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Letter from the Editor

In the summer of 1994, a couple of weeks after I'd arrived in the Midwest, Mickey Maudlin—who was then the managing editor of Christianity Today magazine—introduced me to Robert Hosack, who was then an editor for a Wheaton-based publisher. A little over three years later, Bob took a job with Baker Books in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he has been ever since. We do our best to see each other a couple of times a year—he tells me about interesting books that are coming down the road, we talk about promising younger writers, and so on.

Several years ago, Bob told me about a series he was hatching with Joel Carpenter, director of Calvin College's Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity. (Joel, as many of you may know, played a critical part in bringing BOOKS & CULTURE into existence; he was then in charge of the religion program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, a grant from which enabled the launch of the magazine.) The series, called Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity, was conceived to offer "reflections by eminent Christian scholars who have turned their attention and commitments toward the global South and East. In order to inspire and move the rising generation of Christian scholars in the Northern Hemisphere to engage the thought world and issues of the global South more vigorously, the series books highlight such reorientations and ask what the implications of 'turning South' are for Christian thought and creativity in a variety of cultural fields."

There are plenty of ways such a program can go off the rails, as a quick sampling of discourse on "the global South" will attest. (How easy it is for us, with our incorrigible twistiness, to turn a liberating insight into a smug party line!) But the first three books of the Turning South series beautifully fulfill its promise. The first book to appear was Nicholas Wolterstorff's Journey Toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South (2013), followed early this year by Susan VanZanten's Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar's Journey from America to Africa. The third, Mark Noll's From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian's Discovery of the Global Christian Story, is scheduled for publication in October. I recommend them highly to all readers of this magazine. The second and third books both have a thread of personal narrative interwoven with the larger story, and for some readers that will be particularly compelling. (For that same reason, these books would be valuable for scholars who write about evangelicalism from the outside.)

Lately there's been a lot of conversation and some debate—mostly unproductive, alas—on contemporary "religious fiction." What does it look like? (Can we even agree on that?) Is any of it any good? And so on. In this issue, we're publishing one of the most interesting takes on the subject I've seen anywhere: turn to pp. 29-30 for D. G. Myers on "Redefining Religious Fiction." Meanwhile, overlapping slightly with the conversation on "religious fiction" is a thread on the State of the Novel. It's dead (again), we're told. It's "overrated," Teju Cole pronounces—excepting books like he and a few other doughty souls are writing. As it happens, Myers' piece offers a nice antidote to such sweeping dismissals. The two novels he discusses, by the young writers Christopher Beha and William Giraldi, are superb. If they aren't your cup of tea, that's fine, of course—but please don't prattle on about "the novel," just get on with reading whatever you want to read (or write).

Speaking of superb novels, let me recommend two others that will be appearing not too long after you receive this issue. In September, Knopf will publish Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which imagines the aftermath of a global pandemic of unprecedented ferocity. We follow a wandering troupe as they make their circuit in the upper Midwest, stopping at tiny settlements to perform Shakespeare and play music. In the same month, Mercer University Press will publish Marly Youmans' Glimmerglass, set in Cooper country in New York State, a book in which the fantastic and the quotidian are cunningly interlaced. These two novels have very little in common except for the quality of their imagination—but that is more than enough to make them kin.

And on the subject of books due in September: keep an eye out for The Second Sex, Michael Robbins' new book of poems, coming from Penguin. (See Robbins' "Letter to a Friend"—which is, in fact, precisely that—on p. 8 of this issue.)

Have you heard that we have launched a biweekly digital edition of B&C that you can read on your tablet? (See the ad on p. 6 for more information.) Our art director, Jennifer McGuire, has created a very handsome and user-friendly design, as I think you'll agree. The digital biweekly will also feature some extras. If you subscribe to our free weekly e-newsletter, you already know that we regularly publish web exclusives, pieces that appear only on the B&C website, not in print. But over the years I've discovered that many faithful readers of the magazine are not aware of these web exclusives. To introduce such readers (you, for instance?) to what they're missing, one installment of the digital biweekly gathers five web exclusives posted on the B&C website between June and December of last year. I hope you'll enjoy them—and that you will start looking for such pieces routinely.

Since the start of the year, we have been receiving donations fulfilling pledges made last fall to support B&C in 2014. Thanks to all of you who have already done so. We continue working toward our goal of securing funding for 2015-18. When I look at the contents of the July/August issue—encompassing Mark Noll on violence against Christians and Laura Turner on "street style" in Honolulu, Karen Swallow Prior on Jonathan Swift and Malcolm Forbes on Harper Lee—I'm thankful all over again for your support.

In 2011, Comment asked me to write about the place of magazines in "the Good Society." The piece was titled "Magazine as Microcosm." Here's a relevant bit:

"At their best, in an unceasing flow of casually staged juxtapositions that put the Surrealists to shame, … magazines encourage an awareness of the many-sidedness of things, a mingled sense of irony and awe, a sharp taste both of absurdity and of the inexhaustible richness of Creation—and this is true even when the governing editorial intelligence would disavow any such intent.

"Of course there are snares and temptations as well. Everything that is good about 'the review' as a genre can be perverted. In his book Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, Paul Griffiths has written about the vice of curiositas, 'to be distinguished from virtuous forms of the desire to know, which, beginning in the third century, began to be called studiositas.' Although I disagree with Griffiths at many points (or come at the subject from a perspective so different that it's difficult to speak of 'agreement' or 'disagreement'), I would strongly recommend this book.

"Reading of the kind I've been talking about can easily slide into an intellectual dandyism. And there's an ever-present danger of grotesquely inflated self-esteem, as if we too have suddenly become deeply knowledgeable about Hinduism, the history of Portugal, and the poetry of Philippe Jaccottet—universal savants—and as if such knowledge, did we possess it, somehow exalted us above the common run of humanity.

"This calls for vigilance, but it should not lead us to shy away from the enterprise. We are not creators, Tolkien said, but subcreators: an ugly word, yes, but useful. The little worlds we make in imitation and homage are bound to be flawed. Yet even the artful miscellany to be found in a single issue of a single magazine—gathered from a storehouse that seems, as in a fairy tale, to be always full, no matter how much is taken out—gives us a foretaste of the Great Feast to come."

On to the next issue.

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