Contemporary Journals

Art, Faith, Mystery

Report by Larai Brigoli

With ninety-nine issues to date, Image has been thriving as a quarterly journal at Seattle Pacific University since 1989. Among the famous, Image has published Flannery O'Connor, Mary Oliver, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Sufjan Stevens, and John Updike. Not only does the journal feature famous authors, but it has also been noted for containing O. Henry Prize Stories, Best Christian Writing, Best American Poetry, and more. Image has clearly been successful, but how exactly have they come so far?

First of all, “success” needs to be defined. Success for literary magazines is considered to be quite relative. For example, Blast is one of the most memorable literary magazines and it only lasted a year. At the same time, it is no small feat for Image to continue printing after twenty years in the business. Longevity certainly plays an important role after all, but it is impossible to pinpoint only one aspect of a magazine and say “that’s the golden ticket.” Image has become more successful than the majority of religious magazines because of its mission statement, staff, marketing, design, content, and audience.

Image has found their literary niche in the subject of religion. No other literary magazine focuses solely on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The magazine specifically observes how these religions of Western culture intermix on certain topics. The subtitle of every magazine is “Art, Faith, Mystery.” The more you read the magazine, the more you see each one of these elements melt into each other. Image strongly believes that these elements cannot exist on their own without another. One of the founders, Suzanne Wolfe, explained that, “The American tendency towards abstraction is a gnostic tendency that only those in the faith and art communities can counteract. That’s why Image is a conscientious objector in the culture wars. (“A Web Exclusive Interview with Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe”).

Their website further explains this idea that religion and art act as powerful tools for change: “We believe that the great art that has emerged from these faith traditions is dramatic, not didactic—incarnational, not abstract. And so our focus has been on works of imagination that embody a spiritual struggle…” (“About Image”). Combining such vastly different cultures under one roof of religion has given Image its reputation for being culturally inclusive as well as giving the magazine a scope of readership all across the globe.

The website itself contains two places for submissions: Image and Good Letters. Image publishes poetry, fiction, longer essays, interviews, works in translation, and artist profiles. Good Letters publishes daily with short cultural essays. This report will only focus on Image, but it’s good to note that Good Letters fits perfectly along with their mission statement. The core purpose of Image is to immerse religious traditions in modern culture, which Good Letters does through the separate platform of blogging.

Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe have founded the magazine with the typical “wannabe artist” dream: to create something beautiful. In an interview, they claim that their biggest reward is found spiritually. Since Image is a non-profit journal, the founders don’t seem to receive anything more than the joy that good literature brings. However, this certainly seems to be enough for the Wolfe family.

James K.A. Smith is currently the chief editor. As a philosopher and religious author, Smith encapsulates the mission statement. He is known for his radical orthodoxy, part of the postmodern Christian movement. His most popular book, How (Not) to Be Secular, falls in line with the mission statement of Image: “to grapple with something spiritually and to produce change in culture that was stuck in stasis.” What the founders and editors of Image all have in common is their goal of shaping this magazine into something bigger than themselves.

Image obtains funds through subscriptions, and they have a good online presence through their website and social media. It costs forty-eight dollars for a yearly subscription online and forty dollars for a yearly subscription printed. But the magazine cleverly markets their online subscription as monthly, which only seems to cost a measly “four dollars.” They create followers by allowing readers to peruse their website and read a couple poems—before a pop-up stops you in your tracks and says to subscribe or create an account. They really do put their best work forward, capturing readers with only a few poems. I myself felt tempted to create an account on the spot.

The artwork featured in the magazine itself contains pictures of religious sculptures, paintings, and arrangements that were supposed to invoke spiritual reflection. They are usually clustered in the middle of the book, rather than sporadically immersed. Sometimes a picture is attached to a literary work, but that is on very rare occasion. After their 76th issue, Image renovated their book covers. Instead of framing their pictures in a bed of white, their covers were full pictures such as comic book strips, abstract modernist art, and the kind of photographs you would take of a family member in your backyard. A common thread between all of these covers is that none of it was supposed to be common at all. Image illustrates their diverse taste for culture by having an unexpected cover with every issue.

The cover represents a deeper message which the journal then addresses through literature. For example, the cover of Issue 97 has the haunting sculpture of a body with holes drilled in its chest. Its holes are filled with gold, indicating a Japanese reparation process that turns broken items into something beautiful. All of the pieces in the magazine explore what it means to be broken, such as Daniel Priest’s poem “I Stand and Knock”: “All night he was wind leaning on a door / you wanted to open. The whole world / spilled through the hole he’d torn in his side. He had nothing to say / that wasn’t your name…” (Priest).

Topics vary from film to Flannery O'Connor to evolution. Issue 85 deals with evolution, specifically the relationship between science and religion as a whole. It begins with the editorial statement: “Rightly practiced, both faith and the sciences end not in certainty but in awe, wonder, gratitude, even love” (“Issue 85” 7). The rest of the journal follows this exact theme of uncertainty regarding religion and science. One poem called “Orange and Spices” by John Terpstra rewrites the creation story in the eyes of Darwin: “On the sixth day, Sir Charles Darwin / closes the book / on everything he saw and experienced / when he was so very young, all those years ago, / the boat, the islands. So serendipitous, / that he traveled at all. Creation is good. Fruit is good. / He peels another and picks a round, pony-hair / #4 brush, dips it in the water glass, and begins / his next painting.” (“Issue 85” 65)

Image is both inclusive and exclusive. It is inclusive because the purpose of the magazine is to gather people of all cultures and backgrounds under three houses of religion. At the same time, the magazine excludes any work that does not grapple with something spiritually. The editors make it clear in their submission guidelines that the work must include an element of faith, which obviously provides the magazine with their niche in the first place. What Image does so well is integrate all three of these faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mixing religions always runs the risk of causing offense due to strong divides between traditions. But Image presents material in a soft kind of way. Soft, meaning that none of it blows up in the reader’s face. The poetry finds common ground through realistic circumstances such as raising children, observing nature, or the effect of music in our lives. None of those circumstances can be debated. They can only be felt and related to. Image simply presents this kind of content and lets the reader glean whatever they may rather than stating “this is right, so believe it.” This ultimately leaves the readers feeling comfortable with reading things outside of their comfort zone. This is Image’s brilliant tactic for drawing in a very diverse readership.  

Image is already successful. Will it continue to be that way? Not if they ever stray away from their mission statement or try to accommodate a different kind of audience. Newbies in the literary field can learn from their success. Find a niche and learn how to balance inclusivity and exclusivity in a way that not only prods audience consumption, but also prods change. 

Works Cited

"A Web Exclusive Interview with Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe." Image Journal, web.archive.org/web/20100203072857/http://imagejournal.org/page/news/wolfe-interview.

"About Image." Image Journal, imagejournal.org/about/.

"Art · Faith · Mystery." Image Journal, imagejournal.org/.

Gilger, Patrick S.J. "James K. A. Smith's Theological Journey." America Magazine, 25 Oct. 2018, www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/10/18/james-k-smiths-theological-journey.

"Issue 85." Image Journal, imagejournal.org/journal/issue-85/.

"Issue 97." Image Journal, imagejournal.org/journal/issue-97/.

Priest, Daniel. "I Stand and Knock." Image Journal, imagejournal.org/article/i-stand-and-knock/.

Smith, James K. A. "How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor." Amazon, Amazon, 1 May 2014, www.amazon.com/How-Not-Be-Secular-Reading/dp/0802867618/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=How (Not) to Be Secular&qid=1556162443&s=gateway&sr=8-1.

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