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Essay

THE PUBLICATION of the fiftieth issue of a journal doesn’t constitute an anniversary, but it does have the feel of a milestone. The impulse, especially for someone who was present at the creation, is to engage in a little fond reminiscence. Yet I find myself resisting that impulse. In fact, as the years have passed, I’ve found myself reflecting less on the role I’ve played in shaping this enterprise than on what it has done to shape me.

It goes without saying that a project as all-consuming as a quarterly journal like Image is the proverbial gorilla in the room. The primate is always hungry. Or, to use a metaphor that someone near and dear to me has occasionally deployed: Image is like a high-maintenance mistress, always demanding shopping money and prone to making indiscreet calls to the home phone number.

From time to time I find myself asking: where is the line between noble endeavor and obsessive compulsive disorder? Or monomania, for that matter?

Call me Ahab.

Several times I’ve asked my family to pull up stakes and move so I could take a new day job to keep Image—and the household—alive. At such moments the sheer weight of the journal becomes an issue: paper is heavy. Six years ago I drove across the continent in a twenty-four foot rental truck packed to the gunnels with back issues. My wife Suzanne and four kids (along with the three cats and a few house plants) followed behind in the minivan, cringing at every sharp curve high in the Rockies, fearing that the force of inertia would pull the high truck over the steel railing.

Down I would go. Buried by Image.

As I said, good paper is heavy. And it isn’t cheap. Publishing a journal of literature and the arts in an era when reading is in decline and omnipresent pop culture shortens attention spans and shrinks the human heart; investing in expensive production values in order to give art its due and demonstrate that religious faith doesn’t inevitably entail shoddy work; choosing to transcend the boundaries of particular political, aesthetic, and denominational communities—these costly choices are all good things, right?

But good things contain the seeds of their own undoing.

I learned early on that the skills needed to found a journal are not necessarily the same as those needed to sustain it. And it’s precisely at this pressure point where I’ve found myself becoming someone I did not always recognize.

Having to make the case year in and year out takes a toll. As I’ve sat in living rooms and corporate and foundation offices, straining to argue for the relevance and culture-transforming mission of this venture, I’ve found myself becoming alternately defensive and aggressive. Once, speaking to a program officer at a foundation that gave millions to churches and seminaries as well as to art museums and opera houses, I presented Image as the perfect synthesis of his organization’s interests. “But you’re not a seminary or an opera house,” he said. After several variations on this exchange, my jaw started to do funny things.

In another conference room, a famous entrepreneur proudly told me that he had hired a personal trainer—of the literary sort. The trainer came to his office three days a week to take the mogul through Homer’s Odyssey. With this promising beginning, I pitched him on Image. “I’m not interested in that,” he replied. “The real way to change the culture is through Hollywood blockbusters.”

Some people have a gift for fundraising. The late Henri Nouwen, a friend and a contributor to these pages, once gave a luminous talk on “The Spirituality of Fundraising” in which he counseled people like me to present our projects as opportunities for others to participate in the work of building the Kingdom. But Henri, fundraising has always made me seize up with guilt.

When British aristocrats would get a hankering to erect some architectural monstrosity—a mini-Pantheon, say, on the hill above their stately home—it would be called a “folly.” For a long time that’s what I thought I was doing: building a folly. It took much longer than it should have for me to learn that I was wrong.

After years of patient counsel from friends and strangers, it finally came clear to me. It takes a measure of both confidence and humility to see that something you’ve helped to create has become more than a hobby horse—that it has moved far, far beyond your own part in it. A longsuffering member of our board of directors and an old friend of mine, on hearing my tale of woe one too many times, turned to me and said: “So what you’re telling me, Greg, is that it’s all about you.” With a start, the truth struck home: like Ahab, I had forgotten that I was sailing on a ship with a dedicated crew—a community, really—that kept the vessel afloat and on course.

And yet, looking across the conference-room table at the Homer-reading mogul extolling the virtues of Hollywood, I feel the panic rising as I wonder how to keep the good things alive, worried that at any moment I might raise my voice—or begin to weep.

Making sacrifices oneself is one thing. Asking others, including one’s family, to make them is another. There has never been a day in my life when I didn’t have enough to eat or a place to lay my head, but that hasn’t insulated me from the financial anxieties of the middle-class and middle-aged. When my home equity loan began to exceed the equity in my home and the bank began to call, I wondered what I would say at the dinner table.

I used to think that the primary emotions caused by lack were anger and fear. But through hard experience I’ve learned that the state of having too little is dominated, not by anger or fear, but by shame. I am grateful for this lesson, but it is not something I would wish on anyone else.

When money is tight, either at home or at Image, I hunker down, a survivalist holed up in a mountain cave with canned goods and a shotgun. I have invented a nickname for this persona: I call him Mr. Scrappy. Mr. Scrappy possesses some virtues, no doubt; he’s a thrifty guy, a good steward of scarce resources, an efficient nonprofit arts administrator. But when he asks artists and writers—and his family—to accept something less than befits their dignity and worth, Mr. Scrappy dies a little inside.

Being an editor is not a job for those who crave popularity. To be an editor is to be a gatekeeper, faced with huge numbers of aspirants seeking publication, appreciation, love. For the editor, judgment and selection are like breathing and eating. Sadly, turning away submissions never gets any easier. In the process I’ve lost friendships and, what is worse, I’ve felt that friendships I’d like to make have been prevented by the turning down of a manuscript. In that sense, it is difficult for an editor to have the social life she might like.

The pain of rejection may lead some writers to suspect that there is something insidious at work—at best, idiosyncratic and subjective personal taste; at worst, that it’s all about who you know. No set of editors, however rigorously they challenge each other, can wholly avoid an element of subjectivity in the final result. But it has been my experience that the conscientious pursuit of aesthetic discrimination does lead to something like objectivity, to the love of the forms through which beauty radiates. As for the second suspicion, I can honestly say that we open every envelope with a willingness to be surprised and delighted—as much when a cover letter lists no previous publications at all as when it lists The Atlantic or Paris Review. What editor doesn’t want the glory of discovering a new writer?

This is where I begin to hope that fifty issues of Image have done something to shape me for the good. God knows there are as many rewards to this job as rigors and ambiguities. When we receive letters and e-mails from readers we are often astonished by their passion and eloquence in relating what Image means to them. Many seem to offer less a casual word of praise than something akin to a testimony.

While that undoubtedly has something to do with the quality of the journal, it also grows out of our identity as a showcase for the finest art and literature of our time, works that grapple with the moral, spiritual, and intellectual experience of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Those who respond so powerfully to Image do so not on purely aesthetic grounds, but out of encounters that are both aesthetic and spiritual.

When readers celebrate the combination of beauty and grace in our pages, they are describing what people have always wanted from art: not just pleasure but significance. I would be the last to suggest that the only enduring art in human history is that which directly grapples with matters of biblical revelation or transcendence. But in a time when so much of what passes for art is little more than narcissism or thinly veiled ideology, art that asks the big questions can help steer us back to a world charged with meaning.

§

The rewards of the job have been many, too many to list here. Over the last two decades I have witnessed more substantive and dynamic ecumenism and interfaith dialogue through my work with Image than I have seen anywhere else, including all the official commissions and panels. The community that has formed around Image remains incredibly diverse, not only in terms of denomination and geography but in its range of aesthetic styles and political convictions. Art really is able to provide a space in which people can come together and relate to one another in ways that other forms of communication often fail to provide.

Then there has been the joy of working with gifted colleagues—staff, interns, board of directors, and donors. I can say without undue self-deprecation that they receive far too little of the credit for whatever has been accomplished in the journal and our other programs. Since I can’t list them all, I will single out Mary Kenagy, an enormously gifted writer and editor who has helped the journal become more fully what it always was in potential. I call her The Oracle. I think she prefers Mary.

I have to conclude with a word about my family. There wouldn’t be one issue of Image, much less fifty, without them. Suzanne, for some unaccountable reason, decided to take on an immature recovering political junkie with a weakness for the arts and love me into becoming a wiser, better human being. Her hand is everywhere in these pages. She once received a piece of junk mail that began: “Dear Mrs. Image: Would you like to hear a little good news for a change?” She did, as it happened (the letter arrived soon after we discovered termites in the beams supporting our house), and while it may be a backhanded compliment, Suzanne truly is Mrs. Image. She and our four splendid children spend a great deal of their waking lives kicking my butt, something they find endlessly hilarious. But, as I’ve made clear, my butt needs that sort of treatment. They have also shown me more love and trust than I deserve, which is as close to a definition of grace as I will ever know.

 

Art in header by Barry Moser, from Moby-Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville.


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

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