After Books and Culture: 9 Ways to Share the Cost of Cultural Engagement
Books & Culture is publishing its final issue next month, and it’s hard not to be depressed about it. If you’ve never heard of Books & Culture, the main thing you need to know is that it is Christianity Today’s review of—well, books and culture. But it’s also much more than that. Alan Jacobs describes B&C as “one of the most consistently interesting magazines in the English-speaking world,” while Mark Coddington explains that the magazine had “significance that reached many who had never even heard of it.” I have no doubt that the decision to fold was incredibly difficult for everyone involved, but at the end of the day, there was not enough money to sustain the enterprise.
Gregory Wolfe summarized his reaction to the news this way on Twitter: “American Christianity in the 21st century produced God’s Not Dead 2 but could not sustain Books & Culture.” Ouch.
Books and Culture dealt with a crucial imperative for the Church: for as long as I have been old enough to read about Christianity and culture, I have heard people say that Christians have to “engage the culture.” Some used this approach as an excuse to consume whatever entertainment they wanted or structure sermon series around TV shows. Others felt the need to quickly embrace any creator who identified with some sort of Christianity, and then search frantically through their lyrics for a spiritual reference like kids looking for a prize at the bottom of a cereal box. The more entrepreneurial took it as a mandate to create works of art that didn’t engage much besides Christians’ sense of self-satisfaction (hi, God’s Not Dead 2). Growing up at a time when Christians were unafraid to “engage the culture,” most of the time such engagement felt to me like finding a way to tack a Bible verse on what was popular. Books and Culture was always far more substantial.If we want what’s good, we’ll have to pay people to make it.
It’s easy to edit the sex out of a romance novel and make the male protagonist become a Christian. It’s easy to change the lyrics of a song from “baby” to “Jesus” and make a lot of tracks that won’t make listeners turn off the radio. It’s easy to look for a Christ figure in a movie or count swear words in a song. What’s harder is to think through ideas and apply Christian convictions to cultural artifacts and trends. This isn’t to say that there weren’t (and aren’t) good cultural artifacts being produced by Christians (Bono is wrong on this one, sorry), nor that there wasn’t worthwhile cultural criticism. In fact, B&C has produced the sort of criticism and engagement that we need for 21 years, even if it’s gotten buried beneath the more accessible, less valuable stuff.
“Valuable” is a key word to understand here, because things that are worthwhile are also almost always more expensive to create, produce, and sustain. If we want what’s good, we’ll have to pay people to make it. Often, we need to pay them more because it takes more time and energy to produce something valuable, which in turn will often be purchased by fewer people because it takes a bit more work to appreciate it.
If the art we enjoy and the ways we discuss it continue to sink to the lowest common denominator, Christians will continue to be stuck in an ever-shrinking cultural cul-de-sac. This not only puts hardworking artists and writers out of jobs when their work isn’t appropriately valued, but it also makes us more susceptible to the more toxic cultural forces that thoughtful disciplines of reading and “engaging” might otherwise protect us from. (Many, for instance, have wondered aloud how Donald Trump has become so popular with Christians—but if your idea of cultural engagement was slapping a Bible verse on something that was popular and widely available, then the politically expedient case for Trump seems a lot more compelling than high-minded intellectual arguments in favor of public virtue and the common good.)
I certainly hope, like Alan Jacobs, that someone rescues Books & Culture before it’s too late. In the meantime, though, there are many other underappreciated (and underfunded) publications that deserve much wider readership. I’ve listed 9 of them below. They’re not the only ones, but they’re some of the best. None of them can do what B&C did, and few people will be able to afford all of them simultaneously. But if you care about “engaging the culture” and don’t subscribe to any of them, you’re selling yourself short:
Christianity Today: The flagship magazine of evangelicalism has consistently produced high-quality journalism on topics relevant to Christians for 60 years. You may not always agree with their stances one way or the other, but their commitment to what they call “beautiful orthodoxy” is absolutely necessary in our cultural moment.
Under the Radar: Christian music is a particularly interesting case when it comes to “engaging culture” because there is so much good stuff out there worth enjoying, but also way more paint-by-numbers shlock dominating the airwaves and racking up record sales. UtR is dedicated solely to highlighting the good stuff and promoting hardworking artists worth spending your money on.
Mars Hill Audio Journal: Dedicated to cultivating “the shared experience of good practices, true beliefs, and beautiful artifacts” that in turn cultivate us, these longform conversations have long been influential and valuable in discussing important ideas for the common good.
The Rabbit Room: Mixing creators with critics, The Rabbit Room not only talks about great art, but also produces it and sponsors events throughout the year to help people enjoy what’s good. I have personally loved the music and literature that comes out of this collective and appreciated their thoughtful discussions about how to create and appreciate.
Image Journal: Another long-running journal that publishes quality writing and puts on a variety of educational workshops and readings to help forge a community of writers and thinkers.
Relief Journal: Publishing a variety of creative works, Relief celebrates human flourishing—and counts as its podcast host one Amy Peterson, CaPC writer!
Mockingbird: “Connecting the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life,” Mockingbird produces thoughtful engagement with the issues and ideas that affect people from day to day.
The Englewood Review of Books: A weekly book review focusing specifically on books that will be of benefit to people of God.
Christ and Pop Culture: I can’t make a list like this without including CaPC itself, which aims to celebrate “the good, the true, and the beautiful” in what’s popular while also drawing attention to the gems that fly under the radar. They have also cultivated a community of writers and readers in their Facebook group that tries to make the best of social media discussion.
Thank you so much. The loss of B&C is hitting me hard. I’ve been a subscriber for over 10 years and it has a been key part of my religious and intellectual life. I already patronize a number of the sources you’ve listed above but greatly appreciate discovering a few new ones I’ve never heard of.
I’d include First Things and Comment magazine in that list.
I would also mention Think Christian as another resource worth looking into.
A big thank you for including Under The Radar on your list. I began the ministry 8 years ago, not as a “revolt” against CCM, but out of the very organic reality that most of the Christian radio “hits” were not connecting with my soul personally. I am SO grateful that there are hundreds of artists pursuing both Christ and craft, and I’m grateful how God has used our “little engine” to serve both discerning listeners and artists. I am a big fan of the others on this list (and also ThinkChristian, which someone mentioned), so it’s an honor to have UTR on the same list!
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