Your Attention, Please

Art GalleryDear Friends:

I received two emails recently from writers you likely know and admire.

Like clockwork, I can expect an email from Annie Dillard a week after each new issue is published. Her response to issue #92 arrived right on schedule: “This is the best Image ever published. These writers stun me.”

Then, the day after the brilliant essayist and cultural critic Richard Rodriguez returned home from delivering Image’s Denise Levertov Award in typically mesmerizing fashion, he sent a thank-you note in which he wrote: “I would do anything for Image and its mission. (I didn’t need the award to take me up to Seattle.) The bravery of the journal, especially in these times of cultural, not to say religious, illiteracy, astonishes me.”

He continued: “The audience on Thursday night was your latest gift of encouragement—an audience so rare in my life these days—such passionate listening, such quiet attention, such generous souls. So, I thank you for them—the audience—the sort of people Image alone seems able to assemble in a dark time.”

[Read more…]

Practicing Presence, Part 2

The following two-part post was originally delivered as the 2017 commencement address for Trinity Academy in Portland, Oregon. Read yesterday’s installment here.

As you graduates well know, one of the most popular genres in books these days is the dystopia. Dystopia can be a powerful and revelatory form of writing, one that prophetically criticizes harmful trends that exist today. But most of our current dystopias feel self-indulgent and self-pitying.

It would seem that living in the past is America’s most popular pastime, at least for a large segment of the population. Which is ironic, right? The country founded with hope that it might become a city shining on a hill now so often laments the good old days, when it was supposedly “great.”

I call this the “narrative of decline” and despite it being a major bummer, it has had a mesmerizing effect on millions of people, including young people, if you can believe it.

But if you graduates have attended to your study of history well, you know that in every age there is loss and gain, rise and fall. To study the past is to understand how those who came before us were present to their own day and age and to equip us to do the same.

Indeed, if my understanding of your curriculum is accurate, you’ve spent the last few years devoting yourself to the two great disciplines of mind and heart that enable one to live in the present and be present: reading and prayer.

Given the rigor of your reading list, you’ve been given the opportunity to enter into a deep state of attention, to be alert to meaning and context, nuance and irony—the insights that lead us toward goodness, truth, and beauty. Prayer, too, brings us into this space of quietness and openness, of receptivity, in which the ego gives itself in generosity to the giver of all good gifts.

This sort of training is priceless; may you continue to deepen your capacities for reading and prayer. [Read more…]

Practicing Presence, Part 1

The following two-part post was originally delivered as the 2017 commencement address for Trinity Academy in Portland, Oregon.

Thank you for the high honor of inviting me to speak on this special occasion. My heartfelt congratulations to you graduating seniors for having reached this important milestone in your lives. Given the deep and demanding curriculum you’ve just completed, that is quite an achievement and I hope you feel justifiable pride in having reached this point. I know that your parents, family, and teachers feel that pride.

This is a special moment for me for a number of reasons, including one that you could have no way of knowing about. At a conference nearly forty years ago, when I was but a green behind the ears undergraduate student, I met a gifted, imaginative man named Kerry Koller, who shared with me his plan for founding Trinity School, which would be based on a wide-ranging liberal arts curriculum that integrated faith and learning according to classical educational principles going back to the medieval and Renaissance eras.

Now here I am, speaking to a graduating class from an institution affiliated with a whole network of Trinity schools.

Thinking back to that meeting with Kerry the immortal words of Darth Vader come to mind: “I’ve been waiting for you, Kerry-Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”

Seriously, though, I still consider myself the Padawan to Master Kerry and I salute him across these four decades with respect and affection for the movement he began and continues to inspire. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 6

Today Gregory Wolfe continues his periodic exchanges on the nature of beauty with Image contributor Morgan Meis. 

Dear Morgan,

Well, yesterday you took your swing all right. I just can’t tell if you’ve decked me or…whiffed. In either case, I’m certainly dazed! I told you last time that I have no formal philosophical training, so in one sense I’m helpless to answer you in kind. If only you’d challenged me to a close reading of Finnegans Wake….

Now that you’ve played the Kant card (!), I think this offers us a good opportunity to complete this set of exchanges.

The simplest way I can summarize your argument is that you hold a “disruptive” theory of cultural history. You say that Kant destroyed any notion that Jerusalem and Athens can co-exist and, furthermore, that Kant’s subjectivist theory of beauty puts an end to any attempt to ground beauty in classical metaphysics. What we need now, you conclude, is “to look for spiritual principles in art in completely new and different ways.”

My gut reaction to this contention is the same as my reaction to new religions that claim that we’ve been completely mistaken about God or the Bible for a couple millennia and that we need to follow the brand new approach of some guru who has been vouchsafed the true, ultimate revelation.

The problem here is hubris: the notion that we must discard the past and start over is tantamount to saying that we must now create a new system of understanding virtually ex nihilo. [Read more…]

Inventing the Kingdom, Part 2

diploria strigosa fossil by james st john on flickrThis post, which appears as the Editorial Statement in Image issue 92, is continued from yesterday. [Link to yesterday’s post here]

“I consider myself a sort of portrait artist,” Carrère says, and his other books bear this out, but in The Kingdom most of the best portraits are of the bit players. Carrère’s rendering of Saint Paul, on the other hand, is straight out of central casting: a vain megalomaniac, a sort of Gnostic heresiarch eager to escape the world and eager for the Apocalypse.

With Saint Luke, Carrère is more generous, in part because he sees himself in Luke. The Greek physician is a cultured man, steeped in pagan tradition, “fond of anecdote and human traits; theology bored him.” Luke comes late to the party: the sayings of Jesus are already available in Mark’s Gospel, but Luke, with his gift for narrative, is impelled to weave his own version of both the Gospel and the early church.

The problem Luke faces, according to Carrère, is that there are too many gaps in the story, and so he has to do what many gifted contemporary writers have done in such circumstances: he invents. Carrère thinks Luke not only invented stories like the infancy narratives of Christ but that he was the ghost writer for the Epistle of James, since the presumably illiterate “brother” of Jesus could not have written anything.

Late in the book, Carrère pauses to justify his form of highly personal interpretation by contrasting his method with that of Marguerite Yourcenar, author of many novels, including the epic Memoirs of Hadrian. He quotes Yourcenar’s literary manifesto for her historical fiction:

Strive to read a text of the second century with the eyes, soul, and feelings of the second century; let it steep in that mother solution which the facts of its own time provide; set aside, if possible, all beliefs and sentiments which have accumulated in successive strata between those persons and us…. Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us….

Carrère’s school of writing, he says, is more in tune with contemporary sensibilities. “Good modern that I am, I prefer the sketch to the grand tableau”—another baffling statement in light of his sweeping four-hundred-page tableau of Christianity’s first century. [Read more…]