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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"From the Editor's Desk" (John M. Buchanan)

TITLE: From the Editor's Desk
AUTHOR: John M. Buchanan
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, (208 pages).

For evangelicals, the flagship magazine is "Christianity Today." Pentecostals would be familiar with "Charisma." For Roman Catholics, popular magazines include "Catholic Herald," "National Catholic Register," and "First Things." For many mainline Protestants, it is the "Christian Century." Originally formed as a "Disciples of Christ" journal, it was renamed "Christian Century" among various attempts to revitalize the floundering publication. Whatever public opinion may be, former publisher John Buchanan prefer to see this magazine as an advocate for "thinking critically and living faithfully." It aims to be open to the world and generous to the Church. The magazine was founded in 1884 as "The Christian Oracle" and has featured contributions from past well-known personalities like Gerald Ford, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King Jr, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Menninger as well as more modern writers such as Thomas Long, Barbara Brown Taylor, Eugene Peterson, Marcus Borg, and so on. A key mission of the periodical is to analyze and advocate for issues of the age according to the conscience of the church. For instance, it takes a pacifist position as international conflicts mount. It fights against human rights violations. It focuses on civil rights for all, being the first periodical to publish in full Dr Martin Luther King Jr's "A Letter from the Birmingham Jail." Looking at the title of the periodical can be embarrassing as one remembers how the century has been tainted by the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and 9/11. Reflecting as a grandfather, author John Buchanan sees a new wave of hot button issues on the horizon.

He has categorized 100 essays (out of nearly 400) between the years 1999 to 2015, into ten categories as follows:
  1. The Mainline and the World: Here, the articles assure us that even when the Church seems marginalized, they do not go away quietly. They can continue to be the conscience of the nation and remains an important voice that speaks between the gap caused by tradition and modernism.
  2. Ministry and Church Life: The environment that ministry operates in has changed in more ways than one. Focusing on the life of a pastor, the articles reflect on calling, the rise of the megachurches, the challenge of faith among the younger generation; music; cradle to grave ministries; etc.
  3. In the News: The articles look at the pressing issues of the day such as the fears of terrorism; education; 9/11; gun violence; ecumenism; disasters like Katrina; Obama and the young people; healthcare; environmental concerns; police brutality; etc.
  4. War and Peace: There are lots of wars and places of conflicts happening all around the world. From military concerns to peace talks, the articles look at a wide variety of ways to bring about reconciliation, letting Scripture guide us. 
  5. Matters of Faith: About guilt and forgiveness; hope and peace; life and death; everyday kindness; and our day to day practice of faith.
  6. Pop Culture: Reflections on matters in culture, the movies, the music halls, the sanctuary, the world stage, technology, pop culture, sports, and the megachurch influence. 
  7. Civic Engagement: Articles cover issues of voting, government, democracy, civil rights, religion and politics, etc.
  8. The Middle East: On tensions in Palestine, Israel, and the uncertainty between defending and attacking in a complicated Middle East culture. 
  9. Culture Wars: On homosexuality, pluralism, liberalism, and the challenges of ecumenism and constructive dialogue between people of very different faith perspectives. 
  10. The Reading Christian: Contains reflections on articles about books, the Bible, novels, essays, and the things we read. 

All of these offer glimpses of faith and Church in the changing era. Sometimes, the hardest papers to write are brief ones. Typically, the author has a lot of things and thoughts to contribute. The publication sets a limit on the number of words or a limited amount of space that can be used. This is particularly challenging because writers will be forced to cut back on the peripheral matters and focus on the main things. It is also a discipline to enable writers to engage on the most pertinent arguments. This is an interesting book that gives readers an idea behind the editing process and the publishing perspective. Not only that, we get to appreciate the reasons why the articles have been published in the first place. Touching on hot button issues is surely one of the most important platforms to enable constructive criticisms and informed discussions.

I find the initial survey and overview of the cultural engagement very helpful for three reasons. First, it helps us appreciate the importance of recognizing the changing contexts of the times. Just like the famous Danish philosopher had said: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." Many of the issues of the past can only be understood sometime in the future. For example, the terrible attacks of 9/11 had not only changed the way we live but also re-ignited the debate of war and pacifism. Can love truly be the answer to the unrepentant militant? What makes a true patriot? How do we deal with genuine fear? We may not be able to deal with the uncertainty of the present but we can surely take a leaf or two from the experiences of the past. This leads me to the second point, that we learn from the experiences of the past without repeating the same mistakes in our era. Remember the traditional vs contemporary music debates among many churches? This dispute over worship styles is nothing new. The article about "All Together Now" reminds us once again that it is not aesthetics or style that determines what it means to be church. It is very much what we do that reflects who we are. Key to the song choices is about what it takes to enable congregation members to sing together, to worship well, and to be the Church that pleases God. Third, the articles can point us forward in terms of how we can navigate our paths. The Church is called also to be the "a prophet and a priest." The former is about speaking up for the weak and speaking out against the abuses by the powerful. There are articles about engaging with political leaders in the White House, with theologians, with clergy and with many people of influence from different walks of life. The latter is about being being a voice of comfort for an increasingly difficult and challenging job climate and economic environment.

John Buchanan is a retired Presbyterian minister and former editor of The Christian Century. He served with the publication from 1999 to 2016. This book is like a biographical summary of his experiences there and then.

Interestingly, the author lamented about the Chicago Cubs being "baseball's loveable losers." Guess what happened this year?

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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