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Let's Talk About Your Investment Strategy

We are all patrons, even if we don't mean to be.

December 1 st 2013
Appears in Winter 2013

Below is the Comment Winter 2013 editorial.
Subscribe by December 6 to start with this issue.

Some of you are probably too young to remember those old, green, carbon-copy receipts we used to get at the butcher's shop or the dry cleaners. Before Square emailed receipts to our phone, even before little dot-matrix printers buzzed out receipts for each transaction, someone would scribble down the expense on a greenish receipt pad, tear off the top copy, and send us on our way. On the bottom of them was often an intriguing line: "Thank you for your patronage." Not just "Thank you for your business," or (in a familiar litany) "Thank you for choosing Delta," but thank you for your patronage.

This might seem especially odd to us today since an old word like "patronage" has either a negative connotation (think: nepotism, playing favourites) or a very limited meaning that we associate with wealthy donors. Patronage seems very Downton Abbey. Yet here was the local grocer or my plumber thanking me for my "patronage," which hints at a much richer, more expansive notion of patronage that this issue of Comment is encouraging us to recover.

At the heart of this sense of "patronage" is a vision of cultural life—not just the arts, but even the mundane aspects of commercial exchange—that is rooted in relationship. When the hardware store thanked me for my patronage, it's not because I made a donation to their business. There were things I needed, I paid a fair price, and the owner of the hardware store made a profit. But to see even this commercial transaction as a kind of "patronage" indicates a relationship between customer and proprietor that is not just economic or self-interested. In a way, I'm making a commitment to this shop, and (ideally) that relationship is reciprocated. I patronize this hardware store because they're also getting to know me: they know I'm pretty clueless about plumbing but don't make me feel stupid when I ask dumb questions. They know I live in an old house and they can picture the challenges that come with it. I see Bill at football games on Friday nights and we appreciate that we are both more than customers and proprietors: we're fathers, husbands, church members. This feels very different than the vast anonymity of so much of our economic lives transacted in big box stores.

This is why we are patrons even if we might be poor grad students or young married couples barely eking out an existence. When Deanna and I were newly married we lived in lovely Stratford, Ontario—home to the famous Shakespearean Festival. While finishing college and starting grad school, we had our first child and lived a fairly harried existence trying to make ends meet. But as a young scholar, I would forego certain other goods in order to be able to buy books. (I appreciate the wisdom of Erasmus on this point, who once wrote to a friend: "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.")

Stratford is home to some wonderful used book shops, but my favourite was The Book Stage. As you might imagine, I got to know the proprietor, Manfred Meurer, quite well. It didn't take long for him to learn of my interest in German philosophy, which thrilled his Teutonic heart. When I entered his shop I was welcomed like Norm at Cheers. Eventually we moved to the States for my doctoral program, but for years afterwards when I would return to The Book Stage, Manfred would greet me warmly and then lead me behind his desk where he would have stashed a stack of books he knew I'd be interested in. While his receipts thanked me for my patronage, I was also grateful for his care.

I don't mean to suggest that patronage is just a quaint idea. To the contrary, the point is that, whether we realize it or not, in our cultural life and the economic decisions we make, we are effectively choosing to invest in certain institutions. Our cultural action is always already an expression of cultural stewardship or what Makoto Fujimura calls "culture care." Or as Deani Van Pelt points out in The Commons, parents are patrons, intensely investing in the lives that have been entrusted to them, hoping to equip their children to be sent into the world as agents of the common good.

We are patrons, not just in our "charitable" giving, but in our day-to-day lives. When we spend our money, we are not just consuming commercial goods, we are also fostering and perpetuating ways of being human. To be a patron is to be a selector, an evaluator, and a progenitor of certain forms of cultural life. You didn't realize you exercised such power, did you?

When you start to think in these terms, you realize that all of us are patrons. And you start to realize that maybe we should think a little more carefully about how to do this well. By decisions we perhaps don't think about, we are effectively saying "yes" to some version of the good life. In this issue of the magazine we have gathered wisdom from a range of practitioners with a view to equipping you to be a better patron—in philanthropy and charitable giving, but also in our nitty-gritty, workaday lives. We're interested in patrons as culturemakers and helping culture-makers to see their responsibility as patrons.

Ultimately we want to bring our cultural practices under the lordship of Christ. So the question we're really asking is: What does it look like to follow Jesus as a "patron?"

In the Harry Potter novels, there is an incantation that is uttered in the most dire of circumstances: Expecto patronum! The charm is a Latin phrase that means, "I await a patron." One might think that a focus on patronage is going to be that sort of expectation—about finding a patron. "Where is my patron?," we might complain. Or: "If only I had a patron, I could . . ."

But Jesus has a habit of turning things upside down. I'm reminded, for example, of his encounter with a devout lawyer (in Luke 10) who well summarized the law as loving God and loving our neighbour. But then he had a question for Jesus: "Who is my neighbour?" Jesus, as he so often does, replies with a story that flips the script. By the end of the parable, it's no longer a matter of figuring out who my neighbour is; the point is to be a neighbour (Luke 10:36-37).

So, too, with patronage: it's not a matter of expecto patronum, awaiting a patron; we are all called to be patrons, indeed expected to be patrons. Or perhaps better: supported by Christ our patronus, we are sent as patrons. I hope this issue of Comment will prompt you to ask questions you haven't considered before, so that you might see your daily life anew and thereby take hold of your calling as a patron—and take up that cultural labour as an investment in shalom, and above all, as a way to follow Christ.

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James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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