Starting and Running a Magazine

by Jordan Hylden, Harvard ’06

Jordan Hylden was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Harvard’s Ichthus.

Step 1: What’s the Point?

Setting a Vision

No organization can get off the ground without a clearly formed vision—if there isn’t any point to it, then no one will care about it. If you want to start up a magazine, you have to know why, and you have to be able to sell that idea to others. It has to be genuine; it has to be something that you truly care about; and it has to be something that fits into your specific campus, rather than some cookie-cutter template imposed from outside. It also can’t just be the idiosyncratic dream of a single visionary (you, for instance). Nope—unless you have ambitions to be the next Dear Leader of North Korea, that’s probably not a good idea.

The best visions are communal—they’re not seen just by one charismatic leader, but instead are shared among several people in common. That takes work, and it doesn’t just happen spontaneously.

Ask yourselves: Why does this matter to us? What do we envision for this campus? Maybe, like my friends and I at Harvard, you’re trying hard to be a thoughtful Christian witness to fellow students and teachers on a campus where your faith is thought of (to put it bluntly) as a fairy tale at best and as bigotry at worst. You’ve found a solid fellowship group or church that nourishes you spiritually, but you’re having a hard time figuring out how your faith connects to your academic work, and to the intellectual, political, and moral conversation of the university at large.

Probably, you’re not quite sure how the Christian faith connects to the broader university, because for almost everyone there, the claims of biblical religion just aren’t taken seriously. You’re frustrated that the intellectual conversation you’d hoped for at college just isn’t happening, and saddened that so many of your teachers and friends have no idea what the Gospel really means. If your thinking is somewhere along those lines, then great! That’s what I felt like at college, and that’s why we started up our magazine, the Harvard Ichthus.

We wanted to create a space for young and thoughtful Christian students to do the hard (and exciting!) work of relating their faith to their lives in the modern academy, and to put them in conversation with people in the larger university, most of whom had never really been confronted before with Christianity. That’s what we did, and it made a difference. If you’re committed to this sort of vision, you can do it too. Or, maybe, your situation is somewhat reversed.

You go to a Christian university, but so far, it hasn’t been quite what you thought it was cracked up to be. Many of the professors, it seems, aren’t very interested in tying their faith to their teaching—it’s almost as if they think that, in order to be accepted as legit in the “real” world, they have to work double-time to make sure that their faith doesn’t appear to have anything to do with their thought. Maybe your professors seem more interested in pushing their pet heterodoxies and political causes, in order to be “provocative” or “original” or something like that, rather than seeking out the depths and the riches of the Truth found in Christ and his Church. Life at your Christian college can be frustrating—at what you’d thought was a Christian school, you find yourself struggling daily to be a student of and witness to what G.K. Chesterton called the “grand adventure of orthodoxy.” It just wasn’t supposed to be like this, you think—and you wish you could do something about it. If you find yourself in these shoes, an intellectual journal of Christian thought can be just the ticket.

You can become part of a renewal of smart, thoughtful, and orthodox Christian ideas on your campus, by starting up a magazine that challenges the entire university to live up to the best of its ideals, in fidelity to Christ and his Church, without sacrificing its intellectual integrity and sense of discovery and purpose. If this is your vision, you can do the same thing on your campus.

There’s another type of student that I’ve run across a lot, too. Maybe you find yourself at the sort of school where, although the professors and students are plenty orthodox when it comes to the Scriptures and doctrine, not too many people are very interested in it all, at least not on an intellectual level. No one seems into actually engaging the faith in that sense, or questioning it in any way. Some people are fired up about evangelism and Bible study and worship, which is great, but it seems like there are a whole category of intellectual discussions that you just can’t have. There are lots of things about the school that you love, but you’re sort of bored, and wish that you could somehow get people to step outside of the boxes they’ve built for themselves. You wish that you could ignite the fire that comes from desiring to know the God who is Truth, and push people to take the step of faith that trusts Christ’s promise to lead us into all the truth: “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” I more-or-less grew up feeling like this, so if this hits home to you, I know what you’re going through. To say the least, it can be frustrating. But if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that sitting around and moping doesn’t help. Neither does putting on airs, and thinking that you’re somehow smarter or more enlightened than everyone else. If you really feel this way, then do something about it. Once again, if you’re anything like I am, then starting up a magazine can make a big difference.

Don’t let yourself get frustrated with the people around you—they’re your brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died, and you have a lot to learn from them, too. If you care about them, then start talking with them. Find some friends who feel the same way, and put together a top-flight intellectual Christian journal. Start a real, campus-wide conversation with the students and professors at your school. You can start a genuine awakening on your campus, and be a part of something that changes academic apathy into the exciting adventure of faith. These three scenarios, of course, are just my guesses at what your vision might be.

Every campus is different, and you’re going to have to do the challenging (yet fun) work of casting a vision for your own school. That means gathering together a group of friends, professors, and campus chaplains, to sit down and talk about what you want your magazine to look like. If you’re a Protestant (evangelical or otherwise), I’d strongly recommend including the Catholics, and vice-versa—we need each other, and the best Christian conversations are those that include the entire Church. Once you get a strong group together, you’re basically good to go. If there are enough people willing to make this happen, then it’ll happen—it’s just nuts and bolts and elbow grease from there on out.
I’d also recommend reading the other Christian publications out there, in order to get an idea for what yours will look like. My favorites are:

1. First Things (www.firstthings.com). I’ll admit, I’m prejudiced (I worked here), but this was the prototype and the inspiration for me, and it may well be for you, too. As the former editor-in-chief, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, used to say: a magazine that advertises itself as doing “religion, culture, and public life” covers just about everything that’s possibly of interest. It’s decidedly high-brow and intellectual (no pictures, lots of philosophy and talk about the Magisterium), and does opinion pieces, feature essays, book reviews, poetry, and a running commentary on whatever the editors find interesting on a given month. It’s both Catholic and catholic—much of the magazine is written by Roman Catholics, but a large part is Protestant, Orthodox, and even Jewish. (Fr. Neuhaus, along with Charles Colson, led the prominent group Evangelicals and Catholics Together). You should read it, starting now. It’s where I learned how fun and exciting being a thoughtful Christian can be.

2. Books and Culture (http://www.christianitytoday.com/books). A publication of Christianity Today, this magazine features excellent book reviews and articles, published mostly from an evangelical Christian perspective. It’s done at a very high level, and includes voices from the mainline Protestant denominations as well. Just as intellectual and solidly orthodox as First Things, and with (I must admit) better pictures.

3. Christian Century (http://www.christiancentury.org). The voice of mainline Protestant Christianity, here is where you look to find respected names like Frederick Buechner, William Willimon, L. Gregory Jones, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Martin Marty. The Century has for years been a strong and worthwhile publication. It’s oftentimes very thoughtful, and you’d be missing an important part of the Christian conversation without it.

Sound good? Once you look at these sorts of publications to get ideas, and talk about what you want to see on your campus, then you have the first step down. You know who you are, and what you want.

On to the next step: Building a Team.