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.
All the Advantages
YOU CAN COME to know yourself as Jesus’s own beloved without all the fuss and bother of heroin addiction. Well, I knew that, you might be saying, if like me you were raised by parents who offered you unconditional love, teaching by example that God is love. If as a child you were fortunate enough to experience church as joy, singing in youth choirs and learning in Sunday school the Bible stories that continue to have relevance to your life. So what are we to make of the drug-addled young man in Denis Johnson’s disturbing but illuminating novel Jesus’ Son, and the brilliant movie based on the book? When a friend who is a pastor went to see that movie wearing a T-shirt bearing a message from Saint Paul, “Pray without ceasing,” the theater manager rushed up to him and said in an anxious tone, “You know this isn’t a movie about Jesus?” My friend reassured him that he had read the reviews and would be all right.
The novel and the film are very much about Jesus, of course, and what God’s love can do for the least of us, when we least expect it, and maybe even feel we don’t deserve it. In Jesus’s own time, people doubted that anything significant, let alone good, could come out of Nazareth. Many Christians today doubt that religious insight could come from a story about an aimless young man who drifts through casual sexual encounters and flirts disastrously with drugs. His story includes two people close to him overdosing on heroin. But our protagonist survives, and is even transformed, and salvation has to start somewhere. The grace of God—thank God—is more immense than our narrow understanding of it.
Denis Johnson is doing something that artists have always done and indeed are called to do: to ask us to be moved by the plight of another person, someone we might well avoid on the street. I am always grateful when an artist succeeds in this regard; it can make or break a work of art for me. In the noisy version of The Great Gatsby directed by Baz Luhrmann, one quiet but stunning scene takes place at night in a garden between Gatsby’s mansion and the cottage next door, rented by the writer Nick Caraway. Gatsby has asked Nick to invite his cousin Daisy, Gatsby’s long-lost love, to tea so that he can see her again. Gatsby has a hard time believing that Nick will do this simply as a friend. “It’s a favor, Jay. Just a favor,” Nick says, and Gatsby repeats, “a favor,” in a tone of disbelief and wonder.
That scene brought me to tears, and I recalled a line from the novel, Nick’s father’s admonition: “remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” Nick grew up sheltered, in a loving family, while Gatsby’s life has been such that he does not know what a friend is. It’s a holy moment in an otherwise hyperactive film. A moment of pure beauty.
There is plenty of ugliness in this world, and many people are tired of the gratuitous violence, sexual explicitness, and foul language that permeate so many films and novels. But we owe it to artists to give serious consideration to their work, and to try to determine when an artist is not just trying to shock but is offering us something to think about. Even, or perhaps especially, when that something makes us uncomfortable, we might ask if that artist is challenging us, as the prophets challenge us, to see people we find objectionable the way God sees them, as human beings worthy of love.
Clerks II is not a film I’d recommend to just anyone; the humor is warped and sophomoric and the language remarkably profane, even by today’s standards. But the director, Kevin Smith, is a Christian. And while he knows what will make people laugh, often despite our better judgment, he also has a gift for getting us to recognize that we are laughing not so much at the characters on screen as at ourselves. It’s a thoroughly charitable humor, the opposite of the cruel humor evidenced in Borat and so many snarky television shows. When I saw Clerks II I was amazed at how much Smith made me care about people I would not care to know in real life, from the aging slackers who refuse to grow up, to the amiable but confused teenager from a fundamentalist family, to the man in love with his donkey. (That has to be seen to be believed.)
It seems to me that artists of faith must incorporate both the pagan Terence’s assertion that “nothing human is alien to me,” as well as the insight of Saint Irenaeus that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive; and to be alive consists in beholding God.” How we best “behold God” is always going to be a live-wire of a question, one on which people of faith will disagree. In a religion based on the incarnation of a God who was born in a stable, a place reeking of piss and feces, artists need to make room for reality. But we also must honor and take advantage of the ability of art to help us envision something better and more beautiful than our everyday surroundings.
However the cultural winds are blowing, I believe that the task for artists of faith is the same as it has always been. Whether or not the culture accepts their work, their job is to reject the false and seek the true; to shun sentiment and formulaic happy endings in favor of passion and surprise.
There are still academics baffled by Christianity’s hold on their colleagues, and intellectuals who regard Christians as mentally inferior. But we have come a long way. In the early 1980s I heard another writer confidently assert before a college audience that “religious language is a dead language.” We’re less likely to hear that today. For many artists now, resistance to their work is less likely to come from the secular marketplace than from Christians who are attempting to insulate themselves in an alternative culture. One finds Roman Catholic bookstores that contain little or nothing by Thomas Merton but are full of leaflets explaining why Protestants should say the rosary. For Protestants there are large and prosperous bookstores stocked with knickknacks, T-shirts, and books for a narrowly defined market. But none of my work, to be sure, or that of Mary Karr, Patricia Hampl, or Scott Cairns. No Image magazine. Much too scary for these folks.
Art is frightening because it can change lives. My father decided to become a musician after hearing a pipe organ as a child, at the chapel of Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell, South Dakota. The poet James Wright remained indebted all his life to the teacher who took him out of his grim, coal-mining town to a symphony concert in a nearby city. He summarized the experience by saying that he had never before realized that such beauty was possible in this world. We all need people to help us discover the goodness and beauty that are in this world, there for the asking.
Fifty years ago, at the close of the second Vatican Council, letters were addressed to various groups: rulers, workers, youth, scientists. The letter to artists reads in part: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands…. Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world.” It is a great advantage to know that, and to be able to pass it on.
Kathleen Norris will be the Reverend Robert J. Randall Professor in Christian Culture at Providence College during the 2014–15 academic year. Her books include The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and Acedia and Me.