My Own Commencement, Part 2: The Uses of Confusion

Photo by All Bong _ UnsplashThis post is excerpted from Gregory Wolfe’s final commencement address as director of the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing last month. Wolfe, who founded the program, stepped down as director yesterday.

Read part 1 here.

I’d like to close my commencement address by taking a lesson or two from the texts we’ve been studying in the Art and Faith seminar.

One of those texts is Brown: The Last Discovery of America by Richard Rodriguez. It’s a book that’s impossible to summarize: it’s ostensibly about the subject of race in America, from the perspective of a Hispanic writer, but it is so much more: a meditation on history and politics, a search for identity and community, an exploration of tragic conflict and the possibility of reconciliation.

Brown is the color of mixture, Rodriguez says, and thus of impurity. It is often considered either bland or repulsive. And yet he believes that this color speaks powerfully to that which makes us human: our nature as embodied souls. Brown is the color of his own race, but as he reminds us, the shrinking global village is becoming ever more brown. [Read more…]

My Own Commencement, Part 1: The Birth of an MFA

CampCasey_112_RutanThis post is excerpted from Gregory Wolfe’s final commencement address as director of the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing last month. Wolfe, who founded the program, steps down as director today.

Once upon a time—well, seventeen years ago, to be exact—I was contacted by Mark Walhout, the chair of the English department at Seattle Pacific University to consult with him regarding the possibility of SPU starting an MFA program in creative writing. He felt that as editor of Image I had the right sort of contacts to recruit faculty—and perhaps a bit of credibility with the literary community—to help kick-start the process.

“How odd that you called about that,” I said. “One of the long-term dreams among the Image editors has been to get involved with the founding of an MFA program.”

“Well,” he responded, “how would you like to come out here and start the program for us?”

I’d like to say it was as simple as that but these things take time and lots of elbow grease. We did indeed come to SPU but we still had a long road ahead of us. There was the matter of settling down, establishing the journal in a new location, and launching an extensive research process for putting together an MFA program proposal. A graduate writing program that sought to educate students in the light of the rich theological and literary heritage of the Christian faith had never been attempted before and we knew it would be looked upon with close scrutiny and even skepticism. [Read more…]

Some Questions about Politics and the Imagination

Pat Hawks flagThe following appears as the editorial statement in Image issue 89.

Q. Would you mind if I asked you some questions the current political situation, given the upcoming presidential election and turmoil in Europe?

A. I do mind, as a matter of fact. I have nothing to say about such matters. They’re far too complex. Not to mention depressing. And crazy-making. Besides, I left politics behind years ago to focus on what I’ve got at least a few credentials to talk about. Who are you, anyway?

Q. I’m the part of you that thinks you’re copping out by refusing to tackle political issues, preferring to swan about in your palace of art.

A. That’s a little harsh. As an editor I’ve published a lot of work that takes on serious issues, from poverty and race to immigration and the conflicts in the Middle East.

Q. Perhaps. I’ll even grant that you were an early critic of the culture wars. You’ve poked your head outside the gates from time to time. But come on, take a stand. It’s nuts out there. [Read more…]

More Incisive, More Powerful, More Permanent: Cast Your Vote for Image!

selfie2webA political season is upon us. I’m guessing that whatever your party affiliation or philosophical persuasion, right about now you are frustrated and anxious about the political process. Yes, democracy is messy, but the amount of anger, fear-mongering, and divisiveness out there is leading many to cynicism and despair.

Millions of votes have been cast, but have they moved us toward a better place?

Since I’m a writer, I got curious about the root of the word “vote” and was surprised by what I found. It comes from the Latin word meaning “to vow” or “to desire.” One of its earliest uses in the West was “to assign by a vow; to devote religiously.” Hence “devoted” and also “devout.” Maybe if we saw our votes as vows we’d cast them more wisely, not in anger or frustration. But now is the time to recall what some of us have been pointing out over the last thirty years:

Culture is upstream from politics.

Ultimately, the stories we tell and symbols we use to understand ourselves are what will shape the political debates.

Beauty, with its expression in art, is one of the most powerful shapers of culture. At last year’s MusicCares tribute to Bob Dylan, Jimmy Carter said, “There’s no doubt that his words of peace and human rights are much more incisive and much more powerful and much more permanent than the words of any president of the United States.”

Art teaches us to pay attention to the small quiet moments, the daily decisions, the seemingly insignificant gestures that make us human. Art is unafraid to look at the worst things about us—but it’s also able to show us the overlooked good in humanity. It gives us a language to speak and share these things.

And in an election year, this is refreshing news.

If you looked at the past few issues of Image for clues about our age, you’d come up with a pretty different picture than you’d get from this year’s election coverage:

• A young poet, who is also a pastor, reads the body language of his congregants and listens to the deeper desire for connection beneath every conversation.
• A six-year-old girl begins asking her father questions about the world that make him realize how much we can love a thing we don’t understand.
• A car crash victim, the daughter of immigrants, is mystically connected to the boy who receives her transplanted heart.
• An elderly Christian statesman visits a dying Jewish philosopher in Jerusalem.

The truth is that we are “voting” every day of our lives, by the way we live. At Image we believe that a life nourished by art, faith, and mystery does have an impact on our world.

Image’s approach to the world—ecumenical, interfaith, seeking out beauty, finding new ways to explore ancient faiths, inviting others to become attuned to the rhythms of slow culture, generating meaningful dialogue—stands in stark contrast to the current political climate, which is divisive, hyperbolic, and fearful, with an eye always on the next news cycle.

In the spirit of this mission, we now write with a request. In a very special way, we are asking you now to cast your vote for Image.

We are asking you to make that vow, show your devotion, and cast your vote with a financial contribution.

Image needs your financial support. The need is real! While our readers tell us that the quality of our magazine has never been better, our donations, which are used to fund operations beyond the subscription revenue, are not keeping up with our costs. This is especially true for the months of May through September.

I trust you know how hardworking the Image staff is, and how much programming we put out into the world: a world-class journal, a beloved summer workshop, a postgraduate fellowship and an undergraduate fellowship, an acclaimed blog, a gorgeous website, and an email newsletter that goes out to 8,000 subscribers.

We work our hearts out because we believe in Image, which you have voted for time and again. For that we are grateful beyond words.

Cast a vote today that you don’t have to feel ambivalent about.

Vote for art, faith, and mystery. Vote for slow culture and the space that imagination carves out where we can meet and come to a deeper understanding of our common humanity.

Thank you, now and always.


Click here to vote for Image! (US) | (Cananda)
Check out the current delegate map here!

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Image above by Aubrey Allison.

Annie Spans the Gap, Part 2

This editorial statement from issue 88 is continued from yesterday. Read Part 1 here

Illustration by Alissa Berkhan

Illustration by Alissa Berkhan

In 1994, Image was in its infancy, and I was living in Wichita and working with the Milton Center, a nonprofit devoted to fostering excellence in creative writing by people of religious faith. Thanks to a major grant, we were able to put on a conference, the highlight of which was giving an award to Annie Dillard. We chose as a theme the phrase “Spanning the Gap,” taken from Holy the Firm and included in the epigraph in yesterday’s post. We wanted to explore the way writing itself might span the gap between here and eternity.

I was assigned the task of introducing her, which more or less scared the hooey out of me. I had only read a few scattered pieces of hers, and the only full book I was able to read in preparation was Holy the Firm, because it is so short.

I remember very little about the introduction, except that I described her as “a nature writer on speed.” What I lacked in insight I tried to make up in verve. Her reading was of course electrifying as she paced back and forth, declaiming from one book or another. The audience was pleased. [Read more…]