Ten Good Things
Leith Anderson writes in Christianity Today ("Steady Christian Influence," August 2004) of a woman raising her hand at a convention in Philadelphia after he spoke, and asking, "If the gospel and the church are supposed to be so effective, why is everything in America so bad?"
Which made me think of something C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, and of which I was reminded recently by Terry Teachout:
Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second, then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything - God and our friends and ourselves included - as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.
I refuse to see everything as bad, to see only darkness where there is light. While there is much to criticize in North American culture, there is also much that is good. Everything in America (and Canada ) is not so bad.
This article is therefore a celebration of ten good things - ten good things that I intend to use as emblems for all that is good, that remains good, and that shall be good, here in never-all-that-Christian North America.
1. The present generation of teens
I am not wholly persuaded by the generations theory of Bill Strauss and Neil Howe, in which history is shaped by the cycle of four types of generations: an idealist or prophet generation, a reactive or nomad generation, a civic or hero generation, and an adaptive or artist generation. But I am nonetheless convinced that the present generation of teens - the generation of my two daughters - has the makings of what Strauss and Howe call a generation of heroes.
As Strauss and Howe suggest, this generation of teens are less violent, less vulgar, less hypersexualized than preceding generations. They are less vulgar, less violent, and less sexually active than the youth culture that is being marketed to them by the generations of their parents and grandparents! The angst, cynicism, and alienation that characterized my generation, and that typified the music of a band like Kurt Cobain's Nirvana and Douglas Coupland's book Generation X, are replaced by confidence about the future and trust in parents and other authorities. There is less crime, less school violence, fewer teen pregnancies, fewer suicides, and less of the worst forms of substance abuse among these teens than there has been for several decades.
Abortion on demand became the legal situation in America after the American Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which continues to be the historical marker for a shift in law and social attitudes on the value of the life of the unborn child. At that time nearly 86% of college students in America believed that abortion should be legalized. In 2002, as the oldest members of the present generation of teens began college, slightly more than 53% of college students believed that abortion should be legal at all. In 1993, 48 % of 18- to 20-year olds believed that abortion should be available to anyone who wants it. By 2003 that percentage was down to 39%.
What excites me most about teens my daughters' age is the large and growing number of them who are receiving an excellent education, and who will be able to provide leadership to their peers and in our societies in the years to come. Several million children have been homeschooled since the 1990s, when that educational movement became prominent. While educational renewal in public school systems remains rare, charter schools, parochial schools, religious day schools and classical schools are all growing, and all making a serious effort to provide children with a quality education. A greater proportion of teens in this generation have received the kind of education that will equip them for cultural leadership than in any generation since that of their great-grandparents.
There is a generation of young people rising in North America who care about doing the right thing, who care about being team players and civically minded, and who care about using their minds. Or at least enough of them to give a cultural renewal during their lifetime a fighting chance.
Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary magazine. He writes " Second City ," a column about the arts in New York that appears in the Washington Post on the first Sunday of every month, and his work also appears in the New York Times , National Review , and many other magazines and newspapers. He has written several books, including a bestseller on the life of the acerbic American journalist H. L. Mencken, and is a presidential nominee to the U.S. National Council on the Arts. Recently, on his very popular arts blog, Mr. Teachout claimed that, "Within a decade, blogs will replace op-ed pages," and that "Blogs will be to the 21st century what little magazines were to the 20th century. Their influence will be disproportionate to their circulation."
The whole point of a blog is that its author controls its content. That's why no major newspaper will ever be successful at running in-house blogs: the editors won't allow it. The smart ones will encourage their best writers to blog on their own time - and at their own risk. The dumb ones will refuse to let any of their writers blog, on or off the job. For now, blogs presuppose the existence of the print media. That will probably always be the case - but over time, the print media will become increasingly less important to the blogosphere.
A blog is a web log - a website that is updated frequently, with the most recent material at the top of the page. I maintain a blog at http://gideonstrauss.com. While the vast majority of blogs are written by teenagers in diary style, and read by no more than a handful of friends, the medium is becoming a legitimate format for serious opinion journalism. Some bloggers have received official reporter status at key events like the Democratic and Republican conventions; others, like Teachout or the politically conservative homosexual marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan, becoming significant shapers of public opinion. Blogs function similarly to the political pamphlets and coffee house debates of the eighteenth century.
What is good about blogging is the way in which it is revitalizing public debate. The mass media in North America - television and newspapers - provide room for a very limited range of opinion. Almost all of it is pragmatic, functionally atheistic, and philosophically liberal. Blogging provides an opportunity for anyone who has skill and perseverance to raise their voices, to make their arguments, and to gain a hearing in the public realm. This brings new riches and new life to our society's efforts to understand itself and to understand the world in which we live. Suddenly, contributing to the shape of public opinion does not cost millions of dollars or require you to ingratiate yourself with the editor of a big city newspaper by conforming to his opinions.
3. Paste magazine
While no medium is as likely to transform the opinion landscape as decisively as blogging, some new and interesting web magazines with a more conventional format than most blogs, like Caleb Stegall and Dan Knauss's The New Pantagruel are also recovering a distinctive voice. Ken Myers' Mars Hill Audio has used recording media like cassette tapes and compact discs to provide something that sounds like a really, really great current affairs radio programme. A small but growing number of new radio stations provide rare and distinctive programming, like the roots music and world pop programmes on Seattle 's KEXP.
My favourite new magazine is Paste, which describes itself as follows:
Paste is a bi-monthly, glossy, spectacularly written and conceived consumer print magazine. Each issue is packaged with a full-length sampler CD. Paste looks for what we call "signs of life in music.
Josh Jackson tells of the beginnings of Paste in an interview with byFaith, the web magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America , of which Jackson is a member:
Paste began when my two best friends - Nick Purdy and Jordan Feibus - and I saw the struggles of talented singer-songwriters trying to make a living playing music. We figured that if we built a website where we could market only those artists whose music we felt had depth and substance, we could introduce them to new fans. The tagline was "connecting music to the soul." For four years, Paste was labour of love, an often all-consuming side project. At the end of 2001, Nick and I decided to try to take it to the next level. We saw that there weren't any magazines out there covering the music that we loved. I quit my job with the Luke Society, a medical missions organization, and moved back to Atlanta to start Paste Magazine.
We got to Atlanta in April with no distributor, no stories assigned, and very little idea what we were doing, and somehow by mid-June we'd sent our first issue off to the printer. Each issue comes with a CD, and we were able to get permission to use songs from folks like Wilco, Patty Griffin, Victoria Williams, and Sam Phillips for the first issue. I think that gave us some initial credibility. The buyer at Borders loved the idea and committed to putting us in all their stores before we even had put the first one together. That gave us the rest of the credibility we needed. It's just spread like wildfire from there.
Paste has opened my ears to new music by wonderful artists whom I would not have heard otherwise. And it is doing the same for thousands of readers. Calvin Seerveld, the arts theorist and philosopher, wrote years ago that the renewal of the arts needs more than just artists and audiences. It needs revitalization by a plethora of people who make up an "arts world" - gallery owners, agents, publishers, promoters, and, as Paste exemplifies, skilful critics using media that brings attention to worthwhile artists.
4. New traditional music
I don't know what to call the music that I am thinking of, actually, but it includes all the fascinating and imaginative music that is being made today within authentic folk music traditions. Think of the American roots music put together by music producer T-Bone Burnett for the movies O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain. Think of the bluegrass of Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss and Union Station, the Atlantic Canada fiddling of Natalie Macmaster, or the resurgence of Sacred Harp singing throughout North America. But also think Persian spike fiddle, Chinese erhu or West African kora music, djembe drumming ... and the many other world music traditions that are crossing borders, gaining audiences as well as expert players of all ages.
I grew up with classical music, and learned to love rock, blues and 60s folk from an uncle's vinyl record collection. Discovering the many lively folk music traditions around the world has expanded my music listening horizons significantly. Many of these traditions enriching the musical fabric of North American culture, especially as immigrant communities bring the music of their hearts with them.
5. City churches
Some of this music - in particular the use of the djembe - has found its way into Grace West Church , my home congregation. Grace West is a church with a calling to three adjacent cities in the Golden Horseshoe metropolis on the shores of Lake Ontario, and a small example of a trend in church life to plant churches in cities with the explicit purpose to renew urban culture.
The flagship for this trend is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City , and its senior pastor Tim Keller. This church has as its vision
to spread the gospel, first through ourselves and then through the city by word, deed, and community; To bring about personal changes, social healing, and cultural renewal through a movement of churches and ministries that change New York City and through it, the world.
This vision is echoed by several similar churches.
City Church has carefully organized the ministries our church so that we can work together, by the power of the Spirit, to effect great change in San Francisco. To call the people of the city to be stewards of their power and gifts for the honour of Christ and the benefit of urban communities, City Church challenges Christians of the city not only to live within the city, but to serve.
Citylife Church exists to expand God's Kingdom with the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that the hearts and lives of Bostonians who live and work in the city might be transformed. Since we believe the Gospel has the power to change all things, we hope to see comprehensive renewal in every sphere of our city life. Our desire is to create a community of love that reaches out with the historic Christian truths of the Gospel and to attract and welcome both skeptics, seekers, and those who share the church's vision to be a Gospel-oriented, outwardly faced community of God's grace.
All three of these churches believe their task is to proclaim and embody the good news of the redemption of the world through the reign of God, not only in terms of its private and personal implications, but also in terms of its public and cultural implications.
I love cities. I am quite convinced that a great city is the greatest kind of place to live, and that human beings are put together in such a way that most of us need the kind of interaction possible in a city at least some of the time, if not all the time.
One of my favourite views in the whole world is from the campus of the University of British Columbia toward Stanley Park and the downtown of Vancouver - especially at sunset, with floatplanes coming in to land ...
While this item on my list of ten good things is "cities," I would be out of character if I did not mention that I not only love cities, I love books about cities, and the four most exciting books I have read about cities thus far have been The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler , "James Howard Kunstler and the New Urbanist Critique of American Sprawl " in the June issue of Comment , and on "Receiving Community: The Church and the Future of the New Urbanist Movement" for the Acton Institute. Alongside Jacobsen I would probably call myself a paleo-urbanist, a term that he says is based on the term paleo-new urbanists, which he first heard from Howard Ahmanson of Fieldstead
Cities are good things because they embody at its most intense the gracious gift of human community.
7. Business visionaries
One of the best things about being a Senior Fellow of the Work Research Foundation is the opportunity to partner with Walter Wright of the Depree Leadership Center in Pasadena, California in the study of business visionaries and the corporate cultures they shape. We have thus far intensively studied three companies and the way in which their CEOs (and former CEOs) have woven their values into the very fabric of everyday life in these companies.
DACOR is a manufacturer of high-end kitchen appliances. CEO Michael Joseph has developed a value statement for DACOR according to which it is the purpose of the company
To honour God in all that we do, by respecting others, by doing good work, by helping others, by forgiving others, by giving thanks, and by celebrating our lives.
The WRF/De Pree Leadership Center study of DACOR, published as To Honor God: DACOR's Pursuit of Corporate Virtue (2004), concludes that
with its use of explicitly spiritual language, and its emphasis on a relational corporate strategy, DACOR is developing a unique vision of a corporation's responsibility to its workforce and clientele. The current business environment is very conscious of the dangers of a profit motive that neglects ethical considerations. DACOR's history of being willing to innovate in product development, sales tactics, and processes of distribution has prepared it to "dare to be different" in its corporate values. [...] We have high hopes that DACOR can overcome the tensions emerging from the intersection of its heritage, its new values, and the demands of cultural sustainability, and become a model for other companies who want to fly the colors of their deepest values proudly.
Flow Automotive Companies consists mainly of a chain of car dealerships across North Carolina and Virginia. CEO Don Flow, in an interview with Al Erisman of the journal Ethix explained that the purpose of the companies is focused on customers, employees, and community. He then continued to explain:
We have to have a profit to do those three things, but profit is not the goal. I don't know a healthy person who gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror and says I live for my blood. But I don't know a person alive who doesn't have blood. Blood is like profit - necessary to live, but not the reason for living.
If you do not create value for capital, you are actually destroying wealth in society. An organization shouldn't exist if it is destroying society's wealth. What is the right return? Some people call for 12 percent. Then they want to make 15 percent next year and 17 percent the next year and 22, 24... where is the limit?
I've got a sustainable model: I have customers who are very loyal to my organization, and we're growing. We want to have an adequate return on capital, and then we want to reinvest in three areas: to grow our organization for the future, in our employees, and in our community. We try to balance these three areas. If we don't create value from our capital, we would be putting our employees' future at risk.
What we are trying to do in this revolution is re-personalize the workplace. When the workplace is impersonal, people don't matter. Once you re-personalize it, you know people. You are very careful about firing and laying people off because these are real people with families behind them. I go to bed every night with that over my head. You know 800 people, a thousand when we finish our acquisitions, and there are a thousand families whose dreams are caught up in our ability to lead this company. So there is a sense of responsibility associated with that.
Visionary business entrepreneurs like Michael Joseph and Don Flow, like Uli Chi (confounder and chairman of Computer Human Interaction LLC and Dennis Bakke (confounder and CEO Emeritus of the AES Corporation), are changing the way business works. In so doing, they are providing models for the renewal of the economic sphere and of the most powerful institution in modern society: the marketplace.
8. Arts renewal
There is a quiet renewal taking place in the visual arts, exemplified by artists in organizations like CIVA ( Christians in the Visual Arts) and IAM ( International Arts Movement). Makoto Fujimura, the founder of IAM, is a member of the U.S. National Council on the Arts and a painter of whom critic Robert Kushner has written that
The idea of forging a new kind of art, about hope, healing, redemption, refuge, while maintaining visual sophistication and intellectual integrity is a growing movement, one which finds Fujimura's work at the vanguard.
Fujimura works in New York City and lost friends and church fellows in the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11. His son, then ten years old, was covered in the white dust from the attack when he left his school building. Sometime after that event, Fujimura wrote that
Every beauty suffers. A research scientist friend once told me that the autumn leaves are most beautiful on the trees by the roadside because they happen to be distressed by the salt and pollution. Every sunset is a reminder of the impending death of Nature herself. The minerals I use must be pulverized to bring out their beauty. The Japanese were right in associating beauty with death.
Art cannot be divorced from faith, for to do so is to literally close our eyes to that beauty of the dying sun setting all around us. Every beauty also suffers. Death spreads all over our lives and therefore faith must be given to see through the darkness, to see through the beauty of "the valley of the shadow of death".
Prayers are given, too, in the layers of broken, pulverized pigments. Beauty is in the brokenness, not in what we can conceive as the perfections, not in the "finished" images but in the incomplete gestures. Now, I await for my paintings to reveal themselves. Perhaps I will find myself rising through the ashes, through the beauty of such broken limitations.
9. The rule of law
One of the things that make me most grateful about living in Canada is the relative reliability of soldiers and police officers. I do not lie awake at night worrying about a military takeover of the Canadian government. When I see a police officer pulling a slightly speeding vehicle over to the side I do not wonder how big a bribe the driver will have to pay to stay out of prison. When I read about some violent criminal being sentenced to a stay in prison I do not wonder how soon he will have escaped from the porous facility in which he will serve his time.
All of these were real concerns during my late twenties and early thirties as my home country, South Africa , made the transition from apartheid to constitutional democracy. Frankly, there remain concerns in what Alan Paton called "the beloved country." While South Africa enjoys the privilege of being a constitutional democracy and what Freedom House calls a free country, it does not yet enjoy such benefits of the rule of law as low rates of crime and low level of corruption.
The rule of law is difficult to establish when countries are climbing out of the darkness of anarchy or tyranny, and fragile once established. It would seem, though, that after it is soundly established, the rule of law becomes an iterative or self-reinforcing cultural factor that buttresses cultural habits like respect for the law and public service incorruptibility.
The rule of law is one of those things that are so embedded in North American political culture that the vast majority of citizens (excepting recent immigrants) hardly notice it. But it is a great boon. Even when there is much to be criticized in the practice of our judges and the nature of our laws, Canada and America have the historically rare blessing of not being mired in anarchy and not being subjected to tyrannical rule.
10. The Next Neocalvinism
The neocalvinist cultural movement initiated by the Dutch statesman, churchman, and public intellectual Abraham Kuyper continues to have the potential to do great service to Christians in particular and to the human community in general. Its key ideas of the lordship of Christ over all of life, of the creationally patterned nature of reality, of the progressive cultural unfolding of the potential of creation, and of sphere sovereignty in human society hold tremendous promise for the ability of Christians to understand and help shape humane societies.
At this moment we see the very beginnings of the emergence of the Next Neocalvinism. A new generation of culturally concerned Christians are beginning to see the potential of the neocalvinist tradition in helping us understand our responsibilities in society. I saw this in embryonic form in South Africa at the founding of the Christian Worldview Network in 1992. Here in southern Ontario, where I live at present, students at Redeemer University College are picking up the tradition and thinking through its implications with the help of faculty who were around in the heyday of the Groen Club and its offshoots (see the recollections of H. Evan Runner, Theo Plantinga, Al Wolters and Harry Van Dyke ). Craig Bartholomew, a cofounder of the Christian Worldview Network in South Africa , is now also on the faculty of Redeemer, and is the sponsor of an exciting new student group called Kuyper's Cafe. Other students have organized groups to take up the neocalvinist challenge in particular spheres, including the Ontario Student Solidarity Local of the Christian Labour Association of Canada. And the tradition is slowly spreading wider - for three individual examples, consider Joe Carter, Rob Hatch , and Kris Tamerius.
* * *
These ten good things I celebrate. I must disappoint those of my friends who made suggestions that do not enjoy prominence in this piece of writing. (Although I will mention In-N-Out Burgers, nominated by Gregory Baus for shining transformational light within a rotten "fast food" industry , and seconded by Russ Reeves. I have never eaten an In-N-Out burger, so I will plead ignorance.)
The goodness of the world is something that Christians and Jews have always confessed. The great story that shapes our understanding of the world begins with God creating all things, and declaring each kind of creature - day and night, earth and sea, plants and animals, and human beings - to be good, even very good. While this original goodness has been substantially spoiled, much that is good remains because of God's sustaining common grace, in the natural world but very much also in human culture.
More than that: within the contours of that great story, we look forward to the comprehensive restoration of all things, a restoration of which these ten good things give us a foretaste.
Let us not wish the darkness darker. Against the old Rolling Stones song, I must protest: I do not want to see it painted, black as night, black as coal. I do not want to see the sun blotted out from the sky. Instead, as the old prophet Isaiah promised, may the light shine in the darkness, and turn the darkness bright as day.