What Books & Culture Meant

With the unendorsements and sexual harassment allegations piling up by the day for Donald Trump, there (understandably) isn’t much room for anything beyond the campaign on the radar of those of us who study and watch the media.

But I wanted to stop to appreciate a publication that quietly gave word of its closing this week — Books & Culture, a tiny but influential Christian literary review. Of course, “tiny but influential” could be used to describe most any literary review, but B&C has occupied a distinctive place in American Christian culture, with a significance that reached many who had never even heard of it.

B&C was founded in 1995 by John Wilson, and it will remain his singular vision until its dissolution next year. It covers, well, culture, largely through the lens of fascinating books (and poems, and films, and plays). Unions and the social gospel in early 20th-century Chicago. Hamilton and the legacy of the Founding Fathers. The inner life of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The cultural roots of the modern research university. The role of catastrophe in Pauline theology.

This is the idiosyncratic mix of B&C — the standard literary-review blend of the humanities, intellectual culture, politics and global society, and science, plus a heaping helping of theology, religious history, and discussions of the role of faith in contemporary culture. B&C’s tone is at once sincere and clever, reverent and probing. Wilson has had a knack for matching reviewers with books in unexpected ways, with refreshing results.

I came to B&C late — just a couple of years ago, when it made a plea for donations to keep it alive. I had discovered it during my days as an undergrad at Wheaton College — a longtime hub of evangelical intellectual activity (and tension) — paged through a couple of issues, found it intriguing but a bit over my head.

I was a graduate student when I saw B&C’s appeal for funds, and it stirred a sense of remembrance and of fresh identity for me: You’re an academic now. These are your people. The conversations they’re having are yours now, too. I subscribed, and immediately felt that rush of newfound intellectual companionship that any graduate student will recognize. In its pages, I got to see discussions on the sorts of issues that occupied my mind as a grad student, but from the type of rigorously and thoughtfully Christian perspective I had seen little of since my days in a Christian college.

I know very few evangelical (or even ex-evangelical) academics in my field, so reading B&C was like finding an alternative academic community that ran blessedly perpendicular to my primary one, wrestling with all the questions that tugged at me but couldn’t be answered within the community of my field.

B&C served as the hub for this sort of shadow academic community for a lot more people than just me. Tocqueville famously stated that newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers, and this was particularly true in B&C’s case. A community of engaged Christian scholars and writers made Books & Culture, and Books & Culture made — or more precisely, sustained — a community of engaged Christian scholars and writers.

That community isn’t just evangelical; it includes Catholics, and post-evangelicals, and conservative-ish mainline Protestants. But its influence has been felt especially strongly within evangelicalism, where B&C has served as a gentle but persistent force pulling evangelical culture upward into contemplation, subtlety, and gracious engagement with contemporary culture.

Those are three characteristics in which American evangelicalism does not tend to excel, to put it mildly. It’s fitting that B&C is meeting its end during a presidential campaign that has rendered public evangelical culture increasingly base and repulsive; it certainly feels as though B&C’s gentle tug has been ineffective, and the intellectuals have lost.

But Books & Culture’s influence stretches beyond its small readership and 21-year life. Anyone who has been educated in an American evangelical college during that time has likely been shaped by the conversations in B&C. Likewise for anyone who’s been to an evangelical seminary, and even, in certain cases, Catholic seminaries and universities as well. Its ideas have bled into countless books and sermons and Sunday School lessons.

Which, I suppose, is all the more reason to grieve its loss. Baylor professor and frequent B&C contributor Alan Jacobs described its demise as “an immensely distressing state of affairs, for anyone who cares about the state of Christian intellectual life,” and I have to agree. Modern evangelicalism has lost one of its most fruitful intellectual forums, and we are all poorer for it.