Thomas Merton said that the “oldest thing is the newest thing,” by which he meant that anything alive—including the arts—finds its source in the eternal. The critic George Steiner has made this argument with eloquence and depth in his recent Real Presences: he specifies the “greatness” of the Great Tradition as God’s immanence.
We believe this at Image, and yet we choose not to publish appreciative essays about Fra Angelico’s paintings or Bach’s cantatas. We present what we judge to be some of the best work being done today arising out of that same source. This displeases some of our best friends and, one would think, most natural supporters. They like to glory in the glories of the past. We do, too. But we deliberately eschew this pleasure for the sake of what we take to be a far more important task.
If the arts are alive by virtue of their participation in the divine life, and that life is indeed available to all, then a few artists in every generation might be expected to stumble into this reality. (God’s faithfulness is not dependent upon us, of course. Will the Son of Man find faith when he comes again upon the earth? He’s coming however humankind answers that question.) If there are no such artists, then the testimony of the Fra Angelicos and Bachs looks like the desacralized relic of an outmoded point‑of‑view. Something of interest only to antiquarians. We believe in what the Fra Angelicos and Bachs were testifying to, however, and we see the work of contemporary artists under the influence of the same inspiration as crucial evidence to the ancient’s case. So we disseminate it, trusting in its power.
Image is a deeply traditional publication. It tries to find its life in the fountainhead of the Christian tradition itself. If this is possible, then the tradition must be a living one: if not, the tradition is not worth bothering about.
The work presented in Image, as it seeks to flow from the same source as that of the ancient masters, inevitably carries on a conversation with their work as well. This is particularly evident in this issue, we think. Partly because several of the narratives here take the past as their point of departure. Arthur Quinn looks at the multicultural problems‑‑including cannibalism‑‑that the Jesuits confronted in their seventeenth-century missions to the Hurons and Iroquois in America. The Jewish writer Jascha Kessler finds his Abraham and Isaac in a poetic New York landscape, but his temporal translation of these figures brings them closer in time in order to see their ancient deeds more clearly. And the author of “Captain Jack” has his own pre‑covenantal Abram to worry about, which he does with liberal help from the Pearl poet, Dana, Kipling, Melville, de Sade, and Flannery O’Connor. (In fact, this author seems to have taught way too many World Literature classes.) Even the Swiftian narrative, “Morning Prayer” by Bill Griffin, is only as ruthless in its commentary on tradition itself as the Dean and his Roman counterpart, Rabelais, taught us to be. Jay Tolson, in his essay on Walker Percy’s hometowns and sense of place, addresses the necessary burden of the past and how the individual writer can best carry its true legacy forward.
So we hope as you continue to enjoy Image that you will hear this contemporary conversation with the past, and seek the place, along with our authors, where tradition and the individual talent, that fire and its multifoliate rose, are one.
A final word: with this issue we are attending to a re‑ordering of the masthead. Gregory Wolfe assumes his rightful place as Publisher and Editor of Image. He has always been the essential figure in this enterprise, its sufficient condition. Also, Virginia Stem Owens now rounds out our triumvirate as Senior [Associate] Editor. Those who know her artful writing and deft thinking will have no doubt what tremendous gifts she brings to us. This move is also past of Image drawing closer to the work of The Milton Center at Kansas Newman College, the journal’s longtime if formerly distant sponsor. Greg has joined Virginia and me here as the Center’s third Fellow, and we invite you to write Image at its new address: 3100 McCormick Avenue, Wichita, Kansas 67213.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.