Even More on Christian Intellectuals

John Schmalzbauer made some arresting observations about the demise of Books & Culture (that add to Alan Jacobs’ own wondering out loud about Christian intellectuals):

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.

Schmalzbauer adds that finances were a big part of B&C’s problems:

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.

What Schmalzbauer fails to factor into his analysis is that for all of B&C’s intellectual orientation, its parent company was one where the likes of non-intellectual evangelicals flourished (from Ann Voskamp to Billy Graham). Other small intellectual magazines did not have that burden. Commentary magazine did not have to worry about offending populist Jews. Partisan Review did not have to play footsie with leftists who read Marxist self-help bestsellers. That means that the gate keeping role that high brow magazines need to perform was always a bit of a liability for Books & Culture. The magazine wanted to call evangelicals to the life of the mind, to repent of the scandal, even as the parent company, Christianity Today Inc., needed to refrain from offending the scandal ridden evangelicals.

Another reason why the magazine/journal frustrated mmmmeeeeEEEE.


10 thoughts on “Even More on Christian Intellectuals

  1. A lot to discuss here, but Books & Culture never shied away from offending the Evangelical base, and I’d argue they were too progressive for their own good, meaning they could have grown their readership if they were not quite as enamored of NPR as their writer base seemed. I thought John Wilson did an amazing job, but gradually I also noticed that the material was less and less something I as an Evangelical wanted to read, and more what I expected of my female Christian college colleagues who came from feminist-theory driven grad programs. I looked in vein for reviews of at least some of the heavy hitting Christian authors… I can’t imagine Keller getting the sort of treatment he got here (though there were the occasional stellar pieces by Os Guiness on Frank Schaefer and Stan Guthrie on Peter Kreeft’s Islam). But yes, B & C’s demise is a shame and a small tragedy, especially witnessing Christianity Today’s complete rollover to millennial’s death by a thousand qualifications. It’s not yer RELEVANT, but it’s trying. Someone — isn’t it always someone — needs to bankroll at least a digital version of B & C. If CRISIS can do it, for heaven’s sake, you’d think B & C could. But on the Catholic print side, things are bleaker still, with NOR slowly sliding into irrelevance. FT with Reno remains, but with Francis fracturing the Catholic base, it too grows strangely numb.


  2. JM, I’m still holding a grudge because John never used my review (solicited) of Axtell’s history of Princeton. A good book that deserved comment in B&C.


  3. Books & Culture’s demise reminds me of the trouble Wheaton College (Evangelicalism’s Harvard) got into when professor Hawkins suggested that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Christian Intellectuals (including the great Miroslav Volf) and Wheaton faculty were mostly on her side. The majority white student body grabbed this opportunity to bag some serious progressive street cred and immediately jumped on the Hawkins bandwagon.

    Alas! The tuition paying parents were too backward thinking and stuck in their Fundamentalist, Bible Thumpin’, Ol’ Time Religion ways to believe that Allah is a member of the Trinity. But he who pays the piper calls the tune and professor Hawkins had to go. Money talks and … walks.

    There aren’t enough “Christian Intellectuals” to sustain Books & Culture. And if you’re going to condescend to and offend Evangelicals don’t expect them to support you. They already have taxpayer funded NPR for that.


  4. I think that the most useful writer Books and Culture had was Robert Gundry, not only because he’s a good scholar but because he exposed the assumed “evangelical consensus”.


    Most of the people who make a big deal about vicarious law keeping imputed are also people who deny that only the sins of the elect were imputed by God the Trinity to Christ. Some of them deny that any specific sins have been imputed to Christ.

    Sproul—This doctrine is in great dispute right now particularly among dispensational thinkers, which I find extremely, extremely unsettling.

    mcmark– Actually, this is not good reporting by Sproul, because many Dispensationalists not only teach that we are under the Ten commandments but also teach vicarious law-keeping imputed. Most of the current objections to “vicarious law-keeping” come from the “federal vision” and “new perspective” wings of Reformed theology.


  5. http://dbts.edu/blog/the-active-obedience-of-christ-and-dispensational-theology-a-follow-up/

    But of course you do not need to believe in definite atonement in order to be “evangelical”. Indeed, you can teach hypothetical universalism and still be “Reformed”, because even if you don’t know the history, Mark Jones and Curt Daniel will explain the diversity allowed (and not allowed).

    Is believing in vicarious obedience imputed enough to be “Reformed”? Here are some of the “evangelical intellectuals” who signed the ets statement about “active obedience imputed ” that Robert Gundry would NOT sign

    John Armstrong
    Myron S. Augsburger
    Kay Arthur
    Bill Bright
    Tony Evans
    Jerry Falwell
    Billy Graham
    Jack W. Hayford
    Ed Hindson
    Bill Hybels
    Woodrow Kroll
    Tim LaHaye
    Bill McCartney
    Beth Moore
    Pat Robertson
    Adrian Rogers
    Ronald J. Sider
    Joseph Stowell
    Charles Swindoll


  6. Evangelicals need to know the story of Machen and Pearl S. Buck. They are oblivious to the fact that all these little battle shave been fought before. And if they want to know where they lead, they could just look at the UPCUS. Or the Catholic Church. Or, hey, the Unitarian Universalist Association. After all, what really matts is justice for refugees and equal pay for Western Women. And maybe free Yoga classes, I don’t know…


  7. As for Hawkins… Evangelical? I’d love to read her extended theological opinions now. I imagine the are closer to EPCUSA than anything else.


  8. What are the criteria for labeling someone an intellectual? Do Allan Sandage, Charles Townes, or Francis Collins count? What about Tommy Kidd or Alan Jacobs? Ross Douthat or Rod Dreher? Is reach relevant? What about apologists with PhDs (e.g., Dembski)?

    Or is intellectual like porn? You can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it.


  9. So these little magazines require ~25% of their funding from gifts from wealthy and not-so-wealthy patrons? I’ve always wondered about finances of such things. There two ways to solve a profitability problem: a) charge more or b) make it for less. Unless the writers and editors are getting paid more than I think, it would seem like they need to hike the price. Is the demand that elastic such that charging $100 instead of $75 would cause mass cancelations?

    Liked by 1 person

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