The Road Ahead
Voices for the Next Twenty-Five Years
Many gifted artists and writers of faith working today were just learning how to read and hold their crayons when Image was founded. They never experienced the culture wars of the eighties that weighed so heavily on an older generation; theirs are a different set of influences and concerns. Do they still need evidence that art informed by faith is alive and well, or is that now a forgone conclusion? We asked a handful of younger writers how and if Image’s mission and focus resonate with them, and what they need Image to be.
How the Light Gets In
I MET A YOUNG MAN last year who sawed his wrist open with a steak knife. Gustavo was a twenty-two year old no longer wanted by his local Mexican gang, but still covered in their tattoos, now out of shape and drinking full time. While his dad tried to watch the Mariners game on television, he stepped in front of the screen, in front of his dad, and drew blood.
He wanted his father to see his pain. He made the invisible visible, in medias res.
His dad told him to get out the way, to cut that out.
Gustavo was drunk, sure, but his performance had been motivated by something more than the now-empty twelve-pack in the garage. His stunt was a live installation, a dumb show performed for an audience of one. His father did not receive it well.
“Stu-pid shit.” His older brother, on and off meth, shook his head when telling me what happened when I visited their home later that week. Their childhood friend had brought me—a jail chaplain and gang pastor—to check on Gustavo. The four of us stood in their driveway, in the fog, leaning against two broken-down cars with deflated tires and soft green moss thriving around the trunk’s edges. Gustavo was bashful about his wound, the white gauze on his wrist, all the medical tape. But our friend told him not to be ashamed. “It’s all right, fool. Take that off—let’s check it out. We’re gonna pray for that shit.”
Gustavo smiled. “Fuck it.” He peeled back the bandage and laughed nervously. We all looked at what his father had dismissed.
We all need a place where the discomforting, the vulgar, the grotesque is welcome—where we can reckon with what we’d rather not see.
This is the challenge of good art and good faith, to say nothing of mystery.
Two summers ago, filmmaker Scott Derrickson surprised me at Image’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe when he said horror is the Christian genre par excellence. He said a horror flick in a dark theater is a safe place where we can face our greatest fears, without having to run or look away. This is what’s happening, he said, when we gaze upon God crucified, the center of all Christian art.
Every generation has its horrors to not face. A year before Gustavo pulled the steak knife across his wrist, his mother left them and the house for good. She was tired of his dad’s drinking. The three men sat numb in the drafty house. Though they lived together, they never talked about it, their loss, their anger, this small nightmare.
Gustavo later told me how his dad sobered up after his mom left them. But he also began ignoring his sons, totally absorbed in an online dating relationship. He wired his new girlfriend—somewhere in Africa, or Australia—thousands of dollars, month after month. He didn’t pay the bills. The house grew colder.
She writes so nicely, he told his sons. She isn’t as crude and foul-mouthed as you two ingrates, he said. She loves me, he said.
Light switches stopped working. Still, he wired more money.
“An’ she don’ even exist!” Gustavo told me in the weeks that followed, as we drove through the rainy town.
“You know that for sure?” I asked.
“Yeeeah. Me and my bro, we know the fool that’s scamming our Pops! He lives just over the other side of the river, here in the valley.”
I asked if they’d told their dad about this.
“’Course we have. Tell him all the time. He don’ listen.”
His dad, Gustavo said, never had enough money to help him or his brother get into drug and alcohol treatment or to put new tires on their mossy car to go looking for jobs. But he bought three international tickets for this woman and drove to the Seattle airport to pick her up. He waited for hours each time. She never arrived.
The older generation was lost in a lovely fiction.
Flannery O’Connor wrote that the artist of faith “may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to [a] hostile audience.” She wrote, “You have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Enter the steak knife.
I started reading Image only recently, in the last year or two. The writing that has stayed with me are pieces that pulled off what I am trying to describe here: Elizabeth Tarver’s short story “Ashes” (Issue 71), where the cremated remains of a gay young man are lifted by a gust of wind at his stuffy funeral and land like grace all across the ironed suits and tidy hair of his disapproving community; Jim Hinch’s exquisite profiles—of an East LA gangland muralist and addiction counselor, Fabian Debora, whose oil canvases are invading ritzy galleries (also Issue 71); and of a mystery play revival among migrant workers in the hot heart of California’s lettuce-growing country, where a man in thick makeup and a devil costume preaches the gospel while mocking Jesus’s death in an adobe playhouse (Issue 73).
By publishing these pieces, Image pays attention—with the authors—to the steak knife acts of our time, welcoming them into the fine arts circle. In this way, Image continues to create a space more like our driveway fellowship with Gustavo and less like his father’s dismissal in front of the television.
The power of the fiction and nonfiction pieces I mentioned above is in their tender attention to both the pain and the mystery moving in and out of a generation’s wounds. Those pieces give me courage, as I reread them now, to do the same, both in word as well as in the flesh—that is, in my writing as well as in my embodied work as a pastor on the margins.
When Gustavo carefully removed the bandage that afternoon between the cars, he held his healing scars out to me. “What do we pray?”
I put my fingers on the jagged pink lines across the soft skin of his butchered wrist. They were still tender. All I could think was, God, come into my veins.
Gustavo hesitated when I said this. Then he took a deep breath and prayed: “God, come into my veins.”
I thought of drugs, of transfusions. God, come into our bloodlines, into our severed families, into the dark gaps between our generations. Come through our new wounds, which good art and faith can train us to not hide. There is a crack—a crack—in everything, an old poet hummed in my mind as we prayed in the fog. That’s how the light gets in.
Chris Hoke works with inmates and gangs at Tierra Nueva in Washington’s Skagit Valley and is a recent graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts program. His first book, Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit through the Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders, is due out in 2015 from HarperOne. www.chris-hoke.com