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Essay

St. Thomas called art “reason in making.” This is a very cold and very beautiful definition, and if it is unpopular today, this is because reason has lost ground among us. As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees. For him, to be reasonable is to find, in the object, in the situation, in the sequence, the spirit which makes it itself. This is not an easy or simple thing to do. It is to intrude upon the timeless, and that is only done by the violence of a single-minded respect for the truth.

                                                                            —Flannery O’Connor

THE journal which you hold in your hands is a new and ambitious venture. The individuals who have collaborated in the making of Image represent a growing number of artists, writers, and theologians who believe that the lack of a journal of the arts and religion constitutes a serious gap in our intellectual life.

It is one of the ironies of cultural history that the twentieth century, which began under the auspices of Nietzsche’s declaration that God was dead, has nevertheless witnessed an outpouring of religious art the like of which has not been seen since the Baroque era. But at the level of public culture, the belief that God was dead, or at least inaccessible, led to skepticism or indifference to artistic expressions of the presence of grace. As Dan Wakefield has written in a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review (“And Now, a Word From Our Creator,” Feb. 12. 1989), many of his generation “thought that the issue of God had been settled by our literary idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who came to maturity to find, in his own declaration, ‘all wars fought, all Gods dead.’” Wakefield confesses both to the poverty of his earlier prejudices and to his delight in discovering the vital tradition of art inspired by faith.

There is, however, evidence that our cultural institutions are now more open to the numinous in art. Wakefield’s essay — prominently situated in a prominent organ of the cultural establishment — is just one sign of this new openness. In the area of fiction, for example, the Library of America edition of the complete works of Flannery O’Connor has elevated her to the status of a “classic” of our literature. And within the last year, the reviewers have been lavish in their praise of recent novels by John Updike, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, J.F. Powers, and Shusaku Endo — all of whom see their art as an expression of their Christian faith.

A culture is governed by its reigning myths. In the latter days of the twentieth century, there is an increasing sense that materialism, whether of the Left or Right, cannot sustain or nourish our common life. Religion and art share the capacity to help us to renew our awareness of the ultimate questions: who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. In their highest forms religion and art unite faith and reason, grace and nature; they preserve us from the twin errors of superstition and rationalist abstraction. Religion and art are, in the end, prophetic, reminding us both of the glory of man and the fragility of human institutions.

But religion and art also need each other. Yet another irony of the twentieth century has been the persistent estrangement between organized religion and the art world. In the 1960s, with the renewal brought about by Vatican II, this estrangement gave way to its opposite: an indiscriminate use of anything that seemed modern or “relevant.” Perhaps we are now in a better position to allow genuine art and authentic religious experience to fertilize each other. When we lack the kind of attention which only the imagination can provide, we make it more difficult to live the life of faith. And art, when it sees no creation to celebrate, and no soul in need of saving, loses its respect for truth.

As the examples from contemporary fiction cited above should indicate, there is no shortage of original work of the highest quality. This is true of all the arts. Image will not only feature this creative work, but it will also seek to foster critical discourse in the areas of aesthetics and hermeneutics. Unlike some of the journals in recent decades which have been more or less exclusively interested in liturgical art, Image will focus on high art which is not directly in the service of worship. Nor will this journal feature the merely didactic or propagandistic; along with Keats, we “hate poetry [or any art form] that has a palpable design upon us.” Religious art cannot be restricted to the productions of believers of prescribed creeds alone. Any creative work which explores the human condition for meaning is in a sense “religious.”

Although the editors embrace Christianity, Image will also avoid the dangers of narrow “ethnocentrism” or denominationalism. The journal will not be identified with any particular school of art or aesthetic program. Moreover, the entire range of creative expression will be represented: fiction, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, film, and dance.

To be sure, Image is an ambitious project. But nothing short of the “violence” of this commitment will be able to sustain the necessary but daunting task of intruding upon the timeless.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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