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Communal Journalism

By October 12, 2012 No Comments

Spent an enjoyable mid-afternoon today talking with the board of Perspectives, the journal that’s the mother of The 12 blog. I served on the Perspectives board for twelve years, six as one of its co-editors; plus I’ve written a lot about the history of the religious bodies that support the magazine and its predecessors, the Reformed Journal and the Calvin Forum. So I reviewed for the folks some of the main themes in the 75-year annals of these periodicals—the leading traits of their contents and of the communities that made them go.

It’s the content that ultimately counts with magazines, and with blogs for that matter. But especially with “little magazines” like Perspectives, which runs entirely on voluntary work, it’s the community that gets the content into print. A band of people sharing a vision and a passion, though harboring enough diversity within that vision to make for productive interplay. And then, over time, bonds of loyalty and affection grow, as we live with each other’s personal and professional news, joys, sufferings. Spirals of progress and regress at our day jobs; eddies and shifting currents in our faith. It’s this tangible experience that helps the official mission and general outlook of this or any magazine get real, specific, gritty—that gives it purchase and might make it register among readers.

Those communities are getting harder to sustain, and the leading candidates to replace them—the virtual networks of the blog-sphere—aren’t the same. These have value, but a different value. The tight communities of personal contact that sustained the Journal, the Forum, and Perspectives to date are attenuated by the multiplying, yet segmenting media that shape us, by diffusion in the denominations from which we come—and by diffusion in the very tradition that has given these journals their name: Reformed, Calvinist. Sometimes I think only a niche can house passion, a niche defined by hostile neighbors to either side. But do we want to get our vision and identity by what we’re not?

Then I remember that this tradition has been around a long time, and it’s rooted in a body of thought and conviction older yet. It would be a mistake to ignore how traditions shape and inspire—they propel and sustain us, and not just the other way around. Journals and blogs like Perspectives and The 12 are here to help hone the particular angle of vision that promises a readerly home among people of similar conviction, and to inspire and nurture that conviction in the first place.   

This sort of work is my nominee today for the casting-your-bread-upon-the-waters prize. You just don’t know how or when it will swing round the wide world and come back to you.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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