The Road Behind Us
Image’s Founding Generation
When Image was founded in 1989, the cultural landscape looked different than it does today. Religious writers and artists felt cold-shouldered in the public square and often ill at ease within the church. The need for a journal that demonstrated the continuing vitality of contemporary art informed by faith—art that upheld high standards, grappled directly with historic faith traditions, and avoided false uplift—seemed more or less obvious. We asked several members of Image’s founding generation, writers across a number of disciplines, what they see as having changed over those years, whether there’s still a need for a venue like Image, and what our new calling might be.
After the Local Gods
A QUARTER OF A CENTURY AGO, a young man named Gregory Wolfe sat in my living room in Studio City, California, proposing to create a journal of “arts and religion.” I didn’t throw him out. In fact, I thought it might be a good, though risky, idea. I’m not sure how much I helped at that time, but I offered at least encouragement.
I can now offer this as evidence that I’m not always wrong.
The survival and, indeed, flourishing of Image since then is further proof of the efficacy of prayer and the beneficent actions of the Holy Spirit. It is also a tribute to the faith and hard work of Greg, Suzanne, Mary, and many others who made Image into a cultural force and spiritual haven.
But difficult work remains. I agree that the cultural climate has warmed a bit, but the challenge for present-day artists of faith is, in my judgment, as daunting as ever, and will require as much commitment and hard word as Greg, Suzanne, and the Image community invested.
While Christians are now perhaps more welcome in the mainstream of American culture, that mainstream—indeed, if there is one—seems to have drifted into a gulley, perhaps even a ditch. The reality is that “culture” for the vast majority of Americans means “pop culture.” As I see it, while we may be comfortable among other aesthetic nostalgists, our task—dare I say, our mission—is to penetrate and overcome the present culture. If we don’t, Christian or religious art will be just dusty artifacts in another room in the museum of western civilization.
What we need, perhaps as always, is a revitalization of the Christian imagination. My perspective on what I’m calling the Christian imagination and how it relates to American popular culture is, admittedly, a narrow one. I’m not a cultural historian or a theologian. My professional competency is that of a Hollywood entertainer, or, at least, it was. (I don’t work in Hollywood anymore, but, full disclosure, I still get residuals.)
I’m also not an academic, but let me define my terms. By “American popular culture” I mean something narrow but concrete: the mass production of cultural commodities by the entertainment industry. In this sense, I would argue that, strictly speaking, American popular culture is neither popular nor culture. In limiting the term to the products of the mass entertainment industry in which I worked, I’m not denigrating other often more authentic artistic expressions; I’m only facing the present-day reality of the mass culture in our technological society.
While inspiration for early pop culture often came from external sources—in that sense, from popular roots, including, for instance, jazz or folk music, populist themes and original stories—these were invariably transformed into products and commodities. “Pop” now indicates a market orientation, not grassroots origins.
A culture is defined variously, but the common denominators in an anthropological definition would be coherence and continuity. I would suggest that, increasingly, what is offered as mass entertainment has neither. There are familiar attitudes but they no longer reflect a common sense of value, much less a shared moral perspective.
My use of the term Christian imagination is also circumscribed in that I believe that our creative imagination should be deeply rooted in the three central mysteries of our faith: the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. I recognize, however, that defining the Christian imagination in this restricted way presents some immediate difficulties, and one in particular: how are we to do this?
We must begin by drawing on our own life experiences that relate as analogies to the central mysteries of our faith—a challenge facing artists and viewers alike, because the “imaging” of our experiences is limited not just by our subjectivity but by the debased cultural language of our time. In my own field, for instance, this challenge of how to depict the central mysteries of faith in modern terms is seldom, if ever, confronted, even in film criticism offered by Christians. Assuming that the best of our films aspire to art rather than pious propaganda, we might start by reconsidering our criteria for judging popular art, including films. A first step would be to stop imitating Hollywood.
A frequent lapse in the Christian critical view of Hollywood films has been to ignore the spiritual malaise among those working in the industry. By the 1950s, when I first entered the studios, it was already becoming apparent that the Hollywood creative community, particularly writers, were suffering from the dying of the local gods. I refer to the demise of Marxism, Freudianism, and radical bohemianism, all of which were failing as a substitute for faith or as a basis for hope. This profound disillusionment wouldn’t become apparent on the screen until well into the sixties, but the lights were already dimming. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was a bitter depiction of the death of old Hollywood, and it was made in 1959. By 1969, “Hollywood” was no longer Hollywood. Classic Hollywood, old Hollywood, was dead. I know because I was at the funeral.
By the seventies, an era of multinational corporate control had begun. Prior to that, the loss of the adult audience to TV had created a desperate need for huge money-making, action-oriented blockbusters. The movie audience, very young to begin with, increasingly became international. Therefore, given the limits of language, Hollywood sought an audience with little interest or orientation toward character-driven dramas. This is naturally discouraging for serious writers and directors and anyone wanting to make anything more than a popcorn movie.
But the malaise has even deeper roots. Hollywood has produced many fine artists who have made splendid films, not just the delightful entertainment that was Hollywood’s specialty, but many that inspired the ideals of freedom and equality, and some that were thoughtful in doing so. On balance, Hollywood has offered neither heaven nor hell.
However, facing a deep cultural and spiritual crisis that it neither understands nor acknowledges, the industry has offered an opiate, one of the most effective and long-lasting in modern times. But while medications can be effective and humane, they can also disguise an underlying condition.
What is the nature of the pain and suffering that Hollywood and the pop culture try to disguise and deny? The short answer is the evasion of the universal human condition of suffering and death, that is to say, the mystery of the cross.
It is not our job to rescue Hollywood, or the pop culture; our obligations are first to our own vocations. What are we called to do in this moment as artists, and as Christians? We are not called to condemn or praise, but to bear witness to the one light that overcomes darkness. To do so, according to the light of our tradition, we have no choice but to seek and offer the three R’s: repentance, redemption, and the promise of resurrection.
This is hardly the vocabulary of the popular culture, and none of this is going to make us popular.
Where are we now—twenty-five years after Image bravely took the field? First, we should recognize that we are in unexplored territory. We are facing the new social context of a radical secularism that fails to offer any clear path. The old gods of Hollywood—redemptive politics, psychotherapy, and sexual liberation—are, as spiritual muses, as long dead as the great god Pan.
Is it possible that we have entered a time of revelation and prophecy? While we can’t be certain, we should not find this unusual or even surprising. Periods of decline, especially rapid and disorienting decline, bring confusion and anxiety, of course, but they also can provide clarity and hope.
Just as there are no powers or principalities that can prevent us from living Christian lives, there is no reason for contemporary Christian artists to refrain from work that engages the central mysteries of our faith, and perhaps in a more direct and challenging way than ever before. Finding artistic form for these mysteries is what will and should inspire our creativity; this is what John Ruskin meant when he said that “all progressive art is religious.”
We do not seek fame or fortune, and I suspect that the era of assimilation and accommodation is over. The pseudo-culture of the mainstream has never been our natural habitat.
We are called to be witnesses in many ways, and I’m not denying or denigrating other choices, but I think we are now being forced into the freedom of being uncompromising artists, and, in every way, fully and openly Christian.
Ron Austin has served on the editorial board of Image since its inception. His latest book is Star Crossed: A Hollywood Love Story in Three Acts (Eerdmans). Parts of this essay are derived from an address given at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at Berkeley.