The inaugural editorial of the Nicotine Theological Journal (January 1997) took a few fun swipes at teetotalers and scolds (including Al Gore), who admittedly, in the words of Garrison Keillor, “live longer, but they live dumber.” “The sun,” the editors quoted C.S. Lewis as saying, “looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him.” They appropriated this sentiment as “Reformed wisdom” about the “simplicity and depth of creature comforts” (Hear, hear!) and announced that they would consider joining the likes of the Christian Coalition only after that body began proposing laws to protect such comforts.
Alas, coeditors John R. Muether and D.G. Hart—librarians at the Reformed Theological and Westminster Theological seminaries, respectively—also cautioned that their eight-page quarterly “is not a Reformed version of Cigar Aficionado.” They would not devote pages to “cultivating yuppie trappings,” though each and every issue does feature a brief “Second Hand Smoke” reflection on the “virtues and delights” of consuming tobacco and alcohol, reprinted from such authors as John Updike and Michael Kelly.
Rather, the NTJ promised to be a theological journal in a very unusual sense. Sponsored by the Old Life Theological Society, it would concern itself not so much with exegetical and theological minutiae but with “the God ordained means of grace as well as the habits and sensibilities that articulate, cultivate and reinforce orthodoxy.” This was to be primarily a journal of theology as it works itself out in the everyday lives of old-school Reformed Christians (“old lifers”), from the liturgical calendar to the relatively harsh interpretations of the Second and Fourth Commandments (in the Reformed numbering, on idolatry and the Sabbath) to their more robust views on Christian liberty in other matters (hence the title).
Six years later, the NTJ can be judged only a partial success in adhering to its mandate, though non-Reformed readers will think it more worthwhile for the deviations. Hart and Muether have indeed published dozens of articles by themselves and by a small roster of contributors on such topics as whether or not worship should consist exclusively of Psalms (yes), what it means to keep the Sabbath (don’t work; go to church), and whether or not the phrase “God bless America” constitutes taking the Lord’s Name in vain (an uncharacteristic maybe). And these articles on Reformed practice do not go uncommented upon by outsiders. A recent NTJ cover essay pleading Christian liberty in defense of the “humble condom,” for instance, got Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s knickers in a twist. “You know I like Nicotine Theological Journal” he wrote in his column in the back of First Things in February, but he judged this “little article” to be “unpleasant and just plain dumb.” He also accused it of taking a “cheap shot” at the sexual aspect of Catholic moral tradition by pointing out that it has been developed mostly by celibates. (The authors, Zach and Derry Kausashian, related that St. Thomas Aquinas argued masturbation was a sin only slightly less grave than murder but worse than rape, because “masturbation prohibits the possibility of sexual activity from reaching its end.”)
But the real fun comes when these Reformed, being Reformed, depart from their mandate and begin to pick at the broader Christian world. Vigorous opponents of ecumenism, they have mocked such efforts with great aplomb (“Presbyterians and Quakers Together”), taken swipes at such magazines as Books & Culture (“annoying”) and Touchstone (“muddled”), and even touched off a few shots at Pope John Paul II (represents a “kinder gentler” Roman Catholicism; gave “the papacy a happy face”). Most of this dissension is carried off with an admirable touch of pith and vinegar, so that even those who regularly disagree with the authors’ assessments—and, as an ecumenical Baptist contributor to Books & Culture and Touchstone, I would usually include myself in that category—can appreciate their contrarian cussedness, even if it occasionally leaves us hot under the collar.
This little magazine can also have its almost sweet moments. In an editorial in 1998, the editors of NTJ confessed that being traditional Presbyterians sets them at odds with their cultural surroundings—secular and religious—to an astounding degree. Hart, Muether, and the rest of the crew resist the various calls to ecumenism, since what they see “underneath these expressions of Christian faith” is “the Enlightenment’s hostility to tradition, history, and particularity.” “We feel like the ethnic Americans who are being forced to assimilate to the demands of a melting-pot Christianity. If we retain our distinctive ways, we will be [seen as] un-American or, worse, Amish.”
After reading a few issues, I doubt whether anyone would make that mistake.
(Single issues of the Nicotine Theological Journal can be purchased for three dollars, cash or check. Subscriptions are seven dollars for one year, sent to 1167 Kerwood Circle, Oviedo, FL 32765.)
[Nicotine Theological Journal, edited by John R. Muether and D.G. Hart (Oviedo, FL: Press) 8 pp., $3.00 per issue, $7.00 for an annual subscription]