Two years ago, a pair of Winnipeggers launched Geez magazine. Their subversive take on Christianity is gaining popularity.
As a magazine that claims to camp “in the outback of the spiritual commons,” Geez may have felt a little out of place at the Western Magazine Awards ceremony in downtown Vancouver this past July. Remarkably, however, the Christian quarterly not only took the Best New Publication and Best Magazine honours for Manitoba, but was also named Western Canada’s Magazine of the Year. While the awards thrilled publisher Aiden Enns, the success also raised a flag: “Maybe we’re getting too mainstream,” he chuckles.
This kind of restless questioning is what gives Geez its edgy, provocative tone. Launched in December 2005 by co-editors Enns and Will Braun, the Winnipeg-based magazine, printed on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, aims to “untangle the narrative of faith from the fundamentalists, pious self-helpers and religio-profiteers.” Critical of current trends in Christianity, particularly right-wing evangelism and the megachurch phenomenon, the Geez team wants to create a space for voices that veer from the popular script. The ad-free magazine promotes an activist ethic rooted in the social gospel and a concept of Christ as radical reformer. The first issue was titled “An Alter Call from the Fringes of Faith,” and subsequent themes have included living with less and seeing the wonder in the everyday.
The editorial modus operandi is “holy mischief rather than ideological firepower,” an approach that sets Geez apart from many other activist publications. “Issue-oriented magazines are really designed to entrench people in their existing views,” Braun observes. Geez’s brand of mischief combines a playful sense of humour with a willingness to engage people of opposing beliefs. In the “Let’s Get Evangelical” issue, for example, Todd Friel, the host of a fundamentalist Christian radio show in California, enumerates “The Top 10 Reasons Geez gets up my nose.” By doing the unexpected, Geez “send[s] a signal that readers will be challenged,” says Braun, “that it’s not just about staying in the same rut.”
“Holy mischief” also explains the name Geez, which some Christians find offensive. Enns admits that the choice was intentionally controversial, in keeping with the magazine’s aim to “blaspheme the gods of super-powerdom,” who determine, among other things, conventional notions of propriety. In addition, the name indicates to potential readers the quarterly’s subversive take on Christianity.
Diversity is another of Geez’s key traits, and past contributors have included social justice advocates, environmentalists, lapsed and practising Christians, evangelicals, agnostics, Buddhists, Jews and combinations thereof. The quarterly tries “to put together a bunch of voices that you wouldn’t find elsewhere,” says Braun.
The idea for Geez magazine originated with Enns, who grew up as an “urban Anabaptist.” He became disillusioned with mainstream journalism after a short stint at the Vancouver Sun and moved on to work as managing editor at the activist Adbusters magazine. Still, something was missing: “Where was a critique of wider society…that really fit with my concept of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?” He moved to Winnipeg in 2003 with the intention of creating a magazine that would fill that gap, and enlisted Braun, a freelance writer with Mennonite roots, as co-editor. Initially Braun was hesitant, reasoning that there were “already enough magazines” in the world. But Enns convinced him Geez’s mandate was unique.
Another partner in the Geez enterprise is art director Darryl Brown, a Quaker “by birth and by choice” who lives in Oregon. Images have a prominent role in the magazine and serve both contemplation and satire. The cover of the winter 2006 issue, for example, features Ken and Barbie-like dolls in bed reading books by the Dalai Lama and American televangelist Benny Hinn.
Too often in print media, Enns suggests, images play a subordinate role to words. When considering visual material for Geez, he looks for images that stand on their own and communicate “a visceral response that words cannot do.” He recalls a 1999 photo in Adbusters that showed ant-like traffic on a multi-lane highway. It provoked him to stop using his car for a full year. Enns hopes the images in Geez might have a similar galvanizing effect.
Enns imagines that the majority of Geez subscribers have a Christian background but are either disillusioned with the church or want to agitate within it. The magazine bills itself as a “bustling spot for the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even un-churchable.” Readers range from “straight-up evangelicals” to those who haven’t entered a church in years.
In Winnipeg, you can find Geez at a conservative Christian bookstore, an anarchist bookstore, an organic supermarket and Chapters. The quarterly is also attracting an audience from all over the geographical map, with subscribers hailing from every province and territory in Canada, 45 U.S. states and 15 countries outside North America.
United Church readers
Geez counts many United Church members among its readers. Former moderator Very Rev. Bill Phipps (1997-2000) was one of the first subscribers. He says the magazine “tries to ask questions that we normally don’t ask” about religious faith and tradition, from an “off the wall” perspective. “They take the work they’re doing seriously. But they don’t take themselves all that seriously.”
Rev. Bob Haverluck, who recently retired from ministry at John Black United in Winnipeg, finds “lots of meeting spaces” between the Mennonite origins of Geez and the United Church. “In some ways, it really overlaps with the United Church at its best.”
Rick Garland, the United Church’s national staffperson for Youth and Young Adult Ministries, concurs: Geez “embraces the world in a way that the United Church always has.” He says the quarterly has a “great blend of faith and politics” and is one of the few Christian resources that “speaks to a young adult market.”
Geez has been described as “hip” in some of its press coverage, but it’s a label Braun mistrusts. “There is a tendency these days to marry Christianity with pop culture and consumer culture, he says, pointing to the array of products that try to make it “cool” to be Christian. The challenge for Geez was to be creative without being trendy.
Geez wants its readers to think and act for themselves. Sometimes the initial response is discomfort. “The message grates my nerves, pricks my conscience and generally gets under my skin,” one reader wrote. “I’m singing up for another two years – hope I can stand it.”
Enns says Geez has a two-fold aim: first, “to prod and provoke” and second, “to nurture and build community” around social and spiritual initiatives. The magazine promotes several campaigns, including Make Affluence History (a play on the Make Poverty History campaign), De-motorize Your Soul and Buy Nothing Christmas. It also supports reclaiming the Sabbath as a day of rest. Riding a bike, conserving energy and scaling back consumption are part of what Braun describes as “a new set of spiritual disciplines.” The editors view the campaigns as integral to Geez’s mission. This isn’t a magazine for people to simply read and consume, Enns says; the goal is to “animate a community.”
Kathleen Kerr, a youth commissioner at the 2006 General Council and co-editor of the Wondering Holy Youth e-newsletter, credits Geez as an inspiration in founding W.H.Y. She loves “all the pictures and graphics” but admits she sometimes finds the central topic “overbearing” and wishes “the magazine did not stick so closely to only one theme.”
Perhaps the biggest future challenge for Geez will be to secure adequate funds to continue publishing. The quarterly is ineligible for government grants because, with Brown in Oregon, it does not meet the 80 percent Canadian content guidelines. While the editors prefer not to run advertising, they might have to relax their stance at some point. Private donors provided start-up cash, but subscriptions alone won’t carry the magazine. “We need money,” Enns admits.
Assuming some comes the magazine’s way, what’s next? Enns would like to draw more people to the action campaigns and “cause more of a commotion in the U.S.” Braun takes a long view: “I don’t know that Geez has to be around forever. It’s an experiment. Once the evolutionary process dries up, we’ll move on to something else.”