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A Christian Humanist: An Interview with Image Editor Gregory Wolfe

By Jayson Whitehead and Joshua Seth Anderson
March 17, 2003

In 1989, Greg Wolfe founded Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion with the vision to create a forum for artistic expression that explores the intersection of the religious and physical worlds from a Judeo-Christian perspective. In the first issue, he wrote, "Religion and art share the capacity to help us to renew our awareness of the ultimate questions: who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going…. Religion and art are, in the end, prophetic, reminding us both of the glory of man and the fragility of human institutions."

Fourteen years later, Image is not only America’s preeminent Christian journal of art and literature, but also one of the most respected art journals of any kind, with literary contributors as gifted and diverse as Richard Wilbur, Annie Dillard, John Updike, Philip Levine, Madeleine L’Engle, Robert Bly, John Irving, Mary Oliver, Eugene Peterson, and Walter Wangerin. As well as publishing fiction, poetry, and essays, Image showcases a wide variety of visual arts, with contributors such as Don Eddy, Makoto Fujimura, Robert Gober, Edward Knippers, and Mary McCleary. In each issue, Image strives to display "writing and visual artwork that embody a spiritual struggle, that seek to strike a balance between tradition and a profound openness to the world."

In addition to overseeing Image, Wolfe has edited The New Religious Humanists. Compiling essays from various writers, the book advocates the creation of an art that illuminates the eternal within the physical world, bestowing a new dignity on the mundane details of normal lives. Currently starting work on a book to be called "Christian Humanism: A Faith for All Seasons," Wolfe recently spoke with oldSpeak about the inspiration of the incarnation of Christ, the tendency of American Christians to promote escapist art ironically similar to the pop-culture they despise, the new openness in the secular art world to religion, and the importance of art in effecting real cultural change.

oldSpeak: Is the term Christian humanism an equivalent to religious humanism?

GW: These are difficult matters to make judgment calls on when it comes to terminology. I have edited a book called The New Religious Humanists, my nonprofit is called the Center for Religious Humanism, and I made that call on the basis that I wanted to be able to do interfaith dialogue. In other words, I wanted to be able to say that there are strains of religious humanism within distinct religious traditions. The danger of the term is that it implies some kind of syncretistic amalgam of all kinds of different traditions, whereas I would argue that the humanistic tradition within a religion comes out of an engagement with the fidelity and the tradition of that distinctive vision and history and continuity. So really, in a sense what I mean by religious humanism is Christian humanism, Jewish humanism, Islamic Humanism, etc., and to enable those traditions to be able to talk to one another. I don’t think there’s any religious humanism that isn’t already a more specific kind of humanism than that. It’s partly because of the nature of the public square, and the way that I want to address that public square. Christian humanism is the subject of the book, because frankly it’s the only subject I feel in a sense qualified to address, and I obviously feel it’s one of the great traditions in the history of the Church and something that’s pretty desperately needed these days. So, that’s sort of the ins and outs of how I made those judgment calls. I don’t know that I made the correct calls, but those were the issues I was trying to struggle with.

Do you have an easy definition for Christian humanism?

In my mind, Christian humanism is about trying to balance, as in the Cross, the vertical and the horizontal axes of our existence; it’s an attempt to balance the human and the divine. The model for Christian humanism is the incarnation, in which a totally perfect balance between the divinity of Christ and the humanity of Jesus is achieved. I feel that the Christian life and Christian culture and institutions go wrong when they tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. So in other words, the corollary of that initial definition is that if you emphasize the divine axis, the vertical axis over the horizontal, you get what I call the "conservative problem," which is a legalistic kind of law and order mentality and an awareness of sinfulness and awareness of divine sovereignty and justice dominating over more empathetic, human issues. But if you emphasize that horizontal axis and fall into the "liberal problem," you lose that moral, ethical backbone that conservatism tends to have as one of its strongest points.

My argument is that, for most of us, maintaining that balance is like walking on a tightrope, and walking on a tightrope is hard to do. And sometimes it feels a lot more comforting, a lot safer, and even a lot more, shall I say, engaged and sort of crusading to have chosen one side or the other. For some people it sounds like you’re not willing to say, "yea, yea" or "nay, nay." It sounds like you’re not committing yourself. I would argue that’s not true, but psychologically, I know that people do find it difficult to try to live in the midst of the balancing act.

Would you say that mainstream American Christianity tends to lose sight of the humanity aspect more often?

Well, it’s hard to say what you mean by mainstream, because that word has so many contexts. The extent that it’s used to mean mainstream denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians and Lutherans and so on, there you’re hard-pressed to say, because the mainstream is fractured, and a large part of it, I would argue, loses sight of the divine, and goes after a sentimental liberalism. But in general, the flavor of American Christendom is definitely erring on the side of this conservative, legalistic, rationalistic, non-empathetic form of consciousness. And I say that as somebody that is actually pretty darn conservative ultimately when it comes down to my sense of core doctrines and how to talk about those doctrines.

It seems like where that really comes into play—even more so than in art—is this situation with Iraq where a lot of Christians favor the war. Whenever I talk to any of my Christian friends, I think, "Wait a second, do you think Jesus would be a fighter pilot dropping bombs on the enemy, or would he be a human shield?" And I tend to go with the human shield. But it seems like religion often seems to get put on that list, God, Country and…

Absolutely. That’s what I’m trying to get at when I say that trying to live in the midst of the balancing act to a lot of people seems like you’re hedging your bets, or you’re being lukewarm. The argument made against Christian humanists is that they’re sophisticates who revel merely in ironies and the ambiguities of life, and that’s certainly what it could evolve into. Yet it seems to me that it’s precisely the nature of what Christianity calls us to—a move from comfortable dogmatism. Christianity is the dogma that you can’t be dogmatic about. It’s the paradox—that you have to, in a sense, always watch your own tendency towards trying to capture God and claim the mystery for your own. Most good Christian thought in my opinion is that which erects a protective barrier around mystery, instead of trying to boil the mystery down into talking points.

I wanted to talk a little about the idea of Christian art, and how it ties into the religious world and the secular world. What about artists like the painter Edward Knippers, whose art is too religious for the secular world, but also too edgy for the religious world?

Yeah, I call the people in this category the "in-betweeners." Frankly, it’s precisely those artists that I’ve tried very faithfully to showcase in Image, and in the various events we put on. To me, if you’re causing trouble, you’ve got to be doing something right. I don’t say that lightly. I mean, it’s true that one can overdo the notion of the artist as prophet, but the more you reflect on great art, the more you realize that the preponderance of it is more on the shaking up side rather than the calming down side. This in-between zone is where the work is so explicitly religious that the secular world wants to find a way to discount it as anachronistic, and at the same time so true to the human condition in all its complexity and all its ambiguity that the Church finds it essentially disturbing to its tranquility, that you know there’s something great going on. It’s always rough because that’s accompanied by practical debilitation. These writers and artists find it hard to know where to publish their books—from Christian publishers, from secular publishers, and museums. The kind of categories we operate with dominate not just our mind, but the marketplace and the public square. Those who are willing to make personal sacrifices to bust those categories are my heroes in this day and age.

Why is it that someone like the Christian folk artist Howard Finster is received by the secular world? Is it because they’ve been able to paint him as a kind of eccentric religious person?

There’s huge amounts of condescension that go into the notion that faith is a form of primitivism, but nonetheless that faith and the primitive style of art and expression have a coherence that somebody with intelligence and sophistication and education could not maintain simultaneously with religious faith. I think there’s no doubt that the world of the visual arts—for a variety of complicated reasons—has been the most aggressively secular of all the various art forms. But if you look at a couple other realms (just right off the bat), the Finster example is not really the dominant model. In both literature and in classical music, the paradigm is not the Finster model of "let’s find the eccentric primitive." There, in those two mediums, people working at the highest level of artistic excellence and complexity, are very much at the core of the public mainstream.

In classical music, it’s pretty stunning because the three best-selling composers in the world are Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki, and John Tavener. Two Eastern Orthodox and one Roman Catholic are addressing the need for modern music to find a connection to humanity, and to spirituality. They’re actually the poster boys for classical music—you see their grim visages on the Tower Records annex in Manhattan. Those are the poster boys to get you in to buy records. Now literature of course is a much bigger field of play. With literature, there are people writing and not necessarily making religion the center of their work. But what I want to argue is that there are people of faith who make religion very much a part of any given outing in the literary world, from Annie Dillard on down, and are not ostracized because of that. They may be admired for their literary qualities and not their religious faith, but the culture has been changing, even in that regard.

When I was a young man and was reading the New York Times Book Review in the ‘70s, it was still a time when somebody like Joyce Carol Oates would review a Larry Woiwode novel and say, "This book starts off so brilliantly, it seems to be about the nitty-gritty of real life—sex, money, power. But then religion comes in, and it shoots out into airy-fairy land. What a shame." But by the late ‘80s, I was reading, in the very same kind of pages, reviews that would take the line, "This book amazingly chronicles a religious character whose faith calls him to a deeper grappling with the nitty-gritty issues of real life. This faith is not an escape hatch, but an arduous journey. How interesting and how moving." So even in the larger culture, there are more modes of consciousness than the mere high 20th century secular Freudian brush-off. Some people haven’t gotten that message yet and still sound like Joyce Carol Oates from 1972. But there are many people who just exist in a different sphere of consciousness. So the kinds of writers, Reynolds Price, Doris Betts, John Updike, Garrison Keillor, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamont, whose faith is central to their work, aren't just banished to the margins anymore.

Why is it that someone like the popular painter Thomas Kinkade thrives so much within Christian circles?

That’s obviously been another argument that I’ve harped on over the years. Nowadays I almost get shy about repeating it again, for fear of sounding like a broken record. The kind of message from Image and my writing for a long time has been that this creation of a Christian subculture was a disastrous move for American Christianity, and it has profound historical and theological roots. But without being able to handle those in a telephone interview, I’d say that the worst aspect of creating this subculture is that it is a way of creating a zone of "safety" that backfires by never in fact challenging anybody spiritually and becoming, in my opinion, spiritually corrupt. That it is aesthetically corrupt is pretty obvious for anyone who cares about serious art. The irony of the Christian subculture is that what it has done, by and large, is take pop culture genre stuff, and slap the name of Jesus on it. So, in a sense it has taken the worst of worldly pop culture and simply tried to graft a Christian message onto it, rather than try to do what I think Christians should do, and that is forge a new synthesis, a new imaginative vision that achieves something that is not a mere tagging along with the secular culture, saying "we can do it, too," but something more powerful, more arresting to both sides—hence the in-between phenomenon.

In your first editorial comment in Image, you wrote, "There is … evidence that our culture is now more open to the numinous in art." That was in 1989. At this point, are you pleased with how that openness has played out?

Well, I think our intuition was correct. I have often said that in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, it was generally acknowledged that Karl Marx had kicked the bucket. But it was right around that same time that the other master secular narratives, Darwinism, and especially Freudianism, really lost their grip. Of course, what I was just saying about the history of book reviewing, for example, being deeply influenced by that Freudian master narrative—this all becomes very, very meaningful. Partly this is a definition of our postmodern condition. But the fact that those high-modern master narratives no longer have universal purchase—that they’re not simply the kind of air that everyone can be guaranteed to be breathing—this breaks up the concrete enough so that little blades of grass can shoot up in all different sorts of places. So in my account of things, much more is possible in terms of both the creation of authentic Christian culture, and the potential for larger impact in the public square. I think that in 1989, even then we were probably a little too much in the catacombs mentally. We were still kind of boo-hoo, woe is us, poor Christians, we’re on the margins. Let's at least publish an Image and huddle together for safety. But really, we didn’t know just how far the culture was going to be rumbling in our direction. That’s not to say that this is some kind of fourth Great Awakening, or some mass conversion of society, but to me, at the very least, it is an enormously hope-instilling shift in a larger historic sense. What really drives me batty is the way that so many Christians in the world are missing the boat here, and operating according to an older paradigm, a paradigm of separatism and subculture. To my mind, I’m going to be called to account to what extent I didn’t just beat the tribal drums and bemoan the state of the lot of Christians in the modern world with my other fellow Christians. I’m going to be asked how many people out in the real world I talked to, spoke to, dined with—my Master did that, and I feel like that’s what we’re called to do.

There are Christian things that have succeeded in the mainstream culture, like the Left Behind series of books. Do you have any opinion on why that kind of Christian art has thrived?

Well, I’m not convinced, frankly, despite the public success of those sorts of products—I’m not sure I can call them anything else—represents anything more than the fact that the Christian subculture has bought into them wholescale. The only thing that seems to me to be changed is the way that the secular world , in its way of counting best-sellers, is a little more amenable to showing that this subculture exists now as part of the national community. How much Left Behind reaches out to the mainstream and becomes a mode of contact with religious consciousness, I don’t know. Frankly, I’d be very skeptical about that.

It seems like there are so many in the Christian subculture that seek very tangible forms of power, especially in the political realm. In the face of that, what good can art do as far as cultural change?

Well, it doesn’t directly, and that’s the rub. That is where the breakdown occurs for a lot of people. I guess if I had to say, one of the great revelations to me, in my evolution from a young, right-wing weenie, ready to go off and save the world, to whatever the heck I am now, is the conviction that politics is ultimately what I would call an epiphenomenon of culture. That is, politics is about the struggle to deliberate and battle over those cultural institutions, and even the very language, symbolic and narrative, iconographic issues created by the culture itself. So, politics fights over, and adjudicates how to define and see the world, which in turn is shaped by the stories we tell and the images we create. The role of politics is something that should not be frowned upon, or looked down upon.

I’m with Aristotle, in that I believe man is a political animal, and there is a dignity somewhere underneath it all that I would affirm. I know the danger of this stance is that it looks like a kind of effete palace of art mentality. But what I became convinced of was that when you are using these concepts and these issues in the halls of parliamentary debate, you’re still working with the kinds of signs and counters that are given definition and shaped elsewhere. They have already arrived in a certain way. By the time somebody uses the word "choice" in the United States Senate, that word, and all the myriad filaments of consciousness that connect to that word "choice," have been affected by all these cultural artifacts before that word gets uttered in that body. So, in my mind, the short way of explaining this is talking about hearts and minds. But, by God, there’s still something true about hearts and minds.

I would argue, not for some kind of full-scale pulling back from the public square of political debate, but I would argue for a rebalancing of priorities within Christian consciousness. There’s just way too much emphasis on polemics, apologetics, and politics, and far too little on creativity, imagination, and human infrastructure. My wife and I have been involved at various times in our lives with the pro-life movement, and I will risk unpopularity in the larger world any day of the week by making my pro-life convictions known. But at the same time, that movement too is a perfect example of a hyperpoliticized environment where I don’t think enough is being done on the human level to address concrete human needs. Consider rare little struggling groups like Common Ground, which brings the Christian Frederica Mathewes-Green alongside a secular critic like Naomi Wolf. These are struggling little entities where you’re trying to get beyond the political mudslinging and find a way to say, "How do we address the human problem prior to the political conflict?"

Mainstream Christian artistic expression is full of references to God or the Bible. Is it possible to have a Christian artistic expression that isn’t explicit in its spiritual references?

Absolutely. The amount of material that we publish in Image that somehow is explicit—a short story about a minister, or a poem about the Last Supper—is probably less than half the material that takes that kind of approach. It is precisely this categorization, and the compartmentalization of consciousness that Christianity in America is so guilty of, that I believe needs to be addressed somehow. There are times when I feel that American Christians don’t know how to get beyond the "now I am being pious and religious, and now I am being guilty of enjoying the world’s ways" attitude. And the subculture proves that.

To take one example of an area that I am also very passionately interested in—my interest in music is not just classical, I really care very deeply about what I would call the singer/songwriter type of more popular music. And the kinds of Christians out there trying to write powerful, authentic music that is both good music in terms of its quality and depth, and lyrically real—about real life, those people are in-betweeners, too. A very few, like Bruce Cockburn, become the Annie Dillard of the singer/songwriter world, and that’s great. But so many more fall between the cracks in that world. What so many of those singer/songwriters do is write about life, write about day-to-day experience in which religion and grace are discovered between the lines, in the midst of the world. If we are living an incarnational faith, then our daily lives, the way we eat, the way we talk, the way we drink, the way we make love, all of these things are profoundly religious in implication, without there having to be any overt discussion of biblical topics. So, I by no means want to come off like I’m saying that an art inspired always is self-conscious about faith. We published a short story recently about a man who is unfaithful to his wife and takes his family on a vacation to France, and he tries to rescue his marriage, but it’s clear that it’s already doomed. Then his daughter is caught in an act of sexual infidelity herself. It’s kind of a dark, cautionary tale for our times—not a whit of religion there, but profoundly shot through with the kind of moral consciousness of the Judeo-Christian tradition as it continues to provide a way of looking at daily life.



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