Letter from the Editor
In Pasadena in the late 1980s, there was a science-fiction bookstore with the pleasing name Planet Ten. The shop wasn't large, and you couldn't expect exotic finds, but it was well stocked. I stopped by every few weeks, and I never left without buying at least one book, sometimes two or three, always paperbacks.
I can remember some of those books—in fact, I still have some of them, ranging from then-new releases to reissues of the classics. Our son Andrew (born in 1978) was the perfect age for Robert Heinlein's juveniles (which include some of RAH's best work), and we accumulated a small shelf of those. (Our mutual favorite was Citizen of the Galaxy.) Sometimes I'd buy a book chiefly for the cover-art. But I also did a lot of browsing, just to see what people were doing. I dipped into many books that way, noticing what kind of stories were being told, in what voices.
Along with other trends of the day—cyberpunk, for instance—those years saw a vogue for tales featuring a repressive religious regime (inspired in part by the triumph of Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale). This predated by some years the Great Theocracy Scare. (You remember that, don't you? All those books and magazine articles and screeds online a few years back, warning that the US was in imminent danger of takeover by evangelical zealots, conservative Catholics, and other assorted "Christo-fascists," as Chris Hedges liked to say.) And speaking of "theocracy," don't miss Doug Wilson's piece on Rousas Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction (p. 17 in this issue).
In the unlikely event that anyone reading this remembers Planet Ten, I'd love to hear from you. Perhaps we were even in the store at the same time, saying "excuse me" as we changed places in the aisle somewhere between Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin.
While working on the issue that you now have in hand, I've been looking ahead to celebrating our 20th anniversary with the September/October 2015 issue—and looking back as well, to our first issue, September/October 1995. Re-reading that issue has been a treat. (It has also been very strange: 1995 seems not so long ago and—at the same time!—hauntingly distant.) Here, for instance, are the concluding two paragraphs of the cover-story, Mark Noll's essay-review on "The Struggle for Lincoln's Soul":
"So, what was Lincoln's religion? It was genuine, but only partially Christian. Its exact shape cannot be specified further until someone carries out broad, painstaking, conceptually sophisticated research comparable to that which Burlingame devoted to Lincoln's marriage. Certainly a start has been made in tracing Lincoln's private religion—for example, his reactions to early Calvinist preaching and to the deaths of his children—as a basis of his presidential theology. Yet only when researchers are able to extricate themselves from the partisanship of 'Lincoln the Pious' or 'Lincoln the Infidel' and take up the challenge of messy historical reality will it be possible to come closer to the truth of Lincoln's religion.
"Why should such historical questions matter? They matter because the truth matters. God, whom believers worship as the author of truth, can accept what his creatures do and are, even on questions of great depth and immense complexity, like the question of Abraham Lincoln's faith. If God does not shy from the truth, neither should we."
This wouldn't make a bad explanation for why Books & Culture was started in the first place—and why we think its continuing existence matters.
Of course, once I've started quoting, it's hard to stop. I don't want to leave out Rich Mouw on the Branch Davidians ("Waco Logic") or Philip Yancey on Annie Dillard, George Marsden's "new Dialogue from Olympus" or Larry Woiwode on John Gardner, Gerald Early on Albert Raboteau's account of African American religious history or David Neff's interview with the poet Li-Young Lee … but I have to stop before I list the contents in full (with profuse apologies to those not yet mentioned). If you're a subscriber, you have access to the issue (and all the subsequent issues) on our website. Some of you, like me, might be unrepentant savers of back issues: maybe you still have your copy of our first issue. But I have to quote one more bit—the beginning of Frederica Mathewes-Green's piece on icons ("Through a Glass More Clearly"):
"Jesus is lying on his side on my dining room floor, leaning against the radiator, balanced on one finger and one toe like a gymnast. He is flattened, just a sheet of painted plywood, and from pointed toe to the tip of his halo he is about four-and-a-half feet tall. For protection, for storage, Jesus is swathed in a blue tablecloth that has been knotted around his ankles and pulled up over his head. When I push the cloth aside, I can see his form, a crucified body without a cross. He floats in misery, head sunk toward one shoulder, eyes tightly shut, face brimming cupful of pain.
"His arms are spread like gull-wings; he flies like Superman to save us. But Superman flew twinklebright with punchy fists out front, and our Jesus floats, wide-armed, fistless, hands open and drilled useless with holes. He comes to save us, broken, hobbled, and swathed here on my dining-room floor. It is the only way he can save us; it is the only way we can be saved."
It was in the very early years of B&C that I first met Phyllis Tickle, who was the keynote speaker at a small gathering of Christian editors in Nashville. Later, Phyllis became a dear friend, and my wife, Wendy, and I have read many of her books over the years. We are especially in debt to her—as I mentioned in this space in the March/April issue—for putting together The Divine Hours, three volumes covering the span of the church calendar, with prayers and readings adapted from the Book of Common Prayer and other sources.
Late in May of this year, in a profile for Religion News Service, David Gibson reported that Phyllis has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She is characteristically resolute, Gibson tell us:
"I am no more afraid of dying than I am of, I don't know, drinking this coffee," she continues, pointing to her mug. (It's actually filled with Postum since she's had to give up caffeine. She remains thankful, though, that she can still drink a nightly whiskey. "Jack Daniels, of course!" she says, shocked at the suggestion that a Tennessee native would drink anything else.)
B&C readers will be familiar with Jon M. Sweeney, author of many books and a significant figure in the publishing world. Jon will be writing a biography of Phyllis. He's seeking correspondence (email and otherwise) from writers, church leaders, journalists, publishing people, readers, and anyone who has had significant or meaningful contact with Phyllis over the course of her long and productive life. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
On p. 10 of this issue there is a list of some coming attractions in B&C, including Timothy Larsen on British converts to Islam, 1850-1950, D. L. Mayfield on Runaway Radical, David Bebbington on Baptists in America, Mark Noll on the United Church of Canada, Lauren Winner on why she reads poetry, and Houghton College's Shirley Mullen interviewed by Todd C. Ream. That's just a small sample of what's ahead (the September/October issue, for instance, will feature Rachel Marie Stone on Laura Ingalls Wilder).
Last year, supplementing the print magazine, we launched a biweekly digital edition of B&C that you can read on your tablet. If you haven't checked this out yet, you should give it a look. (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 also features 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?), occasional installments of the digital biweekly gather such pieces.
We continue working toward our goal of securing funding for 2015-18. If you believe in what B&C is doing, and if you have the resources to help, please consider pitching in. When I look at what's ahead, I'm thankful all over again for your support.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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