In this issue’s introduction, which Editor Brad Fruhauff has entitled “Literature by Necessity,” Fruhauff reminds us that a rich literary diet “[confronts] some of the hardest realities of our time” and “will ask you to feel grace for a strung-out drug addict as well as for a cynical woman dealing with her abortions . . . to be merciful with an adulterer and to re-live the death of a childhood friend. These pieces," says Fruhauff, "are not safe.”
The language in that introduction, and the title of the journal, prepare the reader for specifically Christian-oriented work. But, as Fruhauff makes clear, it’s not all love and harmony, and none of it is polemic. The great strength of this journal is its conviction that true Christianity is inclusive, nonjudgmental, and revolutionary. It brooks no self-righteousness, but stops at nothing to celebrate the victory of the good, the redemptive, the ultimately beautiful.
For example, “Remission,” Jean Hoefling’s concise and lyrical prize-winning essay, weaves together images of blood (menarche), evil (the too-sexually-mature bully boys that follow her home from eighth grade and say the f-word “loudly all the time”) and the need for salvation (“the muffled shiver of tiny communion glasses, half full of mystery”). “That was the year,” she concludes, “I knew I could not outrun my death forever.” The narrative is half-sinister, half full of wonder. Loss of innocence is the beginning of deliverance. (Christianity is nothing if not paradoxical.) This same notion—that each of us is complicit in the ill that besets us all and eligible to overcome it—fills Scott Cairns’s “Two Trees,” the Editor’s Choice for poetry:
For all we know, the end
of knowledge is pretty much
that we might come to glimpse
how all we dare admit
continues spinning well
beyond our ken,
at the same time that another “still / bright tree . . . stands to quicken any who / would care to eat of it."
Other poetry concurs. "My Son Says What if Jesus Were Playing Basketball," a prose poem by Cindy Beebe, is one of many requiring us to re-think what "redemption" might mean ("until the voice, they didn't expect Jesus to be black"). Maryann Corbett's "Knowledge" describes the effect of unexpected information whose ultimate effect is to demand that the narrator re-think her opinion of her parents—even to forgive them. Lynn Domina's "Omniscience in Babel" imagines the Biblical moment of confusion of tongues in marvelously postmodern terms:
The most studious
recalled how God had spoken
them each into being, and they believed their own speech
could rise, each of their new languages
deepening God’s own voice.
Yet the mason wondered who would interpret
his command for labor...
And who among us
which cry is a prayer,
which a curse?
So the Christian message is not simply that we can be redeemed: it’s that the redemptive journey requires violation, some kind of death, some breakdown of imagined incorruption. Thomas Allbaugh’s short story, “A Point of Saturation,” shows a store manager on the brink of adultery. To his chagrin, the woman he wants to sleep flaunts her discovery that he has a wife and kids. No one forgives him his desire, or absolves him from it—but he’s left knowing things about himself and about his life that he will have to face before he can go on. This is strong stuff, good to read, scouring in its intensity.
As is “Sins of the Mother,” Virginia Hernandez’s short story. Be warned: this one does not have a happy ending. That’s part of Relief’s agenda. The Christian story is not that everyone’s life is, or can be, or is intended to be, “happy,” whatever that means. The point, in the story and in the journal, is that even in this terribly imperfect world, what counts is the “yearning for the actual ability to wipe away. . . guilt because [of] love despite the dereliction."
Essays testify to that as well. In "Drowning the Albatross," Chelly Roach finds that her support group's attempts to come to terms with abortion don't fit her sense that she ought to feel terrible about having had one. Even if a reader doesn’t agree that abortion is a sin, this essay is still evidence of the power of the idea of redemption and of the need to interrogate it in order to achieve it.
An interview with poet Ann Cefola, and four haunting black-and-white photographs by Eleanor Leonne Bennett, round out the issue, with its rich diet of thought-provoking verbal and visual art. “Please,” says Fruhauff, “eat slowly.”