On Playing Well with Others | For most of my childhood and adolescence, I dreamed of being an architect. God had other plans for me (I'm only a tad bitter), but I still fantasize. I draw up imaginary plans in my notebooks, page through Ruskin's sketches from Venice, buy architecture books, and visit architectural gems on my travels. It's probably one of the reasons I'm so taken with Cardus's mission of renewing North American social architecture. Now I can kind of say, George- Costanza-like, "I am an architect." You can call me Mr. VandeLay.
Architecture is one of humanity's remarkable endeavours, which is why it's such a rich analogy for cultural labour and renewal. The architect dreams of how things could be, but nothing is getting built unless she also attends to the reality of how things are. The architect's toolkit has to include both discipline and imagination, a respect for the past and the ability to envision the future. She has to be part artist and part engineer, wedding the aesthetic and the material. Every stunning tower and captivating façade has to rest on a foundation that responds to the conditions of the earth. Perhaps most significantly, no architect is an island: the architect serves and is served.
Commissioned by clients and patrons, the architect has to mobilize collaborative teams and enlist skilled craftsmen. No architectural dream is realized alone and no architect simply gets to impose his or her vision on reality.
All of this is equally true for the social architect. This hit home when I was recently reading Common Ground, a collection of essays that grew out of the thirteenth Venice Architecture Biennale. The very theme—of finding "common ground"—already sends a signal of what we all might learn from architecture. As editor Sir David Chipperfield notes, architecture requires collaboration:
It is difficult to think of another peaceful activity that draws on so many diverse contributions and expectations. It involves commercial forces and social vision; it must deal with the wishes of institutions and corporations and the needs and desires of individuals. Whether we articulate it or not, every major construction is an amazing testament to our ability to join forces and make something on behalf of others.
Isn't the same true of our institutions and systems and organizations that make up the tissue of society? Every school, every church, every Cub Scout troop and 4H chapter is a testament to such collaboration.
But what about when we disagree? What if the status quo demands change? What if we need to tear down deteriorating structures and build anew? Sometimes the architect is called to be a prophet.
Even then, Chipperfield observes, we don't escape the necessity of partnership and the need to motivate collaboration. This "predicament of the architect" he describes as one of "critical compliance." Architects "are both antagonists and service providers. Architects can only operate through the mechanisms that commission them and which regulate their efforts. Their ideas are dependent on and validated by the reaction of the society it desires to represent." The architect's work only gets off the ground if a client can fund a project; the building will need to conform to code; and in some significant sense, the building has to be functional for those who will inhabit it.
This is an important reminder to those seeking to renew social architecture, too. We don't get to impose our vision on reality. We can't go straight from the purity of our drafting table and pristine CAD sketches to real world implementation. If our visions are going to be built, we need to convince others to join in the task. We can't skirt around the hard work of persuasion or the patient discipline of listening. It's one thing to dream up the ideal building; it's quite another to get it built. Even if the Scriptures give us a blueprint for human flourishing, as "social" architects we still have to play by the rules of collaboration.
Municipal Cathedrals | With spring finally emerging, Deanna and I made our first of several pilgrimages to the land of nurseries and greenhouses outside the city. A rite of spring, the drive is always a delight, wending out of town and into the sights and scents of the countryside.
Over the years, I've always been fascinated by a lone building that looks out of place on the outskirts of Allendale, Michigan. Now looking a tad derelict behind cheap chain-link fences, the building is a stout stone edifice, its sandstone blocks and architectural grammar bringing to mind cathedrals and castles. It's the sort of building that would look perfectly at home on a university campus in Toronto or Princeton. But I could never figure out what it was.
So on our most recent journey I pulled over to investigate. Able to inch closer, I could see an inscription on the faÃ§ade: "Grand Rapids Lake Michigan Water Supply— Pumping Station 2." This beautifully crafted structure was built to serve as a lowly pumping station, a node in the water works halfway between Lake Michigan and Grand Rapids. This got me wondering: What sort of a municipality did we used to be that even our pumping stations were treated like cathedrals?
This brought to mind Tristram Hunt's marvelous study, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City. Hunt particularly highlights the way that Christians in working class England and Scotland, in many ways influenced by "Christian socialists" like F.D. Maurice, preached a "municipal gospel" that not only led to an explosion of chapels in the shadow of the factories but also tangible investment in rebuilding the public infrastructure of northern cities. This was seen as a concrete way to ennoble and empower the working class. Manchester's Town Hall is a stunning embodiment of this. While Pugin's House of Lords was a hallowed space enjoyed largely by the aristocracy, the municipal centre of working class Manchester was a veritable cathedral for the masses.
This sense of investment in the beauty and significance of public buildings is well captured in Rev. George Dawson's oration upon the opening of the Birmingham Free Reference Library in 1866:
There are few places I would rather haunt after my death than this room, and there are few things I would have my children remember more than this, that this man spoke this discourse at the opening of this glorious library, the first fruits of a clear understanding that a great town exists to discharge towards the people of that town the duties that a great nation exists to discharge towards the people of that nation—that a town is a solemn organism through which should flow, and in which should be shaped all the highest, loftiest and truest ends of man's intellectual and moral nature.
I have similar thoughts when I spend time in the Periodicals Reading Room at the Grand Rapids Public Library, in some ways awed that such a majestic, inspiring, beautiful space for reading and reflection has been bequeathed to us by generations past—and any of us can be there, soaking up the wisdom just waiting to be discovered on its shelves. It's a space in which one could begin to imagine life differently; and it's an institution that resources uplift. This is why investment in the common good translates into an investment in our public works, a "municipal gospel" of sorts.
The Kids Will Be All Right | "Young people leaving the faith!" books are the home security commercials of the church. You know what I mean: those television advertisements for residential alarm systems that prey upon our anxieties, tapping into our reptilian defense instincts. They extort us by leveraging both our fears and our loves: our love for family—and for stuff, let's be honest— and fear that some intruder will break in to plunder both. (That home invasion is a spectacularly rare occurrence is a fact that doesn't deter such portrayals.)
There is no shortage of alarmist, Chicken Little-ish predictions about young people, faith, and the future of the church. They work in pretty much the same way: trumped-up, alarmist accounts of a mass exodus from the faith are then employed as leverage to either sequester young people in a secure, antiseptic bubble or—worse— to press us to abandon those aspects of historic Christian faith that allegedly scandalize our twenty-something children. In the latter, more common case, it's like a demographic gun is being held to our heads: "Abandon the church's teaching on X (where X variously = hell, sex, marriage, and so on) or all of these young people are leaving, never to return." I can see why this generates its own cottage industry of books and conferences and aids that parents and pastors grab onto in desperate hope.
If you look past the headlines and fearmongering book titles, you'll find that a more complex, nuanced, even hopeful picture emerges. Consider, for example, Vern Bengston's recent study, Faith and Families: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (Oxford University Press). Drawing on multi-generational data compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health, Bengston and his team confirm something that is at once banal and revolutionary: when it comes to passing on faith, what matters is how you relate to your children. Authoritarian constriction doesn't help (zealots only produce rebels, Bengston found); but neither does a handsoff, laissez-faire, let-the-kids-decide approach. Instead, as Stephen Warner helpfully summarizes in a Books & Culture review, "Emotional solidarity, consistent role modeling, and openness to adolescent and young adult experimentation are ingredients in successful intergenerational religious transmission." In other words: proclaim the faith to your children, immerse them in the practices of the body of Christ, model the faith for them, and give them room to question it—the sovereign Spirit will do the rest. As Warners puts it, "The long-term patience of supportive parents may be vindicated when once-rebellious offspring return as â€˜prodigals'." These are the features of what you might call "Calvinist" parenting: trust the promises of a covenant-keeping Lord, pray like mad, and like that Father in the parable, run to the end of the road every single day looking for your prodigal. And throw a feast upon return.
One other finding is relevant here: there is no indication that lowering-the-bar of expectation translates into retention. In other words, revising the rules so that the rebel is no longer breaking them has no effect on keeping people in the faith. To the contrary: those we now know as the "nones," who have no religious affiliation, first emerged from Mainline Protestantism—a stream of Christianity that tried the "lower-the-bar" strategy a generation before progressive evangelicals thought it was a new idea. And no religion is the "religion" that is most successfully transmitted. By 2005, nearly 60 percent of young people had inherited their lack of religion. If there's any cause for alarm, it's with the misguided suggestion that diluted Christianity is one that will "keep" our young people.
Comm(encem)ent | For many of us, graduation ceremonies are the rites of passage that ease us into the summer. All over the continent, young people are reaching milestones of accomplishment, capping high school and college careers—some with relief, some with anticipation, some with a heartbroken "Good riddance," some with a combination of all three. They are asking, and being asked, "What's next?"
It is no accident that graduations are celebrated as "commencements." Graduation is both an end and a beginning, a celebration of completion and adventure. A critical stage of preparation has come to an end; we are now launched, sent, commissioned to take up our work. The end of an education is not unlike the end of worship. The ending is a sending, the culmination is a commissioning: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord." This is the both a charge and blessing: Get to work! And as you go, the Lord promises, "I go with you." Imagine every graduate covered by this blessing (inherited from John Claypool by former Calvin Seminary president, Neal Plantinga):
God go before you to guide you.
God go behind you to protect you.
God go beneath you to support you.
God go beside you to befriend you.
Be not afraid.
And let the blessing of Almighty God,
The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
Descend upon you, settle in around you,
and make its home in you.
Be not afraid.
Go in peace.
We hope each issue of Comment can be received as both a charge and a blessing: to go, to go in peace, and to be not afraid in taking up our culture-making commission.
So why not send those graduates off into their vocations with a gift subscription to Comment magazine? You'd be inviting them to join a conversation that aims to equip them for an array of cultural labours with a view to the common good and the glory of God. Bless your graduate with a subscription to Comment and you'll be inviting them to continue their education in public theology for the common good.