What Am(mmmeeeEEEE) I Missing?

A few more observations about religious journalism after the news that Books & Culture is ending its run next month. A couple of evangelical academics have taken this news about the way that I felt when I heard that Chris Hughes had bought the New Republic and its editorial staff resigned.

According to Alan Jacobs:

For twenty-one years, Books and Culture has been one of the most consistently interesting magazines in the English-speaking world. I have often been surprised at the number and range of people who agree with me about that. Alex Star, a former editor of the New York Times Magazine and now an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, once told me that he read every issue in full. Cullen Murphy, former editor of the Atlantic, told me that John Wilson is the best editor in the business.

Chris Gehrz seconds Jacobs:

… in any event, it’s certainly a good moment to celebrate what John Wilson has been able to accomplish over twenty years of editing B&C — and how much I appreciate that he has gone out of his way to encourage young authors and scholars. Thanks, John, and all those who have made Books & Culture possible these last twenty-one years.

Both authors mention personal ties to John Wilson and my own relations to the magazine no doubt inform my reaction to the news which is a measure of sadness, especially for people who are losing the jobs. But I can’t say I’ll miss B&C because I haven’t subscribed to it for years.

One reason was precisely those young writers that Gehrz believes John Wilson cultivated. For me that was a fault of John Wilson’s powers as gate keeper for what could have been the jewel in intellectual evangelicalism’s crown. If you want to point to the rich treasures of the evangelical mind, why not turn to its intellectual statesmen and make your publication evangelicalism’s go to place for your movement’s most insightful writers? But evangelicalism suffers from an implicit egalitarianism that elevates the ideas and opinions of the novice and untested to the same worth as the tried and true.

This was exactly what Leon Wieseltier refused to do with the New Republic. In the “back of the book” he turned to some of the academy’s best minds (including Mark Noll) and gave them lots of room to explore a range of ideas that — sorry — B&C never approximated.

Maybe it is apples and oranges, but I doubt Jean Bethke Elshtain could have evaluated Hillary Clinton for John Wilson the way she did for Wieseltier:

I am no a family-above-all person. Some families are rotten and the children in those families should be spirited to safety as quickly as possible. But truly rotten families are, thank God, few and far between. More commonly we have good enough families or almost good enough ones. How high do we place the threshhold in assessing good and bad parenting? Whose business is it anyway? Here Clinton makes one of the more lamentable moves in her book. She is dead-on about the importance of being attuned to the needs of infants, feeding them, cuddling them, holding them, but in a discussion of the fact that there is not “substitute for regular, undivided attention from parents” we learn that the “biggest difference” that emerged from a study she cites and endorses, was “in the sheer amount of talking that occurred” in various households. It is no surprise that Clinton favors the chattering classes, but she proceeds to malign poor and working-class parents because they interact less with their children….

Like Clinton, I recoil when I hear a parent shout at a child. I, too, cringe when a parent is curt, abrupt and dismissive. But I recognize that this is not the same thing as neglect, not the same thing as abuse. Perhaps, as the late Christopher Lasch insisted, the working-class or lower-middle-class style aims to instill in children a tough, early recognition that life is not a bowl of cherries, not a world in which everyone is telling you how great you are; that their lives will be carried out in a world in which they tasks they are suited for, the jobs they do, the lives they live, and even the way they talk (or do not talk) will be scrutinized and found wanting by their “betters.” I know that Clinton would argue, in response, that she means no invidious comparison. But the comparison is there and it is invidious. According to her book, the higher the income and education, the better the parenting, all other things being equal….Don’t get me wrong. As a general rule, children shouldn’t have to…[suffer]. And no group of children should be stuck in such a situation as a permanent condition. But life is hard, and its necessities bear down on people. In the light of such recognitions, it is best at times to restrain ourselves and not rush to intervene and fix everything and tell people struggling against enormous odds that they are doing a crummy job. Sometimes Clinton understands this, sometimes she doesn’t.

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7 thoughts on “What Am(mmmeeeEEEE) I Missing?

  1. “…But evangelicalism suffers from an implicit egalitarianism that elevates the ideas and opinions of the novice and untested to the same worth as the tried and true. “

    I would generally agree with this Darryl. Most of the millennial writers I read, even the REALLY sharp ones, are so jacked up in their theology as to render themselves, useless at best, and dangerous at worst to their starry eyed peers who are entirely unequipped to know the difference.

    That said, what does “tried and true” mean? By what standard? Does mere longevity and a hoary head ensure that one has been tried and found true? I say, by itself, it does not. (I have a feeling you’ll say that too)

    If the standard be the analogy of the (especially reformed) faith, then, while certainly more old timers will be found truer than the youngens, that reality can and is sometimes reversed.

    Some the worst God hating, bible butchering HERETICS have been around since the Hoover Administration.

    On the other hand, I have a few young Facebook friends whom I would trust to open the scriptures to my children without hesitation.

    Generally speaking your above point is valid. There are consequences to allowing your publication to be a playground for equal opportunity rather than a showcase of truth and excellence.

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  2. bump bump bump….
    another one bites the dust
    bump bump bump…
    another one bites the dust

    What would The New Republic have to comment on in the back half of the mag? There is a paucity of middle-brow criticism (for people like me) and not much current is worth expanding on beyond a simple read.

    Partisan Review and Encounter are in full archive for any “back of the mag” reading, and Claremont and the LRB and the TLS keep me amused during leisure hours.

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  3. I managed to most of my adult life not knowing Books & Culture existed. Not sure whether to feel happy or sad about that.

    “But evangelicalism suffers from an implicit egalitarianism that elevates the ideas and opinions of the novice and untested to the same worth as the tried and true.”

    Over at my blog I was noting that this last week would have been the twentieth anniversary of Mars Hill Church if … there still were a Mars Hill Church. As the elevation of the ideas and opinions of the novice within American evangelicalism goes it’s difficult to think of a more flamboyant case study in the last twenty years than Mark Driscoll, at least in the Northwest.

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  4. B & C was a lifeline for me, and I think overall it was terrific. A bad loss. Especially now when we are at a crossroads and CT is becoming something akin to the literary lovechild of Beth Moore, Andy Stanley and Jim Wallis. Yet I also think this criticism is correct. In its later years too many authors seemed have axes to grind against the Evangelical tradition, and there seemed to a lot more Larycia Hawkins than Stan Guthrie.

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  5. JM, plus, I do suspect John Wilson was always looking for the next “hot” young female writer (not sexual but if your looking for woman authors how is it not sexual?). First, Susan Wise Bauer (or Bauer Wise?), then Lauren Winner, can’t say who took her place. It didn’t seem all that subtle.

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  6. A further explanation about Books and Culture:

    When Christianity Today created B&C in 1995, “some people thought Books and Culture was going to be sort of a culture war vehicle, like Chuck Colson but a little more intellectual,” said John Wilson, the first and only editor of the publication.

    “I honestly think that if it had been like that it would have been more financially viable, but that wasn’t the intention from the outset,” Wilson said. “We weren’t a movement magazine.”

    Here’s the thing. B&C could have pursued the kind of culture war that Ken Myers fights — the ways that modern culture makes faith implausible. Mars Hill Audio has become way too comprehensivalist for my taste. But I wonder if B&C could have partnered with Myers in certain ways to produce the sort of intellectual renaissance that Wilson and Noll hoped to cultivate. And the magazine could have then had the edge that movement people wanted, but of an intellectual sort.

    I suspect though that the ethos of B&C and of Mars Hill Audio is a tad antagonistic. Again, I regard B&C as egalitarian and so would look at Ken Myers’ show as elitist, high brown, and so too exclusive of all shades of Christian intellectualism.

    I know asking evangelicals not to be mushy in the middle is difficult. But that’s what evangelical intellectuals (or would be) need to answer.

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