Today, I have the privilege of posting an interview with Mark Galli, the senior managing editor for Christianity Today and the author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God, Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy and Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God.
Trevin Wax: You recently wrote a cover story for Christianity Today that called evangelicals back to the primacy of grace. Why do you believe this emphasis on grace is necessary during this present time?
Mark Galli: For evangelicals it’s an emphasis necessary in all times. We are a movement whose charism is activism. We gather from our various streams and traditions (Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal, independent, etc.) because we want to join together to do something: evangelize, send missionaries overseas, open urban missions, and so forth. And what a gift this is to the world!
But this strength is also our weakness. It usually begins from a deep sense of gratefulness for what God has done for us–we love because we’ve been loved. But, human nature being what it is, the doing quickly starts to become an end in itself. And then we start imagining that the future of the church or missions or the planet itself depends on our doing. I give lots of examples of this in the October 2009 cover story, so I won’t repeat them here.
I will relate one email comment I received after the article came out. I was in conversation with one friend who wrote a book that I feel very much is characteristic of an activism that has left grace behind. He kept insisting that he believed in grace–which I have no doubt about–and that he said so in his book–which was simply not true. When I showed him how little grace appeared as a motive or framing of the book, he responded angrily, “What’s with the grace thing anyway. It’s so vague and jargony.”
When grace is seen as assumed or, worse, “vague and jargony,” I think we’ve got a problem! Without a constant reminder about the priority of grace, we will not only burn out, but our organizations, church and parachurch, will turn into nothing but glorified social service agencies.
Trevin Wax: Evangelicals are divided over the idea of cultural transformation, namely the amount of influence the church has or should have on the surrounding culture. What are your views on the church and culture?
Mark Galli: James Davison Hunter has just published a book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. He analyzes the work of everyone from Chuck Colson to James Dobson to Jim Wallis to Andy Crouch, arguing that evangelical views on transforming culture have been naive. Whether you agree with him or not, the book will change the conversation in our movement. An interview with him will appear in the May issue of CT. (So just a heads up to your readers about that.)
My personal view is that it is not our job to transform our culture, let alone the world. Our job is to do the specific thing God has called us to do, whether that is evangelizing the neighborhood, working against the sexual slave trade, relieving world hunger, or whatever. Our job is to do that faithfully and well–and to let God take care of transforming the culture.
Transforming culture is an incredibly complex thing that no person or group can possibly grasp. It’s something that happens, but it happens over centuries. The process is so slow that it is indiscernible to us except in hindsight. I think talk about transforming the world usually fills us with dreams and visions of our own power, when really our vision should be on the people we’re are seeking to love in Christ’s name.
But at CT we recognize that not every evangelical agrees with this point of view! So while you’ll see me wax eloquent (and not so eloquent) on this point from time to time, you’ll also find articles and interviews in CT where the transformation message is repeated.
Trevin Wax: What are your thoughts on the recent announcement of Philip Ryken as the next president of Wheaton College?
Mark Galli: I was surprised at the announcement, given his pastoral (vs. academic) background, and given his strongly Reformed perspective (given that Wheaton is more theologically diverse). But he’s done a marvelous job of answering concerns about these matters, and his initial moves as president-elect have been impressive.
Trevin Wax: How has Christianity Today fared during these days of difficulty for print media and these days of increasing evangelical fragmentation?
Mark Galli: Like every other publishing company, we had to cut staff and pages in 2009. Fortunately, our parent company, Christianity Today International, has been fiscally conservative. So we had funds to help us weather 2009, when we took a big hit financially. With the cuts and a trimmer budget, the good ship CT is no longer listing, and is starting to move forward again. I’m pretty optimistic about the future, frankly.
Trevin Wax: Could you explain your role as senior managing editor of Christianity Today?
Mark Galli: I’m responsible for deciding what goes in each issue of the magazine, how it is shaped, edited, titled, and designed. That being said, there is no way that one person can do all this. And while I may have the final say on all these matters, I depend heavily on a very gifted staff to bring their expertise to bear on the magazine. For example, I rarely tell the design team to redo a design–that’s really their expertise, and I’d be a fool to think I could design better than they can.
So much of what we do is collaborative–we’re always in conversation about matter large and small–that it’s sometimes hard to say who actually was responsible for this design or that title or the shape of that article. People regularly compliment me on the magazine, and I regularly say that it’s a group effort from start to finish. We really have a talented staff right now, so it makes my job relatively easy!
Trevin Wax: Where do you see Christianity Today ten years from now theologically?
Mark Galli: About where we are today: a centrist, mildly Reformed publication. That’s been our history for 55 years, and, given the current editorial leadership, I don’t see anything that would suggest we’ll be shifting in the near future.
I like to reiterate, however, that who we are as a magazine and what we publish are slightly different. That is, while our editorial bias is mildly Reformed, we’re always on the look out for Wesleyan authors to contribute their unique perspective in our pages. And while we’re centrist, we like to publish pieces about and by evangelicals more decidedly on the left and right.
In other words, we see ourselves as a magazine where the movement can come and reason together. We have our own biases, and it would be dishonest to pretend we don’t. But we try to remain open to other points of view. It’s not about the biases of the current staff, but about the movement as a whole.