Whither Christian Magazines?
It is not exactly revelatory to say that the periodical industry is hurting. In the internet era, newspapers are anxious, as the old print business model—advertising revenue buttressed by inexpensive newsstand prices—is quickly being upended.1 A majority of U.S. adults now get their news on social media2, putting pressure on magazines to retain subscriber numbers and keep the doors open. Today, we now have the option to consume vast amounts of free content, coming from both everywhere and nowhere in particular.
The most recent effect of these economic anxieties is the shuttering of Books & Culture, an intellectual journal of cultural criticism and book reviews. The closing of the magazine, a bi-monthly sister publication of Christianity Today, raises the abiding question, “Whither the evangelical mind?” In a recent review of Mark Noll’s classic work The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, our own John Ehrett notes that the book’s critique of evangelical anti-intellectualism “extends beyond the intellectual landscape into the institutional” (emphasis original).3 With the demise of Books & Culture, does evangelicalism retain the sort of thick institutions that promote intellectual engagement with the world?4
Certain recent articles wrestle with the precariousness of institutional longevity for Christian magazines, sounding a collective clarion call, “Subscribe!” Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition gives readers a blueprint, “3 Things You Can Do to Save the Magazine.”5 Matthew Loftus at Christ & Pop Culture comes to an important realization, “If we want what’s good, we’ll have to pay people to make it.”6 A recent editorial in Christianity Today is entitled, “Putting Our Money Where Our Eyes Are,” calling readers to support the work of quality journalism.
In the same vein as these articles, I certainly agree: Christians must support magazines with their hard-earned dollars if they want quality writing. It seems that we should also be strategic about where we put those dollars, for there are certainly some magazines of higher quality than others. In this brief article, I want to highlight my favorite magazine, Comment, as one institution that we ought to patronize.
Comment, an arm of the Canadian think tank Cardus, is a quarterly magazine that exists to promote “Public Theology for the Common Good.” As such, the magazine is deeply theological, consistently pointing readers back to the old story of Christ’s redemption and reconciliation, while also connecting that story to the present one. Having been published over three decades, Comment contains an institutional longevity that is becoming increasingly rarer in the internet age.7
The magazine is both mind-expanding and deeply practical, each issue giving the reader a fresh perspective on a particular facet of public life. For example, a recent issue called “Health Beyond the Hospital” calls readers to reflect on what a healthy society is—and how our families, communities, and policies can embody this vision.8 It is precisely because Christians believe all are made in the image of God that we ought to be concerned about health care for the entire person. Though the magazine is concerned with things like “culture” and “politics,” rarely does one come away from an article thinking that the author was merely trying to say something clever, using dissertation-speak to impress readers.
Perhaps most valuable about the magazine in today’s day and age: Comment’s writing does not fit neatly into a particular political party. With its chief concern as the common good, the magazine is both reform-minded and conservative. To give an example of the former, the magazine has had a prolonged interest in dismantling the oppressive institution of payday lending, with one article starkly proclaiming the usurious practice is “theft.”9 An arresting article in the issue “Remembering Forward,” recalls the horrific history of the Doctrine of Discovery and its effect on Native Americans, claiming that a common memory is crucial for addressing today’s legacies of racism.10 As a magazine that sees itself in the tradition of Reformed social thought (particularly Abraham Kuyper), “every square inch” of creation is Christ’s and thus should be restored under his lordship.
At the same time, the magazine is not naively progressive, believing that all institutions as they currently exist must be deconstructed and dismantled. In an editorial for the issue “Redeeming Conservatism,” James K.A. Smith uses the term “conservatism” not to describe allegiance to the Republican Party, but to mean, “A preservation project…to preserve traditions, institutions, and practices only because—and only when—they foster flourishing and societal health.”11 Comment wants to see civil institutions—such as marriages, houses of worship, and labor unions—to persist precisely because they are a part of the social fabric worth conserving.
As a bit of personal history, the non-partisan nature of Comment has helped me to navigate the disorienting effects of being raised in an evangelical, “religious right” household, and then being thrust into a left-wing liberal arts department founded on deconstructionist theory. With intellectual integrity, I can on the right hand believe in the importance of healthy marriages for the good of society and on the left hand believe that certain institutions, like predatory lending, should be reformed or dismantled altogether. As this election season has revealed, we need to support institutions that stand outside of our self-constructed, social media echo chambers to speak truth to our society.
If we want thoughtful writing from institutions that are built to last, we have to spend our money with intentionality. We might have to unlearn habits of content consumption that offer us free material at the cost of sustained reflection, curation, editing, and publication. A lot of what’s on the internet (perhaps including this article) isn’t all that great anyway.
I would love to dialogue with you in the comment section about newspapers and magazines you subscribe to. What do you subscribe to and why?
View Sources 1. Ember, Sydney. “More Wretched News for Newspapers as Advertising Woes Drive Anxiety,” The New York Times, October 27, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/28/business/media/buyouts-wall-street-journal-bad-news-for-newspapers.html
2. Gottfriend, Jeffrey and Shearer, Elisa. “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016,” Pew Research Center, May 26, 2016, http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/
3. Ehrett, John. “No Longer Scandalized?” Conciliar Post, March 3, 2016, https://conciliarpost.com/politics-current-affairs/no-longer-scandalized/
4. See the wonderful podcast from Mark Noll and B&C’s editor answering this very question
5. Wax, Trevin. “’Books and Culture’ and the Importance of the Magazine,” The Gospel Coalition, October 26, 2016, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2016/10/26/books-and-culture-and-the-importance-of-the-magazine/
6. Loftus, Matthew. “After Books and Culture: 9 Ways to Share the Cost of Cultural Engagement,” Christ & Pop Culture, October 20, 2016, http://christandpopculture.com/books-culture-9-ways-share-cost-cultural-engagement/
7. The irony is not lost on me that I am writing this on the internet. Perhaps free websites (like Conciliar Post) could be contributors to the seduction of free content that the internet offers. I hope that the internet age can contain both free blogs/websites such as Conciliar Post and print publications from lasting institutions.
8. “Health Beyond the Hospital,” Comment, Fall 2015, https://www.cardus.ca/comment/print_issues/4669/health-beyond-the-hospital/
9. Summers, Stephanie. “Predatory Lending is Theft”, Comment, June 1, 2015, https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/4480/predatory-lending-is-theft/
10. Charles, Mark. “We Don’t Talk About That,” Comment, December 1, 2015, https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/4736/we-dont-talk-about-that/
11. Smith, James K.A. “Redeeming Conservatism,” Comment, December 1, 2014, https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/4335/redeeming-conservatism/
1. Ember, Sydney. “More Wretched News for Newspapers as Advertising Woes Drive Anxiety,” The New York Times, October 27, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/28/business/media/buyouts-wall-street-journal-bad-news-for-newspapers.html