27 October 2016

How will I replace Books and Culture?

Cities of Refuge

Photo by Gary Gnidovic. Sid, Serbia: This Syrian
young man said he had to leave his city after his
home was destroyed only weeks before. Source.
Earlier this year, Books and Culture published one of the best articles on the European migration situation I've seen, Tim Stafford's "Cities of Refuge." I admit I began taking this quality of humane, thoughtful journalism, commentary, and criticism, for granted. After all, for the fifteen years I've been a subscriber to Books and Culture, it's come reliably every two months. At first I bought the paper edition, but while we've been in Russia, I've been paying for online access. In fact, aside from voluntary contributions, and my subscription to the now-discontinued PDF edition of Quaker Life, it's the only periodical I've paid to access online.

Something like a Christian version of the New York Review of Books, Books and Culture reviewed books individually and in thematic groups; interviewed authors; and invited scholars and thinkers of all sorts (including atheists) to contribute to Christian conversations on culture and society. Editor John Wilson's introductory essays highlighted treasures we otherwise might miss -- books on baseball, for instance, or detective novels, or any number of other delights that I might not automatically expect from a "serious" periodical from the publishers of Christianity Today.

See for yourself on the magazine's Web site -- a fair number of its treats are not behind the paywall. Thanks to this periodical, I was introduced to Quaker classicist Sarah Ruden, whose book Paul Among the People is one of my all-time favorite books on the apostle. Alan Jacobs' review of Francis Spufford's Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, introduced me to another recent favorite. It's a great example of a review actually participating in some of the uniqueness -- in this case, the serious whimsy -- of the book it's reviewing. A new translation of the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic (the book that inspired Tarkovsky's film Stalker) led to John Wilson's enjoyable conversation with translator Olena Bormashenko.

And so on. It's really a shock, therefore, to realize that in the next couple of days, the very last issue of Books and Culture will hit the streets, and the Web. The combination of subscription income, grants, and private donations simply didn't keep up with expenses, and the publisher decided it had no choice but to pull the plug. A recent Christianity Today podcast, "Should Evangelical Intellectuals Despair 'Books and Culture's' Demise?", gives some of the magazine's history and the background for the decision to end publication. The podcast is a conversation among Christianity Today editorial staff members Morgan Lee and Mark Galli, and Books and Culture editor John Wilson, and scholar Mark Noll, whose book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) may have, in effect, contributed to defining the new periodical's mission.

Near the beginning of the podcast, Mark Noll pays tribute to the way John Wilson's leadership shaped the periodical:
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, and to do it with younger writers, younger people interested in this kind of forum as well as a lot of veterans.
Later, Noll considers the void left by the magazine's impending closure: What we're losing ...
First is: a voice that really does try to explore issues and figure things out rather than to leap into the social and cultural, theological political conflicts that mark our day....

The other two things I would say is that the absence of Books and Culture means that older, senior and in some cases very well respected scholars, thinkers, who are Christians, now have one less outlet for efforts to reach beyond the academic sphere.

The third thing that's missing is encouragement for younger Christian thinker, usually in the academic world but not always in the academic world, to have an outlet to be encouraged to look at issues calmly, reflectively, to have fourteen hundred words, two thousand words, 2500 words....
As an example, Noll cites, from the current issue, the work of Christian anthropologist Naomi Haynes.

Even aside from the vision and familiar voice of John Wilson, the consistency and warmth of the product, and the resulting sense of reader loyalty, it's going to be a very real void. If there's anything like it in the evangelical world, please tell me! I can patch together any number of excellent blogs and news sources (Patheos blogs, the Internet Monk, GetReligion, QuakerQuaker.org, and many of the blogs that I've listed here on my own site), but that scene is so fragmented, often self-referential, disconnected from a sense of wider accountability ... ok, I'm this close to feeling sorry for myself!! -- I'm really open to suggestions.

A note on that interview with Sarah Ruden: in case it seems slightly confusing, that's because (as you'll no doubt work out for yourself), the coding is a bit scrambled. Some of the interviewer's lines got mixed in with Ruden's answers rather than being separated out with boldface type.

One sign that Mark Noll mentioned on the podcast, indicating that the situation has improved since he wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, is the BioLogos team and its Web site.

There have probably already been enough links in this post, but I'll risk just a few more....

Peace with "them" and with "others."

Is Christian education in your meeting closer to the learning model, or the acquisition model?

Here's a hint of why I'm looking forward to the new season of Rectify.

Does Russia belong in the EU? Anecdotally, these voices seem representative to me....

In recognition of the death of Phil Chess: (a fragment, narrated by Etta James)


patticrane said...

Ah, Johan, I knew this sad news about BOOKS & CULTURE would hit you hard! Your careful considerations of its bimonthly contents have long enriched this quiet-but-potent weekly blog, and your work as a teacher and thinker as well. Here's hoping you soon find new sources to partially fill the gaping hole! Patti Crane

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Patti! You know me well! Seeing your name reminded me of another category of resources -- blogs and specialized centers at places like Calvin College. Anyway, I'll keep looking, and pointing....

Martin Kelley said...

I always get nervous when I hear of a magazine folding. It's cliche to talk about "these uncertain times" but it's an apt phrase for in depending publishing these days.

In case you hadn't seen, about a year ago we pulled all of the Friends Journal book reviews in front of the paywall and going to the trouble to post them as individual pages rather than all together as one long monthly list. We did this in large part because of a concern that the Quaker book ecosystem was collapsing and we needed to help.