Alan Jacobs on *Books and Culture* and *First Things*

Jacobs First Things

Jacobs is taking a break from his popular blog “Snakes and Ladders,” but he decided to do one more post reflecting on the last decade.  Here is a taste:

I miss Books & Culture, and the First Things that was: for many years those were my two periodical-publishing homes. I now write for several venues that I never imagined I would be able to write for, but I would have been very happy to spend the whole of my career writing long reviews for Books & Culture and essays for First Things. Now B&C is defunct and FT is not interested in the kind of thing I write — which is fair enough, I suppose, because I’m not interested in the kind of thing they now publish.

Books and Culture



*Englewood Review of Books* Hires John Wilson

Wilson JohnHere is the press release:

We are excited to announce that we have hired John Wilson, the former editor of BOOKS & CULTURE, as Contributing Editor for THE ENGLEWOOD REVIEW OF BOOKS.

For over two decades, John was the editor of Books & Culture magazine, a publication of Christianity Today. After the demise of B&C in late 2016, John worked as editor for the short-lived online publication Education and Culture. In a superb essay from COMMENT magazine on the legacy of B&C, John Schmalzbauer writes:

Whatever happens next, the networks [John Wilson forged at B&C] will continue to hum with the give-and-take of faithful discourse, overlapping with the cloud of witnesses found in the mastheads of the Reformed Journal and other deceased publications. If the evangelical mind is a multi-generational argument, the seminar has only just begun. This conversation is Books & Culture‘s true legacy for evangelical intellectual life.

John Wilson was editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (Sept/Oct 1995) to its last (Nov/Dec 2016). He received a B.A. from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1970 and an M.A. from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1975. His reviews and essays appear in the New York Times, the Boston GlobeFirst ThingsNational ReviewCommonwealThe Christian Century, and other publications. He and his wife, Wendy, are members of Faith Evangelical Covenant Church in Wheaton; they have four children.

The Englewood Review of Books (ERB) was founded in early 2008 at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, as a tribute to the intertwined practices of reading and conversation that had shaped that congregation for over a decade prior to the launch of the ERB. Although it began as an online-only publication, an extension of the church’s bookstore, a separate subscription-only quarterly print magazine (with reviews and other articles that are not available online) was launched in November 2010 Subscription Info ]. C. Christopher Smith, a member of the church, was the founding editor and continues as the editor-in-chief. The mission of the ERB is to promote reading broadly and talking about what we are reading, as vital and transformative practices of the Christian tradition. In 2016, Smith published the book Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books), which emerged from his reflections on the aims and mission of the ERB. The ERB’s community of readers and writers, although vastly Christian, represents a wide swath of the Christian tradition, and the ERB continues to be driven by the hope that civil conversations about books and other sorts of reading will guide us out of the present age of fragmentation and toward a deeper and more substantial Christian unity.

As Contributing Editor, John will write a column for The Englewood Review‘s quarterly magazine, which will begin in the ERB’s Ordinary Time (Fall) 2018 issue. Drawing upon his deep well of experience with B&C, John will also help curate the selection of books that the ERB covers. The Contributing Editor role will begin as a part-time position and John will work remotely from his home in Wheaton, but both parties are optimistic that John’s work with the ERB will be able to expand over time.

Congratulations, John!

The End of *Education and Culture*

Wilson JohnI recently learned that pulled the plug on John Wilson’s latest project Education & Culture: A Critical Review.  (See our May 2107 post celebrating the launch of this new venture by the former Books & Culture editor).

I am obviously disappointed by this, but I am even more upset that the evangelical community could not step up to fund Books & Culture before it was forced to shut down operations last year.  What does this say about the state of the “evangelical mind?”  (If you were at the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference in Indianapolis last month you heard me say this publicly during the Q&A session following my presentation).

Here is Wilson’s final post: “Endings and Education & Culture“:

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”–Frank Herbert

Beginning. Middle. Ending. In a good book, all three rush by and you turn that final page satisfied, disappointed, or wanting more.

Today marks the end of Education & Culture. The beginning was unexpected, the middle rushed by, and now with the final page reached unexpectedly, the hope is that you turn it wanting more.

More will need to come from elsewhere, though, and where that familiar landscape may be . . . well, we as yet do not know. Many talented people contributed to Books & Culture, many of them journeyed here to Education & Culture, and surely some will be present at the future not yet. At least that is the hope. And as the master of sandworms notes above, endings cannot endure the life of an epic story, so hope abides.

Thank you. Find more of the narrative thread unspooling at Twitter through @JWilson1812 and @Ed_Cult.

Why Did *Books and Culture* Die?


During Q & A following the first plenary session of the State of the Evangelical Mind conference last week, I asked the audience: “What does it say about the state of the ‘evangelical mind’ if evangelicals cannot come up with enough money to support Books & Culture?”

Books & Culture was a Christian review of books edited by John Wilson and published by Christianity Today.  As I noted in an earlier post, Mark Noll’s plenary address at the conference identified Books  & Culture as one of the several signs of a thriving evangelical mind.  Back in January, I wondered how evangelical intellectual life would continue to move forward after Books & Culture.  My blog post called attention to Missouri State sociologist John Schmalzbauer’s piece at Comment magazine titled “The Life and Death of Evangelicalism’s Little Magazine.”  Noll referenced both Schmalzbauer’s piece and my blog post in his address in Indianapolis.

John Wilson was honored during the conference for his work on Books & Culture. Indiana Wesleyan University, one of the conference sponsors, gave Wilson library bound copies of every issue of the periodical.  It was a very meaningful gift, but someone is going to have to lug those books home! 🙂

Rachel Maxson, a librarian and instructor in the honors college at John Brown University, put the demise of Books & Culture in context.  She began her talk by describing the conference as a “funeral”–a time to “grieve together” over the end of this important periodical.  Maxson pointed to 2007 as the beginning of the end for print periodicals such as Books & Culture.  In that year, Apple released the first iPhone, Amazon introduced the Kindle, the bottom of the housing market dropped out, and Harold Myra retired as the CEO of Christianity Today after thirty-two years at the organization.  Traditional print publication took a serious hit from the iPhone and the Kindle.  The tough economy made it difficult for periodicals such as Books & Culture to raise funds. And following Myra’s retirement, Christianity Today changed in a way that was not entirely clear from Maxson’s presentation.

After diagnosing what happened to Books & Culture, Maxson offered some general observations:

  1. It is too soon to say that “print is dead.”  Maxson pointed to a survey that found that 92% of college students would rather have a print textbook.
  2. Evangelicals interested in promoting Christian thinking need to be more creative in their funding models.
  3. Evangelical public scholars and public intellectuals must be rewarded for their work when they “go up” for tenure and promotion.
  4. Evangelicals need to do a better job of creating “clearing houses” so that Christians know how to find good stuff on the Internet.

These are all excellent points that resonate with the work we do here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  While we are a very small operation, we are slowly advancing our grassroots crowd-sourcing efforts to keep this little corner of Christian intellectual culture up and running.  (Now might be a good time to think about investing in what we do here).  In terms of tenure and promotion, I think Christian colleges have always been places where writing for the public has been rewarded.  I also hope that The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog has been a clearing house to help you navigate the Web in a more thoughtful and responsible manner.

Stay tuned for most posts on the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference.

Is There an “Evangelical Mind?”

400e1-nollscandalAfter a weekend of conference-going and watching one of the greatest NCAA Division III volleyball rivalries in history (Hope College vs. Calvin College), I am easing my way back into the blogging life.

As regular readers know, I spent part of the weekend in Indianapolis attending (and speaking at) the “State of the Evangelical Mind Conference.”  I hope to carve out some time this week (in addition to my regular links and posts) reflecting on what I heard and what I learned about the state of the so–called “evangelical mind.”

On Thursday evening, University of Notre Dame historian and self-identified evangelical Christian (although he implied that he is no longer entirely comfortable with the label), Mark Noll reflected on the state of evangelical intellectual pursuits since the publication of his 1994 classic The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  He argued that since 1994, the evangelical mind was cultivated through the now-defunct periodical Books and Culture (which took the place of Reformed Journal for many Calvinist evangelicals); the now-defunct Pew Evangelical Scholars Program which poured millions of dollars into the work of evangelical scholars and intellectuals; the now-defunct Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE), an organization at Wheaton College that published books and hosted scholarly conferences on American evangelicalism; and the ever-growing number of evangelical scholars working in the academy today–both the Christian academy and the secular academy.

No one in the room at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis could miss the fact that three of these institutions–Books and Culture, the Pew Scholars Program, and the ISAE–no longer exist.

While Noll was optimistic about the proliferation of Christian scholarship and the increasing number of Christians doing first-rate intellectual work, he was no longer convinced that such work should be labeled distinctly “evangelical.”  Here he drew on some of the ideas in his book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.  (Noll said that not many people read this book because it wasn’t as “angry” as Scandal).  He noted that many believing scholars today are drawing on the rich tradition of the ancient Christian creeds and the insights of a variety of Christian expressions, including Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Anabaptism, etc….  In other words, Noll doubts whether or not there really is a distinct and unique “evangelical mind.”  He encouraged evangelicals to press on in their work, drawing from the larger, confessional, and ecumenical resources of historic Christianity.

About twenty-four hours later, Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, took the stage to deliver the final presentation of the conference.  Galli agreed with Noll about the importance of evangelical scholars drawing on a variety of Christian traditions, but he was not yet ready to abandon the word “evangelical” as either a distinct way of pursuing Christian faith or as a unique way of thinking about scholarly endeavors.

According to Galli, “Evangelicalism” is a “unique way of being a Christian.”  He described it as a “mood” and compared it the kind religious ethos Perry Miller uncovered in his studies of 17th-century New England Puritanism.  Galli argued that because Evangelicalism is ultimately rooted in Augustinian theology, it will never go away.” At the heart of evangelical religion, Galli reminded us, is an “encounter with the triune God.” This encounter, he added, will ultimately lead one toward a life of piety.  Borrowing a term from writer Anne Lamott, Galli said that evangelical Christians are “Jesusy Augustinians.”

Galli did not elaborate fully on how this “Jesusy Augustinianism” should inform scholarly endeavors, but he did think that evangelicals can make a distinct contribution to intellectual work.  For example, Galli pushed the evangelicals in the room to think hard about how they use the Imago Dei in their scholarship.  Many Christians, including myself, argue that we should love all people–Muslims, drug addicts, enemies, people who are not like us, etc.–because all human beings were created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  This understanding of human dignity provides a theological foundation for much of Christian scholarship today.  All voices matter.  All of the human beings we study are important because they are image-bearers.  But Galli finds such an approach to be rather vague and generic for the evangelical scholar.  Instead of always appealing to the Imago Dei, evangelical scholars might argue that all people have human dignity and worth because they are sinners for whom Christ died.  Such an approach puts the Gospel and the the doctrine of the atonement at the heart of our scholarship.

After Noll spoke on Thursday night, I was convinced that Evangelicalism, the term “evangelical,” and the project of the “evangelical mind” had seen its last days.  Galli made me think harder about such a proposition.

I will keep thinking.

Are You Reading *Education and Culture*?

TheBestSchools John Wilson

As some of you know, John Wilson, the founding and only editor of the now defunct Books & Culture, has started a new venture.  It is called “Education and Culture: A Critical Review” and it is sponsored by

Here is a recent press release:

PELLA, Iowa, June 28, 2017 /PRNewswire/ — Too much fake in your news? Too much noise in your signal? Wouldn’t it be nice to have experienced voices to help you make more sense of what you hear and read?

Many found a trusted voice in John Wilson. Twenty-plus years helming Christianity Today’s Books & Culture. Assembled an all-star team of writers. Earned the publishing world’s respect, with articles in The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, First Things, and National Review.

Yet with the announcement that Books & Culture would halt its run at the close of 2016, it looked like the end of an era. couldn’t let such an influential voice go silent. Today, they proudly announce John Wilson is back! presents the new, online magazine/website Education & Culture: A Critical Review, with John Wilson and his talented team of writers and reviewers.

Link to Education & Culture at

Education & Culture — like its predecessor, Books & Culture — is a ‘critical review,’ a member of the family that includes the TLS, the New York Review of Books, The Literary Review, The New York Times Book Review, the Claremont Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others in this genre, past and present.

Look to E&C to cover history, literature, music, science & math, religion, sports, art, anthropology, fashion, politics, philosophy — anything under today’s spotlight. Other published pieces will include movies & TV, interviews, freestanding essays, poetry, reportage, and more.

“A jumble, then, a hodgepodge? Only insofar as that is true of the world itself, the universe, the whole shebang,” says John Wilson, Editor. “This little miscellany is a microcosm of the reality we all share. Magazines such as E&C — ‘reviews’ — encourage an awareness of the many-sidedness of things, a mingled sense of irony and awe, a sharp taste both of the absurdity and of the inexhaustible richness of creation.”

E&C writers familiar to readers of B&C include Amy E. Black, Joseph Bottum, Catherine Brekus, Heath Carter, John Fea, Robert Gundry, Paula Huston, Alan Jacobs, Philip Jenkins, Martyn Wendell Jones, John McWhorter, Amy Peterson, Michael Robbins, Sarah Ruden, Tom Shippey, Tim Stafford, Rachel Marie Stone, to name only a few. E&C’s advisory board, chaired by Mark Noll, includes Susan Wise Bauer, Lena Hill, Timothy Larsen, Shirley Mullen, David Skeel, Alissa Wilkinson, and Marly Youmans; they’ll be writing for the magazine as well.

“I met John Wilson about four years after he launched Books & Culture and found him to be one of the most interesting and engaging editors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with,” said Rich Tatum, senior editor and media producer for TBS and E&C. “Many who read and loved B&C are just as excited about E&C precisely because John Wilson is at the helm.”

Intellectually curious? Then E&C is your cup of tea. Visit the E&C website and let them know your feedback.

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.