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Interview with Gregory Wolfe

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As the editor of Image, Gregory Wolfe has earned a national reputation as a leading thinker on the intersection of art, culture, and faith. He has written four books, the most recent of which is Beauty Will Save the World.

Fare Forward: In your book Beauty Will Save the World, you tell your personal story of transitioning from a political foot solider to an artist and cultivator. Can you recount a little of that here?

Gregory Wolfe: As a young man and person of faith, I was trained to see the world in adversarial terms. Like a lot of young people, I wanted to go to war. There’s something romantic about fighting for a cause, and you can’t fight unless you have an enemy. For me, that enemy was Secular Liberalism. I really thought that the world had divided into two camps.

Then I experienced a series of challenges to my most basic assumptions, which ultimately led me to believe that the world doesn’t really divide up that neatly. It amounted to a personal, vocational crisis. Being a witty conservative literary critic putting down the latest books by secular liberal novelists couldn’t sustain my life. I had to find something else to do.

What I eventually realized was that I was driven to build rather to destroy; I had to nurture rather than criticize. Intuitively, I understood the argument that Andy Crouch would make twenty years later in his book Culture Making: that the best way to change culture is not to critique it or mimic it or stick messages inside it, but to create world- class, life-changing new culture, to put great new work into circulation. While I would not fully grasp this insight for some time, I acted on this instinct and founded Image.

I hasten to add that I don’t believe that criticism, judgment, and discernment are of no value in public intellectual discourse—they are. But I realized that a) they weren’t ultimately my greatest skills, and b) they have severe limitations. I felt that the history of traditionalist religious enterprises over the last 50 years had skewed excessively toward rational, apologetical, and political discourse. As much as I believe in the importance of reason and reasoned exposition and defense of the faith, I felt that there was an unhealthy disproportion between reason and imagination. This, to my mind, was the deeper, more troubling dichotomy in American religious culture. Because reason, if not balanced by imagination, tends toward abstraction and a kind of totalitarian arrogance that is dangerous for the church and culture.

FF: It seems that a big part of your personal perspective on these questions, which based on what you have just said informs Image a lot as well, is the concept of Christian Humanism. In Beauty will Save the World, you talk at length about Christian Humanism and how it relates to cultural production. Can you explain what Christian Humanism is and how that informs the vision of redeeming culture through creation?

GW: People have told me from day one that I was an idiot to invoke the term “humanism” at all, because in the last 30 to 40 years, the word “humanism” has primarily been modified by one other word, and that’s “secular.” But the more I looked into the origins of that word, the more I became convinced that the equation of humanism and secularism was itself the travesty. Humanism is derived from the same word and concept as the humanities, the very core of the traditional liberal arts education as it evolved out of the classical-Christian synthesis in our cultural history. Humanism is a way of looking at the world that cares deeply about how human beings are made—it fosters the disciplines that observe human experience not by breaking it down analytically, but by seeing it through the concrete, dramatic forms of language and narrative.

I began to feel that I had a kinship with thinkers from other eras who had struggled with the same issue—a religion that had become overly politicized and rationalized—and who also saw the imagination and beauty as attempts to achieve balance. Their goal was to ensure that faith would become more credible because literature and art grounded faith in human experience in all its messiness and ambiguity.

In particular, I found that the Renaissance thinkers who sought to synthesize the best of classical culture with the best of Christian theology felt like blood brothers. My heroes are people like Erasmus and Thomas More, who understood the dangers of a dry and legalistic faith. They fought the rather third-rate scholasticism of their time, which had become lost in abstractions that had little to do with people’s lives. They felt that literature—and at their time that meant quintessentially classical pagan literature— was essential because it tested the big ideas out in people’s lives and forced them to become tangible.

At first I had difficulty giving credit to these Renaissance thinkers because I had grown up with the myth that the Renaissance was an explosion of secularism (as opposed to the pious beauty of the Middle Ages). Then I discovered that this myth has been exposed as such by historians over the last hundred years. But old archetypes die hard.

FF: One of the things I was struck by in Beauty is your frustration with blanket condemnations of modern art. You came to this by way of T.S. Eliot, who you mention used a modernist style in a way you found compelling. How did your transition to appreciating contemporary art happen, and where are some places you see good work being done in art today?

GW: I originally loved Eliot because I thought he was the enemy of my enemies and a critic of “modernity.” When I read beyond his essays to his poetry, I began to experience what they call cognitive dissonance. There was a tickle at the back of my brain saying: “Wait a minute, this man is working in and through the very art forms that you are supposedly dead set against.” Then in short order I had a similar experience with Flannery O’Connor, who uses violence and the grotesque. How, I wondered, could Eliot use fragmentation and allusion and O’Connor use violence and the grotesque and at the same time be deeply traditional, religious people? It finally dawned on me that the essence of artistic change is stylistic change. You don’t have to equate stylistic change with content or conviction. In fact, to change form is precisely the way that as a culture we try to keep alive content that has become trapped in a certain kind of language that has been overdone. Aesthetic change is not only consonant with conserving ancient truths, but necessary to it.

So when we started Image we decided we would look for the new Eliots and O’Connors. We actually didn’t know how much we would find. We were half-convinced by the narrative of decline, that the modern era was all downhill. We didn’t know what to expect. But one of the miracles of life is that sometimes when you seek, you find. We found artists who were interested in the way that art can embody the experience of faith. People began coming out of the woodwork.

It turned out that we were one of many who were then questioning the separations that some had thought eternal. We simply dared to question and to look. We don’t expect everybody to like every single thing we’ve published, but we’ve demonstrated that deeply religious questions can be embodied in almost every imaginable art form and style and that this continues to happen all over the world and is not confined to a little clique.

FF: Who are some of the people that you didn’t know when you got started but you’ve found since then, who’ve you’ve been the most impressed with and you think Christians could benefit the most from studying?

GW: Oh man, that’s a tough one. The roster is so long these days. When we started, we didn’t know who Ron Hansen was or Marilynne Robinson or Richard Rodriguez or Annie Dillard or Mary Karr. The list could go on and on. That’s what, to me, is what is so amazing. The word renaissance used about our time may strike some people as absurd, but the sheer volume of writers, artists, and composers who are grappling with Judeo-Christian beliefs, experiences, convictions, and symbols is amazing.

Conveying that message to people who are addicted to the narrative of decline has been one of the biggest challenges of my career.

FF: This is a question we at Fare Forward have heard a lot of people ask: What are some practical ways Christians who aren’t directly engaged in cultural production as artists or writers might be able to help steward culture and renew the role of the imagination in the church and the wider society?

GW: Supporting and showcasing artists forms the core of what we do at Image. Of course not everyone makes art. But you can—and should—receive it, be shaped by it. For example, there are people who are neither literary critics nor literary artists on the other for whom literature can become a life-changing experience and a mainstay of their lives.

Faith and reason, while two of the most crucial human faculties, are only two of the true trinity, which are faith, reason, and imagination. I don’t think you can live a life of faith without imagination. Christ calls us to place ourselves in the experience of the other, to substitute the other for ourselves, to de-center our experience—and this is precisely what imagination does. It de-centers us, places us inside the heart and mind of another. It enlarges our heart and expands our vision. It’s hard to see how human beings can live a full, civilized life without art or literature playing some role in it. So as far the vision of the journal is concerned, we know that not every reader is a maker, but every reader is a human being who can be enlarged and deepened and changed by what they encounter in our pages.

Peter Blair

Peter Blair lives in Washington, DC. A 2012 graduate of Dartmouth College, he works as Campus Program Coordinator for the Thomistic Institute. Peter is editor-in-chief of Fare Forward. He is on Twitter: @PeterAWBlair.