In its two-plus decades of existence, Image has garnered a reputation as “a unique forum for the best writing and artwork that is informed by—or grapples with—religious faith.” This is no small calling. Not content to provide rote answers, convinced that beauty transcends trite aphorisms, the editors of the journal focus on verbal and visual art that “embody a spiritual struggle, that seek to strike a balance between tradition and a profound openness to the world.” In this issue, the fiction is compelling, and the nonfiction and poetry illuminate with heartbreaking effectiveness the tension between contemporary socialized intelligence and the fierce desire for God. Its theme seems to be fervent searching. I found it very moving.
The certainty that the material knowledge that fills our textbooks is only one side of truth leads to many kinds and degrees of seeking. In the excerpt from Jessie van Eerden’s forthcoming novel Glorybound, two backcountry West Virginia sisters, Aimee and Crystal, battle their demons—a father in prison, an unresponsive mother, betrayal, abandonment—by trying to live so as to get “to heaven and the Overjordan. When the rapture comes.” The dialect van Eerden puts in their mouths as well as the clothes and other props she lays on their backs marks them “white trash”—simple people without benefit of education or helpful practical religion. But, oh, they hope for better. The complexity of their yearning, their complicated relationships with each other, their separated parents, their friends, and God, keeps us reading and hoping, with them, that they will in fact find peace.
But the essays and poetry lead us on with even greater impact. Isaac Anderson’s magnificent “Lord God Bird” weaves together images, facts, and questions about the fabled ivory-billed woodpecker (Does it live? Has it been seen? Shall we continue to seek it?) with the story of his own praying the Psalms. Do they help? Is God coming? Am I worthy of his attention? The story says that like the woodpecker, sought passionately by amateurs and professionals alike since its last official sighting in 1944, God is elusive, wondrous, worth the wait. Anderson splices stories about the ivory-bill into stories of his own birding history—he was given a zebra finch when he was ten; it flew away; he got it back. “My hand wrapped around charcoal feathers. I climbed from the tree and leaped from the last branch to the ground. And I ran home ecstatic, jumping every few steps, stunned by my dumb luck.” This is the story of searching for God: we “get” him, he enters us (with the help of the prayers, the psalms, our effort); we lose him; we find him again, often times by sheer dumb luck.
In the confessional “Ritual,” the speaker, Jonathan Callard, a Christian, does one of those nondenominational New Age man-things (there are woman-things like it) with Dudes named Odin and Wells and DT where they sit in nature, speak their truths, take a substance, drum on drums (“transform gut sounds into something holy, and then, then, the weight . . . would vanish for a moment and that moment would kick me forward into this new life that I had sought”), and then are done. Man-like, the Dudes scramble to a bar to put their ritual behind them. The narrator juxtaposes the images from the ritual with his memories of Episcopal communion, of talk therapy, of moments with other leaders, other healers. He has still not found what he seeks, but he knows what it is. It’s in all of them, somewhere. But it isn’t, too. You know he will not abandon the search.
Lauren F. Winner’s “Middles” praises those colors in art between black outline and white blank space.
Middle tint is going to church each week, opening the prayer book each day. This is rote, unshowy behavior . . . Maybe this is prayer most of the time, for most of my life; I will barely notice it; you will barely notice it; against this landscape of subtle grays, occasionally I will speak in tongues, occasionally I will hear an annunciation.
As a person who goes to church each week, opens the scriptures every day, but also reads lit theory, teaches postmodern fiction, and wrestles with daily differences between my education and my faith, this resonates with me deeply. I want to thank Winner for writing it and read the full book from which it is excerpted.
Image is not exclusively Christian. Valerie Wohlfeld’s satisfying poem “World” enumerates the thirty-six tzaddikim (truly saintly people) who, according to Jewish tradition, keep the world going. Daniel Tobin’s “Late Bloomer” pulls Romanticism, mythology, and soul-work into an intricately rhymed set of couplets. Lance Larsen’s poem “Tabernacle” sows Old Testament imagery right and left. Gena Ochsner, in an interview, discusses her writing about Muslim characters mired in universal conflicts.
Art by Guy Chase and Adrian Wiszniewski, reproduced in color plates with commentary by Karen L. Mulder and Richard Davey, rounds out the richness of Image’s self-imposed charge to explore in multiple media the dimensions of the search for God. Mulder writes:
Chase realized that a big part of the art-making process, for him was simply “getting out of the way” . . . “I would work, concentrate, pay attention, be available, see what happened,” he said, taking pains to ”make sure that I wasn’t imposing my own will.”
This is deeply Christian language from an artist who came of age at a time when “students of the Logos wrangled with Saussure . . . Derrida, and Foucault, trying to unscramble critiques of language that attempted to explain why meaning was meaningless.” It’s this reaching for spirit in the face of academic and secular rejection of it that informs Image. Readers who have definitively bought into that rejection might not like Image, but the many of us who reach find it nourishing beyond telling.