Turning the Tide (Transcript)
Celebrating Comment and a new era of voices.
The following remarks were given by Anne Snyder, the new editor-in-chief of Comment, at the event Turning the Tide: Celebrating Comment and a New Era of Voices, held in Washington, DC on October 9, 2019.
The following text is not exactly as delivered. You can watch Anne's remarks from the event below.
Thank you, Ray. And thank all of you for coming.
In the spring of 2015 I encountered two worlds within 24 hours—worlds yoked by creed but divided by demographic and disposition. On a crisp Wednesday evening, not unlike tonight except in May, I was invited to attend a cocktail reception at the New York Yacht Club for a celebration amongst Jews, Catholics and evangelicals honoring the legacy of a man named Dietrich von Hildebrand, a philosopher and anti-Nazi hero during World War II. The room was filled with intellectuals, politicos, bankers and think tankers, and it was largely male and 100 percent Caucasian. These were true believers, and yet they felt isolated in their faith amidst a secular elite, beleaguered as well by a mainstream culture that seemed increasingly hostile to some fundamental principles.
“New York is so secular,” one panelist lamented, “we need the moral courage of von Hildebrand to stand against the corrosive culture of our day.”
It was just weeks before the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, and there was an air of embattled weariness in the room. The panelists sounded fearful, even defensive, though our surroundings were plush, and many of us, had you asked for a resume summary, held pedigrees sparkling with brands like Harvard and Yale, The New York Times and Google.
Not 24 hours later I was sitting in the front row of Bethel Gospel Assembly church in Harlem, waiting for graduates of Nyack College to walk down the aisle and receive their hoods. Nyack is a Christian university whose campus in Battery Park draws from the hundreds of storefront churches that line the boroughs beyond Manhattan. The pews were overflowing with immigrant families, Asians, Latinos and African Americans hailing from Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and beyond, with the bulk of the international students coming from the majority world. I watched a 79-year old grandmother ascend the stage and collect her diploma for the first time, followed by a Chinese woman in a wheelchair, followed a single mother, followed by an ex-offender.
Joy and expectation filled the air as one by one these graduates walked, danced and bowed their way to the stole that would confer the student’s official readiness for ministry and community-builders. According to the commencement bulletin, most graduates were planning to return to their home neighborhoods to serve in churches, social agencies, schools and counseling centers. Instead of expressing fear that a great Christian heritage was losing ground, there was compassion in their testimonies, the scent of hope anchored in humility and fervent faith. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when one Nyack professor addressed the graduates: “You don’t have to wait in line behind other people who are more important than you to receive God’s love.” Said another, “If the world will not listen to your words, make them listen to your lives.”
So I was sitting here caught up in the gorgeous triumph of it all, and I couldn’t help but let my mind wander back to the reception the night before. The contrast was striking. One room had held a concentration of the elite faithful, largely homogenous in educational and racial make-up, nostalgic and worried. Yet not one subway stop away was this room full of Christians of every tribe and tongue, radiating hope and purpose. I found my own soul singing, moved by the sight of faith without fear nor guile. Where was this world in the Yacht Club’s more foreboding diagnosis? Why the demographic blind spot among the quote “influencers” anxious for the future of Christendom?
It’s now been four years since that encounter, and we in the U.S. have since had an election that has exposed the cultural fences between coast and heartland, the “creative class” and everyone else. Elites are wringing their hands at a country they thought they understood, but don’t. Racial tensions are up, accompanied by a renewed, hot reckoning with our mottled history as a nation founded on ideals of human dignity and equality, that time and again has failed to embody them. A crisis of solidarity has cracked open, running first along lines of social class, now layered if not eclipsed by race and ideological worldview. Some of the more prominent voices of the Church, instead of serving as repairers of the breach, as is always the call for the people of God, have capitulated to the pressures of a divided land, baptizing their belligerence in the name of the common good while manifesting few of the virtues this good requires.
A subtle yet important question embedded here is one of influence: How are Christians called to influence the larger culture? As long as I’ve been an adult swimming in and out of Christian waters, talk of “witness” and “Christ redeeming culture” has seemed to hinge more on strategies leveraging temporal power than it has about nurturing contexts for demonstrations of God’s power. From messianic hopes placed in the White House every four years, to theories of cultural change overly dependent upon our elites and the institutions they represent maintaining the public trust, there seems to be a glaring forgetfulness about who Jesus Christ said He was and the Beatitudinal Kingdom He came to bring. Many white believers in particular, if I may, are expressing crisis-level concern that Christianity is threatened in the West, a fear that has driven them to make certain political choices and appear like an aggrieved minority hungry for lost power. While I believe deeply in the leavening role the sacred sector plays in our society and will march to preserve the freedoms of the faithful as indispensable to our democracy surviving, the rhetoric from today’s more conservative spokesmen make them look amazingly ignorant of what their faith community actually is in their own nation, of Christianity’s growth and vitality among the burgeoning sectors of our society. In short, those who get to speak for “We, the Church” are too often found fighting their own oppression while not attending to the struggles, energy AND the wisdom of their brothers and sisters from historically non-dominant worlds.
Now, a personal caveat. I’m really grateful for Western civilization: I’ve been shaped by its ideals, I’ve worked for several institutions that seek to protect and advance them. But here at Nyack, in all its grittiness and prismatic perspective, the future felt closer, the Christian difference more palpable. Here were souls whose stories were rooted in exile, and yet they were living into this exile with hope and hospitality. And I wondered, sitting there, tears coming down my face, if the more visible ambassadors of American Christianity, concerned for the future of Western civilization and the freedoms of the faithful, could learn something from their posture and build an alliance.
This next season of Comment Magazine would like to play a role in bridging these worlds and resourcing their brother and sisterhood. As sincere people of faith navigate an era that once again scorns and misunderstands us, there is a need to look beyond each of our own cultural and ecclesial comfort zones for instruction, sustenance and relationship with those whose lives are surrendered to the same Source of Life and Love, yet are faced with different pains, equipped with different gifts, and live in trusted relationship with different communities. We at Comment would like to provide a long and unruly banquet table both on and off our actual pages for conversation, exploration, storytelling and artistic expression that is at once more Beatitudinal, more widely accessible to people of all walks of life, and more reflective of the body of Christ in ALL its beauty, scars and missteps. We’d also like to be more hospitable to those who, in the lonely cry of our age, say, “I don’t believe in God, but I sure do miss Him.”
Some Personal Autobiography
So, zooming down a little from this call to build a table for a larger circle of souls, I thought I’d risk a little personalism and share some of my own autobiography, not because I’m so interesting, but because a magazine can’t help but reflect the life experiences of its editor, and I thought you might just want to know what you’re getting into if you become a subscriber.
I was born in Boston and shortly thereafter moved to Hong Kong, then Australia with my sister and parents, my father’s job as a foreign exchange currency trader introducing us to worlds both global and cosmopolitan. Our actual apartment, however, was a contrasting mix of indigenous artwork and Quechua flutes from Latin America, my mother having grown up in the Amazon jungle in Peru as the daughter of linguists who’d given decades of their lives to translating the Old and New Testament into the native tongue – or heart language – of one Quechua tribe. Her stories from childhood, and the witness of her parents who I would know as amazingly loving grandparents, shaped my girlhood perception of Christianity as a faith that had the unique capacity to incarnate in intricate ways in cultures both new and ancient, powerful and marginalized. And with grandparents whose particular charism as linguists was intrinsically one of bridge-building, I only knew this faith as something bracing yet life-giving, transcendent yet culturally adaptive.
Fast-forward a decade and returning to the States, and I had a very real encounter my sophomore year of high school with what I can only describe as Father, Son and Holy Spirit wooing me to surrender my life to Him and that part of the Lord’s prayer, Thy Kingdom Come. Not really knowing what this would mean but hungering to further experience and learn how to share this love that was so unlike any other kind of love I knew in the world I was in – at the time I was attending an aggressively secular prep school some of you may know called Andover – I started a Bible Study in an almost desperate attempt to see if there was anyone else out there who shared this strange faith in a Savior who’d walked this earth so long ago. There were others, as it turns out. The Bible Study became a weekly scene of me strumming four cords tentatively on my mother’s guitar, surrounded by 30 Korean and Korean American students at Andover singing, praying and discussing different passages of Scripture together.
Fast-forward still further, and I wound up at Wheaton College in Illinois, where I was granted the foundation to ask the big questions, the Christian questions, even if there weren’t always – nor really often – neat and tidy Christian answers. And alongside the delicious breadth of the liberal arts I was also exposed to the range of theological traditions and their champions, writers like Thomas Merton and Charles Spurgeon, Peter Kreeft and Edith Stein, Kierkegaard and Saint Augustine. At age 20 I had a vocation-cementing experience helping build a water system in rural Honduras, where a friendship with a member of our team, César Gomez, a Paraguayan who’d become a custodial staffer at Wheaton’s physical plant, as well as a spirit-altering conversation in a water ditch along a hillside with a local Honduran man, my work-partner, deepened my faith from one of sincere belief and intellectual integration, to one that hinged on compassion and the ability to suffer with others, to humble oneself before wisdom from unexpected quarters of society, often the weakest, and to one that found its most joy-filled expression in the building of bridges between groups that have trouble understanding each other. And I was given a conviction from this point forward that for my life to have integrity, it had to integrate head, heart and helping hand, it had to be a host for others to bloom, it had to bridge uncommon worlds and it had to be faithful to this gospel of grace. And since then I’ve made a million mistakes and failed many times, but the compass has been the lodestar for life decisions and my work.
The Demographic Future
The world today is witnessing a non-Western explosion of Christianity. By the end of this century, Christians living in the global South and East will number 2.8 billion, roughly 3 times more than the 775 million projected for the global North. At the same time, migration patterns from the South to the North are leavening the spiritual tenor of a secularized West. 60 percent of immigrants that come to the United States today identify as Christians. Latino Protestant congregations are growing while white Protestant (both evangelical and mainline) congregations are shrinking. Seventy percent of Catholic growth since 1960 is due to migration from the Philippines, Vietnam and Latin America, with over half of this country’s Catholic young people identifying as Hispanic.
These migration patterns yield a combustible set of dynamics that involve as much theological culture clash as they birth new pathways for spiritual renaissance. As institutional Christianity continues to weaken and as the elite corridors double down on their secularist, individualistic preferences (and as the far wings of each political base definitely do the same) – it’s worth saying that at the loudest top and the loudest base of our society we are officially paganized -- …as all this happens, newcomers bring expressions of faith that are full of vitality and without domestic baggage. The culture wars that have pitted church against world in a whiter U.S. don’t carry the same currency for Christians whose heritage lies elsewhere. Instead, the faith’s more experiential dimension is emphasized, as are its civic responsibilities that dwell not just on Supreme Court justice picks, but also on serving as agents of compassion and hope within their local communities.
And then there is the African American church. Born in suffering and sustained despite bearing the scars of the country’s most egregious sin, I’d argue that the black church has been the leading agent of grace in American history – and yeast in Christ’s Church at large. The Beatitudes certainly feel closer to the surface in black congregations, their paradoxical power embodied in a heritage oppressed but not crushed, persecuted but not abandoned. Along measures of devotion and faith practice, The American Bible Society has found that African Americans are more than twice as likely as other groups to say Bible reading is crucial to their daily routine. And while black voices were rarely woven into the parachurch unfurling of evangelicalism in the mid-twentieth century, it is now more often African Americans who draw unapologetically from Christian wells in their public engagement today. It was no aberration that President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” in mourning the massacre in Charleston back in 2015. It was no aberration that the families of the slaughtered chose to forgive the murderer who killed in the name of racial hate.
The gatekeepers of Christian thought, some of whom are in this room, have much to gain from expanding our circle. For one thing, many black and immigrant-dominated churches have maintained a respected civic role in a way many white evangelical churches have not. Where the latter may serve its individual members in the ways of encouragement, worship sessions, exegetical preaching and weekly small groups, today’s black, Hispanic, Asian and other bodies remain as much a civic pillar for their members as they are sanctuaries for prayer and worship – many of them doubling as job banks, legal agencies, homeless shelters, information hubs. In short, my experience of black and immigrant congregations is that they tend to be more like the field hospitals Pope Francis has spoken about – welcoming everyone, regardless of sin or circumstance, and caring for the needs of the whole person, addressing whole neighborhoods, whole systems, not just one’s individual soul. This comprehensive realism grants these local churches moral authority – only in their home community, but in the world at large. And they offer an important lesson: If you want entré to a hurting if skeptical world, care for it, don’t try to rule it.
Lifting Up the Shepherds
Zoom out from the reality of this century’s demographic unfurling, and you see something else. Theories of cultural change are shifting, from top-down to bottom-up, from national to local, from institutions to networks, from structured hierarchies to open ecosystems, from advice by outside expert to praxis by indigenous shepherd. There’s a growing awareness that love can never be abstracted – we’re touched by incarnational living and doing, less prescription from on high. There’s a lot of despair and diagnosis of problems in a capital city like this, regardless of where you stand along the ideological spectrum, but out there in the country, human beings are still human beings, and there really is a beautiful civic unfurling going on, one that I see and hear as rooted in a spirit which, while perhaps not speaking in familiar church doctrine, is nonetheless animated by a belief in the power of forgiveness, atonement, reconciliation, hospitality, the table, caring over ruling, weaving over winning. From Wichita to Indianapolis, Chico, California to Dallas, Texas, there’s a wave rising of community shepherds found in every societal sector who speak with mercy and walk towards justice.
Comment would like to make a bet on this uncharted theory of influence, one that puts these shepherds in conversation with national thinkers, caregivers and village-makers with institutional stakeholders, musicians and poets with policy wonks and tech whizzes. I really don’t believe in burning any one world down, be it the elite establishment or the populist extremes. Rather I believe in taking courage to lay a table that’s conditioned to absorb the raw vulnerability and pain felt in all quarter these days, and is willing to be patient before the time it usually takes to understand the root of the other’s pain, but also the arc of the other’s hopes, and eventually host a conversation that’s committed to showing our common capacity to care.
Where to From Here?
Comment is a small magazine, as you’ll see. I’ve been given formidable Birkenstocks to step into by the brilliant James K.A. Smith who shaped them in this editor role before me, and a truly wonderful staff that’s small but mighty, two of whom are here – Brian Dijkema our senior editor and bridge to Cardus, and Heidi Deddens, our managing editor. We have big hopes to be of big service to some of the zeitgeist chasms of this cultural moment, but we do begin from a humble place, in need of more resources, more people, diversification, and unlikely partnerships. We need all of you here and those watching and not watching to bring in your friends and networks, institutional ecosystems and hidden stories. To those who are physically or intellectually disabled and considered weak by our society, we need you deeply. To our friends in positions of privilege and worldly influence, we need you and your humility in stewarding the power you hold. To our African American brothers and sisters, we need you and your witness to a long obedience in the same direction, and a persevering strength. To older white men, we need your reserve of perspective chiseled in this era where you are being told that your time for speaking is over. I really hope it isn’t over. To my Vietnamese Ignatian friends and Honduran Catholics and Nigerian Pentecostals and Korean prayer warriors, we need your dynamism, your energy, your confidence and your example of joy-filled interdependence. To our Jewish friends celebrating Yom Kippur tonight, we need your centuries-long example of what it requires to be strangers in a strange land. To stay-at-home mothers and embattled public figures, scholars and weavers, musicians and filmmakers, scientists and entrepreneurs, those wounded and those flourishing, we need all of you.
I’m going to end first, with a quote from Henri Nouwen, and then, better still, a passage from the Apostle Paul. Henri Nouwen once wrote, “The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.”
This is a bracing charge for God’s people today, and a bracing charge for a magazine like ours, which, like every magazine, is at its heart an aspirational community. As such we’d like to play whatever role we’re afforded to shape content and a foregoing canopy that invites all who write and read to a more humble, Beatitudinal, bridge-building place. How might we catalyze a re-framing of our most fraught debates as a society and revive the possibility that grace is possible amidst deep disagreement? How do we become more of a people that remains alien to the world, yet reconciling? An alien reconciler. What could that look like?
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. …Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
If Christianity is going to reclaim its collective witness in the West, an alliance must be built between elite and commoner, scholar and practitioner, black and white, able-bodied and handicapped, immigrant and indigenous, young and old. If the Church is to draw closer to God’s heart and revive her force in history, she will be one of sacrifice, atonement, private and public honesty and hope without rival. She will love despite fear, count the cost and consider it joy. She will be bridging, Beatitudinal, broken and bottom-up.
This is the future. This actually has to be the future. And we at Comment invite all of you to join us in nourishing its soil.