Thursday, February 19, 2004

First Things and Second Rate Things

Reading this month’s issue of the journal First Things, I could not but help but marvel afresh at the level of writing, the coverage of topics, the breadth of scholarship and the sheer wit it contains. It is, far and away, the finest religion and public life journal available anywhere today in the English language - - nothing even comes close.

It is surprising how many religious adherents consider themselves fairly well informed on contemporary issues related to religion and culture when, on investigation, all they seem to read is the thin gruel of some of the more popular publications that flood the market. Garbage in, sadly, equals, all too often, garbage out and for those interested enough to still read (a shrinking group so we are told) it is a shame how much good time is spent reading inadequate materials.

A sense of delicacy precludes mentioning these thin potations by name yet they seem to be widely read despite their commercialism and (usually) lack of depth. We in our house have cancelled our subscriptions to one after another of these journals over the years finding that they simply didn’t justify the time to read them or the cost of subscriptions.

Many of these magazines seem to try to make up for a lack of insightful content by sentimentally sweet longing for “the good old days” with a significant amount of glitzy advertizing to boot. They give the impression that they are getting at the issues of the day when, in fact, they are not: they serve, really, only to distract from distraction by distraction (to use T.S. Eliot’s memorable phrase).

Here, readily available on the net if not elsewhere, we have a superb journal that raises many of the key cultural questions of our day on a wide and honest basis - - yet there are still many who can’t be bothered to check it out. I know leaders in various Christian organizations in Canada, for example, who, when asked if they read First Things, still haven’t heard of it yet much less read it!

For a person who claims to be interested in the important connections between religion and culture not to have heard of First Things (much less read it) is a sign of a serious problem of cultural disconnection.

Of course, it isn’t a requirement to be a thinking Christian or Jew that one read a particular book or journal but the kind of sub-cultural insulation that permits this kind of ignorance (for there is no other word for it when what we are discussing is the best available journal of its type) is a depressing and worrying sign of the times. If we are not aware of the intellectual resources that ought to inform the very debates within which we are involved, how useful, accurate and well-informed can our work really be? Yes, time is limited, yes subscriptions cost but neither of these excuse leaders being uninformed.

Ask your favourite leader if they read First Things? If they don’t, ask him/her why not and then ask them what he/she does read. The answers might be illuminating.

For our part at the Centre we have always sought to push the important fact that is First Things. To be sure, its focus is generally on things American but not entirely so and the themes it raises in relation to issues within the US of A are usually relevant above the 49th as well and the editor, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who was born in the Ottawa valley, has never lost his interest in what is going on in Canada and not infrequently comments on things up here. The journal contains commentary from Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and other writers and has, not infrequently, invited opponents of religion (such as Stanley Fish) to write as well.

Sadly, there is not (and never will be) a Canadian equivalent to First Things. We do not have the kind of vibrant cultural debate up here (nor the money) to generate and support such a journal. When such ventures have been started, they have failed for lack of financial viability (and here one can only point to the late, lamented Idler, as an example of something similar in Canada though that wasn’t devoted, as First Things is, to religion and culture).

Fr. Neuhaus’ own contribution to each issue of First Things - - “The Public Square” contains about the most insightful, amusing and consistently intelligent commentaries on matters pertaining to religion and culture that can be found anywhere and many people buy the journal for that alone. Twice people have said to me that they don’t read First Things because it is a “neo-con” journal. Neither have been able to define for me what they mean by a neo-conservative much less why they consider the journal the organ of such a movement. It isn’t. Conservative yes, orthodox, yes. But make up your own mind.

I am not being rosy-glassed here. There are things about it that drive me crazy - - such as their continual misuse of the term “secular” when they use the phrase “religion AND the secular” and I have been unable to get any letters on this point into the Journal so far (I’ve sent two). I shall keep trying.

The people at First Things send out free issues and have a favourable student rate. Have a look at past issues on their website: and, subscribe! It is good to see that there are ROFTERS (readers of First Things) groups starting up across the States. Not long ago I got a note asking if I knew of any ROFTERS in Winnipeg (I didn’t).

So lets hope that the readership grows in Canada too. And, no, I wasn’t asked to write any of this but do so out of a sense of indebtedness for all I have gleaned from its pages over the years and no doubt will in the future.

Iain T. Benson©