If I may be so bold, those of you who haven't yet ordered your copy of Relief 4.1 are missing out on some great writing by some very talented authors. In the coming weeks, we will be featuring samples of work from a few of these writers, just to give you a taste of what you're missing.
Sentimental as it sounds, I suspect this particular issue (my first as Editor-in-Chief) will always hold a special place in my heart. So to start off the sampling, below is the Relief 4.1 "From the Editor's Desk" in its entirety.
res·o·nate (rěz’ə-nāt’) v. intr. 1. To exhibit or produce resonance or resonant effects. 2. To evoke a feeling of shared emotion or belief: “It is a demonology [that] seems to resonate among secular and religious voters alike” (Tamar Jacoby). 3. To correspond closely or harmoniously: “Symbolism matters, especially if the symbols resonate with the larger message” (William Greider).1
WHEN I THINK OF RELIEF—when I try to explain where this journal fits in the scheme of contemporary publishing—I think of singing and razor wire.
Bear with me.
In my short time as Editor-in-Chief of this journal, I’ve found that one of the most difficult tasks is just explaining what Relief is, what we do, and for whom we do it. The truth, I have come to believe, is that there is no particular category to which the book in your hand belongs. As our subtitle makes clear, Relief is a religious literary journal (though not every piece we publish is overtly religious). And yet it is clearly not like so many publications that are grouped in that particular pocket of the publishing industry. Christian publishing has, over several decades, drawn a clear line of demarcation between the religious and the mainstream. The natural consequence of this is that the industry has so effectively entrenched itself and the genre, erecting tall fences and posting loyal gatekeepers, that only a certain, rather sterilized kind of writing can get in, and those writing from inside have little hope (and often little desire) of getting out. I realize this is a gloomy illustration, but I’m really not criticizing the Christian publishing model at all. Of course there are no sinister men in holy smoke-filled boardrooms plotting mass censorship on behalf of some shadow Church. The “segregation” is strictly business, little more than marketing and branding, as well as a kind of rating system—a way of telling the customer up front what she can find in a “Christian” publication and assuring her that she will not be bothered by content she may find offensive.
From a business standpoint, it is only logical to identify a customer base and offer up what they want to buy. My objection is not, however, with the supply side of this market, but with the demand. Knowing how art mimics life (and vice versa), I see in the current state of Christian book publishing, music, and art in general only a microcosm of what Christianity in this country and much of the world has done to itself over the last few generations—carved out a place of safety and retreated inside, holding the line against infiltration, but at the same time running the risk of becoming as culturally irrelevant as the Amish. What worries me is this voluntary cultural and social ghettoization of religion.
For the person of faith—any faith—life is a constant struggle of balancing the hopes of the spiritual and eternal with the needs and limitations of the physical, the temporal. It is—to quote one author in this volume—as if we are each “part flesh, part hope.” Believers who acknowledge this tension want more than a secure life behind the stained glass. And they look to spiritual writing for something more than a saintly protagonist who doesn’t drink, smoke, gossip, or swear, and who certainly does not—under any circumstance—experience real doubt about his or her faith. For those readers, what often is called “Christian literature” may occasionally entertain and inspire. It may even stir the soul with hope of how things could be, in an untarnished world. But it doesn’t resonate with their own experience, because deep down they know the truth: that no real person lives that way. Readers of Relief will find something more than a sugared dose of affirmation. They will find stories, essays, and poems that offer resonance, that feeling of connection with gifted writers—mere mortals, one and all—who share their doubts and fears, their struggles with living as “part flesh, part hope.”
So if I were to offer an analogy that describes the mission of Relief, I can think only of a young girl (who is, admittedly, perhaps too naïve for her own good) daring to climb that ghetto fence. Not to escape. And not even to get a better look at the world outside. But to better be heard by anyone within range on either side. At the top, she balances among the spools of razor wire, draws a deep breath, and uncages her voice. It’s not a sermon, like the ones we’ve come to expect from within these borders, but a humble song—a mere “expression” that says simply: “I am here. I exist. I hope and dream, and bleed and despair. And I will not be defined by this stupid damned fence!” Whether her audience finds the melody beautiful or grating, it is unashamedly honest and true, and that—in today’s image-driven culture—is a beauty in itself.
This particular issue of Relief features many authors and narrators dealing honestly with questions of death and mortality, as well as the corporeal nature of being human, developing a theme of Memento mori (Remember that you must die), or Hominem te memento (Remember that you are only a man)—warnings once recited to Roman generals after their military triumphs to remind them that human glory is fleeting. At the same time, that somewhat dreary thread is punctuated by hopeful pieces that remind us to seize opportunities for love, for showing empathy and compassion, and for taking time to slow down and appreciate the wonder of creation, to stop and consider the immanent and transcendent. So a Carpe diem theme is also present. The image on our cover ties these two themes together, presenting in one scene elements of celebration, love, family, friendship, community, all the things we value most highly in life, but in a tone that is surreal and with a “ghosting” effect that suggests the temporal and transitory, reminding us that this life does not last and to make the most of what time we have.
I OWE A PERSONAL THANKS to every person who has made this issue of Relief possible. Some have (anonymously) contributed vital resources, without which no one would be reading this now. Others have given freely and abundantly of their personal time to read submissions and proofread text. Most of all, I want to thank the Relief editorial staff (who have lived and breathed these pages every day for the past several weeks) and the many talented authors who have allowed us to publish their work.
I believe you will enjoy these stories and poems. My hope, however, is that (as they did with me) these words will resonate with your own experience as a creature of humble but hopeful flesh.
1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “Resonate,” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/resonate (accessed May 26, 2010).