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The 20th Anniversary of First Things

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 22, 2010

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus did not live to see the 20th anniversary of the magazine he founded. But with the March 2010 issue that magazine is celebrating twenty years of what must be described as the most intelligent ongoing conversation concerning religion and public life in the contemporary world. I’m talking about First Things. The anniversary issue consists of reprints of the best of the magazine’s articles, insights and poetry, as well as a pictorial section highlighting principal editors, authors and supporters.

Speaking of poetry, perhaps you didn’t know that First Things adheres to a long-standing magazine tradition of including poetry as filler for the blank sections of the pages on which articles end. But in this case the poetry is far more than filler; some of the finest Christian poems of the past generation have been published in these pages. Indeed, for those who love poetry, the five to ten poems which appear in each issue are by themselves worth the price of admission.

As to the major articles, I recall that my own first reaction to First Things was not completely positive. Back in my early 40’s I more easily grew impatient with those who discussed things too much without advocating a clear and consistent course of action. But those with long memories may recall that we at Trinity Communications (the non-profit corporation that runs CatholicCulture.org) have been working on this same problem in various ways for the past 25 years. Only now are we ready to launch a concrete initiative to help consistently bridge the gap between thought and action (see Changing the World One Step at a Time). A consistent action program is exceedingly difficult to devise, and I’ve learned through hard experience to appreciate the preliminary necessity of clear thought. Indeed, I have not infrequently relied on First Things in the development of my own positions and proposals.

It should be noted that the magazine remains but a single step shy of an academic journal. It’s a very long step, in terms of interest and audience, but those readers who can barely suffer through my own denser writings on this web site will be better off giving a subscription to First Things a pass. Whether or not they enter a subscription, however, all readers will be well-served by purchasing the anniversary issue. In it, many of the magazine’s best insights are spread out in short form. Much of the issue is devoted to excerpts of just a few short paragraphs each from countless articles—snippets capturing those luminescent insights which have stood the test of time.

In the realm of Catholic social teaching, for example, take this nugget from “Conservatism Against Itself” by Christopher Lasch, which appeared in April 1990. It has a way of making those of us who are instinctive conservatives do a double-take:

Capitalism’s relentless erosion of proprietary institutions furnishes the clearest evidence of its incompatibility with anything that deserves the name of cultural conservatism. There is obviously a good deal to be said, from the conservative point of view, for the institution of private property…. Twentieth-century capitalism, however, has replaced private property with a corporate form of property that confers none of these moral and cultural advantages. The transformation of artisans, farmers, and other small proprietors into wage-earners undermines the “traditional values” conservatives seek to preserve.

Or in the realm of faith, take this comment on late twentieth-century Catholicism from Peter Berger’s “Worldly Wisdom, Christian Foolishness” (August/September 1990). It may have a similar impact on instinctive liberals:

In a recent conversation, a sociologist in Spain who has studied the great changes that have occurred in the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council said something that struck me as very insightful. Christians who consider themselves “progressives”, he said, always tell us to “read the signs of the times”; has it never occurred to these people, he asked, that they might write some of these signs? At least in recent years, the stance of Christians (and by no means only Roman Catholics) in the face of the “wisdom” of the modern world has been largely passive, even supine—a “reading” rather than “writing” attitude. The gospel was subjected to the judgment of this or that worldly standard; rarely did the reverse occur.

These two snippets come from the very first year. They represent a kind of writing that forces one to think more deeply, to consider one’s ideas and commitments from a fresh perspective, to become not only opinionated but genuinely informed. Reading just the thirty-three pages devoted to these “Snapshots” will more than justify the $4.95 cover price at your local news stand. Do yourself a great favor, then. Acquaint yourself with some of the first things in First Things.

An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:

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  • Posted by: jimwhitend - Feb. 23, 2010 6:24 PM ET USA

    I like First Things a lot, just as I do CathlicCulture.org. I think, however, that they are both more than occasionally afflicted with a political bias that is unsupported by our tradition. Often that bias is revealed more in the mode of expression, especially sarcasm, than in what is expressed. Sarcasm is very rarely useful, encouraging division and hardening of hearts, often at a subconscious level. Regardless, hats off to both forums (fora?).

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