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.