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Image Journal: Reconciling Faith and Imagination

By Thomas Van (bio - articles - email) | Jul 07, 2014

My favorite thing about Pope Francis, from day one, has been his insistence that Catholicism cannot be reduced to an ideology or a moral program. The chief reason for this is that such a reduction leads us to neglect the person of Jesus Christ. But there is another, related way in which Christianity is impoverished and made ineffectual by politicization or over-intellectualization. Neither allows for the development of a Christian imagination.

Religion cannot live on ideology alone because human beings themselves cannot do so. We need to do so much more than merely conceptualize faith – we have to be able to envision it so we can live it. This is true of any faith, but most of all it is true of Christianity, the most human of religions. A Catholicism – an incarnational, sacramental religion – which does not penetrate the imagination is a Catholicism only half-formed.  To state the case simply, without Catholic imagination there can be no Catholic culture.

One of the main ways imagination is formed, of course, is through art. Even without taking on a religious element, art opens us up to mystery and puts us in touch with the transcendent. Art does not give us easy answers; it resists abstraction and cannot be reduced to a concept. A work of art is not primarily a statement about reality; rather, it is itself a reality that we experience in contemplation. Even non-religious art, then, would seem to be a natural ally of Catholicism in the quest for the absolute.

Yet these days the relationship between art and faith seems to be a troubled one. In the popular sphere, of course, we are all ruefully aware of abundant examples of mediocre if well-meaning Christian artists content to appropriate the shallow formulas of pop culture. But that is only a part of the problem. In “conservative Catholic” circles, for example, I have all too often encountered indifference or, worse, hostility and suspicion towards the arts. There is no shortage of Catholic intellectuals who blather about Goodness, Truth and Beauty with a capital B, while displaying indifference to beauty in its actual, present-day manifestations.

This disdain usually begins after an arbitrary cutoff point – usually after 1890 or so, though I have encountered a few people who think everything went downhill starting with the Renaissance. Typically, though, the great variety of artistic activity in the past century is lumped together under the monolithic label of “modern art” and summarily rejected. If this rejection were based on a real familiarity with 20th- and 21st-century art, it would be one thing (though I would still disagree), but in my experience people don’t come to this conclusion after careful study of and engagement with the works of the past century on their own terms, but out of a pessimistic conviction of cultural decline – what one might call a regressivist ideology.

Why do religious conservatives fail to embrace art? I suspect it goes back to the reduction of religion to ideology, against which Pope Francis has been warning us. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor, writing to Sr. Marietta Gable, said it best:

I know that the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in mystery. It is not answerable to any of our formulas. It doesn't rest finally in a statable kind of solution. It ought to throw you back on the living God. Our Catholic mentality is great on paraphrase, logic, formula, instant and correct answers. We judge before we experience and never trust our faith to be subjected to reality, because it is not strong enough.

None of this is to say that religious people are solely to blame for the current dysfunctional relationship between religion and art. On the contrary, it is news to no one that the secular world does not provide a warm welcome to faith or art that reflects it. So what are we to do?

For a long time now, many Catholic intellectuals in the public square have made it their chief task to rehabilitate the relationship between faith and reason, and – public opinion notwithstanding – they have often done a fine job. But what we need now more than ever is to rehabilitate the relationship between faith and imagination.

A Home for Artists of Faith

The problem is not so much that we are lacking for good contemporary artists whose work is informed by faith, but that the modern world, which has been traumatized as much by spiritual and ideological conflicts as it has been by physical ones, has not made a place for them. These artists need to feel at home both in their religious communities and in the public square, rather than feeling pressured to lead a double life as artists and as believers – or retreat into a safe religious ghetto.

Some progress has already been made in this regard over the past two decades, not a little of it due to Image, a quarterly journal now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Founded and edited by Gregory Wolfe, whose work we have written about in the past, Image seeks out art that grapples with faith in a deeper-than-propositional way – hence its slogan, “Art, Faith, Mystery.” For twenty-five years Image has published some of the best art and literature that is involved in some way with the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Like First Things, Image was founded by a Catholic but is essentially an ecumenical effort, representing a variety of voices both within and outside of Catholicism. According to Wolfe, though, the journal’s guiding lights are great twentieth-century Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor, Jacques Maritain and T.S. Eliot.

When I opened my first issue of Image months ago, I hadn’t heard of any of the artists or writers featured within its pages, but I was continually surprised and impressed at how good they all were. It quickly became clear that Image is not a journal for religious artists who can’t get published elsewhere, nor does it publish what Flannery O’Connor called “pious trash.” These are poets and artists serious about their craft, working in contemporary forms, often dealing with religious themes but never didactic and never playing it safe. I found Image actually inspiring me as an artist, and reminding me that there is no need to compromise between great art and deep faith.

Image publishes excellent poetry, fiction and visual art, but the non-fiction is just as good. The 25th anniversary issue, Image No. 80, is a feast of reflections by old and new contributors to the journal, all of whom offer insights into art, faith and the creation of culture. One piece that stood out was an interview with a man I hadn’t realized was a poet – the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, whose thoughts on the transcendence and mystery of language I suspect I will revisit more than once.

Image No. 79 included a moving essay by novelist Francisco X. Stork, who describes his struggle to write while working full-time as a lawyer and coping with depression:

There are days when the depression is so thick that all I can manage is a line or two. I row. I tell myself that I will spend an hour at my desk and whatever comes out comes out. It’s not the number of words that matter, it is the hour spent trying, waiting, offering. If I only write half a page a day, in two years I’ll have a book. It doesn’t matter if others are publishing three books a year and making a nice living from the royalties. It’s the rowing that matters. Yes, there are beautiful cool breezes and even gusts of wind in this world. When they come, I take out my sail joyfully and glide, my heart bursting with gladness.

These are words from which any artist could benefit, not just those suffering similarly to Stork.

Along with photos of sculptures, paintings and other visual art, Image typically includes essays about the artists with commentary on the featured works. While the artworks themselves are typically interesting and sometimes beautiful, I occasionally found myself rolling my eyes in frustration while reading the accompanying essays. The analyses of the works were sometimes far-fetched, especially when a piece was presented mainly as a means to get across some “message” or theme. Of course, in the case of installation art, which is three-dimensional and site-specific, one must be in the space to get the full effect, which may account for some of the discrepancies between my perception and the essayist’s.

Regardless, I prefer to let the work speak for itself; a student of art history quickly learns that even the stated intention (or after-the-fact explanation) of the artist himself is not always reliable. More importantly, I think the explanation or conceptualization of a work of art, done in the wrong spirit, detracts from that mystery which Image seeks to cultivate and protect.

That complaint aside, Image is a shockingly good journal, well worth the subscription for anyone interested in the convergence of art and faith. It introduced me to many artists and writers I had never heard of, but who deserve to be known – and I was elated, as a Catholic musician, to discover such peers. Whenever I read Gregory Wolfe I find myself thinking: Finally, someone who’s on my side! As I begin to explore the larger community he has created in Image, that sensation is multiplied a hundredfold.


To learn more about Image or to subscribe, visit imagejournal.org.

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