This is the forty-seventh interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.
Interview with Greg Wolfe
Writer, Editor, Teacher
12 - 26 April 2011
IA: Why don’t we start out by talking about your own writing. You have published many books: essays on the arts and faith, biographies of artists and thinkers, guides to reading, prayers…. The phrase that is often used to try to encapsulate you and your work is “Christian humanism.” Is this an accurate description? If so, can you unpack it for us? If not, what might be another way to describe the common thread in all of your writing?
GW: Over the last few decades, the word “humanism” has typically been given only one modifier in common parlance—“secular.” This is, in fact, a historical anomaly. For generations before that, it had a connotation much closer to what we call “the humanities”—in short, subjects like literature, rhetoric, and history. In the Renaissance a number of seminal thinkers known as “humanists” upheld the role of the imagination as vital to a full human existence. They fought against the tendency for theology to become abstract and removed from human experience. Such thinkers included Erasmus and Thomas More, who struggled against both secular fundamentalism (the tyranny of Machiavellian rulers) and religious fundamentalism (of both Catholic and Reformed varieties).
I find in these Renaissance Christian humanists “a distant mirror” in which to see and understand our own times. And they also help me understand my own work, what I’ve tried to do through my writing and the journal, Image, which brings contemporary art and literature informed by faith to the public square.
IA: Your next role (of many) is that of editor of Image journal: a gorgeous, glorious wealth of poetry, fiction, visual art, interviews, and essays. When you and the rest of your editorial staff sift through a pile of submissions, what are the primary characteristics for which you are searching—in technique, theme, content, tone, etc.?
GW: I sometimes say to people who ask what I’m looking for in a submission to Image that if I knew what I was looking for, you should shoot me.
What I’m looking for is to be...surprised.
Right? That’s what great art does: surprise us. “Make it new,” in Ezra Pound’s words.
Having said that, of course Image is looking for creative writing and art that in some sense engage the Judeo-Christian tradition of faith. And the work we publish must be exquisitely beautiful, well-made, and so on.
But at that point we really don’t want to set down further expectations. We certainly don’t want to privilege particular styles.
As far as subject matter is concerned, the range can also be very wide. We do want to avoid clichés: there are a few too many short stories about troubled youth ministers and poems about Lot’s wife out there.
IA: Image has been around for just over twenty years now. The celebration of this achievement was marked by the publication of Bearing The Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE. Congratulations on this achievement! Now, given that you don’t set out looking for something particular when you review submissions to Image, would you say that, looking back, you can observe “trends”? Have you watched as overarching themes, concerns, styles, and techniques have developed in the poetry, prose, and visual art that has appeared in Image in 20 years?
GW: The short answer is: yes.
But I’m guessing you’d like me to say a bit more than that!
I hesitate in part because the last thing I want to suggest is that Image has either fostered or privileged any sort of “school” of writing or art-making. It is very important to us that we are not associated with any particular style or group—for us, diversity is key.
For example, in the realm of architecture, we have published work by both neo-classicists and modernists. Both “languages” in contemporary architecture are alive and well, so we want them both to be represented in our pages, even if they might think the other misguided.
In the visual arts there has definitely been a trend that involves the recovery of narrative and the human figure—which makes sense, since the Judeo-Christian tradition is based on the biblical narrative. Artists like Tim Lowly, Patty Wickman, Mary McCleary, Ed Knippers, and many others have made the human body central to their art. On the other hand we’ve continued to publish the work of artists working in abstraction, conceptual art, etc.
Another trend might be associated with the poet Scott Cairns and his notion of “sacramental poetics” – that a work of art is not merely a “report” or “account” of some past event or thought or emotion, but actively generates meaning in “real time,” so to speak—in the immediate encounter between artist and audience. Well, that’s a long story, but it’s an example of something that the journal has helped to promote.
IA: In your capacity as editor of Image, you’ve also written the opening editorial essays for most of those twenty-plus years. Back in 1989, you and Harold Fickett wrote that there was “evidence that our cultural institutions are now more open to the numinous in art,” and that our culture was learning it could not be sustained by materialism—and yet, in the most recent issue, you wrote that “the spiritual-but-not-religious embrace a consumerist mentality that in other contexts they harshly criticize.” Have you seen the openness to the numinous in art continue, even while materialism and consumerism continue to hold sway in American society? You also said (in 1989): “Perhaps we are now in a better position to allow genuine art and authentic religious experience to fertilize each other.” Have they done so?
GW: The church and the culture at large have changed a great deal over the last twenty-plus years. As always, that means “for better and for worse.” (Sorry, I don’t have any simplistic tale of rise or decline to tell.)
In some ways I think the 1970s and early 1980s constituted the high-water mark of secularism in the mainstream culture—in terms of what you’d be reading in the book review sections of major daily newspapers, magazines, etc. By this I mean aggressive secularism. For example, the sort of secularism that derided any element of faith in a work of art as mere Freudian wish-fulfillment.
What followed was the post-modernist idea of everyone having “a place at the table.” At its worst, this means “hey, whatever floats your boat.” At its best, this means: “perhaps faith and imagination both reach out toward the Real.”
In short, post-modernism can be cynical and despairing...or it can have an element of hope and openness.
I think the spiritual-but-not-religious mentality is an outgrowth of the worst aspect of post-modernism; it reduces religion to a purely privatized, cafeteria style phenomenon.
But the paradox is that this type of post-modernism is rife within religious circles, too. (That’s a long story unto itself!)
Anyway, to answer your second question: yes, art and faith have fertilized each other, as Image has chronicled over these two decades. Our pages bear witness to that.
IA: In a profound article in the fall of 2001, you wrote “In the aftermath of September 11, some have called for an end to irony. Others have stressed our need for comedy. But the urgent need of the moment is a deeper embrace of tragedy.” Which have you seen? An end to irony? A turn to comedy? Or a deeper embrace of tragedy? And if that last choice, has it had the results you desired to see in our culture?
GW: As I said in the response above, the answer to these questions is, in essence, “all of the above” and “none of the above.” In other words, while it is one thing to pose the Big Questions of irony, comedy, and tragedy – and they need to be posed at that level of grand generality – it is another to say, “this is precisely and cleanly how history is moving.”
But here are a couple quick observations.
First, there is some evidence that more and more Christians are slowly coming to terms with tragedy – with the realization that the comedy of resurrection does not cancel out the tragedy of the cross. In the realms of both spirituality and the arts Christians are beginning to abandon the need to slap a happy ending to every human tragedy and conundrum. There is greater acceptance of the fact that our salvation comes in and through the pain and messiness of our lives—that short of heaven pain and grace must co-exist. Great art can help us be honest about these things. I’m fond of the Japanese director Kurosawa’s saying that “the artist is the one who does not look away.” Tragedy requires us to look on what we’re prefer to ignore.
Second, in the culture at large, there has been some movement away from the sort of snarky, cynical irony that plagued us prior to 9/11. There are signs that people are open to the idea that at times we need “earnestness,” to use an old-fashioned word. Or at least sincerity and simplicity. Think of the powerful response to Marilynne Robinson’s moving novel Gilead, which tells the story of a Protestant minister in the 1950s. That’s hardly the stuff of irony. Or take the realm of music, where many artists have sought to re-connect to historical and cultural roots, including the blues, folk, and jazz—the music that comes out of this search for authenticity is not only well-made but emotionally gripping and, at times, revelatory.
IA: You are also the founder and director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at SPU, which is “the first program of its kind to integrate a studio writing degree with intensive reflection upon the literary and aesthetic riches of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” There are not many programs of this type—Biola, Azuza Pacific, and Houston Baptist, for instance, offer MFAs—and SPU’s is probably the most well-recognized. Your program has admirable goals: To be a rigorous as any others, to write works to be read in “the public square, not a religious subculture,” and to be unique in the way it integrates creative writing and faith. Can you give us one specific example of something this program does, in terms of lessons, discussions, practical experience, requirements, etc., to achieve those goals?
GW: Ours is the only MFA in Creative Writing within Christian higher education. As to how we incorporate faith: well, the first thing to say is that the faith element does not displace the primary focus, which is on craft. Precisely because we have a religious dimension to the program we felt the need to emphasize rigor when creating the curriculum. Ours is a highly demanding program—I’d wager that few programs in the world are more demanding. In addition to a lengthy creative thesis, students must complete 62 reading annotations, five critical papers (including one long paper that becomes a graduation lecture), and participate in five intensive ten-day residencies.
The faith dimension is incorporated in several ways. Our “Common Reading” requirement has all students, regardless of genre, reading the same book each quarter, drawn from the canon of great books. These texts then get discussed in the Art & Faith seminar I lead at each residency. For example, we’ve discussed works such as Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poetry of Donne and Hopkins, The Brothers Karamazov, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and much more. We also begin each day with an optional worship service that includes literary readings as well as scripture.
IA: Can you tell me anything about what some of your alumni are up to?
GW: Though we are just completing our sixth year, we have been amazed at how quickly our graduates are getting terrific jobs and publications in leading journals, websites, and beyond.
I was just speaking at Houghton College, where I was having coffee with Daniel Bowman, who graduated from our program in late March. During our coffee, Dan received an offer to teach at Taylor University, which he has accepted.
Allison Backous now teaches at Kuyper College and has recently published a memoir in Image and joined the Image blog, “Good Letters.”
Allison at several other graduates of the program, such as Denise Frame Harlan, Ann Conway, and Brian Volck.
Fiction writer Vic Sizemore recently won a fiction award from New Millennium Writings.
I could go on. This is a purely random sampling.