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.
Studying with You
IN THE LONG HISTORY of the murmuring social hall where literature and religion meet (and only decaf coffee is served), Image has been around for maybe the last two minutes. No doubt about it: there have been major changes in the last two-and-a-half decades. The Holocaust moved from the periphery to the center of American culture and back again. (Even young Jewish novelists like Sam Munson now feel safe in making Holocaust jokes.) A new style of Roman Catholic fiction, turning away from Flannery O’Connor’s “added dimension” or Paul Horgan’s “sacramental vision” and grappling instead with ordinary evil and the men and women who are unreconciled to grace, has begun to make itself known in the work of William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha. For longer than Image has been publishing, Cynthia Ozick and Marilynne Robinson have been fighting a rear-guard action for the religious mind in fiction and essays of great power and beauty.
But the truth, I’m afraid, is that very little has changed, because the most monumental changes of the past twenty-five years have barely ruffled a comma in Anglo-American literature. True, Jewish writers have awakened to the most significant demographic change in the Jewish community since the Holocaust—namely, the “return” of thousands upon thousands of young Jews to Orthodoxy, which has transformed the most backward quarter of Judaism to its most innovative and intellectually alive—and Jewish fiction has begun to feature the baal teshuvah, the secularized Jew who discovers, sometimes against her will, that the words of the Jewish liturgy are her words. But the contemporaneous development, the partnering development, has escaped the notice of most Jews, literary or not. I mean the post-Holocaust discrediting of Christian anti-Semitism and its almost complete disappearance from Christendom.
The year after Image was founded, I took my Northwestern PhD and moved south to begin a teaching career at Texas A&M University. I ended up teaching there for a little more than two decades. After the death of my colleague Cleve Want (an ordained Episcopal priest in addition to being an English professor), I inherited the department’s course on the Bible as literature. The first couple of semesters were bumpy; I had not yet made a name for myself. Every class seemed to include one young man who intended upon going on to divinity school, and discussions would sometimes break down into a one-on-one skirmish between us. One semester, for example, I innocently asked why Mormons were excluded from campus preparations for Holy Week.
“Mormons are not Christians!” three or four outraged voices cried out.
“I don’t understand,” I said; “they call their church the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”
The pre-divinity student took over as spokesman. “The Book of Mormon is an addition to Scripture,” the young man said, “and God has clearly commanded us not to add to his word.”
“Yes, I know,” I replied. “He said so in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, in the Hebrew Bible. By your own logic, then, Christians, in adding the New Testament to the Old, have committed the same religious error for which you criticize the Mormons.”
Half the class broke spontaneously into applause; the other half started booing loudly.
Within a year or two, my class and I had gained a campus reputation. The evangelical Protestants who were likely to boo in my class, whose style of argument I came to think of as refutation by half-remembered prooftext, no longer signed up. Instead, over the next decade and a half, I had the pleasure of meeting an entire generation of young evangelicals who would not have wanted to refute or convert me even if it had dawned upon them to try. Although Texas A&M continued to be dominated by evangelical Protestants (“A&M is better than Baylor,” a student once said to me breathlessly, preferring the state university to the Baptist school ninety miles away in Waco), the young evangelicals in my class conceived of themselves as the Jews’ younger brothers in faith. “Studying Bible with you,” another student once said to me, “is like studying with Abraham.” And I doubt this comment had anything at all to do with me personally. The student felt as if he were closer to the Bible’s origins by studying with an Orthodox Jew, who shared his passionate unshakable faith in God.
In the technical terminology of theology, my Bible students were dispensationalists. They believed, with the prophet Samuel, that “God is not human that he should change his mind” (1 Samuel 15:29). His promises to Israel could not, to their minds, be otherwise than eternally binding. Not for them Mark Noll’s scandal of the evangelical mind! They possessed the quiet confidence that the Bible, as the word of God (not man), could withstand critical examination and rough handling. Their faith was not shaken by questions to which they did not have ready answers. They were prepared to entertain the possibility that what they had been taught for years was wrong, because they did not confuse their religious instruction with Christ’s love.
I hope that I am making clear just how much I admired these young evangelicals and enjoyed their company. What I do not enjoy, however—what angers me to the point of speechlessness—is how little they are known to my fellow Jews. As some wag once said, the only thing all American Jews have in common is that, by God, they are not Christians! Many of them are more deeply attached to vestigial memories of Christian anti-Semitism than to the laws of kashrut or even the state of Israel. The fact that the last three Bishops of Rome have been friends to the Jews interests them not at all. Even those Jews who acknowledge the friendship show little or no inclination to read the popes or consider their views. A few years ago I gave a copy of Benedict XVI’s 2000 book The Spirit of the Liturgy to a rabbi who had told me of his intellectual fascination with liturgy. I was in Half-Price Books a few months later when I found the copy of the book, inscribed to the rabbi in my hand, on the store’s religion shelves. In short, the Christianity which has had the tremendous courage to renounce its ancient tradition of anti-Semitism has lacked a partner in Judaism.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not calling for an ecumenism without tears or, God forbid, a syncretism that makes a hash of religious distinctions. What I do believe, however, is that multilingualism is a minimal requirement of the religious and literary person in the twenty-first century. The Orthodox Jew must learn Hebrew to be a full Jew. But the literary intellectual who is also a Jew needs to acquire fluency in the theological language of Christianity. For the Christian who wants to discover something more than his own nose in the mirror of his religion, Christianity must become a mode of knowledge, separate and distinct from his own experience, which includes many elements from Second Temple Judaism. The scholarly study of Judaism is, for him, the study of his own religion’s family history. Finally, Jews and Christians who would like Muslims to be other than their enemies must learn how to address Muslims in the language of Islam. It is something of a truism to observe that Islam, unlike Christianity, has never undergone a reformation, and may be overdue for one. Nothing that Jews and Christians can do or say will hasten the reform of Islam, which can only come about from within. But religious straight talk in their own religious idiom might not handicap Islamic reformers for the struggles ahead.
This is the cultural work to which Image might contribute in its next quarter century. It might encourage religious-minded writers who understand religion as knowledge, who realize that no religion can be understood wholly from within, and who are ambitious to speak from different religious points of view for the same reason they write in multiple genres: to shame the devil from every angle.
Good luck, Image, and God bless!
D.G. Myers is the author of The Elephants Teach, which has been continuously in print for eighteen years. He is writing an account of what it is like to live with Stage IV cancer.