World View
World View

World View

An annotated reading of your world.

December 1 st 2017
Appears in Winter 2017

OF PREDATORS AND PLANKS | As I pen this column, public conversation is still rippling from revelations about perverted predator Harvey Weinstein. A serial abuser of power, Weinstein treated women around him as territories to be conquered and trophies to be acquired, as if they were merely part of the furniture of the universe, there for his comfort and pleasure. The longstanding pattern of this behaviour, along with rumours of its being an "open secret," has raised important questions about complicity and enablement. These are questions we should all be asking, and facing.

There are all sorts of strategies for keeping such sordid affairs at a distance. We can dismiss it as "Hollywood"—except that my own academic discipline of philosophy has its own terrible record of such behaviour. We might dismiss this as something to be expected from licentious "liberals"—except that the same behaviour has toppled front men at Fox News. We might even delude ourselves into imagining this is what happens "in the world"—except that we know it also happens in the church, even in families. We might be tempted by the "few bad apples" story—except that the president of the United States is on the record bragging about such behaviour, and another, well, "did not have sexual relations with that woman."

It would also be easy to play the publican here—for men to congratulate themselves for never having groped or assaulted or harassed the women around them. That's not nothing, of course; but I'm not sure we deserve any moral praise for not being monsters. To the contrary, Jesus undercuts the moral lines of self‐congratulation we tend to draw. "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,'" Jesus admonishes in the Sermon on the Mount. "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." So even if I haven't been an abuser, how have I contributed to systems and structures that have belittled women? What have I done to resist the ethos of locker rooms and board rooms and conference rooms that effectively carve women up into body parts to be coveted and acquired? How have I encouraged testosterone‐ fuelled environments that marginalize women's gifts and voices? When does my appreciation of beauty veer into a leering objectification?

The way for men to respond to this conversation is neither defence nor protest of one's own virtue. Our response should be a long, hard look at our own behaviours, patterns, and assumptions—especially when we are leaders or parents who have the power to shape the ethos that shapes those around us.

Perhaps most disheartening in all of this has been the grassroots response of the #metoo campaign—the rapidly spreading testimonies of women who, with courage and forthrightness, gave voice to the ubiquity of this injustice. Your sisters and wives and daughters and colleagues all have #metoo stories. Ask them. Listen. Be prepared for heartbreak. Stand alongside them in solidarity and empathy. Thank them for their courage. Don't try to explain it or defend it or minimize it or solve it. Lament with those who lament. Don't rush to cheap forgiveness; stand and fight the injustice.

And don't misunderstand silence. Too many women remain in subcultures of disordered patriarchy that engender fear and the silence that becomes a cover for continued abuse. In such contexts, hurt and violation are transformed into a paralyzed, silent shame.

There is a scene at the end of Roland Joffé's film The Mission, where, after a brutal slaughter, the Portuguese governor seeks to allay the cardinal's guilt by reminding him, "We live in the world; the world is thus." The cardinal won't accept this out: "No, Señor Hontar," he replies. "Thus have we made the world; thus have I made it." We can make it otherwise. The responsibility falls to us.

VIEWERS LIKE YOU | Along with many others I've been both absorbed and repelled by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's PBS documentary The Vietnam War. Absorbed because the series is that rare combination of artistic monument and educational gift. I'm astounded by the craft that is required to turn the sheer mass of images, stories, data, and testimonies (from both US and Vietnamese sources) into not only a coherent overall narrative but also a series of masterful micro‐narratives, the different faces and voices cycling again and again like symphonic motifs. The soundtrack is an integral part of this work of art. It incorporates the music of the era according to strict guidelines: no song can accompany an episode unless it was available in the year being portrayed. The result for Gen‐Xers like me is a kind of unfurling of '60s and '70s music in "real time," as it were. (Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence" has new meaning when paired in this way, for example.) But the original score written for the series by Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame) and Atticus Ross is equally integral to the film: a dissonant, metallic, percussive sound that sometimes feel like a violation, echoing the sheer noise that soldiers recall over and over again.

My repulsion has nothing to do with the filmmakers and everything to do with the subjects they portray—in particular the politicians and powerbrokers who through the course of the documentary turn nineteen‐ year‐old boys into ill‐equipped pawns in what, to them, amounts to a global game (governed by nothing less than a "domino theory" of "containment"). While the mainframe computer in the Pentagon is crunching the numbers of daily "body counts," shell‐shocked young men from rural Missouri and south Boston are dying because their rifles won't work. And when you realize that these young soldiers are disproportionately working class and African American, it's hard to restrain fury and disgust for the LBJs and Robert McNamaras of the world who lie about reality while their own children are safe at boarding schools in New England. The documentary is eighteen hours of death, lies, and videotape.

But what continues to impress me is the long prelude at the beginning of every episode that lists the foundations, families, agencies, and people who funded the making of the film. Over a minute long, the list includes names that are mantras for anyone who listens to public radio—the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and other familiar patrons. But the litany includes names I've never heard of before, like the Blavatnik Family Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Better Angels Society. And there are some provocative juxtapositions in the list: when was the last time that David H. Koch and the National Endowment for the Humanities agreed on anything?

As always, the litany ends with a thank‐you to "Viewers Like You." For a long time when I was younger, I thought "Viewers Like You" was the name of some odd foundation I wasn't familiar with. Only later did I realize that these "Viewers Like You" were, well, viewers like me—that viewers in living rooms like mine were not only passive consumers of this content but also active investors in its production, co‐producers of a sort, who saw the creation of such art and journalism as worth their veritable "tithes" for the common good. A monumental achievement like PBS' The Vietnam War is only possible because of the patronage of people who see its creation as a benefit to all. Such patronage is the very fabric of civil society. And while the bulk of the documentary leads me to mourning and lament, that opening litany of thanks is always a glimmer of hope.

PHILANTHROPIC DREAMING | The culture‐ making significance of patronage is an ongoing theme for us here at Comment. But I was prompted to think about it again recently when I took part in a conference in Indianapolis on the state of the evangelical mind. This small consultation was something of a retrospective on Mark Noll's influential book; but it was also something of an autopsy on the demise of Books & Culture. And shortly afterward we learned that John Wilson's follow‐up venture, Education & Culture, would also come to an end.

Several conference participants, notably historian John Fea, pressed those gathered to ask why the Protestant evangelical community couldn't sustain a venture like B&C—an organ for knitting together a Christian intellectual community. (This is a question John Schmalzbauer asked in the pages of Comment shortly after the news that the magazine would be shuttered.) As Gregory Wolfe provocatively noted, evangelicals could somehow come up with the funding for God's Not Dead 2 but not a quality cultural magazine.

The question is worth asking. But I wonder if we might ask a slightly different question going forward: Could it be that a rising generation of Christian philanthropists will be more open to supporting such cultural endeavours? Could the expanded sense of "mission" that more and more evangelicals have come to embrace start to make an impact on family and foundation giving? Are there new sorts of evangelical patrons on the horizon?

We know there is no shortage of resources out there for reconstructed versions of Noah's ark. It's not a question of capital; it's a matter of imagination. What does it look like to win the hearts and minds of Christian philanthropists? What role do artists and public intellectuals play in converting the imagination of Christian foundations to lay down their culture‐war weapons and invest in endeavours that offer Christian wisdom to our neighbours? What's to stop us from setting up an evangelical "endowment for the humanities" at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities? Why couldn't a Christian family foundation see the longterm mission effects of a Christian "Genius Grant" akin to the MacArthur Foundation? Or maybe even underwrite an ambitious think tank devoted to the renewal of North American social architecture? The people who can make that happen are also sitting in living rooms like mine: maybe Readers Like You.

READERS LIKE YOU | You probably don't realize, dear reader, how often we try to imagine you. In our editorial meetings, our brainstorming sessions, our conversations with authors and contributing editors, you are uppermost in our minds. We are regularly asking ourselves, What do our readers need to carry out their vocations? What questions are they asking? What worries them? What interests them? What are they talking about that we're not?

But sometimes it feels like looking through the wrong end of a telescope: the image feels distant, ungraspable, always moving. You contain multitudes. So each issue is just a message in a bottle. It's a hundred messages in a thousand bottles. And every few months we launch a thousand more.

We would love to learn more about you, to flip that telescope around and see up close. Or even better: to get some bottles back. We count you as co‐producers and patrons, pilgrims on the way with us. Drop us a line at and tell us what you're thinking about, what concerns you, what makes you hopeful, and how we can help.

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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