Continuing the conversation.
December 1 st 2013
Appears in Winter 2013

I enjoy reading these articles; I enjoy reading about the visionary aspects of improving society (“Sustainable Shalom: The Hope of Bright Green Urbanism,” Aug. 9 2013). I absolutely believe that that there is room for people of faith to contribute to better cities and better culture. But, of course, evil still lurks. And evil is not “in” oil, or “in” carbon, per se, but is in the human ego, and in corporately egotistical systems, and (of course) in demonic agents and influences, themselves. And one STILL has to be open to the possibility that some of these agents are actually as readily able to drive the agenda of “climate change” as they are the agenda of “big oil”. If there’s money in oil, there’s also money in carbon-capture, and money in carbon taxes. East Anglia global warming researchers were caught red-handed manipulating data a few years ago. The question is, for whom if not the U.N.? Christians need to have enough independence of vision to be aware of political and economic manipulation at any level. By all means, pray and look for improvements in society. But let us also be cautious in endorsing global trends that may be as guilty of manipulating data as the “evil” paradigms they are supposedly replacing.
—David MacKenzie
Edmonton, Alberta

Please accept my deep appreciation for the latest issue of Comment, devoted to making the case for institutions (“We Believe in Institutions,” Fall 2013). It is important, as a “push back” both on those of whatever generation who are suspicious of institutions to the point of abandoning them or standing on the sidelines, and on those who are enamoured of institutions to the point of losing the ability to critique them and those who work within. I particularly resonated with the pieces on church (Ganski) and joining political parties (Strauss), and with the interview of James Hunter. I also found myself nodding in general agreement with the editor’s response to a letter regarding grace and neocalvinism. I was reminded of Jonathan Chaplin’s reply to a similar objection: “That’s why we call it NEOcalvinism!”
—Russ Kuykendall
Ottawa, Ontario

Ellul is an interesting thinker, though more for his diagnosis of a problem than for the prescription he offers (“Apocalyptic Reading in a Technological World: Why We Need Jacques Ellul Today,” Jul. 17 2013). Ellul’s reading of technique is a lot of Heidegger’s reading of techne, which covers over what it truly means to be human beneath a layer of technological implements which mediate and distort our world. The language about technique self-propagating is a real problem, though. As individuals, each of us may find ourselves powerless to resist the steady intrusion of ever more technology implements into our daily lives. But technologies are our collective creations; developing technology is something human beings do. To say technique is self-propagating is to abscond our basic human capacity to create and our responsibility for our actions. Heidegger has this problem; so does Ellul. It is why, I would argue, his outlook is almost exclusively bleak. He can’t see the products of human creativity in their fundamental ambiguity.
—Richard Greydanus-McCubbin
Montreal, Quebec

@james_ka_smith @commentmag the issue on institution blew me away! we badly needed a magazine like this. deeply grateful. seriously.
—Gregory Thornbury @greg_thornbury 23 Nov

I’ve been waiting for this conversation to start for the last few years (“The Good News About Power,” Sep. 27 2013). Ever since I’ve heard the postmodern queasiness towards power, I knew it was only time until we’d have to redeem power in its daily ritual. We exercise power all the time, for both good and evil. Refusing to take up power is, in my mind, similar to refusing to take up responsibility. We lose a critical piece of our agency as humans if we refuse to deal out the power inherent in us and/or laid before us. I like your question asking whether we ought to pursue privilege. That’s hard. It seems to me that issues arise when privilege is granted without the context of character development. Again, I think privilege and power are forms of responsibility that we are not inherently equipped for. So I would press for merging this conversation of pursuing privilege and power with conversations around the pursuit of character development. We know all too well what happens when privilege and power are excised without a morally developed conscience and will. If we are going to pursue the good use of power, we must be transforming students into persons who have the ability to do so.
—Stephen Milliken
Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania

By James K.A. Smith, Editor

Tending the Ruins | We believe in creation—that as God’s image bearers, we’ve been commissioned to be what Tolkien once called “sub-creators.” It’s why we spend time celebrating creativity and culture-making. We love to share stories of founders and startups, people who use their gifts to give the world cultural goods like art and apps, building companies and launching organizations.

But there is another side to being creatures, too. We’re finite. We’re mortal. We age. We die. We start things, but we ourselves will come to an end. Because we live between the Fall and kingdom come, we do well to remember that things wind down, wear out, and waste away. Our best intentions, even our Gospel-centred efforts, cannot overcome finitude and fallenness. So, as those deputized to care for God’s creation, we should not only be infatuated with starting and launching, we should be equally careful about how we tend the end of things. Cultural stewardship this side of the kingdom includes a kind of cosmic hospice as well.

I was recently struck by the good, hard work of dismantling while enjoying a poem in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009. The poem, by Anita Lahey and simply entitled, “Man Tearing Down a Chimney,” is a meditation on the care it sometimes takes to destroy something well. Oddly, good destruction is something of a gift:

The chimney and the man have both reached
their thirties, but he is limber, lithe. Each
day he better fits his torso;his arms and legs
become like tools, gleaming—they beg
to be used fully, without restraint, and in
moments such as this, when an ending
must be ushered in before it collapses
onto a child, a dog, a car, or crashes

through the roof.

We do well to remember that the cultural mandate entrusts to us a tender creation, in all its fragility and finitude, beset by brokenness. You’d think we’d spend more time thinking about how to tend the ruins. Sometimes culture making requires a sledgehammer. But how to wield it well? What does it look like to use our creative gifts to dismantle what needs to come down, like the poem’s crumbling chimney?

They sit in the kitchen, a bottle each, solemn.
Every brick and chunk of brick has fallen.
A blue tarp blankets the gable hole and thin wall,
and just in time, too: rain runs down it, and all
her thoughts run alike: Here’s a man who
broke a chimney’s back because he knew
where to hit and how hard. But no. I think
his secret was merely to start, and at the brink
of defeat, hit harder. Like a woman who’s just
given birth, he has earned silence.

This, too, is good work.

Renovations of the Heart | Speaking of good, hard work: I spent our twenty-third wedding anniversary demolishing a bathroom. On the one hand, this was pretty much the worst anniversary ever. On the other hand, it ended up being a spiritual discipline and illuminating allegory all rolled into one.

The work was unexpectedly gruelling, and not just for someone whose only calluses are from excessive typing. What I thought would be a straightforward process of removing a layer of tiles—a few hours’ worth of work, tops—turned out to something much more involved. As soon as I peeled back the layer of tile I discovered a bedrock of cement, two inches thick. And woven throughout this cement was a thick wire screen that functioned like a veritable rebar. And here I was in a 3’ x 3’ space with no room to swing a proper sledgehammer. The labour was both tedious and exhausting, carried out in the heat of a late summer day. I periodically emerged as a dusted, zombie-like creature and could only sprawl out on the cement patio at the back of the house, dead-still. At one point my neighbour came by to make sure I was still breathing.

But more than once in the process I was struck by the parallel between this gruelling work and the good, hard work that is a marriage. All too often we enter the adventure thinking it will be relatively easy, only to peel back a first layer and realize that there is a mire of cement laced with wire that has to be undone. Deanna and I married as children, almost: I was nineteen, she was twenty-one. While we came into this with eyes wide open, and an unconditional commitment to the covenant, it would take a little time—peeling back a layer—before we really realized what we were up against. We were both the products of broken homes, multiple times over, and probably didn’t realize that we first had to dig ourselves out of a hole. We were working without exemplars, and without a net. We couldn’t have known the demons lurking beneath the surface, or the generational inheritances we’d have to roll back. Sometimes building a life together also requires disarming the powers and principalities.

And yet we weren’t alone. We were never alone. Christ, the bridegroom of the church, made a promise even before our promises. Even as good Protestants, we have always believed two things: that marriage is a sacrament and a friendship. It’s a friendship in an Augustinian and Aristotelian sense: the calling of a friend is to call me to my full humanity, to foster my flourishing. The good friend is the one who calls me to the mat and leads me toward the Good. This is also what makes it a sacrament: for those of us called to be married (which isn’t all of us), our spouse is a conduit of grace given for our discipleship. Deanna has always been that friend and sacrament to me. When some people (rightly!) complain about my rough edges, I sometimes reply with a Chestertonian quip: “Heavens, imagine the monster I’d be if I wasn’t married!” I’ve always identified with Jack Nicholson’s simple confession to Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets: “You make me wanna be a better man.”

The sometimes-gruelling, always-graced work of marriage is not unlike so much of our cultural labours, whether fostering friendships, sustaining a congregation, or building institutions for the common good. It’s never as easy at it looks. And we never begin from a blank slate. All of our culture-making is some kind of renovation that requires both undoing and construction. It’s why we need to attend to the renovations of our heart in preparation for such good, hard work.

Has It Come To This? | I think there are quite a few of us who are surprised to find ourselves worrying about “religious freedom.” We probably thought of it as a “conservative” issue, the sort of alarmist fear-mongering we associated with the Religious Right, including the annual handwringing about the alleged “war on Christmas.” In short, threats to religious freedom seemed to be just the sorts of fictional bogeyman people whip up in order to consolidate their “base.” (Exhibit A: see Sarah Palin’s latest book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas.)

But then I heard Cardus Senior Fellow Stanley Carlson-Thies present his 2013 Kuyper Lecture on religious freedom (which we later reprinted in Comment).

Carlson-Thies calmly but critically pointed out a creeping “individualization” of religious freedom. While freedom of religion is enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the U.S. Constitution, this has been increasingly interpreted as merely a personal, individual right. The same freedom of expression has been steadily eroded when it comes to institutions—most recently in health care law and policy. His analysis and case history was sobering.

As is often the case on such issues, Canada is actually ahead of the American curve here, and no place more so than Quebec. In the name of the state’s “religious neutrality,” the province’s Charter of Values reads like a creation of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984, complete with the patronizing, paternalistic assurance that this will benefit everyone—“including newcomers,” an icky, euphemistic way to talk about Sikhs and Muslims. The best thing we can do to ensure freedom of religion, the Charter tells us, is to secure the “neutrality” of the state. When someone assures you they’re “neutral,” you should start getting nervous. The Quebec Charter shows their hand already. It’s not “neutral” at all; instead, under the banner of “neutrality” it serves up “Quebec Values”— which turn out to be a very particular, substantive, liberal vision of how to be human. This, too, is religious.

This is why I’m surprised to count myself among the number who see religious freedom as one of the central issues for the next generation—not because we want to win a culture war, but because we want room to bear witness to another kingdom. Stanley Carlson-Thies’s concluding comments in his Kuyper Lecture are prescient in this respect:

We don’t need religious freedom at all if we have assimilated so much to our culture that we are no different than anyone else, our organizations little different than other organizations. But if we do love God with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and also strength, then we will have distinctive convictions and practices about what is good and about how best to serve others. And then we will require a robust institutional as well as individual freedom to be different— exactly so that we can make our best uncommon contribution to the common good.

Learning to Hope Again | In the face of such shifts and challenges, one of the great temptations for Christians engaging culture is to lapse into despair. But we do well to remember that, according to a long Christian tradition, despair isn’t a matter of indifference, or merely an emotion we lapse into. In fact, it is nothing less than a vice. It is the abandonment of hope.

Fortunately, our gracious Redeemer remembers our feeble frame, that we are but mortal, and meets us where we are. The solution to our despair is not personal willpower or heroic resolve. Hope is not our accomplishment but Christ’s gift. And so the Spirit meets us where we are and invites unto into rhythms and practices that counter our despair. You will receive this issue of Comment as the body of Christ moves through the season of Advent, on the way to that Christmas joy that takes twelve days to properly celebrate, leading to the resplendent light of Epiphany. It is the season in which the people of God learn to hope again, even as we remember how to pray, with holy impatience, Maranatha!—Come, Lord Jesus! May the Christmas Vespers prayer of the Western Rite reposition all of our frustrations and disappointments:

While all things were in quiet silence, and night was in the midst of her swift course, thine Almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down out of thy royal throne. Alleluia!

DECEMBER 2013 | Milton Friesen takes cities personally.

Friesen, program director of Cardus’s Social Cities research, is focused on bringing individuals from different faiths, various backgrounds, and diverse professions together. “They don’t have to be on the same page,” he clarifies, “but our flourishing does depend on finding ways to pursue the common good.” Friesen says that the most successful growth strategies are driven by organizational partnerships and collaborations. But on a smaller scale, too, people have a need to connect with each other in highly urbanized areas.

Recently, Friesen has met with a variety of faith-based communities, as part of the City Soul program, to explore how they relate to urban planning. Holding roundtable discussions in Calgary, Alberta, Friesen extended previous Cardus work that has helped to open the lines of communication between people who may have never otherwise found ways to connect. When these citizens came together, a discussion emerged that shaped a final report on urban religious communities and planning that will impact the City of Calgary in exciting, positive ways. In addition, City Soul has produced reports—which can be found at cardus.ca—that explore how faith-based organizations and city planners can contribute to thriving cities. “The argument is not that faith-based organizations should be privileged,” says Friesen, “but that their role as important caretakers of service, meaning, purpose, and cultural transmission are given full scope as institutional citizens of the city, town, or country.”

Social Cities is working with many other cities and projects in partnership with organizations across North America as well. Recently, Cardus held a Social Capital roundtable in Hamilton, Ontario. With this collaborative discussion, Social Cities looks to highlight the methods of building and organizing cities that encourage flourishing and healthy societies, and minimize structural injustice and inequalities.

“Our ability to understand others results from a confidence and clarity about who are,” says Friesen. “The move toward engagement isn’t an attempt to provide confessional commonalities. It is, instead, a posture suitable for the public square, where differences of all kinds must be considered and partial solutions enacted.”

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