In the war over religion in American life, Seattle Pacific University English instructors Greg and Suzanne Wolfe have found a way to act...
In the war over religion in American life, Seattle Pacific University English instructors Greg and Suzanne Wolfe have found a way to act as both provocateurs and peacemakers.
For 16 years, they’ve published the nonprofit quarterly Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.
The journal’s motto is “Art, Faith, Mystery,” and its articles and glossy photos explore contemporary spirituality by featuring provocative art alongside thoughtful essays, interviews and stories.
Image is probing rather than preachy. That’s because the Wolfes, both authors in their own right, take pleasure not in fighting the culture wars but in blurring the battle lines.
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The journal is a showcase for the idea that you can find salvation in high art, beauty in deep faith and common ground in quiet reflection.
In a past issue, German filmmaker Wim Wenders talks about getting over his disillusionment with the Catholicism of his youth, his later decision to start praying and going to church again and the role of isolation in his movies. “We say we want to be as all over the map as possible,” Greg, the journal’s editor, said of the submissions he, his staff and wife pick. “It doesn’t have to have any religion in it at all.”
Touching the spirit
The Wolfes have co-written two books advocating the teaching of values and prayer to children: 1994’s “Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values through Stories” (Touchstone), a collaboration with William Kilpatrick; and 2004’s “Bless This House: Prayers for Families and Children” (John Wiley & Sons).
The journal Image is available at J&S News in Fremont, Barnes and Noble at University Village, Bulldog News on Broadway and Elliott Bay Book Co.
For more information, visit www.imagejournal.org.
Photos in a recent issue of Image showing light and space artist James Turrell’s ethereal skyspace at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, for example, don’t scream “Religious Art!”
But the luminous structure perfectly captures the Wolfes’ belief that the sublime, even the divine, can be found in the most secular of places, if people just stop to notice.
Art and literature “enrapture us,” Suzanne said. “It’s the last real presence of God in a consumer-crazy world. It kind of returns us to a sense of what is real and what is good and what is true.”
The Wolfes’ great love of art and letters, and their very personal devotion to Christian values, comes through in every issue of Image.
This edgy marriage of ideas also has defined their own 24-year relationship. Greg, 46 and bearded, looks very much like the grizzled English instructor and bookworm that he is, while feisty, slim and red-haired Suzanne, a 43-year-old native of Manchester, England, bears a striking resemblance to British singer Annie Lennox and considers herself a feminist.
She cuts his wavy hair. He giggles at her frequent wisecracks. They finish, sometimes edit, each other’s sentences.
“We’re kind of an unlikely pair, but perfect for each other in a way,” Suzanne said. “We’ve always had the same vision, just different ways of getting there.”
Greg and Suzanne consider themselves fairly traditional, considering their embrace of Catholicism and their four kids, Benedict, 9; Charles, 16; Helena, 18; and Magdalen, 20. They regularly attend St. James Cathedral on First Hill.
Greg says his goal for the journal is “to take something that’s ancient (spirituality) and make it radically present, literally in your face, in your own time.”
But the Wolfes aren’t interested in easy explanations for eternal questions like, “Why are we here?”
They had to discover those answers the hard way.
A marriage of lost souls
Suzanne was raised in an Irish Catholic family in Manchester by her mother and grandparents. Her father, she is quick to note, deserted the family when she was an infant.
Her maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was “devout” and “a very saintly man.”
“When he died when I was 15, I lost my faith,” Suzanne said, noting that she left home to live on her own.
“I was a rabid atheist,” she recalled. “Atheist and sort of a Nietzschean: you know, the world is a crummy place, and we forge our own path.”
Greg recalls Suzanne once describing herself as “a collapsed Catholic.”
Suzanne said she couldn’t recognize it, but she was in a state of grief. And she was scared.
After her grandfather’s death, Suzanne developed anorexia nervosa, a condition she said she has since learned to understand and manage. Greg, on the other hand, was born in Cleveland and raised partly in New York City, where his dad was “a conservative, free-market crusader” who worked in advertising. His mom, the daughter of a painter, taught him to appreciate art and culture by taking him to museums and the symphony.
“Fogy” meets “punk”
In college, Greg was a “young fogy” who wore ascots and smoked a pipe. Just as Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory ushered in a conservative new wave, Greg was interning under William F. Buckley at the conservative journal National Review.
But he got the feeling that conservatives had abandoned their philosophical depth for “shallow, policy-oriented” ambition. While other conservatives celebrated, he withdrew.
Wolfe enrolled at Oxford University’s undergraduate school to learn a more grounded form of conservatism, and given his upbringing, he wanted to learn how art could help restore meaning to the principles he was struggling to hold onto.
The velvet ascot he wore around campus made an impression on Suzanne, who also was enrolled there.
“He was the most conservative, geeky-looking American I’d ever seen!” said Suzanne, who often finishes her remarks with a huge smile and laughter. “I was totally punked out.”
“And kinda sexy,” Greg interrupted. On their first date, Greg and Suzanne went to see Judi Dench in “A Winter’s Tale” at a theater in Stratford.
On the way to Stratford, they argued about the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana. Later they went to the Dirt Duck Pub. “The first love letter he ever wrote to me was typed!” Suzanne said in mock indignation.
The geek and the punk became engaged during the last week of Greg’s studies at Oxford.
Greg said that besides forcing him to ditch the ascots, Suzanne helped make him earthier and less ideological.
He gave Suzanne a reason to restore and then share the Catholic faith that shaped her early years: Greg went on to convert to Catholicism. They gave each other something to believe in again.
Both the children of broken homes, Greg and Suzanne shared what Greg calls “a powerful drive and focus” to create something permanent, stable and meaningful in life: Nearly 25 years later, they have a family. And they have Image.
Cover causes controversy
The first issue of Image was published by Christendom College in Virginia in 1989, when the Wolfes were on the faculty. It featured a stylized image of a pregnant Virgin Mary that caused an uproar among administrators on the conservative campus. Suzanne lost her job as dean of women at the school for reasons that Greg attributed to her association with the controversial publication. In protest, he resigned.
It was a major turning point for the couple.
“That episode — while it was painful — got us thinking about how religious faith relates to culture and how a mature grown-up understands the way art grapples with serious human issues,” Greg said. The couple performed freelance work and other jobs, while also publishing Image when funding permitted, before SPU recruited them five years ago. Today SPU publishes the journal, and the Wolfes say the campus has been supportive.
“In terms of content and production values, Image ranks with the best literary journals in the country,” SPU English Department Chairman Mark Walhout said. “It’s a wonderful venue for those who are interested in exploring faith though literature and the arts, whether they identify with the Judeo-Christian tradition — as the editors do — or consider themselves religious doubters or ‘seekers.’ “
Greg works most closely with Image’s small staff at SPU, while Suzanne stokes the fires by helping select submissions and editing copy.
They still are idealistic about the journal, which Greg hopes will encourage people to embrace the world’s complexity, “rather than judge it.”
Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or firstname.lastname@example.org