Kimberly Culbertson knew God was real and present in the lives of the high school kids she taught in inner-city Chicago -- real and present in the midst of equally real poverty, violence, addiction, and sexual activity. She began to write about her experiences with the young people she worked with and looked for writing communities and places to publish. Culbertson naturally turned first to Christian outlets, which she assumed would welcome the integration of faith in her writing.
What wasn’t welcome, she found, was the accurate portrayal of details in stories she wanted to tell.
"I learned the rules of Christian writing: No swearing," she told the audience at a panel on small presses and magazines at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing last April. "No depiction of sexuality, even if it’s 'in bounds.' No sin that goes unpunished." Culbertson was left in a quandary. As she put it, "Gangbangers do not say 'Fiddlesticks.'"
At the same time, she knew that writers who authentically explore and depict issues of faith can find that their work is a hard sell to many secular publishers, who seem befuddled by or dismissive of religious content or skeptical of storylines that dare speak of even small "r" redemption or revelation.
So in 2006 Culbertson and her husband, Ben, started Relief, a biannual literary journal that welcomes not-sanitized-for-your-protection prose and poetry -- and Jesus too. The pay-off was definitely not financial -- "We're broke and print-runs are sometimes funded from our wallets," said Culbertson. But she described the satisfaction that comes from a distinct sense of mission: "Relief doesn’t publish only stories that couldn’t be published elsewhere, but we rejoice and dance when we do. There have been pieces that we’ve received and known, 'This is why we exist, so that this story can get to readers.'"
Relief is one of a handful of literary magazines and independent book publishers that have staked a claim in the publishing borderlands where grit and religious devotion, literary experimentation and spirituality, the quirky and the profound can meet and mingle.
These outlets seek out works that might not have mass-market appeal for reasons of style, genre, or content that isn't scrubbed "clean" enough for Christian retailers. The great Catholic fiction writer Flannery O'Connor noted that pious readers were "always demanding that the writer be less explicit in regard to natural matters or the concrete particulars of sin," and apparently the decades haven't diminished that pressure.
Creative writers who self-identify as Christian -- the believers in the Word whose medium is words -- tend to spend at least some of their time balancing on the head of a peculiar pin: Their vocation, hammered in from the first creative writing class or how-to book, is to show, not tell. The goal is to create works and worlds that embody meaning, rather than explain it; that show redemption or fall or sacrifice, not preach it. This incarnational approach isn't at odds with the faith: After all, Christians themselves are called to be the body of Christ -- not, as sometimes implied, merely the brochure-with-audio-chip of Christ -- showing the work and love of God on earth.
But Christian faith does include an emphasis on being ready to give accounting "for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). Sometimes this means the call to create can get tangled with an explicit mandate to proselytize or preach, or to make art conform to a narrow definition of "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable" (Philippians 4:8) -- even if to do so threatens the integrity of the work.
The "Christian" label, then, can be a mixed blessing for a writer. For those writing fiction or memoir that fits the approved patterns, it brings a ready-made reading public, through outlets such as the hundreds of Christian stores that participate in the CBA ("the association for Christian retail") in the U.S. And there's little danger that an editor will demand more sex scenes than an author is comfortable with. But the retailers' stringent purity codes can exclude even the most devout authors who choose to realistically depict messy lives and messy situations. Requests to delete swear words can veer into requests to change plots and characters. (Obviously, such standards don’t apply to all books sold in Christian bookstores, else the Bible would be kicked to the curb.) Other writers may not struggle as much with the "morality" restrictions, but find that their content or style is too off-beat for the mainstream Christian marketplace.
Enter the bookish rebels with a cause. A passionate sense of mission is required: Independent publishing is a labor of love, often sustained by people who do the work in their spare time -- for-profit operations that are still striving to make enough to pay salaries or nonprofits that seek subscribers, donors, grants, and small miracles to survive.
Brianna Van Dyke started the literary magazine Ruminate in 2006 in part because she couldn’t find the kind of magazine she wanted to read -- what she describes as "a magazine that was inviting and playful, full of good literature and art that often intersected faith, and one that provided a quiet and contemplative space to pause and think about something again."
Published quarterly, each issue has a theme (“Borrowing,” for example). "We've found that having a theme gives readers a door into the magazine, which is important because a lot of people hear art and literary magazine and think, 'Yikes, that sounds difficult or out of my league.'" Van Dyke says readers and writers for Ruminate range from a pheasant farmer in Montana to a grandmother in Florida. The magazine has also published two Pulitzer nominees; established writers including Frederick Buechner, David James Duncan, Bret Lott, Luci Shaw, and Tyrus Clutter have contributed pieces or judged contests.
Ruminate is supported half by sales and half by donations. It also receives both financial and volunteer support from Van Dyke’s church in Fort Collins, Colorado, Grace Church Presbyterian. "I do see the work of Ruminate as ministering to its community -- its readers, contributors, staff, and the online and local communities -- because art has the capacity to move, heal, and grow hearts in a way that nothing else can," says Van Dyke.
The small independent book company WordFarm was founded in 2002 by several people who were working for the Christian publisher InterVarsity Press. The group shared a desire to do more with literary projects -- poetry, fiction, memoir, essays -- genres that fell outside of IVP's mission.
"We brainstormed over suppers for several months, coming to consensus on mission, name, roles, initial projects, financing, etc.," says co-founder Sally Sampson Craft. Originally, she says, they "wanted to publish Christian writers who were pushing the boundaries a bit -- people whose work was getting lost in the gaps between Christian publishing and New York-based commercial publishing and even small university presses and independent publishing." But early on they decided to not identify solely as a Christian publisher, publishing some works from writers who don't self-identify as Christians but that "wrestle with spiritual and physical reality in interesting ways that make them a great fit for us."
WordFarm is also putting back into circulation out-of-print works that they feel more readers should discover, such as Grace is Where I Live: The Landscape of Faith and Writing, a memoir by poet John Leax, andGreat with Child: On Becoming a Mother, by Debra Rienstra. "We look for things we love," says Craft, works that blend literary skill with spiritual honesty. They have an interest in the off-beat, with an openness to genre-bending and experimentation that don't find an easy home with large publishers.
WordFarm aims to publish three books a year -- one each from the categories of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. The two editors, Marci Johnson and Mark Eddy Smith (another WordFarm founding member), do the developmental work and copyediting. Sally Craft handles communications and marketing, and her husband, Andrew Craft, a graphic designer, is publisher and does the layout and cover design. They all have day jobs, and all work on a volunteer basis, although Sally Craft says their goal is eventually to be able to pay one or two full-time employees. Print runs are only 300 to 500 copies at a time, which are stored in the Crafts' home. While many independent and small magazines and presses are incorporated as nonprofits, WordFarm is not -- proceeds from sales go toward expenses, with shortfalls made up out of pocket by Sally and Andrew Craft.
Survival, plain and simple, is a baseline goal of most small and independent magazines and presses, in all niches (alas, loving God is not a free pass to publishing success). But one journal that has established deep roots and stayed true to both faith and art for the long haul is Image.
A quarterly founded in 1989 by Gregory Wolfe, Image describes itself as featuring works from internationally known writers and visual artists "that embody a spiritual struggle, that seek to strike a balance between tradition and a profound openness to the world." Now affiliated with Seattle Pacific University, Image has extended its work into the active nurturing of new artists of faith, through annual arts workshops, conferences, seminars, and the annual Milton Postgraduate Fellowship for a writer finishing a book-length manuscript. Image was also a key participant in the 2005 founding of Seattle Pacific's master of fine arts program in creative writing.
However humble or established, these publishers and publications provide places for writers and readers to meet in their mutual love of words and delight in the holy gift of imagination. It's good news for everyone who eschews both cookie-cutter writing and cookie-cutter faith.
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.
Faith and Imagination Welcome
Here is a list of a few literary magazines and independent book publishers that have staked a claim in the publishing borderlands.
Cathedral Hill Press
Also from the publishers of Relief: The Midnight Diner, "a hardboiled genre anthology of horror, crime, detective, paranormal, and weird fiction with a Christian slant."
Rock and Sling
The first issue of this revived publication is due out in December.
Both of these sites include dedicated space for creative writing and cultural commentary in their wide range of offerings:
The Other Journal
Burnside Writers Collective