This post is an attempt to review the magazines that my wife Hope and I currently subscribe to, organized into categories. I wonder what this list says about us, if anything.
As a lover of the printed word, periodicals have always given me great joy. The annual magazine sale fundraiser at my school was a family highlight, and every year we subscribed to dozens of magazines of all sorts. I was editor of Dialogue my junior and senior years at Calvin, and I fondly remember the many hours and winter afternoons I spent at Calvin curled up with a journal, review, or quarterly somewhere in close proximity to the east wall of the third floor of Hekman Library.
What are some of the periodicals you love?
When my wife and I got married, my sister’s wedding present to us was a subscription to two magazines of our choice. What a great gift! I chose Books & Culture and she chose Geez.
Books & Culture
A Christian Review
Books & Culture is the one magazine that I always read in its entirety, even if it takes a while to find the time, and always find worthwhile. It’s been my favorite since I began gleaning copies from the free table outside the Calvin English Department office. As a review of recently published books, its content is always varied, but as Christian review, it is remarkably consistent in modeling faithful thinking and living, wisdom, graciousness, and often charm. I feel like the reviewers are “my people.” Its essays find an interesting balance between personal reflection, intellectual depth, and evaluation. I have given it as a gift to a number of the friends whom I care a lot about, and I will continue to subscribe to it as long as I have money and it keeps printing.
Holy Mischief in an Age of Fast Faith
The aim of this publication is to challenge the status quo of North American Christianity. It asks questions like: does it matter that 95 percent of communion wafers are made with flour from a company that violates Biblical principles with its monopolizing agribusiness, desecrating of the land, and pushing small farmers off their farms? It is free of advertisements, printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, and very thoughtful. In Geez, faith is visceral, haunting, challenging, uncomfortable, convicting, and convincing. Check it out.
Mary Jane’s Farm
The Everyday Organic Lifestyle Magazine
This is my wife’s second favorite magazine, introduced to her by her mother-in-law (my mom). It sums up many of the best things they have in common. This publication caters to “farmgirls”—do-it-yourself, back-to-the-land, crafty, canning-your-own-garden-produce question-askers, with feminine whimsy. Lots of original content. Informs readers on food policy issues, health and toxicity, and how to do more camping! The recipes are all formulated for cooking in cast iron. There are some ads, but they are minimal and relevant, such as for composting toilets and small tractors that ultimately help reduce consumption.
Life Made Easier
About 50 percent advertisements. Practical tips and tricks. Product reviews, makeup and fashion guides. Perkier and more domestically oriented than your common-denominator womens’ magazine, but forgettable—a one-year, discounted trial subscription that will not be renewed.
O: The Oprah Magazine
Live Your Best Life
Ditto on >50 percent advertisements and heavy focus on consumption. The sprinkles of thoughtful contemplation and narrative, such as interviews with Brene Brown, are worthwhile. There’s no denying Oprah is a fascinating and important cultural force.
Faith For Your Journey
This magazine was a gift from a dear relative who has given me so much love and real beauty throughout my life that that fact overrides my other considerations of this magazine. It is basically an evangelical version of Better Homes and Gardens. What faith aspect is present feels tacked on as an afterthought. The emphasis in this magazine is the visuals, and the images are rich. The Bible verses feel token, and out of context. Faith here is safe and comfortable. Elaborate table spreads channeling Martha Stewart are framed in the guise of Christian hospitality. At times it feels the magazine is using meaningful Biblical concepts as a way to validate conspicuous consumption, which feels insidious. Certainly there is value in aesthetics, but it feels disingenuous to suggest Bible phrases set against trendy, chevron screensavers are a means to witness to coworkers, as one caption suggests. To their credit, they spend 2 pages per issue helping readers understand hermeneutic ideas, and their financial advice column usually calls readers to Biblical principles. Overall, this magazine is very pretty, but more sugary than salty, and I mean that in the Biblical sense. Geez, which is so salty you’ll want a glass of cold water nearby, is a good antidote.
Ah, Time—one can “read” it in about 15 minutes without missing much. As its name suggests, pretty ephemeral stuff. On the other hand, for better or worse, Time seems to be a fairly accurate reflection of the American cultural public sphere, which makes it worth, well, at least 15 minutes and the $2/year trial subscription fee. Perhaps this explains why the level of discourse in TIME has declined markedly in my time as a reader, often focused more on superficialities and personalities than substance. The writing is usually at the level of an insightful, well-informed blog post.
News magazines have always been my weakness, and I am wholly sympathetic to Andrew Orlebeke’s recent post. The Economist is certainly the standard in the weekly news magazine category but is so much more expensive. I have always preferred The Atlantic.
Magazines We Didn’t Ask to Receive
The Calvin Spark
The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of Calvin College
My favorite thing to do with the Spark is to see which acquaintances have gotten married or had children. I used to always tabulate the frequency of new baby names and see how the trendy compared to the traditional, and how Calvin compared to national naming patterns. Just in case you were wondering, Grace is a very common middle name for the daughters of Calvin alums.
The Magazine of the Christian Reformed Church
The Banner is the CRC’s magazine, making it the periodical counterpart of Calvin, I suppose. However, its format is blog-posty (like Time) and its content is geared below the college-level. A recent kerfuffle over two controversial Banner articles, one about premarital sex (which was indeed misguided) and one about evolution (which could have been insightful, but was again misguided and poorly executed), has led to some self-reflection in the Banner about its purpose and audience. One recent article emphasized the importance of raising questions but seemed to conclude that the Banner was not a place for thinking through difficult moral or theological questions. I wish this were not the case; I guess there’s always Calvin Seminary’s Forum for that. Like Time, the Banner is always worth flipping through. However, I know many people in the CRC who see this magazine headed toward deep water with a millstone that it has tied around its own neck.
I actually have no idea why we receive Smithsonian, but it shows up with my name on. Unsurprisingly, it has a history and science focus. The articles (usually interesting, never compelling) tend to be rather long and verbose, but I think it is geared toward a retired readership with lots of time. Many ads are for arthritis medication, cruises, hearing aids, expensive-looking watches, and kitschy American memorabilia.
Honorable Mentions (Magazines I Used to Subscribe to and Still Wish I Did)
My second favorite magazine. Gorgeous, thoughtful, incisive, and ad-free, it truly is “America’s Finest Environmental Magazine.” But one only has so much time and money.
My favorite literary/arts journal. Ditto everything about Orion except the environmental bit.
I will stop there because I doubt as many people would want to read about scholarly journals like Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment or Christianity & Literature or the blog-like online publications catapult magazine, a publication of *culture is not optional, and Capital Commentary, a publication of the Center for Public Justice, even though all are excellent.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”