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Malcolm Guite is a priest, poet, songwriter, and chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. He’s also served as a chaplain at our Glen Workshops in Santa Fe. I came to know Guite’s work through the online community Sick Pilgrim, where his book, Sounding the Seasons, a collection of sonnets inspired by the liturgical year, is much beloved. The artists in Sick Pilgrim, many of whom are struggling to make sense of their Christian faith in the context of their work, also love the figure of Guite himself. To give you an idea of why, he’s been described as what you might get if John Donne journeyed to Middle Earth by way of San Francisco, took musical cues from Jerry Garcia and fashion tips from Bilbo Baggins, and rode back on a Harley.

Guite is the author of five books of poetry, including two chapbooks and three full-length collections. His book Mariner is a biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, shaped and structured around the story he told in his most famous poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The Tablet predicted it would become a classic of Christian spirituality.

Scott Cairns has said that Coleridge is a poet he remains in conversation with when he writes. He’s one of the dead poets Cairns says he keeps on his desk. His eight books of poetry include Idiot Psalms and Slow Pilgrim. He’s an editorial advisor to Image and the director of the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University, and his poems and essays have appeared in many of our issues. He’s also the author of one of the books that stays on my own writing desk: The End of Suffering, Finding Purpose in Pain.

Cairns said in an interview that he no longer looks at poetry as an expressive art, but more as a way of knowing. He puts words on the page, trusting the language will lead into seeing something he hadn’t anticipated.

Both Guite and Cairns open up new ways of thinking about what it means to be an artist of faith. David Jennings brought them together in Santa Fe to read from their work, and to talk about the enduring influence of Coleridge, their mutual obsession with time, and how writing and reading poetry can help us to heal experiences of "bad church."

Original music composed by Sister Sinjin

Episode produced by Cassidy Hall and Roy Salmond.

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

 

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Image is a religious journal, but maybe not in the way you'd expect. Our executive editor, Mary Kenagy Mitchell, says that "we give voice to writers who are devout, or full of doubt. The grapplers, the joyful, the angry, the bereaved, the confused. The connecting thread is the effort to get language and art to bear transcendent mystery. We aren’t interested in ideal faith but in faith as it actually is. A faith balanced against doubt."

This, Mitchell says, is why we named our annual award after Denise Levertov.

Levertov’s identity as a Christian believer—a pilgrim whose faith was inextricably entwined with doubt—was an important facet of her work.

Every year, we present this award, in partnership with Seattle Pacific University’s Department of English and MFA in creative writing, and with Seattle’s Hugo House, to an artist, musician or writer whose work exemplifies a serious and sustained engagement with faith. Poet Marilyn Nelson will receive the 2019 Levertov Award in November.

In 2018, Scott Cairns presented Carolyn Forché with the Levertov Award for her life’s work as a poet of witness, as an activist, and as a writer whose work reflects a long engagement with faith, justice and beauty.

Forché is a poet, editor, translator, and activist. Her books of poetry are Blue Hour, The Angel of History, The Country Between Us, and Gathering the Tribes. Many readers will also know Forché through the anthologies she edited, Against Forgetting and Poetry of Witness. Her memoir, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistancewas published in 2019.

Forché delivered the Levertov Award lecture at Hugo House, a center for Seattle writers offering readings, classes, and community events.

She began by recalling a life-changing event in Michigan State’s writing program in 1968, when Dr. Linda Wagner Martin, who taught her poetry workshop, played a recording of Denise Levertov reading poetry.

Both Forché and Levertov got into trouble with their poetry. Levertov wrote about the Vietnam War and Forché, in her 20s, wrote about El Salvador on the brink of civil war in The Country Between Us. Levertov, who was so influential on the younger Forché, became a colleague and a mentor. She expressed her admiration for Forché's work, calling it lyrical and engaged, saying it was the kind of work she wanted to do.

In this episode, you'll hear Carolyn Forché pay tribute to Levertov, read her own work, and answer questions about how writers can both bear witness and sustain each other in times of political and personal upheaval.

Resources:

The Levertov Award

Hugo House

"Making Peace" by Denise Levertov

“At the Justice Department, November 15, 1969" by Denise Levertov

"The Boatman" by Carolyn Forché

"The Colonel" by Carolyn Forché

The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

Vaclav Havel's 1990 Speech to Congress

Previous Episode:

 

“When you enter the world of art, like it or not, you are entering the realm of religion.”

–Aaron Rosen

Today's conversation is with Image’s new visual arts editor, Aaron Rosen.

Aaron is Professor of Religion & Visual Culture and Director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary. But he also generates and participates in conversations about religion and the arts outside of academia. He’s spoken at universities, museums, and religious institutions around the world. He writes books about art for adults and children; he’s contributed to newspapers and magazines, and provided commentary for the BBC. He also enjoys working directly with artists and has co-curated exhibitions, including an international traveling Stations of the Cross.

Aaron is Jewish, and his wife, Carolyn Rosen, is an Episcopal priest, so he has a special interest in thinking about and practicing inter-faith dialogue. He wants to bring an expansive, multi-faith element to Image’s art coverage while we remain fully engaged in the contemporary art world. He has what he calls an “old-fashioned commitment to really good art,” because the best art, he says, helps us think better theologically.

I talked to Aaron about growing up with a Jewish father and Catholic mother; how religion is, for him, a creative experience; and why we need to have, literally, more faith in art. -- Jessica Mesman, June 2019

Resources:

Aaron Rosen interviews Anne McCoy for Brooklyn Rail  

Sensation: Young British Artists at the Brooklyn Museum

Damien Hirst's Pharmacy

Ad Reinhardt's "black paintings"

Graham Greene: "God in the Details," from the New Yorker

When Art Disrupts Religion by Philip Salim Francis

Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion

My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

The (Art) Stations of the Cross

Michael Takeo Magruder, Lamentation for the Forsaken 

St. Veronica as patron saint of photographers 

Father Marie-Alain Coutourier

Original music composed by Sister Sinjin

Episode produced by 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.

 

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When my guest, poet Shane McCrae, was in high school, he made what he calls a “serious existential commitment” to quit life. The child of a black father and a white mother, has was raised in part by his maternal grandparents, who were white supremacists and denied that he was black. By the time he was in junior high, he was flunking out of school and didn’t care much for anything, he says, besides skateboarding and music.

Then, in high school, he saw a cheesy movie that changed his life, because in it, a girl read a poem by Sylvia Plath.

He “became profoundly obsessed.” He had an idea that “poetry was either going to be the key to the rest of my life, or there just wasn’t going to be a key.”

He became a regular at the school library, poring over books about poets’ lives. Plath’s poetry struck him as sad, but the sadness, he said, somehow made him feel better.

McCrae dropped out of high school. He was a dad by the age of 18. He got his GED and started community college, eventually transferring to the University of Oregon, where he discovered his favorite poetry, Elizabethan and Renaissance English poetry. Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene became “necessary”, he says, to his conception of himself, his world, his art. He went on to get an MFA and a JD from Harvard Law.

Since 2010, he’s written six books of poetry including his most recent, the Guilded Auction Block. He’s received numerous awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

His is an extraordinary story, but McCrae often speaks of the details of his life with what the New Yorker described as “a judicial coolness that makes the details all the more devastating.” Maybe those details are so devastating because behind McCrae’s literary success is a story of the America we know exists but would prefer did not.

His poems are written in meter,-- he says he wants to adhere to rules—and yet they approximate the sound of the subconscious, as Amelia Klein noted in her review of his book Mule for the Boston Review. Klein wrote that McCrae’s poems "do what the mind does with words when it isn’t using them intentionally but murmuring to itself consolingly and censoriously of its own imperfectly recorded history."

For this episode I talked to Shane McCrae about his new role as poetry editor at Image. We also talked about depression, his love for Sylvia Plath, how the rules of poetry help him to engage the infinite (writing in free verse makes him anxious, he says), and how this connects to a spiritual path that led him from atheism to Islam to the Episcopal Church. -- Jessica Mesman, May 2019

Resources:
Shane McCrae, Mule

Shane McCrae, In the Language of My Captor

Shane McCrae, The Guilded Auction Block

An Odd Path to Plath, PRI Interview with Shane McCrae

Dan Chiasson, Shane McCrae's Poems to America, The New Yorker

Amelia Klein, Microreview: Shane McCrae's Mule, The Boston Review

How Shane McCrae Leared to Break the Rules, PBS NewsHour

Original music composed by Sister Sinjin

Episode produced by 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.

 

Previous Episode: R.O. Kwon 

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.

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: 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 Monster Christ with Katie Kresser

“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: James K.A. Smith

“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.

IMG_7933

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.

You can subscribe to The Image Podcast on iTunesGoogle Play, Podcast Addict, Overcast, and most other podcast platforms. By subscribing, new episodes are added to your podcast queue as soon as they're released.

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Stay in the know on the best of art and religion. ImageUpdate is a free weekly e-newsletter with reviews of books, albums, artists, gallery openings, and more. Each issue also includes recommendations from the Image staff, links to some of the best stuff from around the web each week, and a community message board.

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