Gregory Wolfe is publisher and editor of a publication Annie Dillard calls "one of the best journals on the planet"—Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. He's also writer-in-residence at Seattle Pacific University, and the author of numerous articles, and books, including Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography, Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel and his latest collection of editorial statements from Image, called Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. Dick Staub interviewed Greg recently on his radio program, where they discussed his life and his work.
Dick Staub: You make reference to your spiritual journey in one of these essays—from Christian Science to Congregational to Episcopalian to Roman Catholic in four easy steps. How would you summarize your trajectory in terms of the spiritual path?
Gregory Wolfe: The simplest way to put it was that I started out with many abstractions and ideas about God and I wanted to move closer and closer to a flesh and blood incarnate understanding of God and of the Christian faith. So in one sense that trajectory, I feel, moves in that direction. I mean, I'm prejudiced but I was searching for a more incarnational, imagination-friendly approach. The imagination isn't abstract, it's concrete; it's always placing the big ideas and emotions and concepts, like faith, into very practical stories and symbols and ordinary stuff of daily life. I wanted to move towards a sacramental tradition really, and that's where the journey went.
Did your parents make any of those moves with you? Were they both Christian Scientists?
I sometimes joke that an interesting parlor game would be 'which novelist would you like to have tell your family's story, your family history?' And in my case it's hands-down Dostoevsky. Intellectual intrigue, passion, fathers and sons at odds with one another, rebellion, revolution, it was all in my family. My grandfather was a Marxist atheist who was in the outer edges of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's brain trust. And his son, my father, went into advertising as a young man in New York and in Los Angeles, wrote continuity for Jack Benny's show and many other classics—Bob Hope, and so on. He came back to his father and said, "Look, I've made something of my life." His Marxist father said, "Well, it's as if I had a prostitute for a daughter, you have whored yourself off to Capitalism. I will disown you if you don't renounce this way, and I give you a week to decide." A week later my father said, "You know, I really don't think I'm doing anything that evil or bad. I really want to keep working in advertising." His father said, "I disown you." At the root of that split—and they never saw each other from that day forward—was also a religious split because my father decided that the free market and a belief in God were related to one another in American tradition, and so he rebelled against his father religiously. I've diverged in my own way from my father, particularly in the specific denominational journey, but nonetheless the two of us stay closer than recent generations prior to us did.
I went to Hillsdale College in Michigan, which is a sort of mecca for ambitious young conservatives.
What a colorful history. Dostoevsky does come to mind. Explain your passion for the arts. How do you see that early on in your life?
I had really two very powerful influences in my mother and my father. My father was a writer, he was an intellectual; he liked to write about economics, about history and ideas. My mother was a dancer. My maternal grandfather was a painter, trained in Scotland at the Royal Scottish Academy of Arts. I had these two powerful drives: a rational discursive side and then this intuitive imaginative side. And they were finding at times that it was uncomfortable living in the same neighborhood. But literature was where they came together because literature is concrete, it's about narrative, it's about symbol, it's about the ordinary stuff of life being transformed by the artist into something special. Yet literature has plenty of room for the big ideas, for philosophy, for ideology, for vision. In literature I found the influences from both parents coming together.
I was groomed in a very well-intentioned way by my father to become a young conservative intellectual. I went to Hillsdale College in Michigan, which is a sort of mecca for ambitious young conservatives. I very much began to feel that I was going to be a warrior in the service of defending western civilization from all the various modernist and post-modernist attacks on it. I was rather more political in those days than I am now, but I really cared very deeply about those things. And yet at the same time, aside from the politics, I was interested in literature and the arts. I was beginning to find that that dimension, which always kept calling me towards a sense of awareness of the ambiguity of human motives and the unintended consequences of political action, was pulling me away from politics. I had another conflict, another inner agony to try to solve somehow. I thought to myself, "Who are the great writers of the present day who embody this tradition?" It's been said that in the modern era faith and art can no longer coalesce. The secular critics seem to believe that art was beyond such infantile things as faith, thanks to Freud and others, and the church, the religious people, seem to think that too, because they treated art as if it was monolithically part of the modern world and therefore poisoned at the root. I wanted to say I'm going to explore this nexus and see if anyone's doing anything. And if they are, I'm going to try to share that with other people. I did, and the journal became the place where we searched out the new Bachs and Rembrandts and Dantes and T.S. Eliots and Gerard Manley Hopkins' of the present day.
You talked about the fact that secularists like Marx and Freud discouraged people from believing that the arts and faith belonged together. And then within the Christian community, you had that same kind of rejection of the arts. You believed that there was a place where they might actually converge. And you describe it actually in the introduction of this book as "the hunger of the secularist and the believer for mystery." Talk about that and how in fact Image journal began to prove that that was, in fact, the case.
Mystery is a very ancient term in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It's been eclipsed in recent decades as Christians have reacted to the modern world—they've tended often to go into a very rationalist mode where everything becomes doctrinal, becomes apologetics, becomes somehow rational formulation, as a way of staving off what is reasonably perceived as threats to the integrity and the coherence of the faith tradition. But there is a cost for that kind of movement towards a rationalistic propositional approach. Religion tends to get brittle, legalistic, dry, out of touch with human experience, and a more holistic understanding of life. To be interested in mystery is not to be interested in what I would call mystification or mere confusion. Rather, mystery has always been seen as kind of the shining light of truth, which we, as fallen human beings, can penetrate into only to a certain depth. And to assume that we have the power to penetrate all the way to the heart would be pride on our part, but to rest with a kind of awe and openness and awareness of our limitations in the outer ionosphere of that truth is where grace and meaning connect for most human beings. And the arts are very well suited to bring you into that zone and to let you be illuminated in that zone. And that's one reason why I've been so drawn to it.
Image Journal became the place where we searched out the new Bachs and Rembrandts and Dantes and T.S. Eliots and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ of the present day.
In your book you talk about some of the standards early on that were going to be set for Image journal: aesthetic excellence, the public square, and a place where those who are settled in their religious faith and struggling with religious faith would find a home. Tell us about the importance of each of them briefly.
We looked very carefully at past efforts in this area and we were very disheartened by the temptation of many Christians to create what I would call a subculture, and to create a Christian ghetto where there is some kind of separate track of publishing companies and record labels that have a good housekeeping stamp of approval on them. They're safe, they won't challenge you, they won't scare you, they won't shake your faith or, frankly, shake you up in any way, shape, or form. The danger of that kind of realm of safety is that it becomes a realm where people are not challenged to live up to their highest, not pushed towards the bleeding edge of life and experience. Artistic excellence goes by the board. Preaching to the choir becomes the name of the game. So we wanted to both be in the public square as a way of saying that we had the confidence that people of faith in the arts could, by achieving excellence, gain a hearing. That whole notion that 'boo-hoo, woe is me, I'm a Christian, I'm on the margin'—we just didn't feel that was the right spirit of the faith. And so those two things were absolutely intertwined from the beginning.
As far as the whole issue of those more settled in their faith and those who I call "grapplers"—I use the word "grappler" because I think the word seeker has been so trivialized that it's almost a meaningless term. Grappler to me is somebody who is in some serious, agonized engagement with faith and therefore they're not just using faith in their works of literature as background wallpaper, they're using it as the central means by which to come to grips with the meaning of life.
We wanted a balance where there was this community where people could come together in a forum, those who had found peace and some identity within the faith, within the church, but those who were still not quite there.
Image Journal is a place where 'grapplers' can come and engage with other people who share their aesthetic concern—there's very few places where that happens. You have this phrase, editorially, where you're asking a question of art, "Does it rise?" What does that mean?
Flannery O'Connor, whose shoelaces I'm not fit to untie, was a brilliant, profound Christian writer and thinker. She loved this whole notion that everything that rises must converge. Everything that has a spark of openness to this divine mystery is going to find a way to converge on a central truth. And it won't do so by these discreet, rational propositions that segment things into discreet territories. The nature of art is to be all over the map. But what art does, I think that the rational, philosophical, theological modes also do, which is to converge on a central source, on a unified form of truth. It just does it in a means that sometimes scares people because you start from left field, or you go by way of left field, and you're never always sure where you stand. But then, at the same time, why would we want to live with absolute certainty about every moment of our lives? Faith is about risk, faith is about openness, it's about breaking out of ruts. Art has a way of complementing—not replacing or supplanting—complementing these other modes of discourse that have so dominated the public nature of religion in America.
We were very disheartened by the temptation of many Christians to create a Christian subculture, a Christian ghetto of separate publishing companies and record labels.
The title, 'Intruding Upon the Timeless', what is the origin of that? It's the first essay.
That comes from a Flannery O'Connor quote that talks about the relationship between faith and art. And the big question that art is ultimately asking anyway, the big questions that are inherently really religious: Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going? And so 'Intruding Upon the Timeless' is a metaphor for what the artist does, and does so with humility, hopefully, and a sense of their own limitations and yet with boldness at the same time.
And there is this interaction with the James Joyce character who says, "You have asked what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church. And I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use: silence, exile, and cunning." Talk about the ways in which that James Joyce quote resonates with the issues that we've been discussing and that matter to you at Image journal.
The pursuit of God or of grace is like the pursuit of happiness. It's fraught with the difficulty of trying to approach it in a kind of direct, frontal way. Emily Dickinson once said, "Tell the truth but tell it slant." That is something that goes to the heart of our human perception that attempts sometimes to come straight on to a thing. Whether it's through this sort of rational, propositional language that tries to capture truth in discreet language or any other frontal approach, the thing seems to go wrong for us. The mystery, the grace, the excitement, the spirit seems to flee, the letter seems to remain inert on the page in front of us. Telling it slant is what art does so well by going indirectly. That's perhaps another function of our limitations as fallen partial creatures. We need sometimes to put ourselves in the right neighborhood to experience grace. We can't will epiphanies left and right. The artist works with means that enable us to come slant-wise at the subject. Joyce's trilogy of ideas—silence, exile, cunning—are very appropriate to the modern era where the language of religion has become so hackneyed, so overdone, that you have to find ways to renew ancient formulations and visions in contemporary language. Sometimes the way to do that is by focusing more on the silhouette than on the actual figure, the dark patch sometimes in between things. Or to use post-modern language, to be aware of absence as well as presence. But even absence, even the absence of God, the so-called death of God, tends to come with edges around it. Artists are very well attuned to trace their fingers around the filigree of those edges of things which, in a mysterious way, can reconjure presence back up again. Somebody like T.S. Eliot, who was very much in that generation where Freud was making the big impact, would write a poem about the birth of Christ, the journey of the Magi, but would do so without ever mentioning the Christ child, nativity, any of the traditional language. It was a monologue by one of the Magi from a purely existential point of view. "A cold coming we had of it," is the way the poem starts. "And were we there for birth or death?" He goes back to tell the old, old story in a very new way. He does so by a kind of exile, by denying himself cliched hackneyed language in an attempt to use this cunning means to bring back the heart of the meaning of the incarnation through a kind of slant-wise approach.
One of the things you do in these essays is you throw yourself into some of the discussions that take place within evangelical circles or religious circles, people that are uncomfortable with art. You have a chapter which describes yourself as a conscientious objector in the culture war. How do the culture wars play themselves out in your mind as a conscientious objector from them?
I try to make clear in that piece that I don't consider that the issues over which the battles are fought are of no interest. They're of profound interest. I would gladly fall over a ball of barbed wire in any of the instances where I have a strong conviction. And in many of them I do. What bothers me about the whole culture war as a phenomenon within the church and within the larger public square is that, more and more, politics has a way of sucking the oxygen out of the atmosphere, of becoming an all-encompassing phenomenon, and becoming more ideological. And to me, faith is not about ideology, it's not about an 'us' versus 'them' mentality. It's often looking for the good in others and trying to build on that. And art is good at doing this, of trying to bring dissimilar things together into similarity. We have become so obsessed by the 'us versus them' mentality that it has made our minds more dumb, more crude, more monolithic at a time when we need to be more subtle, more nuanced, more aware of just how complicated the world is. Politics is a very limited tool. Ultimately culture, the stories that we tell, the symbols that we are moved by, those are the things that shape politics.
The word ‘grappler’ to me is somebody who is in some serious, agonized engagement with faith, who uses it to come to grips with the meaning of life.
Politics, in and of itself, lives off of culture. If it becomes so all encompassing that it actually starts to dry out and poison the cultural base—it's as if we are spraying pesticides forever on each other's crops, we never water them, we never nurture them, we never fertilize them, nothing will grow. In the end there'll be nothing to fight over.
You talk about base imitation and the degree to which within the Christian subculture there's been this kind of imitative nature that you say is missing the transformative power of imagination. What do you see going on there?
To the extent that we think we have a message as believers we're always thinking, well, how can we package our message? How can we get the message across? I would question that. I think we do have a message but it's also a message that we have to learn each time we attempt to tell it to somebody else, but that's a long conversation. But specifically to go to what you're saying, I think that Christians have been tempted to say, well, pop culture is a huge phenomenon and it's incredibly cool in its way. Why don't, instead of rejecting pop culture, let's get on the pop culture bandwagon, let's just place the message inside the vehicle of the pop culture medium, whether it's the romance novel that is being used or the techno-thriller, or the rap music, or what have you.
Here's the danger. The great Marshall McLuhan once said, "The medium is the message." The danger with pop culture is the notion that you can somehow insert some idea about faith or the faith itself into this vessel and simply transmit it and it will be opened up and received in some kind of pure way is naïve. The very nature of pop culture is to dumb things down, to make things more special-effects oriented, more in terms of spectacle than in terms of the more, let's say, demanding exercises of heart and mind that high art and traditionally mainstream art has actually called us to employ. The danger is that what the young Christian is listening to as he rocks his head to the Christian grunge rock is grunge rock and not the faith at all.
What do you mean by religious humanism?
I use the term "religious humanism" because I want to include, as humanists always have, a dialogue of different traditions. I want very much to have Jews and Christians, particularly, in dialogue with one another. That's one thing that we do in the journal is have a consistent stream of Jewish contributors. To us that's essential to our own tradition to have continual sparks flying from the way that these two sister faiths relate to one another. I don't mean by religious humanism some syncretist mush that eliminates what's distinctive in faith traditions. I would consider myself a Christian humanist—in a sense, a Catholic humanist. But the conjunction to me is precisely not an opposition, as many people in the current day think it is. We've been schooled for the last 50 years to hear the phrase secular humanist and to feel that the word humanist always has to be modified by the word secular. It wasn't so; it was never so in the beginning. The origin of humanism—that is a passionate interest in all things human as a reflection of ultimate meaning—came from the religious tradition that said that man was created in the image and likeness of God. That led to the tremendous flourishing of art and culture within this western civilization of ours. When things get too rational and political, the humanistic tradition, which is more arts/imagination oriented, needs to come to the floor to help restore balance, to help bring culture and faith back in touch with each other. Because faith that is not made incarnate in culture remains abstract. Culture is the body, the very stuff of life that we deal with, and we have to touch and feel it. Unless it's made manifest in culture it just slips through our fingers.
The origin of humanism is the religious tradition that said that man was created in the image and likeness of God.
When you talk about aesthetics and art, usually the stuff of Image Journal is considered elitist within that definition of popular culture. You describe it in such a way that one would conclude that you think that if we took our faith more seriously that serious art would be popular, using the phrase "popular" to mean "widely embraced." Is that true?
Absolutely. It's a vicious circle. In great folk culture, great popular culture, there has always been a spectrum and a whole series of linkages along that spectrum: Shakespeare being able to play both to the plebs below and the people in their booths above. In the modern era we've tended to force those parts of the spectrum further and further apart from each other to the detriment of both. Part of what we're trying to do is to work in a particular vineyard. We're not saying it's the only vineyard. And in the end I think even Christian humanism, which seems to be about being highly sophisticated and highly erudite, I would argue it doesn't have to be seen just that way. There's an intimate relationship between the balance of Christian humanism at this intellectual level and what I would call common sense.
I've known a lot of people who are not scholars and not artists, they're just people who live a full life and try to find their way through the culture in their faith and the church. They've said to me: "I resonate with what you mean because I've always felt that these political extremes are wrong and the truth is somewhere in between."
I've seen a younger generation of Christians who are taking their faith seriously but who are being led to believe that post-modernism has to be embraced in order to communicate within it. But this ends up with a focus on personal story and the loss of master narrative, doesn't it?
Image is about nothing else if it isn't about the idea that the faith needs to be made incarnate in the forms that are of the present day. And those forms are post-modern for the moment in which we live. But so many Christians tend to be more, "let's get on the bandwagon and imitate what's already going on," rather than what I would call transformative. And that would be to take what is the form of the day and bring about, through a real effort of mind and heart, a transformation of the form into something new, into something that isn't just tagging along but something dynamic, something that others would want to look to and imitate themselves.