“Those who can’t do… teach!”

Okay, it’s a bad joke, and a tired one. But today, it’s ringing true.

I just spent Autumn Quarter teaching undergraduates how to condense and concentrate their writing. “Less is more!” “One distinctive detail is worth a dozen unremarkable details.”

And just as I was finishing up my grades, I got an email asking for my help with a small task. Would I mind making a quick list of five highlights from more than 20 years of reading Image? All they needed was a list, and then a one-sentence note about why I’d made each choice.

Simple, right? How could I say no?

Well, here’s the thing. I love Image. And If you want my favorite recommendation for a Christmas gift, it’s this: a subscription to Image journal.

I think it’s the greatest literary arts journal in the world. I also love the Image community, a vast network of artists and seekers who are interested in creativity, beauty, mystery, and faith. And I regularly attend Image events that celebrate the arts. But none of this would exist without the house that Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe built: the journal, now more than 100 issues old. Beautiful printed work like this is increasingly rare, and I find that my heart rate accelerates when I open the mailbox and find something beautiful there, something that I can enjoy for hours and then set on my nightstand for re-reading.

So, forsaking my “Less is more!” mantra, I started writing. And I just kept writing.

I ended up writing something that was so far above and beyond what they’d requested, it wouldn’t fit in the publication they were preparing. (They ended up publishing a much-abridged version.)

So, here — in more detail — are my five highlights of Image. (And I could say more. Believe me.)

Provocative Art

From the poetry of Scott Cairns (in so many issues, and featured in this episode of the Image podcast)…

to the vividly astonishing visual art of Kim Alexander (Image #81)…

to photography, fiction, and creative nonfiction,

I am always challenged by the art featured in Image.

But I’m particularly grateful for the short story “Loud Lake” (Image #29) by Image‘s own executive editor Mary Kenagy Mitchell. (You can read an excerpt from the story here.) I like to challenge my creative writing students by introducing them to this story of childhood, summertime, and Christian ministry. Mitchell achieves a sort of minor miracle: an example of fiction about evangelical Christians that never becomes preachy or propagandistic, but that instead encourages readers to revisit questions of faith that are meaningfully discomforting.

The Prophetic Voice of Gregory Wolfe

Gregory Wolfe, the founder of Image, has been tremendously influential in my life. He directed Seattle Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, through which I earned my MFA in creative nonfiction and my wife Anne earned hers in poetry. He established The Glen Workshop, the annual arts retreat that Anne and I have attended over sixteen consecutive summers in Santa Fe, New Mexico, coming to know the most inspiring and rewarding community of artists we’ve ever encountered. And the regular Editorial Statements he wrote to introduce each issue of Image for nearly one hundred issues became for me, and for my appreciation of the arts, some of the most challenging and influential reading.

One prime example of this insight can be found in Wolfe’s essay “The Cave and the Cathedral,” in which he reflects on the purpose of artmaking in human society from evidence in the prehistoric paintings of Chauvet Cave, artwork that scientists believe to be over thirty thousand years old. He also presented this as a keynote address at the Glen Workshop.

But my favorite example can be found in an essay from Image #34, called “The Painter of LiteTM.” In that essay, Wolfe finds in the paintings of Thomas Kinkade a troubling premonition: He warns that an increasing reliance on comfort and nostalgia in American Christianity creates a danger that could lead the church down a dangerous path toward supporting a toxic nationalism, white supremacy, and other correlations with Nazism.

At the time, the essay was controversial, and I still find many readers—I assign this essay to my students for a rhetorical analysis assignment—who think that Wolfe is merely mocking pictures that they find innocently heart-warming. But here we are: This kind of art is most popular in the very communities that are now endorsing a vision for America that loudly affirms convictions consistent with white supremacy and Nazism. (And, contrary to the reflexive dismissals of readers, I find Wolfe to be self-effacing and reluctant to cast judgement in the essay.)

Wolfe now focuses his attention on crafting and publishing beautiful books at Slant Books, and James K.A. Smith, the new editor in chief, is carrying on the tradition of provocative “openers” for Image. I recently assigned Smith’s “In Praise of Boredom” to my academic writing students and asked them to respond.

I recommend that you collect them all.

Testimonies from Artists: “Attention is Love.”

So many insights published in Image come to mind when I think of the words of Sister Mary Joan, played by Lois Smith in Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird. The benevolent nun looks the agitated teenager in the eye and insists that, by the evidence of the detail in the young woman’s rant about Sacramento, that she clearly loves her hometown. The teen is skeptical, admitting only that she pays attention. But Sister Mary Joan wins the day with this question: “Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”

In Brian Volck‘s essay “No Better Place to End” (Image #85), a writer who is a poet and a physical turns his attention to the world of science and restores in himself and his readers a sense of the sacred: “The sciences and faith speak different languages and shouldn’t be expected to say identical things in identical words. They’re musical lines in a polyphonic score where pungent dissonances enliven overarching harmony. In describing, in their own ways, the nature of things, they remind us how all we take for granted is, in fact, utterly contingent.”

In Robert Cording‘s essay “Acts of Attention: On Poetry and Spirituality” (Image #101), the poet reflects on our increasing inclinations toward (or addiction to) narcissism, and writes the following:

To encounter ourselves everywhere we go is, of course, to lose all sense of wonder. Perhaps wonder begins with paying attention to our experience of being alive. 

I think we come to know the world not by detaching ourselves from our felt experience, but by inhabiting our bodily experience as richly and wakefully as we can. In this manner, an act of attention involves a kind of paradox: as the Polish poet and Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz writes, “When a thing is truly seen, seen intensely, it remains with us forever and astonishes us, even though it would appear there is nothing astonishing about it.”

I think the best art always involves such loving attention to what is before us.

Image Interviews 

I never tire of reading interviews with accomplished artists in Image. So many quotable insights fill my commonplace books that have come from such conversations. I hardly know where to start.

Consider this meeting of cinematic giants: Scott Derrickson, who would go on to direct Sinister and Doctor Strange, interviewed his friend and mentor Wim Winders, director of Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire in Image #35. 

Consider the camaraderie and wisdom among songwriters we find in Joe Henry‘s interview with Linford Detweiler (Image #99), and then with Detweiler’s earlier interview with Henry (Image 71).

Consider the conversation between poets in Anne M. Doe Overstreet‘s interview with Luci Shaw (Image #75), and then Luci Shaw‘s interview with her friend Pastor Eugene Peterson (Image #62).

I’ve learned so much from interviewing mentors and friends for Image. Here are a few of those:

For Image #60I interviewed my favorite rock star, Sam Phillips, whose music and insights have been a formative influence in my life.

And then I interviewed a former high school classmate—photographer Fritz Liedtke—for Image #78.

My conversation with sound engineer Pete Horner was published as a two part interview at Image‘s blog Good Letters. Read Part One and Part Two. (If the title of this entry, “All of It Was Music,” sounds familiar, that’s because Horner’s words became the inspiration for a song by Over the Rhine — just another example of how one artist’s wisdom inspires others’ creative work in the Image community.)

Communal Experiences of Inspiration and Epiphany

I cannot emphasize enough how our experiences with art and insight are amplified when we share them in community with kindred spirits.

Anne and I have been blessed time and time again by live music offered by Over the Rhine, Bruce Cockburn, Joe Henry, and Liz Vice, to name a few. We have been enthralled and humbled by artist Barry Moser‘s bold testimonies of faith, doubt, and the realization of racism in the context of his childhood.

But the testimony that stays with me most powerfully is a lecture about finding understanding and purpose in pain, a Glen Workshop keynote address given by Scott Cairns that he then expanded into a book called The End of Suffering that I have read many times and given to so many people.

You can read a transcript of that address in Image 52, and you’ll see what I mean.