There are many folks who are familiar with the White Horse Inn radio show, but aren’t as familiar with her slightly younger sister Modern Reformation magazine who is turning 20 years old this year. To make her ready for the birthday celebrations she underwent a complete make-over, which was revealed in the January/February 2012 issue. The editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation, Dr. Michael Horton, recently answered some questions about MR and why we think it contributes to the conversation taking place within the church today. The video and transcript are below.
When did you start Modern Reformation, and most importantly, why?
Modern Reformation actually grew out of a newsletter, and we didn’t have very high expectations for it initially. It was one of those things that just sort of caught on. It grew out of the experience of a number of us, first at Biola University, and then when I became a student at Westminster Seminary California. It was sort of a cottage project of a bunch of folks who were learning Reformed theology on the fly. It became interesting to other people, and then we included, actually right from the very beginning, Lutheran writers, and people from Calvinistic Baptist backgrounds, as well as Reformed and Presbyterian. So right there at the outset, Modern Reformation established itself as a cross-pollinating conversation among the various Reformation traditions.
The reason we started it was because we thought that there was a real place for this cross conversation between various representatives of the Reformation churches. Not because we want to create some sort of united church, but because we want to take the treasures from all of the different traditions that hail from the great rediscovery of the gospel in the 16th century, and bring them to bear on the topics of interest to us as Christians today. It’s not just going back to the Reformation. It’s sort of like finding all sorts of cool things in the attic from your grandparents, and bringing them downstairs and trying them on. And then really learning how the great contributions, the conclusions out of important debates can really help us think through the controversies and challenges and opportunities of our own day. As Dr. Bob Godfrey says, we often try to reinvent the wheel, and it’s never round. A lot of people have gone before us, and hashed out a lot of issues that are still of great importance to the church today. We saw a place out there for a magazine like this, because really there was nothing in the same category out there. There are magazines for pastors, mainly about how to build a church, and how to put together a successful ministry; there are magazines out there for Christian parenting, for all sorts of special interests. But we thought that all Christians – men, women, parents, children, adults, teenagers, grandparents, grandchildren – would find theology interesting, and as it turns out, they have. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re so grateful for the blessing that God has given to Modern Reformation over these 20 years.
Where does Modern Reformation fit in the world of Christian publishing?
When you think about what Modern Reformation’s place is out there in the marketplace of magazines, it’s odd. We kind of straddle the fence between a popular magazine and a theology journal. It’s clearly not a theology journal – we don’t have a bunch of footnotes, we don’t go into great detail, we don’t explore some of the more obscure themes and figures in church history. At the same time, it’s not really just a popular magazine that focuses on news of the day, or a Christian take on this issue or that issue. It’s really more serious than that. So it’s sort of a serious magazine. And that is not exactly a place that’s occupied out there in the marketplace. There are great magazines and periodicals out there that do what Modern Reformation does not do, like TableTalk, Ligionier’s publication. But Modern Reformation is an attempt to take Christians to the next step, as far as a magazine goes, into exploring what they believe and why they believe it.
There are great resources out there for devotional use and edification from a Reformation perspective, but Modern Reformation, I think, is distinct in that it is an attempt to really rebuild the furniture, or the categories of Christian faith and practice, to remind ourselves once again what we believe and why we believe it.
Who reads Modern Reformation?
That’s interesting – we think that we know the readership of Modern Reformation until we actually conduct surveys, and of course they’re not scientific surveys; we ask people to respond who read the magazine. What we get is really quite a cross section of people from different traditions: mainly Reformed and Presbyterian, but also Lutheran, and also Baptist, Evangelical Free, even Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic subscribers, and certainly people from the Anglican churches. So it’s really exciting to see the diverse discussions across the traditions that are happening today. People are looking for something deeper than a few thoughts for the day.
Why do you still write MR articles after 20 years, and is there still a place for the long form essay in a magazine in our bit-driven world?
I’ve been writing in the magazine for these 20 years regularly because I find that it is a really important outlet for me in my teaching ministry. I’m always encouraged when people tell me that they’re going over it in their family devotions, or they’re working through it as a couple, or with their family, or that their teenagers are getting excited about theology, and wanting to graduate from reading an article on a subject in Modern Reformation to reading a book that was recommended in that issue. That’s such an encouragement to keep on writing for it. I’ve learned so much also myself from this conversation. I learn a lot from reading the articles of other contributors from other traditions. It really helps us – iron sharpens iron, and sometimes we don’t even know our own tradition very well, until someone outside of it comes to us and says something that we haven’t heard before, and we go back and we find that actually, our folks did say some things about this. So that’s been a really exciting journey for me personally.
I do think that there is a place still for the long essay form. Again, if it’s not technical, if it is clear, if it is addressing the questions that people are asking – not just giving them the truth in the form that we think we would like to give it, but asking the questions that we think are on their minds, and then forming articles around that. There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of books in our day. But one of the things that especially publishers have been fond of pointing out is the explosion of publishing companies and of distribution points – I don’t think Amazon.com has really gotten the news that books are over. “Its death,” as Mark Twain said, “is greatly exaggerated.” I think the same goes for tougher essays. “Essay” sounds so academic, but an essay in terms of a 4,000 word article that outlines why this is important, goes to the Scriptures to ground that argument, talks about the history of Christian interpretation on that subject – that’s very vital for everyday Christians. I think we forget just how prepared Christians in other ages were to read pretty difficult stuff, theologically. That’s a discipline that we need to recover. It’s only when we’re told that we can’t understand something that we give up. But we find, I think, when we pick up a strong bit of material, that a good meal is worth the wait.
What makes a good conversation for Modern Reformation?
I think there are lots of factors that go into making for a good conversation for Modern Reformation. One is selecting the topics that are of interest to a wide spectrum of Christians. The other is to find writers who are gifted in communicating that to people in the pew. You have to really be motivated to
read Modern Reformation. It’s not the sort of thing that you can just pick up and digest in five minutes. You have to make a commitment to it–not because it’s difficult to understand, but because it requires patience and investment of time and energy in poring over. That, I think, creates a good conversation. You put good topics, important topics, together with good communicators, and I think that’s one of the things that make Modern Reformation really distinctive.
What roles does Modern Reformation have in the theological pilgrimage of its readers?
One of the funny things that I hear from time to time is that people who are in churches that are not, let’s say, exactly in the Reformation camp, get their Modern Reformation and walk out of the office with it in a brown paper bag. Then they go home and digest it, and are excited about it, and then they start passing it around to their fellow pastors and elders and people in the church. We’ve heard about wonderful things happening, reformation happening in churches as a result of people having the conversations in person that we have in the pages of the magazine.
Modern Reformation is passed around a lot. We know that a lot of people who don’t subscribe read it, that it does get passed around. We have a lot of anecdotes regularly coming in along those lines, and that’s exciting, because it means that kindling is being placed in fireplaces all over, and hopefully fires are burning, and people are talking about these transformative doctrines again, in ways they haven’t, perhaps, in the past. It’s something that really is a great gift to give to pastors, to give to elders, to give to people in the church you know who are interested in digging a little more deeply into their faith. It kind of shows that you have confidence in them as gifted spiritual leaders, that you value their ability to pore over a magazine like that.
We also are in the middle right now of a redesign that’s very exciting, because now Modern Reformation will be a lot easier to put in that brown paper bag, or to put in a booklet. It’s a booklet size and the paper is going to be of a type where you can write on it easily and take notes. So you can really use it as a companion for your own reflections on the Scriptures. The way the word gets out about Modern Reformation - we don’t have a large staff or a large marketing budget at all – the way it gets out is because people like you pass it around. What we often find is that once people start reading it, they get hooked. R.C. Sproul says that it’s the magazine he reads from cover to cover. That’s the way it is, that’s why it takes some time. You get sort of into it and you don’t want to stop reading. I’m not usually like that with magazines – I’ll read an article here, an article there. But I think Modern Reformation, for a lot of people, is the magazine they read from cover to cover.