Spring 2005 issue cover


The Risk of Beginning Again

Cover illustration by Istvan Orosz. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Will Joyner

Given a cover article that relates creation myths to today’s best science, it’s tempting to introduce this first issue of a highly transformed Harvard Divinity Bulletin by dwelling on the rich symbolism of origins, of new birth. And we do, of course, want our readers to notice just how new this magazine is—in design and editorial scope—and to be as happy as we are at its arrival. But the more dominant theme that runs through the following pages is, frankly, that of risk.

First of all, this magazine (although it has existed in some form since 1936, the Bulletin has not until now been accurately called a magazine) represents a large, if well-considered, risk of resources on the part of Harvard Divinity School, in particular Dean William A. Graham. From the first floating of the idea, he has enthusiastically supported our making the Bulletin into a publication that is explicitly aimed at a general audience interested in topics of religion while, at the same time, creating an adjunct publication to communicate more effectively about the particulars of HDS life. (That related publication, to appear four times a year, will be called Harvard Divinity Today; for more information, see page 78.) The Dean deserves special thanks here.

We believe that this publication can be a broadly accessible—and broadly participated in—forum on questions of worldwide, ecumenical concern.

In one sense, this institutional risk is financial—and you can bet we’ll be paying close attention to wise management. But more essentially the risk is conceptual. Readers of this “new” Bulletin may recognize that not all the notes on contributors have references to Harvard Divinity School; the School’s influence will now be primarily—albeit, we hope, forcefully—evident in the words and ideas of these contributors. Especially at a moment when conflict in public arenas so often involves religion, we believe it is important to open out the way we interpret, and reflect, HDS’s mission—which is preparing future scholars, ministers, and leaders across the professions ac-cording to a common intellectual rigor and with an emphasis on religious pluralism. We believe that this publication can be, in that regard, a broadly accessible—and broadly participated in—forum on questions of worldwide, ecumenical concern, with the School as its dynamic bedrock and monitor of excellence.

Is there a broad audience for a magazine that emphasizes religion but is neither scholarly journal nor newsmagazine? We’re taking an educated guess that there is—but that guess is its own sort of risk. As you glance through this issue, you’ll quickly educate yourself to the fairly simple organization of content: a Dialogue section, made up of brief pieces, some traditional opinion, some more unorthodox reflection; a Featured section of longer articles; an In Review section of book and arts criticism; and poetry and artwork throughout. The catch is that we have clearly framed the Bulletin’s editorial challenge as if the magazine were to appear monthly, or even weekly. That is, we want each of these sections to be as full as possible of timely insight and information on crucial issues that are covered virtually every day in the news media. We want to be vital reading, but we can bring out only three Bulletins a year.

As careful as we will try to be in our planning, this editorial strategy—identifying the publication as a critical review attuned, in part, to what’s current—will occasionally make us look foolish. Example: As I write these words, Pope John Paul II has just died, and the reactions, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, are astonishing. It’s much too late for us to insert any related analysis, but to have committed to such months ago would have been gruesome. Our job now is to prepare coverage of the pope’s last days, his legacy, and his successor that will still be fresh and engaging next September in our autumn issue.

That said, we are extremely proud of the issue that you see before you, which includes the valuable contributions of quite a range of writers—from an astrophysicist to a star of children’s literature, from noted religion scholars to a noted religious activist, from poets known to poets relatively unknown. The topics are of the essence for spring 2005 and beyond, and I simply urge you to turn through all the pages, and to return to them again and again. (Among other things, we have tried to fashion an attractive physical object that one would naturally hang on to for a while.)

One other risk implicit in these pages is our commitment to seek out and publish the work of thoughtful writers from across the political spectrum. There are many worthy critical publications today, in print and on the web, but very few of them are able—or have the inclination—to present a regular sampling of opinion, or scholarship, that varies widely in political disposition. And when topics of religion, and religious affiliation, are thrown into the mix, this void becomes even more pronounced. Being based at Harvard Divinity School—an institution long and widely accused, often wrongly, of a liberal political hegemony—we are acutely aware of a pressing need to break down the barriers of ideology. A couple of the contributions in this issue, those by Charles Marsh and Jim Wallis, directly address the great desire on the part of many Americans, especially at this point in the country’s history, not to be defined—not to be crippled—by even the notions of ideology.

The goal is not to temper opinions down to agreement. The goal is to nurture a place where responsible people can trade ideas, perhaps disagreeing strongly, so that the culture wars can more easily become meaningful cultural negotiations.

We hope that our readers, too, will share their pointed opinions. Please write to us and help enrich the Letters section; and please tell your friends and colleagues about the Bulletin. But above all, we hope that the Bulletin, in this era of its long life, at this new beginning, will become a joy and inspiration to read. If it does, all the risk will  prove worthwhile.

Will Joyner has been editor of the Bulletin since September 1999.

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