Labor of Love: Revisions

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Deservedly or not, there are a number of prevailing attitudes about Christians in our culture: that they are incapable of rigorous intellectual discourse; that they are culturally backwards and thus detrimental to society; and that they are hateful bigots who shun those unlike them.

I only mention these three in particular because Revisions so thoroughly demolishes them (but I’m getting ahead of myself). Designed to “invigorate the intellectual possibility of a worldview centered on the Gospel, both at Princeton University and the world at large,” Revisions is a student-run Christian journal compiled by Princetonians from various Christian fellowships on campus (Manna Christian Fellowship is particularly closely associated with it). The magazine was first published in 2005, and over the next five years new issues were put out regularly before production ceased in 2010. Last year, however, production resumed with the publication of the spring and summer issue. I address solely these latest two issues in my review because they best reflect Revisions as it currently exists.

Concerning the precise nature of the magazine’s aims, it will be helpful to consider the website’s own words. Revisions engages in “re-visioning the world through the life, death, resurrection, and glory of Jesus Christ.” Specifically, its staff seeks to “revive the rich Christian tradition of vibrant intellectual engagement with and critical reflection on the social, cultural, philosophical, political, and scientific issues facing a pluralistic university community.” This is a lofty mission statement indeed, but how well does Revisions measure up to it, and how well does this journal refute the above-mentioned stereotypes?

Beginning with the issue of intelligence, many people take it for granted that Christians, by virtue of the sheer impossibility or illogicality of their beliefs, cannot be intellectually serious people. While this may be true in some cases, one need only read any given article of Revisions to immediately realize that this stereotype is by no means universal. Its articles are smart and thoughtfully written and contain clear and well-organized prose, with ideas flowing in a logical progression toward the authors’ conclusions. Regarding the actual content, the writers admirably live up to the magazine’s stated goals. In each article, the author considers a particular topic or question and examines it in the light of the Christian faith. These topics can be as academic as “How Can Hell Be Eternal?” or as personal as a writer’s own account of how Christian fellowship can fall prey to the same exclusivity and “cliquey” quality found in other social groups. The former in particular is an excellent illustration of the deep intellectual waters that Revisions often navigates. In order to defend the eternality of hell, the author draws on ideas from Cur Deus Homo, a classic Christian work by Saint Anselm of Canterbury. In another article, “Tolerance and Forbearance,” the author proposes a Christian conception of tolerance by citing the definition put forth by ethicist John Bowlin of Princeton Theological Seminary and comparing it to other definitions suggested by Marxist intellectuals Herbert Marcuse and Slavoj Žižek. Whether or not one ultimately accepts the ideas expressed by these thinkers or the conclusions that the authors draw from them, it cannot be denied that the interaction with the literature indicates a level of intellectual awareness that is a far cry from the sort of “believe everything by faith” mentality with which Christians are often labeled. In light of this, some may question whether personal, subjective musings ought to have a place alongside the more intellectual pieces, but I maintain that they are integral to the magazine’s identity. Revisions embraces the realm of reasoned discourse, but it also recognizes that human experience plays a key role in the reflective Christian life. No matter the nature of the article, then, the writers consistently do a commendable job of thinking about the issue at hand and putting forth a uniquely Christian way of understanding it.

In a typical issue, all of the articles are tied together by an overarching theme. The three articles just mentioned, for example, are part of the issue on “Christianity and the Problem of Exclusivity.” Other themes explored in previous issues include “Sex is Good,” “The Pursuit of Happiness,” and “Gender and Christianity.” As these titles indicate, Revisions often deals in topics that are of interest not merely to Christians but to the general campus community as well. This naturally leads us to the question of whether Christians can positively engage with the wider culture, where I now turn.

As alluded to previously, Christians are often thought to be indifferent, if not actively opposed, to modern contemporary values. In many articles of Revisions, however, the writers ably defy this assumption. Space does not permit me to recount every instance of this, but one of the best examples can be found in an article titled “Feminism and Christianity.” In that article, the author raises the question of whether a Christian woman can be a good mother and pursue a career at the same time. Many people would probably assume that a Christian’s answer to this question must be “no,” and it is admittedly the case that some Christians would say this is true. As the author shows in her response to the question, though, it is possible for a Christian to answer “yes” with integrity. After citing a key passage from the Book of Proverbs she concludes, “I am not shut in by the Biblical depiction of a woman. Rather, I could not possibly achieve all it asks.” The implication is that the Christian conception of woman, far from being too constricted or stifling, is capable of encompassing all types of female vocation, whether they involve a career, family care, or both. The point to be taken from this example is not that the writers of Revisions always take positions that coincide with the norms of the broader culture. (In fact, they often combat the secular understanding of various issues.) The point is that, as a publication, Revisions is not deaf to or indifferent toward the possible tensions between Christian and secular thought. Indeed, it frequently tackles such issues head-on, even if the conclusions drawn are not always compatible with non-Christian sensibilities.

Fresh off the subject of Christian engagement with the larger culture, it is appropriate to address the question of whether Revisions is only worthwhile reading for Christians, or whether non-Christians can enjoy it as well. Here, the answer is somewhat complicated. It is undoubtedly true that the kinds of articles that the magazine publishes are most likely to be of interest to practicing Christians who seek an intellectually richer understanding of their faith and new ideas to ponder toward the same end. A good example of this is “Taste and See That the Lord Is Good,” an article that sets forth a Christian understanding of temperance and gives practical advice for living it out. At the same time, however, many articles address topics that should be of interest to anyone, Christian or not (“A Reflection on Capital Punishment” and the aforementioned “Feminism and Christianity” are good examples). For those non-Christians who are interested in understanding the sort of views, mindset or thought processes that are representative of many Christians, I would say that any article printed in Revisions is sure to be insightful. “But will it be fair to those with whom it disagrees?” one may ask. This brings us to the last common conception of Christians I mentioned, which is that they do not tolerate those who disagree with them.

It is undeniable that there are many people who profess to be Christians yet are woefully intolerant of non-Christians in the sense that they aggressively mock or belittle them for having opposing views. This is decidedly not the case with the writers of Revisions, and it is probably one of the magazine’s most striking qualities. By its nature the journal is not polemical; it does not set up ideological conflicts between Christians and non-Christians in order to crush or antagonize the latter. Rather, the authors simply lay out their views and reasoning in the hope of persuading readers to see things the same way, and if they are unconvinced then so be it. In fact, many articles expressly call on Christian readers to put love at the center of their lives (including, of course, love for those who disagree with them). Revisions has an agenda, to be sure, but in a media world where newspapers, magazines and websites so often put other groups down in favor of their own views, its tone is remarkably gentle and, I might venture to say, loving by comparison.

I will close by addressing a final complaint that non-Christians might have about Revisions, which is that almost all its articles seem to end in more or less the same way: “Jesus is lord of all,” “In [Christ] alone we trust,” “The cross calls us to suffer with Christ”—in short, Jesus is the answer to everything. If this is the underlying message of all the content to be found in Revisions, then what point is there in continuing to read it beyond one or two articles? In answer to this I would say two things: first, the general principle that “Jesus is the answer to everything” is at the very center of Christianity, so it would arguably be remiss of the writers to not reflect this in each article. Second, the centrality of Jesus may be the fundamental principle of a Christian life, but by itself this leaves vast areas of practice and detail to be filled out, which is precisely what Revisions sets out to do. So, whether you are a practicing Christian looking to enrich your faith or a sceptic looking to discover whether Christian intellectual writing has anything serious to offer, I urge you to turn to Revisions and be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

James Clark is a senior from Waycross, GA, majoring in the Religion Department. He can be reached at jdctwo@princeton.edu.

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