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In the novel The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into a religious cult.

Phoebe Lin is wealthy, beloved, popular, but she’s secretly overcome by grief. She doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death.

Over the course of the book, Phoebe is is captivated by a charismatic former student who draws her into a what turns out to be a group of violent extremists.

Most of the story comes to us through Will, Phoebe’s working class boyfriend, a scholarship student who transferred from Bible college. Will has lost his faith, but as Phoebe falls under the spell of a new kind of fundamentalism, he finds himself struggling to confront what he’s worked so hard to escape.

 

"Everything I write is, in some way, shot through with the loss of God."

 

It was clear to me when I read The Incendiaries that Kwon had an insider’s knowledge of evangelical Christian culture—which she sees with clear eyes, but no lack of love. She writes Will without a hint of cynicism. She doesn’t treat loss of faith as an inevitable part of his coming of age. She reveals it to be a source of grief.

Will says: “People with no experience of God tend to think that leaving the faith would be liberation, a flight from guilt, rules, but what I couldn’t forget was the joy I’d known, loving Him.”

The Incendiaries takes faith—and lack of faith, and the longing for faith—deadly seriously.

I talked to  author R.O. Kwon about her own experiences of Christian culture in the United States. She once thought she’d be a pastor. Then she lost her own faith, and she turned to books as solace. But she didn’t find much there that reflected her own experience. She says she wrote the novel she would have wanted to read as that 17-year-old girl.

I think that’s what was so remarkable to me about picking up The Incendiaries. I can’t remember a more sincere literary treatment of issues that I’ve grappled with so deeply in my own life, combining experiences of Christian fundamentalism and deep grief for a lost mother.

This is a novel about faith. But it’s also a novel about grief. The book turns on the mourning of an absent God, but also of absent mothers, fathers, friends and lovers.

Laura Miller, writing in The New Yorker, called it a “rare depiction of belief that doesn’t kill the thing it aspires to by trying too hard. It makes a space, and then steps away to let the mystery in.”

-- Jessica Mesman, May 2019

Resources:

R.O. Kwon, "On Being A Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted"

R.O. Kwon, "I Believe in Skin Care"

Novelist R.O. Kwon on Losing her Religion, Elle Magazine

Laura Miller, "Religious Faith Turns Monstrous...", The New Yorker

Original music composed by Sister Sinjin

Episode produced by Cassidy Hall

Don’t miss an episode: subscribe now on iTunes or Google Play.

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And don’t forget to bookmark this page for episode highlights and show notes.

Previous Episode: Chigozie Obioma

“No matter how privileged you think you are, on a spiritual level, we are all minorities–small things.”
--Chigozie Obioma

Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma has been hailed as the heir to Chinua Achebe. He was born into a family of 12 children in the southwestern part of Nigeria, where he grew up speaking Yoruba, Igbo, and English. His first novel, The Fishermen, published in 2015, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. His second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, was one of the most anticipated of 2019.

As a child, Obioma says he was fascinated by Greek myths and the British masters, including Shakespeare, John Milton, and John Bunyan. He’s also a Christian who grew up in the Assemblies of God and now attends a Baptist church.

He says that Orchestra is the book he always wanted to write. It’s a novel about West African belief systems, as Paradise Lost was written in the Christian tradition. The novel also borrows the familiar classical scaffolding of Homer’s Odyssey, loads it with African folklore and languages and casts a poor migrant farmer in the lead role. It reads like an epic myth, spanning 500 years and both the earth and the cosmos, narrated by the protagonist’s ancient guardian spirit.

Regarding the title, Obioma said in another interview: “No matter how privileged you think you are, on a spiritual level, we are all minorities–small things.”

This story asks if it’s ever possible for the “minorities” in the cosmos—all of us—to overcome that which has been deemed our fate.

Obioma recently joined the Image editorial advisory board. He spoke with Image’s Executive Editor, Mary Kenagy Mitchell, at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe. In this episode, they discuss how language acts as barrier and bond, the spirituality of rivers, the reality of evil and how Christianity looks different in America.

“When a sentence jumps all of the rhetorical hurdles that life and our saturated minds place along the way to reach sublimity, I become moved to near tears.”
--Chigozie Obioma

Resources:

Chigozie Obioma, The Fishermen

Chigozie Obioma, An Orchestra of Minorities

On the haunting death that inspired Orchestra of Minorities

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Original music composed by Sister Sinjin

Episode produced by Roy Salmond and Cassidy Hall

Don’t miss an episode: subscribe now on iTunes or Google Play.

For exclusive content, updates, and sneak peeks at future episodes, become a Patreon supporter on Patreon.com/ImagePodcast.

And don’t forget to bookmark this page for episode highlights and show notes.

Previous Episode:

“The great artists are the ones who have forced a paradigm shift, literally reshaping the outlines of human perception.”
– Katie Kresser

I recently contributed a poem to a zine called Ethel. When the editor shared the cover art for the issue, it shocked the group of women in which it was shared–Christians, agnostics, churched and unchurched.

The cover features a collage by artist Sara Lefsyk, in which an image of Mary as the Virgin of Guadalupe is overlayed by the instructional diagram from a box of tampons.

Menstruating women see that same diagram every time they open a box of tampons. I remember studying that image for hours even before I started my period, finding it kind of mysterious and maybe even titillating.

My body was already a mystery to me.

This hadn’t changed much even by the time I had a baby at 29 years old. When the nurse asked if I wanted to watch my daughter crown, I recoiled. I couldn’t bear to look.

What might it have meant to me to have grown up with images of Mary that showed her to have a body like mine, facing the same kinds of challenges and changes? How might it have altered my experience or perception of menstruation, childbirth, to connect the workings of my own body to the workings of a woman’s body deemed sacred and holy?

Dr. Katie Kresser, Seattle Pacific University’s resident art historian, believes that great art teaches us that kind of empathy, unveils human nature, and forces us to think outside the box.

Her essay, “Christ the Chimera: The Riddle of the Monster Jesus,” appeared in Image 99. In it, she revisits two controversial renderings of Christ from the late 1990s (see show notes below), explaining why they might have more to offer people of faith than our initial reactions assumed.

Katie and I talked about many controversial images of Christ throughout art history, and I asked her, how can artists help people of faith to resist a deadening of their religious vision? How do artists destroy our schemas and disrupt the calcification of faith?

 

The Alexamenos Graffito in Jessica's issue of Image 99

 

– Jessica Mesman, April 2019

Resources:

Cover of Ethel Zine by Sarah Lefsyk

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary

Stephen Asma, “Monsters and the Moral Imagination”

C.S. Lewis, “Christmas Reflection on God Descending”

Colossians 1:17

Bruce Herman, “A Hermeneutic of Humility,” Image 99

Saints of Star Wars by Alex Ramos

Original music composed by Sister Sinjin

Episode produced by Roy Salmond and Cassidy Hall

Don’t miss an episode: subscribe now on iTunes or Google Play.

For exclusive content, updates, and sneak peeks at future episodes, become a Patreon supporter on Patreon.com/ImagePodcast.

And don’t forget to bookmark this page for episode highlights and show notes.

Previous Episode:

“The Spirit is operative in spaces and places and institutions outside the church.”

—James K.A. Smith

We are best catechized by our senses. We learn from parables and fairy tales, stories with the same homespun elements in infinite arrangements that we come to know by heart.

It’s why I so often say that it is art and story that drew me back to the practice of faith, not theology.

“Liturgies work affectively and aesthetically,” writes Image’s new editor in chief, James K. A. Smith in his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. 

“They grab hold of our guts through the power of image, story, and metaphor. That’s why the most powerful liturgies are attuned to our embodiment; they speak to our senses; they get under our skin.”

Smith, who is also a philosophy professor at Calvin College, argues that traditional Christian worship re-orients our hearts toward eternity, while so much contemporary worship only apes popular culture, with churches designed to feel like secular spaces, arenas, malls and coffee shops.

Smith’s work has always moved me, not just as a person of faith but as a writer and artist, making me more aware of how art bends my internal compass, one way or another.

Now that Smith is editor in chief of Image, we’re working together to draw attention to the intersection of faith and the arts.

I talked to him about the paths that led each of us to Image and why the arts are the best space to grapple with the paradoxes of faith.

– Jessica Mesman, April 2019

“If the believer is haunted by an echoing emptiness, the unbeliever can be equally haunted by a hounding transcendence.”
—James K.A. Smith

 

Resources:

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K.A. Smith

Comment

“James K.A. Smith’s Theological Journey” in America: The Jesuit Review

Sick Pilgrim

US Catholic

Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters by Jessica Mesman and Amy Andrews

Caryll Houselander

Original music composed by Sister Sinjin

Episode produced by Roy Salmond and Cassidy Hall

Don’t miss an episode: subscribe now on iTunes or Google Play.

For exclusive content, updates, and sneak peeks at future episodes, become a Patreon supporter on Patreon.com/ImagePodcast.

And don’t forget to bookmark this page for episode highlights and show notes.

 

 

PREVIOUS EPISODES

2017

Episode 12: Inside the Flannery Issue

If you’ve been keeping up with us here at Image, you know that our fall issue featured the never-before-published college journal of Flannery O’Connor entitled “Higher Mathematics.” On a special episode of our podcast, Gregory Wolfe sits down with Mark Bosco, SJ, who was instrumental in the publication of “Higher Mathematics,”and is in the midst of producing a documentary about Flannery that is set to premiere in February. Sit back and enjoy this conversation with Mark, as well as a brief reading from the journal itself. If you want to read the journal in full, you can purchase Issue 94 here, or subscribe to Image here.

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Listen on Google Play Music

This season features eight episodes, including conversations with Image editor in chief James K.A. Smith, art historian Katie Kresser, novelists R.O. Kwon and Chigozie Obioma, and more—plus original music by Sister Sinjin.

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