The Life and Death of Evangelicalism's Little Magazine

Where will the evangelical life of the mind find a home after Books & Culture?
January 12th, 2017

For over two decades, Books & Culture has served as the house organ of the evangelical intelligentsia. On October 11, long-time editor John Wilson announced the magazine would close at the end of 2016. Since then many have responded to Wilson's terrible news, using words like grieving, loss, and lament. While historian Miles Mullin called it "one of the saddest days of my intellectual life," the writer and editor Gregory Wolfe noted that "American Christianity in the 21st century produced God's Not Dead 2 but could not sustain Books & Culture."

I first encountered Books & Culture in graduate school. As a regular reader and occasional contributor, I am sad to see it go. As a scholar of North American religion, I wonder what its demise means for the future of evangelical intellectual life.

In an era when little magazines fight to survive, where can evangelical eggheads go for intellectual edification?

Pondering the rise and fall of evangelicalism's leading intellectual publication, I am struck by the precarious role of the little magazine in American culture, a precariousness that is magnified in the world of religious publishing.

From the Dial and the Partisan Review to Commentary and Dissent (dubbed Dysentery in Woody Allen's Annie Hall), small-circulation periodicals have played a key role in many intellectual movements. The same goes for religious intellectual life, where journals like Commonweal and Christianity and Crisis have cultivated both theological literacy and civic engagement.

Inspired by dreams of a better world, little magazines originate in a frustration with the way things are. While Commonweal offered a Catholic alternative to the New Republic and the Nation, Christianity and Crisis began as a response to the rise of European fascism. According to Dissent founder Irving Howe, "When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine."

Like many little magazines, Books & Culture was a response to a problem. As Wilson remarked in a recent podcast, "It was not accidental that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind came out in '94 and the first issue of B&C in '95." Lamenting the persistence of anti-intellectualism within American evangelicalism, Scandal was an "epistle from a wounded lover," articulating Mark Noll's "hope that we American evangelicals might yet worship God with our minds."

In so many ways, Books & Culture was the concrete expression of this ideal. Printed on tabloid-sized paper and illustrated with literary caricatures, it was modeled on the New York Review of Books. Overseen by Wilson and Noll, the magazine soon won the respect of readers from outside the evangelical subculture, including Peter Steinfels of the New York Times. In an Atlantic cover story on the "opening of the evangelical mind," sociologist Alan Wolfe praised Books & Culture for nurturing a "humanistic tradition of writing about poetry and fiction for the informed lay reader." Joining Commonweal and First Things on the website of Arts & Letters Daily, it is the only evangelical publication listed on the Chronicle of Higher Education's virtual roster of magazines and book reviews.

On the cover of its fifteenth-anniversary issue, Books & Culture noted the demise of several venerable little magazines, including Lingua Franca (1990–2001), the Partisan Review (1934–2003) and the Washington Post Book World (1972–2009). Asking "Scandal? What Scandal?" it celebrated its quinceañera with a mixture of self-confidence and snark. In 2010 it appeared that Books & Culture would live forever. In reality, it had just six more years.

In the inaugural issue of the New York Review of Books, Irving Howe commended the Partisan Review for surviving a quarter of a century, noting that "little magazines are born quickly and die easily, two respects in which they differ from most human beings." Exceeding the normal lifespan for intellectual publications, it hung on for sixty-nine years.

Ending its run at twenty-one, Books & Culture did not live to see middle age. Its closing has left the evangelical intelligentsia searching for answers. Among the questions being discussed:

  • Has the evangelical intellectual renaissance run its course?
  • Do conservative Christian philanthropists care about the life of the mind?
  • Can evangelicalism sustain a publication that bridges the ideological divide?

In approaching these questions, it is helpful to consider the wider context of evangelical intellectual history. Too narrow a focus on 2016 will keep us from seeing some of the larger issues.

Downplaying his own publication's significance, Wilson once called Books & Culture a "Small Good Thing (Even a Small and Very Good Thing)," adding that "if you know of any philanthropists who might agree, send them my way."

Wilson's modesty reminds us that Books & Culture did not come out of nowhere, but stood on the shoulders of earlier publications. Chief among these was the Reformed Journal, a little magazine published by William B. Eerdmans between 1951 and 1990. The house organ of the "Grand Rapids intellectuals," its masthead featured a who's who of conservative Protestant scholars, including George Marsden, Richard Mouw, Mark Noll, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Ronald A. Wells, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Edward E. Ericson Jr., Roger Lundin, Grant Wacker, and Virginia Stem Owens. Most found their way onto the masthead of Books & Culture.

Though Books and Culture has published its last issue, the evangelical knowledge class is here to stay. Less certain is evangelical philanthropy's commitment to the life of the mind.

This overlap was not accidental. A joint effort of Christianity Today publisher Harold Myra and Pew program officer Joel Carpenter, Books & Culture was conceived by people who missed the Reformed Journal.

Beyond the world of religious periodicals, Books & Culture built on larger developments in evangelical scholarship. As early as 1980, Time magazine heralded a "quiet revolution" in American philosophy, noting that "God is making a comeback." By the early 1990s, the membership of the Society of Christian Philosophers made up 12 percent of the discipline.

Thanks to the philanthropy of Lilly and Pew, evangelical historians achieved even greater recognition. Commenting on this phenomenon, Yale historian Jon Butler wrote that the "evangelical paradigm" had become "the single most powerful explanatory device adopted by academic historians to account for the distinctive features of American society, culture, and identity."

Both the "new evangelical historiography" and the "desecularizing of philosophy" found a home in the pages of Books & Culture. Carrying on an intergenerational conversation, younger historians like Thomas Kidd and Elesha Coffman appeared in the same publication as their mentors George Marsden and Grant Wacker. Along the same lines, the magazine asked philosophy graduate student Andrew Chignell to review Alvin Plantinga's magnum opus.

Crossing the Atlantic, the work of British historian W. R. Ward (1925–2010) was reviewed by the American scholar Catherine Brekus, while the Canadian John Stackhouse summed up the career of the British sociologist David Martin, himself a regular contributor to the journal. Remembering the strains of a Methodist choir in Cornwall, the Englishman David Bebbington pondered the influence of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley on Anglo-American evangelicalism.

Celebrating the "religious turn" in American literature, Books & Culture often featured the criticism of Roger Lundin and the poetry of Brett Foster, departmental colleagues at Wheaton College. When both men passed away in the autumn of 2015, Wilson gave thanks for their literary gifts. From Makoto Fujimura's essay on Japanese pottery to Roy Anker's analysis of Paul Schrader's screenplays, Books & Culture reflected a growing evangelical engagement with the arts.

Such engagement could also be found in the pages of Image (a literary magazine housed at Seattle Pacific University), as well as Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing, the "conference that brought John Updike [and] Salman Rushdie to western Michigan." Chronicling the expanding evangelical art scene, a 2010 report cited the "burgeoning number of artists, books, groups, galleries, and even church galleries," adding that this environment "simply did not exist sixty years ago."

All of these efforts depended on a growing population of educated evangelicals. Fuelled by the postwar expansion of American higher education, the rise of the evangelical knowledge class has provided a ready audience for art festivals and little magazines. Reflecting these trends, a market research survey found that 71 percent of Books & Culture subscribers held a graduate degree, purchasing an average of twenty-five books per year.

The Pew Religious Landscape Study reported that 21 percent of evangelical Protestants have graduated from college. Of those, 7 percent hold post-graduate degrees. According to a nationally representative survey of the professoriate, 20 percent of American faculty identify as born-again Christians.

Though Books & Culture has published its last issue, the evangelical knowledge class is here to stay. Less certain is evangelical philanthropy's commitment to the life of the mind.

In December of 2014, Wheaton College shut down the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, one of the key sources of the "new evangelical historiography." Like Books & Culture, ISAE had benefited from the largesse of private foundations. When Pew and Lilly reduced their support for religious scholarship, the institute was unable to raise enough money from evangelical donors. In the final issue of the Evangelical Studies Bulletin, historian Michael Hamilton wrote that "the closing of the ISAE may indicate that in the future, serious evangelical scholars may continue to depend on non-evangelical support for their work of learning new things about the world."

Inspired by dreams of a better world, little magazines originate in a frustration with the way things are.

Three years ago, Books & Culture survived a near-death experience by raising over $250,000 in pledges. As in the past, much of this support came from evangelical colleges and universities. Despite this reprieve, the magazine was never able to break even, requiring a hefty annual subsidy from its parent company, Christianity Today.

Such financial problems are not unique to evangelical periodicals. Over its long history, Commonweal has weathered several difficult episodes. Today its board includes a director with McKinsey & Company and a former partner with the white shoe firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore. Out of an annual budget of $1.7 million, the magazine raises about $400,000 from Commonweal Associates. In a similar way, the Christian Century has relied on advertising revenue and private donations, establishing the Martin E. Marty Legacy Circle in 2013.

Founded in 1941, Reinhold Niebuhr's Christianity and Crisis was not so fortunate, closing in 1993. Chronicling its rise and fall, historian Mark Hulsether noted that "religious magazines with an intellectual or political edge need patrons."

In the past decade, several evangelical periodicals have gone belly up, including The Other Side (2004), the Wittenburg Door (2008), and the British magazine Third Way (2016).

In an era when little magazines fight to survive, where can evangelical eggheads go for intellectual edification?

Though some will turn to the book review section of Christianity Today (which will take on some of the functions of Books & Culture), they could also subscribe to the magazine that once ridiculed Billy Graham. Warming to evangelicalism, the Christian Century has welcomed a wider spectrum of readers than it did in the 1950s. Though it is inseparable from the Protestant mainline, the magazine's masthead now lists several prominent evangelical scholars, including Grant Wacker, Jason Byassee, and Miroslav Volf. Moreover, the Century's poetry editor Jill Peláez Baumgaertner is a dean at Wheaton College, and contributing editor Richard A. Kauffman once worked at Christianity Today.

Those who care about evangelical book culture can peruse the Englewood Review of Books, a weekly digest published by the Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. A passionate advocate of congregational book groups, the Review's editor is the author of Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods to Flourish. Two states away, Pennsylvania's Hearts & Minds bookstore maintains a lively book blog. Recent posts include "A Short Rumination and Sixteen Books to Read in This Hard Post-election Season" and a review of Richard Mouw's Adventures in Evangelical Civility.

Out on the Kansas prairies, the ecumenical Eighth Day Books draws a mixture of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and evangelical patrons to its home near downtown Wichita. According to the New York Times, the store's name "serves as a secret handshake among Christian book lovers, and its following reaches far beyond the heartland city it serves."

Attracting a similar combination of readers, the merely Christian Touchstone magazine has focused on the "three great divisions of Christendom —Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox." In a similar way, First Things has fostered cooperation between evangelicals and Catholics, as well as friendship between Christians and Jews. Both magazines overlap the constituency of Books & Culture, publishing articles by Frederica Mathewes-Green and Alan Jacobs.

If First Things and Touchstone lean to the right, Sojourners remains the favourite publication of the evangelical left. With a paid circulation of thirty thousand, it reaches 2.5 million readers through its website and email newsletters, including many Catholics and mainline Protestants. Along with Walter Brueggemann, Joan Chittister, and Cornel West, its masthead lists Books & Culture regulars Lauren Winner and Ron Sider. According to the Sojourner's media kit, 56 percent of readers have earned a master's degree, while 92 percent are college graduates.

For those with a passion for the arts and literature, Gregory Wolfe's Image continues to publish a varied diet of poetry and fiction. Featuring conversations with Patricia Hampl, Ron Hansen, and Dana Gioia, it is a journal to be reckoned with. Demonstrating the wideness of her intellectual networks, Books & Culture contributing editor Lauren Winner also serves on Image's editorial board.

While evangelicalism should mourn the closing of Books & Culture, all is not lost.

Such connections demonstrate the continuing vitality of evangelical intellectual life. While evangelicalism should mourn the closing of Books & Culture, all is not lost.

Readers looking for evangelical voices in the mainstream media should turn to Harper's, Slate, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Republic. At a time when evangelicals occupy leadership positions at the National Institutes of Health and the American Academy of Religion, fans of Books & Culture should not despair.

And yet all is not right with the evangelical literary scene. Despite this rich feast of intellectual offerings, we are losing something precious with the closing of Mr. Wilson's magazine.

For starters, it is hard to think of an evangelical publication with Books & Culture's theological and political breadth. At a time when many Christian periodicals line up on the right and the left, Wilson has cultivated a politically diverse group of authors. From Eugene McCarraher's Catholic socialism to Jordan Ballor's free market Calvinism, the magazine has not chosen sides. As historian John G. Turner noted at the blog The Anxious Bench, "While remaining unabashedly evangelical, Books & Culture was the single least ideological publication I have read with any regularity."

This irenic outlook reflected the temperament of its editor, who studiously avoided culture war rhetoric. Summing up Wilson's legacy, co-founder Mark Noll said that "John's singular ability in an age of polemics and partisanship and gotcha-journalism was to emphasize the long-term, to be thoughtful rather than reactive, to try to bring insight rather than onslaught."

The magazine's thoughtful approach could be seen in its coverage of the Muslim world. In a year when Wheaton College agonized over the fate of a hijab-wearing professor, Books & Culture published a cover story on the works of Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi and a special issue on refugees and migrants.

Bridging religious and secular worlds, Books & Culture has conversed with a diverse collection of writers and intellectuals. What other evangelical publication has featured interviews with the jazz critic Stanley Crouch, the journalist Garry Wills, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni, and the freethinker Wendy Kaminer? These conversations, which were conducted by Washington insider Michael Cromartie, epitomized the magazine's cosmopolitan reach.

Such cosmopolitanism explains why Books & Culture's demise elicited a tweet from New Republic editor Jeet Heer, a Sikh writer and "one of Canada's leading public intellectuals." In Heer's judgment, John Wilson "created something wonderful and necessary."

He also accumulated a massive library. Describing the view from his desk back in 2004, Wilson wrote, "Stacks rise on all sides, leading to the shelves on the wall—most of them lined two rows deep. More stacks and crammed shelves surround me at my desk."

In 2017 Wilson will launch a new publication called Education & Culture. As he assumes this new position, Wilson might take a page from the playbook of another famous editor.

Evicted from the New York office of the Rockford Institute in 1989, Richard John Neuhaus had to think fast. Forced to part with most of its contents, Neuhaus told his secretary to "take the rolodex." One year later he founded the magazine First Things.

Though Wilson may leave some books behind at Christianity Today, let's hope he takes his email contacts with him. In his capable hands, they will populate Education & Culture with familiar bylines.

Yet in a very real sense, Wilson's rolodex can be found among his thousands of Twitter followers and in Book & Culture's voluminous online archive. Whatever happens next, the networks he forged there will continue to hum with the give-and-take of faithful discourse, overlapping with the cloud of witnesses found in the mastheads of the Reformed Journal and other deceased publications. If the evangelical mind is a multi-generational argument, the seminar has only just begun. This conversation is Books & Culture's true legacy for evangelical intellectual life.

 

Sociologist John Schmalzbauer teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University where he holds the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies. A Minnesota native, he has lived in the Ozarks since 2004. His research and teaching focus on American evangelicalism, religion and higher education, and religious forms of popular culture. His book People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education (Cornell University Press) explores the role of religion in the careers of 40 prominent journalists and scholars. He holds a doctorate in sociology from Princeton University and a bachelor's degree in political science from Wheaton College (Illinois), the alma mater of Billy Graham and Wes Craven (the creator of The Nightmare on Elm Street films).

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