image: the diversity of our readership. Our readers come from all these faith traditions (and every strand within), from those who aren’t religious but who remain respectful of what religion can contribute to human flourishing, from every part of the political spectrum, from around the world.
That’s not to say we are satisfied with ourselves: we hope the internet will enable us to reach out more directly to an ever-expanding readership that will in turn help to change and develop what we are as a journal.
Yet another goal would be to show that art itself is absolutely fundamental to the renewal, reform, and reinvigoration of any religious faith that supports human flourishing...
I notice on your About page that you believe “great art that has emerged from the religious traditions of Western culture is dramatic, not didactic—incarnational, not abstract.” Can you explain what this means?
There is a widespread but mistaken idea out there that religion is all about force and violence—about something imposed from without. God knows human history is full of wars and pogroms and horrors aplenty that would seem to substantiate the charge that religion equals violence. But that’s like saying that Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler discredit the very idea of government itself. And yet you don’t see people saying we should prefer anarchy to government.
The truth is that the great religious traditions emerge not as the abstract proclamation of ideas but as dramatic encounters with a presence. That’s why they are inseparable from narrative: there is an Encounter. This becomes an Event in someone’s life. That Event must then become a Story so that another may relive the original Encounter. It’s not: “Believe This!” It’s: “Imagine This! Imagine yourself in this story. Doesn’t this Story speak to the deepest longings of your heart? Doesn’t it correspond to those desires? Doesn’t it make that Encounter happen for you, too?”
This is true of Scripture but it’s also true of the great literary and artistic masterpieces, from Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Divine Comedy to Dostoevsky, Eliot, O’Connor, and Marilynne Robinson. And again, just because there’s been terrible didactic tripe published and consumed over the ages doesn’t invalidate the facts set out above. A bad Amish romance novel doesn’t delete Dante from history.
Tell me about The Glen Workshop.
It’s a weeklong workshop held each summer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This year is our twentieth anniversary. The official language says—rightly, I think—that the Glen combines “the best elements of a workshop, an arts festival, and a spiritual retreat.” In the mornings there are workshops and seminars: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, songwriting, painting, figure drawing, and more. After lunch and a siesta break there are readings, talks, slide shows, concerts, and ecumenical worship services that incorporate various art forms.
Our faculty at the Glen is always first rate. This year we have Carolyn Forche and Karen An-hwei Lee teaching poetry, Jamie Quatro teaching fiction, and Scott Russell Sanders doing spiritual writing. Regulars at the Glen include the amazing illustrator/bookmaker Barry Moser and the singer-songwriter duo known as Over the Rhine.
It’s an open community that welcomes a diverse group of attendees.
What would you categorize as enduring art?
Art that outlives the artist.
How does Image Journal participate in the work of building the Kingdom?
Image helps to build the Kingdom by developing human imagination so that we can better perceive, spread, and participate in God’s shalom. Religion can separate and destroy but it can also unite and heal. It’s still fairly popular among literary types to ignore or attack faith. But whatever your personal sets of beliefs may be, we think that we serve not only the Kingdom but the common good by nurturing religion’s roots in narrative and symbol so that we can bring out the best in the Western traditions, which are constantly in need of reform and renewal.
How does art steer people back to a world charged with meaning?
Art provides a form to help us see through the apparent formlessness of life. Great art always involves a sense of grace—that the artist’s work, great as it may be, can become a vessel for meaning greater than the artist herself intended. We can deny that this grace has a transcendent origin, but we long for that sense of grace nevertheless.
In a saturated culture that shortens attention spans, how does Image Journal present art that demonstrates biblical faith without predetermined boundaries (i.e.: political, denominational, and aesthetic)?
We have no mission statement, no abstract sets of beliefs or ideas that our contributors must subscribe to. We say: “The work we publish should in some way, even obliquely, involve an encounter with faith,” but after we say that, we refuse to define or narrow further. Image has built a very big tent, in which the religiously settled can be published alongside the angry grapplers, a Jewish poet can be followed by an Islamic filmmaker, and so on.
Can you explain the comparison between art that is narcissistic and art that asks profound questions?
Does the artist want you to see the world or just to see himself? Is the art merely virtuosity for its own sake? By the way, I don’t think the majority of artists today are narcissistic in the sense of mere show-offs. I think many of them despair of finding any answers to profound questions and so their narcissism isn’t so much showing off as recording the history of their own despair. That kind of despair can be fashionable for a time but at some point someone needs to say that the Emperor is buck naked and suicidal.
I’m with Walker Percy: “Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it.”
What do you look for in submissions?
If I knew what I was looking for, you should shoot me. I look to be surprised.
What’s a sure way to get rejected?
I don’t like the way this question is formulated. Sure, cover letters that laboriously explicate the poems within can be obnoxious and sure, we’ve probably seen too many poems about Lot’s wife and too many short stories about troubled youth ministers, but we always read what’s submitted with hope in our hearts.
What is the last great submission you read? Would you like to highlight a piece from your journal that you’ve especially loved lately?
We’ve got a cluster of “short short” stories by Erin McGraw that are gripping and surprising. I confess that I’m not a big fan of “flash” fiction or the “short short” form: sometimes less is...just less. But Erin, who is a master of the classic short story, has managed to pack a lot of drama and nuance into brief archetypal narratives, so I guess I’ve got to revise my feelings about an entire genre. That’s why I’m still doing this after 26 years.
Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega is a writer and managing editor. She’s the co-founder of Burning Bush Press and blogs at RejoiceBeloved.com. Her writing has appeared in The Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Santa Clara Review, Other Voices, and Calaca Review and forthcoming in Front Porch Commons. She's a new contributor to The Review Review. She and her husband and three children live in southern California.