Ah, yes, change. Something that we both crave and fear. The theme of Barack Obama’s victorious presidential campaign and now the mantra of his Tea Party opponents. A more or less neutral value in itself, since change can be for good or ill.
Sometimes change is predictable (and perhaps, therefore, not really much of a change at all) and sometimes unexpected, shocking, unsettling. I experienced one such unexpected change last month when I found the most recent issue of First Things in my mailbox.
There was a picture on the cover.
What had happened, I wondered. Was this some sort of belated April Fool’s Day issue? Or a sign of the impending apocalypse? I scanned the horizon and saw no horsemen, so, gingerly, I opened the cover.
Inside other strange innovations: color photos and glossy pages.
And, I’ll admit, I had a moment of deep existential crisis. Had First Things gone frou-frou? The pleasure of the magazine, what sets it apart for me, has always been its substance: articles which are meaty but still accessible to non-experts. This combination meant that I always seemed to learn something from each new issue of First Things.
The range of substantial, engaging articles over the years since I became a ROFTER (which, as other ROFTERs know, stands for “Reader Of First Things”) has been memorable: Avery Dulles, S.J., writing on soteriology; a pointed debate on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Holy Saturday theology; Joseph Bottum on mainline Protestantism; Mary Ann Glendon on Cicero; Jewish perspectives on Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth; and on and on.
And then, as I flipped through this strange new magazine, I found something comfortingly familiar in the center: the old rag paper, the same substantial commentaries printed without frills or pictures—in short, all that I had come to appreciate about First Things.
I’ve warmed to this redesign. The magazine is attractive, and magazines should be attractive. Reading should be pleasurable. The great exchanges between readers and writers in the “Letters” section are still there, and there are a few new things too which have been made possible by the inclusion of photos and colors. I especially like the new section, with pictures, on architecture.
So in the end, I’m won over by this change. First Things promises to continue to take religion seriously and to interest itself in the affairs of the world. Its commentaries will remain meaty, and this redesign may allow First Things to pay more attention to the arts. I’m glad they’re continuing to publish poems and wish that they would consider publishing a short story every once in a while (as does Commonweal occasionally).
Bobby Kennedy once said that twenty percent of the American public is against everything, and as Joseph Bottum, First Thing’s editor, pointed out in this issue, every redesign creates controversy. But I am cautiously optimistic about this new First Things. It’s a change I can (tentatively) believe in.