What Happens to Evangelical Intellectual Life After “Books & Culture?”

bcI started graduate school in 1994.  That was the same year that Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published. One year later, Christianity Today Inc. began publishing Books & Culture: A Christian Review with John Wilson as editor.  I subscribed immediately.  I have read every issue in its 22-year run.

Books & Culture was a book review modeled after the New York Review of Books.  It was a place where evangelicals turned to worship God with their minds.  My heart always skipped a beat when I opened up my mailbox and found the recent issue waiting for me.

John Wilson was always good to me and my career as a historian and writer.  In 2008 he published Lauren Winner’s review of my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  Then in 2012 he called upon Jay Green, Eric Miller, and myself, the editors of Confessing History: Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, to reflect on the historian’s vocation.  Later that year John published Paul Kemeny’s review of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  This year, Books & Culture published Peter Thuesen’s review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

I have also done a little writing and reviewing for the magazine.  Back in the summer of 2015 John published my review of Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.  I have also written a for short reviews for the Books & Culture website.

But more importantly, I have learned a great deal from the many reviews I have read by Christian scholars interested in the life of the mind.  My friend Eric Miller was a fixture in the pages of Books & Culture over the years.  In the early years Don Yerxa interviewed a lot of important intellectuals, including John Lukacs, Jonathan Spence, Andrew Walls, Barry Strauss, and Max Hastings.  Wilson gave a voice to writers that were new to me at the time that I first read them: Lauren Winner,  Mary Noll Venables, Matthew Milliner, Alister Chapman, Preston Jones, Jane Zwart, Agnieszka Tennant,  Alissa Wilkinson, Elisha Coffman, Agnes Howard, Eugene McCarraher, Virginia Stem Owens and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson all come to mind.

And then there were some of the more familiar names (at least to me) in the world of Christian thought and scholarship:  Mark Noll, Grant Wacker, Betty Smartt Carter, Philip Jenkins, Allen Guelzo, Timothy Larsen, Alvin Plantinga, Alan Jacobs, Carlos Eire, David Bebbington, Daniel Walker Howe, Karen Swallow Prior,  Dale Van Kley, Wilfred McClay, John Schmalzbauer, Thomas Albert Howard, Brad Gregory, James Bratt, George Marsden, David Lyle Jeffrey, Paul Harvey, Bruce Kuklick, John Stackhouse, Stephen Webb, Bruce Ellis Benson,  Miroslav Volf, James Calvin Schaap, John G. Turner, Catherine Brekus, Dana Robert, Joel Carpenter, Gerald McDermott, Harry Stout, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, David Hempton, Richard Cawardine, Roger Lundin, Tim Stafford, Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner, D.G. Hart, Aaron Belz, Harold K. Bush,  Christian Smith, Thomas Kidd, Charles Marsh, Douglas Sweeney, Richard Mouw, James K.A. Smith, David Skeel, Kristina Bieber Lake, Susan VanZanten, Joseph Bottum, Mark Walhout, John McWhorter, Laurance Wieder, Scott Cairns, Susan Wise Bauer, Ralph Wood. C. Steven Evans, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

John Schmalzbauer, the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University, seems to feel the same way that I do about the end of Books & Culture. Check out his piece, “The Life and Death of Evangelicalism’s Little Magazine” at Comment magazine.

Here is a taste:

Ending its run at twenty-one, Books & Culture did not live to see middle age. Its closing has left the evangelical intelligentsia searching for answers. Among the questions being discussed:

  • Has the evangelical intellectual renaissance run its course?
  • Do conservative Christian philanthropists care about the life of the mind?
  • Can evangelicalism sustain a publication that bridges the ideological divide?

In approaching these questions, it is helpful to consider the wider context of evangelical intellectual history. Too narrow a focus on 2016 will keep us from seeing some of the larger issues.

Downplaying his own publication’s significance, Wilson once called Books & Culture a “Small Good Thing (Even a Small and Very Good Thing),” adding that “if you know of any philanthropists who might agree, send them my way.”

Schmalzbauer’s piece suggests some places where “those who care about evangelical book culture” can turn now that Books & Culture is off the scene.  It is a great list, which includes Englewood Review of Books, Byron Borger’s Hearts and Minds blog, and Eighth Day Books.  I would also add the ever-popular “Author’s Corner” published most Mondays and Thursdays right here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Read the entire piece here.

5 thoughts on “What Happens to Evangelical Intellectual Life After “Books & Culture?”

  1. ” . . . a market research survey found that 71 percent of Books & Culture subscribers held a graduate degree, purchasing an average of twenty-five books per year.” That’s a mind bending statistic, and should at least raise some questions about what kinds of “evangelicals” the magazine was speaking to. It might also prompt us to consider, sociologically, if the term “evangelical” even accurately applies here.

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  2. That B&C’s demise coincides with the dawn of the #AgeOfTrump seems all too appropriate . . . I wish it were otherwise, but it certainly feels as if B&C was a moment–one made possible by some very specific conditions and people which we won’t see repeated–and that the intellectual style that is Trumpism is much more in step with the present and future of white, North American, evangelicalism. And I don’t come to that conclusion by way of a too obsessive focus on 2016. If all our problems were simply due to Trump, Noll would never have had to write that book, after all.

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    • John: I am afraid that you may be right with everything you said here. Indeed, 1994-2016 WAS a “moment” in evangelical intellectual life. Not sure what is going to replace it.

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      • Perhaps your next book could be a history of the back story of the triumph of Trumpism? That is, after all, the apotheosis of Gingrichism, which had it’s first triumphant moment in . . . wait for it . . . 1994.

        Some went low, and some went high. Look who won.

        It would be a great book. You can bet I would read it . . .

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