The Visiting Writers Program of the Department of English, directed by associate professor of English John Somerville, is hosting a special two-day event Oct. 20 and 21. The event honors Greg Wolfe, class of ’80, publisher and editor of Image journal, and director of the Center for Religious Humanism and director of the MFA in creative writing program at Seattle Pacific University, and celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of Image. Monday, Oct. 20, Andrew Hudgins, poet and humanities distinguished professor of English at the Ohio State University, and Erin McGraw, novelist and professor of English at OSU will read from their work at 4 p.m. in the Dow Leadership Center rooms A and B. That evening at 8 p.m. in the Sage Center for the Arts Markel Auditorium, band Over the Rhine will perform. Tickets may be reserved through the Sage box office. Tuesday, Oct. 21, Wolfe will lead a panel discussion titled “Faith and the Arts” in the Dow center at 4 p.m. That evening, at 8 p.m., Wolfe will deliver a talk, “Conservatism and the Arts: A Lover’s Quarrel.” The event is also sponsored by the american studies program, the christian studies program, the department of English, the department of music, and the office of the president.
—Micah Meadowcroft, Arts Editor
A conversation with Greg Wolfe:
Gregory Wolfe graduated from Hillsdale College in 1980 and went on to earn a M.A. in English Literature from Oxford University. He has been published in journals such as National Review, Modern Age, Chronicles, and Crisis. In addition, Wolfe is the author of several books, including Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery, and most recently Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age. He is currently the editor of Image, a national journal of art, faith, and mystery, which he founded in 1989.—Interview conducted and biography compiled by Chris McCaffery, student columnist
What impact has Image journal had on our artistic culture in its 25 years? What’s different, and what does the future look like for religious art and Christian Humanism?
You put me in a difficult position. It’s always tricky trying to take credit for cultural change! One thing I’ve come to realize is that Image has been part of a larger social phenomenon: a reaction against what I would call “militant secularism.” Since the late 1980s there has been a gradual decrease in the censorship of the religious imagination by cultural gatekeepers (think the New York Times, etc.).
Our purpose in founding Image was to showcase the work we suspected was still being created: world-class literature and art that grappled honestly with the ancient faith traditions of the West. The irony is that when we began many religious folk as well as secular intellectuals agreed that such work was a thing of the past.
We made a conscious effort to put up our shingle on the public square and not do what many conservative efforts have done — withdraw into a fortress and blast away at “decadance.” That means we created a journal that could take its place side by side with the New Yorker and Paris Review. We went to the conferences and conventions. And we were not only accepted but welcomed.
The more dramatic impact we’ve had is within the community of believers. When we began many of the faithful put all their stock in apologetics and politics. We have consistently argued that this is an imbalance: that reason must be balanced by imagination.
What was your academic career like at Hillsdale? What was your experience with publishing and art on campus?
In the late 1970s Hillsdale had only begun to transform from a sleepy, provincial college to the powerhouse it is today. But I took full advantage of the good things that had become available, such as taking classes with visiting professors like Russell Kirk and Gerhart Niemeyer. I also loved the CCA seminars and drove many speakers to and from the airport in Detroit, giving me valuable exposure to major thinkers.
I wrote op-eds for the Collegian and edited the Tower Light. I even started a national quarterly called the Hillsdale Review when I was a sophomore. It was founded to publish writing by young, traditionalist conservatives. Eventually we got over a thousand subscribers. The HR lasted about eight years.
Does a deep appreciation for and understanding of classical literature preclude a full embrace of modern and postmodern art? How does art produced by a secular culture touch on Christian orthodoxy?
Not at all. In fact, quite the opposite. T.S. Eliot and Flannery O’Connor, both profoundly conservative, wrote unselfconsciously in highly modern styles. Unlike mere reactionaries, who think we can turn back the clock, conservatives have always known that change is the nature of human life and that outward forms can and must change to preserve ancient truths. Eliot argued that unless we fully engage with the art of our own time we actually begin to lose a full sense of the classical tradition — which is another way of saying that without a living tradition, the past becomes distorted and distant.
What advice do you have for Hillsdale students who come out of school similarly disillusioned with ideological conservatism? How can academic and artistic endeavors influence the political climate?
Never let political and economic expediency cause you to go along with rhetoric and ideology which you feel to be dangerous and harmful to the public good. If you cannot find organizations and publications that speak for the deeper meaning of conservatism, then create your own. Power, wealth, and fame are temptations for conservatives, just like anyone else. Be willing to defend truths that are more subtle and nuanced than the ideological simplifications espoused by others, even if doing so leaves you financially poorer and feeling marginalized. If your vision is honest and true, others will be attracted to it and your witness will have an impact.
You devote a lot of space in Beauty Will Save the World to Catholicism and its influence on the art of the 20th century. What has been the Protestant contribution to American Christian art over the last century?
To be fair, of the thirteen artists and writers I discuss at length in that book in separate chapters, seven of them are not Catholic!
In the last half-century, American Protestants have experienced a sense of renewal and re-engagement with literature and the arts. The evangelical community in particular—at least the more intellectual end of it—has undergone something of a revolution in this regard. Evangelicals have been and remain one of the most active constituencies in the Image community and many evangelical institutions, such as Wheaton, Calvin, Messiah, and Gordon Colleges (to name a few) have made significant contributions to scholarship and activism in the arts.
One only has to look at a list of writers like the following to see many first-rate writers from a Protestant background in our time: Marilynne Robinson, Frederick Buechner, Christian Wiman, Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott, Jeremy Begbie, Bret Lott, and Jeanne Murray Walker.
— Compiled by Chris McCaffery, Student Columnist