World View
World View

World View

An annotated reading of your world.

December 3 rd 2018
Appears in Winter 2018

Fare Thee Well | As readers know by now, with this issue I conclude my tenure as editor in chief of Comment. In the new year I will assume a new role as editor in chief of Image journal, a quarterly devoted to art, mystery, and faith. Curating such a space resonates with the outcome of a period of discernment over the past year and my sense that God is calling me, in the next season of my career, to work at the intersection of the arts, imagination, and culture. So I hope you’ll indulge my melancholy at this bittersweet moment and permit me the luxury of some reflection, wresting the pages of this column from my usual assignment and instead using the space to articulate some of my gratitude.

I think it is particularly fitting and gratifying that the editorial in this issue is penned by the remarkable Sarah Hamersma, one of our most energetic and insightful contributing editors. Instituting such an editorial advisory board was one of my early goals when I became editor of Comment, and I’m grateful that the final issue under my editorship uniquely reflects the gifts these contributing editors bring to the ongoing depth and breadth of Comment—a sign of its health and vibrancy going forward.

When a Vocation Is a Surprise | I never knew I wanted to be the editor in chief of Comment until publisher Ray Pennings asked me the question at a conference in Colorado Springs in the summer of 2012. But as soon as he asked the question, I knew the answer was yes. (That my wife, Deanna, also immediately sensed something of the Spirit in this was a first sign of confirmation—Deanna has long been the weathervane of the Spirit’s breath in my life.)

Ray’s surprising invitation immediately made perfect sense and seemed to uniquely pull together a number of my passions and interests in a dynamic, ongoing project. That Abraham Kuyper, one of my exemplars, was an editor (on top of being a theologian, educator, and writer) was probably rumbling around in the back of my mind. But I’m also a magazine junkie and love the ongoingness of a magazine as an unfolding conversation. And so the opportunity to take the helm of Comment looked like an opportunity to curate a wide, lively, ongoing conversation, building a community and movement of like-minded pilgrims committed to “public theology for the common good.”

And that turned out to be true. I am incredibly grateful for Comment readers—both the longtime patrons who have been with us since before I became editor in chief, as well as the new readers who have joined us over the past several years, introducing Comment into corners of the country (and world) where it had never travelled before. As someone who spends a lot of time on the road, I never tired of meeting Comment readers face to face. It has been humbling to have readers thank me in person for what our team does. Their faces and names provided a tangible sense that this “community” of Comment readers was an actual thing. And for many of them, Comment stemmed a certain loneliness they often felt in their contexts, giving them a sense of being hooked up to something bigger—that they had friends they’d never seen but who “got” them. I hope you’ll continue to be part of Comment as one way to feel just a little less alone in the world.

When a Magazine Is an Education | As I look at the stack of Comment issues on my desk, I sense that what we’ve been trying to do is curate a continuing education curriculum in public theology. If you scroll through the themes of the past six years, I hope you’ll see it too. Each issue is an invitation to reflect on either a key aspect of our “social architecture” or the postures we need to adopt to do this creatively and faithfully. We started by inviting you to consider the importance of investing in institutions, and why that investment looks like patronage; we explored the messy reality of “faithful compromise” as an inevitable dynamic of collaborating for the common good; we encouraged you to look for the “cracks in the secular,” looking for openings and opportunities rather than succumbing to cynical despair; we tackled the unique challenges of inequality and (dis)trust, technology and health care, social isolation and urban life. We extolled “the work of our hands” and the significance of the trades and considered the practical solutions that “cultural jigs” can provide for busy lives in an age of distraction. And more. The hope is that these themes were both perennial and timely—speaking to pressing challenges of the day by drawing on the tried-and-true wisdom of the tradition. One of the most encouraging things I could hear from our readers was, “I hadn’t thought of that before!”

At the heart of such a “continuing education,” however, are the “teachers,” so to speak—the writers who have dived into different aspects of these themes, bringing us fresh analysis, provocative criticism, and instructive insight that could help us imagine the world differently, as well as the role we could play in it. It has been a unique pleasure for me to work alongside the growing stable of Comment writers who have been willing to contribute to our pages. To write for us is not a lucrative endeavour, of course; but nonetheless, we have been encouraged by both established and emergent writers who have enthusiastically generated new work in response to what was sometimes a left-field invitation. I’m genuinely humbled to browse through the list of authors who have graced our pages (and website) over the past six years. Some of them might be surprised to know that, back when I came on board, our editorial team had identified them as “marlins”—the big fish we dreamed of landing to write for us. And now some of those folks are not only in our tables of contents; they’re on our masthead! Yet their involvement never felt like a condescension, but rather the grace of a partnership around a shared hope.

I’m equally heartened by the younger writers we found—or who found us. It was always a special treat when Comment was the venue for a debut in print. It’s hard to despair about the future of the church when you get to work with young writers. The Seerveld Prize for New Writers is a wonderful culmination of this aspect of my time with Comment, and I look forward to seeing it continue in the future.

I’ve learned a lot as a writer from this experience as an editor. I don’t make any claims to being an exemplary writer; but being an editor meant learning to trust my instincts on some counts and realizing what I didn’t know on others. Helping others hone and polish their voice became an occasion for me to look at my own, which became the gift of a new intentionality. And at the risk of offending many others that I learned from, I have to say that working with, and reading, Marilyn McEntyre and Alan Jacobs has been a master class in “the essay.” I hope I’m a better writer because of it.

Next time you run into me at a conference, buy me a Manhattan (or two) and I’ll share some more “tales from the editing room floor.” Some of our best inside jokes as an editorial team come from working with writers. (Writers, if you’re reading this, it’s not you. Wink, wink.) I learned that deadlines are like miasmic, ephemeral apparitions for some writers, whereas for others they are like the eleventh commandment (may their tribe increase). I learned that those who are the most secure in their authorial voice are least resistant to edits. Working with younger writers, I learned that I should have been more sensitive to how much their identity was bound up in their word choice. I still have a lot to learn.

When Work Is Friendship | While I am sad to leave the work of Comment behind, I’m mostly going to miss the friends I’ve made in this endeavour. It is a unique blessing—a poignant, welcome incursion of shalom—when your work overlaps with your friends, and when doing the work just feels like being friends. From Ray’s invitation to the early encouragement and welcome of (then) managing editor Dan Postma, landing at Comment felt like a homecoming. The entire team has been a blessing, and I’m proud of the way we’ve consistently punched above our weight.

Again, at the risk of an injustice to others, I have to especially thank three people. Behind the scenes for many is the work of our designer, Kathryn de Ruijter. When I landed at Comment, I knew one of the things I wanted to undertake was a redesign of the feel of the magazine—from the font and margins to the texture of the paper and the look of our covers. I was hoping for a new coherence in our design that said something about who we were without drawing attention to itself. And I also wanted some of this feel to translate to the website. Kathryn immediately got it and was excited to be unleashed on the work. We happily entrusted ourselves to her instincts and aesthetic, and the result is a stack of issues that are beautiful artifacts of the work we’ve done together.

And then my closest partners in crime: Brian Dijkema and Doug Sikkema. The hardest part of stepping away from Comment is a sense that I might be letting down these friends that I cherish. It’s not just their energy and enthusiasm for Comment; it’s not just their intellectual curiosity and thoughtful convictions; it’s not even the jovial delights of trading Fantastic Mr. Fox gifs and Lord of the Rings jokes. It’s that these are young men that I admire—as husbands, as fathers, as friends, as churchmen. It’s very hard for me to be cynical about the next generation having worked alongside these friends.

When One’s Work Is Done | There were times when I couldn’t imagine not editing Comment. The work came naturally to me; I was energized by the range and variety of the work; and I believed in what we were doing (and still do). But over the past couple of years, I have found the space that Comment needs to speak into—the realm of politics and civil society—is more toxic than when I started. At some point over the past couple of years, I’ve realized I don’t have the stomach for being a pundit. Some might say it’s a lack of courage. Perhaps. In any case, it’s important work that has to continue. As for me, I feel my tour of duty in these trenches of public debate is up. I’m hoping for an honourable discharge, and am looking forward to a season of trying to add to the beauty of the world.

James K.A. Smith
 
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith is editor-in-chief of Comment and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. His latest book is Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Baker Academic, 2017).

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