The End of Books & Culture Magazine?

books-and-culture

It appears from an announcement in Editor John Wilson’s weekly newsletter that Books & Culturea publication of Christianity Today, is coming to an end with the forthcoming November-December issue. A tweet on @booksandculture indicates that they will continue to publish in some form online until the end of 2017.

The warning signs that this was coming. The publication was nearly shuttered in 2013, but saved by pledges that at that time were supposed to keep it afloat until 2018, according to a Christian Century article at the time. The article indicates that Books & Culture has struggled financially throughout its history and been subsidized to the tune of between $1 and $2 million by the parent company, Christianity TodayChristianity Today itself has struggled with financial losses in recent years and shut down several other publications. It’s surprising that Books & Culture lasted this long.

Alan Jacobs, in his blog this morning, wrote this tribute to the magazine and its long-time editor John Wilson:

“For twenty-one years, Books and Culture has been one of the most consistently interesting magazines in the English-speaking world. I have often been surprised at the number and range of people who agree with me about that. Alex Star, a former editor of the New York Times Magazine and now an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, once told me that he read every issue in full. Cullen Murphy, former editor of the Atlantic, told me that John Wilson is the best editor in the business.”

This was my own experience. I have been a subscriber through most of its 21 year history. Books & Culture featured a great stable of writers and reviewers discussing important books on just about every subject, many not by Christian writers, but addressing important questions about the human condition and human flourishing. I found it a wonderful complement to mainstream sources like the New York Times Book Review and others, and the writing of equal quality.

This may be why the review lasted as long as it did. Christianity Today in its beginnings reflected a vision of an evangelicalism with intellectual as well as theological heft, and Books & Culture certainly has continued that tradition. A blog post by long-time Christianity Today board member Fred Smith back in 2013 underscores this idea. He writes:

“I studied the writings of the first editors – especially Carl F. H. Henry.  I pored over the original statement of mission. “Christianity Today has its origin in a deep-felt desire to express historical Christianity to the present generation. Neglected slighted misrepresented—evangelical Christianity needs a clear voice to speak with conviction and love ” and to state its true position and its relevance to the world crisis. A generation has grown up unaware of the basic truths of the Christian faith taught in the Scriptures and expressed in the creeds of the historic evangelical churches.”  It slowly dawned on me that Books & Culture may well be the inheritor of that early vision and not simply a way of proving to an educated and sophisticated world that evangelicals were peers and intellectually formidable.

I suspect the decision came down to the reality that Books & Culture could not hemorrhage finances forever and no one with deep enough pockets and long enough commitment has come along to sustain its publication. But in this, I see several concerning realities:

  • For one, this reflects that the vision of Christianity Today’s founders has not caught fire today. Books & Culture from what I can tell averaged between 9,000 and 11,000 subscribers at best in a country of 320 million. It is likely that subscription revenues defrayed less than half its costs.
  • This suggests to me that a significant part of the Christian public has little concern with finding out about the best that is being thought and written today, and considering how our faith engages those ideas.
  • I also wonder how much this reflects the impact of the internet, where we can find all kinds of information for free. What this doesn’t take into account is how important good, curated sources of information including reviews are to informed reading. Within the Christian community Books and Culture was undoubtedly one of the best sources. It’s worth paying for such things. C. Christopher Smith’s Englewood Review of Books and Byron Borger’s Booknotes are valuable resources, as are the reviews in First ThingsBut none has the breadth of what Books & Culture offered or brings together so many talented writers.

Books & Culture offered reviews of thoughtful writing for those hungering for something more than the banal offerings that make most of the Christian best-seller lists. It offered resources for aspiring scholars in every field wanting to think more deeply and Christianly about their work. The death of this publication will leave us all impoverished. Thank you John Wilson, and all who wrote for B & C for enriching our lives for the past two decades. You will be sorely missed!

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