The literary journal Image: Art, Faith, Mystery celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, prompting some insightful reflections by founding editor Gregory Wolfe on the magazine’s Good Letters blog. Image publishes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and contemporary artwork that engage with the great Western religious traditions in fresh and authentic ways. I appreciate how Wolfe harmonizes the aspects of art and religion that in my life have sometimes been at odds: the creative journey into the unknown, versus the safeguarding of revealed truths. He writes:
Art’s method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time. Art thrives on shocks of recognition. Some are truly shocking, with an immediate effect. Most are subtle, time-delayed fuses that detonate deep in our subconscious and move something that needs dislodging.
In a sense, every encounter with a great work of art is a conversion experience. Yes, of course, that’s how the world is. I knew that. But I’d forgotten. I will return to the true way, the way I’d strayed from. I won’t forget again.
Artistic styles change when they fail to reveal something new.
A rounded arch speaks of eternity, solidity, and stability. A pointed arch speaks of aspiration, a hunger for light, and matter’s permeation by spirit.
Both arches speak the truth. The newness isn’t necessarily an improvement. The newness is, in part, in the contrast itself, the revelation that there is always more to see. Reality is fractal that way.
In the early church, Jesus was depicted as the Good Shepherd. Then he became the Pantocrator, emperor of the cosmos. Then he was shown on the cross and became the Suffering Servant. In a postmodern context he may perhaps be present by way of his absence; felt rather than seen. Who knows? There are a thousand options.
When religious faith isn’t made new, it becomes ideology, detached from reality. It either becomes toxic or it simply ceases to be credible.