what to say about First Things?

People keep writing to me about the Reno Incident, usually wanting to know what I think it says about First Things as a magazine, and aside from saying, on Twitter, that I think this post by Rod Dreher puts the whole business in the proper context, I’m not sure what to add. But I’m gonna give it a try. 

My history with First Things is long and rather complicated. I’ve written about it before, in bits and pieces, but let me sum up here. When the magazine was just a few months old, I found a copy when, on a visit to the University of Chicago, I ducked into 57th Street Books to browse the periodical shelves. There was nothing like it at the time, at least that I knew of, and I fell in love right away. A magazine that took both religion and ideas seriously! First I subscribed, and then I submitted two shortish essays to the editors. Jim Neuchterlein wrote back accepting one of them — strangely enough, it was about Talking Heads — and a beautiful friendship was born. Over the next two decades I appeared in the magazine approximately fifty times: feature essays, shorter opinion pieces, book reviews. 

I did sometimes feel, after Richard John Neuhaus became a Roman Catholic and then a priest — having before that been a Lutheran minister —, that the evangelical wing of small-o orthodox Christendom was occasionally slighted in the pages of the journal, and once I wrote to Father Neuhaus to tell him so. After a few days he replied: 

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Well, I thought, that’s generous. And then a bit of gentle pushback, followed by further reassurances: 

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And, as if he hadn’t completely won me over, this concluding flourish: 

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He could charm, that man. 

I loved writing for First Things, and if I had had my way, I’d have spent the rest of my career writing for that magazine and for John Wilson at the late and so-deeply-lamented Books & Culture. (John’s greatest gift to me, as an editor, was to connect me with books that I could interact with creatively; Jim Neuchterlein’s greatest gift was to teach me about the control of tone, something I really struggled with early in my career.) But I did not get my way. B&C was shut down, and even before that things started getting weird at FT. I have always liked Jody Bottum, and admire him as a writer, but as an editor he was difficult to work with, and when Jim retired and Jody took over, he simply rejected everything I sent him. I had had no rejections from FT in twenty years, and now I could get no acceptances! It was never clear to me exactly what was going on — especially since Jody kept telling me what a wonderful writer I was — but eventually I gave up and started looking elsewhere. Which is how I ended up writing for places like the Atlantic and Harper’s and the New Yorker — because I wasn’t good enough for First Things. Or was no longer “a fit,” anyway. It was, and still is, hard for me to know how much I had changed and how much they had. 

Not, for a long time, being willing to give up altogether, I managed to get a handful of things in the magazine, but it was obvious that my relationship with it was never going to be the same. And then things started getting more generally strange. A kind of … I’m not quite sure what the word is, but I think I want to say a pugilistic culture began to dominate the magazine. When I submitted a piece to an editor, another editor wrote me an angry email demanding to know why I hadn’t submitted it to him; whenever I disagreed with Rusty Reno about something, he would, with such regularity that I felt it had to be intentional, accuse me of having said things I never said; once, when I made a comment on Twitter about the importance of Christians who share Nicene orthodoxy working together, another editor quickly informed me that I’m not a Nicene Christian. (Presumably because, since I’m not a Roman Catholic, I don’t really believe in “the holy Catholic church.”) 

I suspect all these folks would tell a different story than the one I’m telling, so take all this as one person’s point of view, but more and more when I looked at First Things I found myself thinking: What the hell is going on here? Sometimes the whole magazine seemed to be about picking fights, and often enough what struck me as wholly unnecessary and counterproductive fights. (Exhibit A: the Mortara kerfuffle.) So I stopped submitting, and then I stopped subscribing, and then for the most part I stopped reading. This isn’t a matter of principle for me: Whenever someone recommends a piece from the FT magazine or website to me, I read it, and if I like it I say so (usually on Twitter). But effectively there is no overlap any more between my mental world and that of First Things. I regret that. 

Rod Dreher is correct to say, in a follow-up to the post I linked to at the top of this piece, that no other magazine of religion and public life, or religion and intellectual life, has the reach of First Things. But I think the decision by the editors of FT to occupy the rather … distinctive position in the intellectual landscape that they’ve dug into for the past few years has left room for a thousand flowers to bloom in the places that FT is no longer interested in cultivating. I have gotten more and more involved with Comment; they’re publishing some outstanding work at Plough Quarterly; even an endeavor like The Point, not specifically religious at all, makes room for religious voices: My recent post there on Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life would surely have been an FT essay in an earlier dispensation of the magazine. All is not lost. But I fear that First Things — at least in relation to the mission it pursued so enthusiastically for a quarter-century — is lost.