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Stranger in a Strange Land: Joel Carpenter


The Conversation

A tribute to "The Reformed Journal."

This is a guest column by Joel Carpenter, who works at Calvin College. He published his first piece in The Reformed Journal in 1977. His latest book is Walking Together: Christian Thinking and Public Life in South Africa (ACU Press, 2012).

I bought my first copy of The Reformed Journal in 1976 at the bookstore of Calvin College, where I was a visiting instructor. The RJ, as it was called, didn't have many over-the-counter sales outside this particular outlet. It was surely not on the racks at Barnes & Noble. But there it stood, next to the Borkum Riff pipe tobacco and the Droste chocolate bars, one of the favorite treats at Calvin. As a Calvin student I had been only vaguely aware of the RJ, but from the faculty side I saw that it was an extension of the lively conversation on and around the campus about the Christian "cultural project."

James Bratt and Ronald Wells' anthology of "greatest hits" from the RJ richly illustrates the magazine's role as a small but pungent intellectual stewpot, replenished monthly by Reformed intellectuals and their friends. It published some of the most stimulating and original writing on Christianity and culture then available. Like other religious periodicals the RJ did theology and churchly affairs, but it ranged far wider, engaging business, gender, politics, race, film,[1] TV, visual arts, music, writing, even sports. It published poetry and fiction too.[2] It was more like the Atlantic in its range than like the Christian Century. In its forty years of life (1951-90) the RJ, sponsored by the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, never had a circulation of much more than 3,000. Even so, its influence spread far beyond its subscribers, probably because so many of them were opinion shapers.

I think, for example, of Harold Myra, who saved Christianity Today from demise and expanded its parent firm into a diverse family of magazines. Harold told me that the RJ was his favorite magazine. He found some ideas there that he could repackage ...

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