As a student at Westmont College, I would wait for professors in the small common area in the English building. Among the leather couches, creaking floorboards, and wardrobe items from C. S. Lewis’ estate were always copies of Books & Culture: A Christian Review. The magazine’s articles, including some by my professors, would flit from book reviews to cultural commentary to personal stories. The magazine was like a dance and the editor, John Wilson, was the choreographer. Inspired by all the ideas at play, I'd tuck my own burgeoning binder of poetry under my arm and get to work editing the college literary magazine.
Books & Culture is a literary common room in print form. Ideas, books, and strong voices meet to speak to each other. The magazine is eclectic; no knowledge, no book is off limits. Its dominant mode is rigorous thought coupled with intellectual play. Compare that to the way we lob Facebook statuses at each other. We block, unfriend, and unfollow. Ideas are rarely gifts to be gently prodded and engaged with; they are, rather, blunt weapons in the war of “us” versus “them.”
When it was recently announced that Books & Culture would be closing after a 21-year run, it struck me not only as a death knell for a magazine I loved, but also an ominous sign for Christian intellectualism. In fact, film critic Alissa Wilkinson lamented exactly this in a Books & Culturearticle earlier this year:
But what evangelicals have lacked on a broad scale is a vibrant culture of criticism. We know how to criticize, even critique, but true cultural engagement with entertainment and the arts has been restricted to small pockets that take hits on all sides. We don’t know what criticism is, or what it’s supposed to do. We don’t read it, support it, or produce it, and in many cases, we actively disparage it as harmful to our mandate to be creators.
The closing of Books & Culture isn’t simply about one periodical’s lack of funding. It points to something much deeper: we do not love, in habit-forming ways, what Christian criticism offers. We would rather scroll through Facebook, turn on Netflix, and order takeout. We are content to play around in “mud pies,” to reference Lewis again, because we “cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” This doesn’t mean we should shame ourselves for occasionally checking out at the end of a long day, but it does mean that we should be discerning about how we spend our time and money.
Most of us are not creators or critics; we are consumers. We consume our music, our movies, our books, even our churches. We gulp down content without chewing. Too often, we settle for anything to fill us up, rather than seek out food (actual, intellectual, or spiritual) that is full of sustenance, care, creativity, planning, and presentation, food that makes us feel loved, seen, and cared for. And so we need artists-as-critics who can point us to this food and teach us how to chew it, who can show us again how to delight and what to love.
We need artists-as-critics who can point us to good food and teach us how to chew it, who can show us how to delight and what to love.
If, as James K. A. Smith writes, we are what we love, what does the closing of Books & Culture say about us? Perhaps what we love is not Wilkinson’s “true cultural engagement” but, rather, gorging ourselves. We fill up our appetites indiscriminately at a buffet of distractions. We have oversized ears, mouths, and stomachs. We do not ponder, turn over, ask questions, make connections, or challenge our own thinking. We skate on the surface of things. Writing good criticism and reading it—like the kind that Books & Culture will only be able to offer through the end of this year—can be a habit that, in Smith’s terms, helps reframe and deepen our desires. It can help us learn how to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
So what do we do now? Do we lament the loss of Books & Culture and go on our merry way? Or will we see nuanced cultural critique not as a fussy scholarly exercise, but as something vital to loving the world? If so, would we then be so bold as to support this sort of vision? Is it possible that the death of a beloved magazine of criticism might wake up a Christian voice that could offer truth, grace, and kindness to a polarized climate, as well as a constituency willing to support it?
If so, this must start with recalibrating our taste buds and creating new habits. As Smith writes in You Are What You Love, if the “formation of [our] loves and desires can be happening ‘under the hood’ of consciousness,” we must invest in proper liturgies that “affectively and viscerally train our desires.” When we unthinkingly turn on Netflix and let one episode bleed into another, it trains us to turn to screens only to tune out. When we always hit the drive-thru and never make a meal, we’ve cut ourselves off from an act of creation. And when we fail to give money and time to Christian criticism and art, we miss out on the opportunity to nourish our own bloated souls.