World View
World View

World View

An annotated reading of your world. Topics this issue include Calvinist vacations, a visit paid to the Clapham House, too-long political campaigns, praise for newspapers, and attacks on video games.
September 1 st 2015
Appears in Fall 2015

CALVINIST VACATIONS | No one would describe Calvinists as flamboyant or profligate. Even Reformed backsliders are a rather dour lot. The Reformed tradition could never spit out an Oscar Wilde, bestriding the world in capes, dining leisurely, and drinking his nights away at clubs and the theatre (only the "glam rock" of Roman Catholicism, as Bono once put it, could give us a spectacle like that). Instead, lapsed Calvinists look like John Updike, a dutiful writer who was happier chained to his desk than almost anywhere else. Even Reformed backsliding is workmanlike.

Calvinists proudly wear their one claim to fame—Max Weber's "Protestant ethic"—the way Oscar Wilde donned his velvet capes (though this is complicated, since John Calvin constantly reminds us that pride is the cardinal sin).

Even when we vacation, we work. As Comment senior editor Brian Dijkema put it this summer, "You take time off work to work." So Brian did exactly that: booking time off from the Cardus offices, our Work and Economics director got back to his labour roots—busting up concrete, making up for the shoddy work of previous owners, to rebuild a patio, with a rabbit hutch to boot. While others were zonked out on their chaise lounges, Brian was revelling in a Calvinist vacation. We can rest in the eschaton.

But probably not.

SITES OF THE SPIRIT | I took my own brief (!) vacation recently with our youngest son, Jackson, and a couple of his friends. We made a whirlwind road trip to Washington, DC, to watch an epic soccer match between Chelsea and FC Barcelona. While there, we enjoyed the warm hospitality of Mike and Kathy Metzger, hosts of Clapham House, part of the Clapham Institute, in historic Annapolis, Maryland. Taking their inspiration from Wilberforce and his historic Clapham Sect, they like to describe Clapham House as a "sea anchor"—a gathering place for Christians seeking to sail into the headwinds of a post-Christian culture while keeping their bearings. The blend of welcome, shelter, and thoughtful conversation quickly brought to mind another of my favourite places, L'Abri in Switzerland, and the legacy of Francis and Edith Schaeffer.

Clapham House is another one of those sites of the Spirit you might not otherwise know about, but through which Christ continues to renew "all things" (Col. 1:15—20). There Mike and Kathy host a salon that brings together Christians from an array of callings and professions for reflection, prayer, and strategic thinking, equipping them to bear witness to what the world is called to be—in business, politics, art, education, and the church. Maybe it was the proximity to the nation's political capital, but as I enjoyed an evening of conversation with local entrepreneurs, pastors, and educators, I couldn't help but think of what Gregg Herken recently described as "the Georgetown set" (in his book by the same name)—the social network of the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington, DC, in the 1950s and 60s that brought together journalists, politicians, and academics who would shape policy for a generation. "Remarkably," Herken observes, "the policies and stratagems that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union, and helped bring about the world we live in today, began with a simple invitation to cocktails and dinner." While there were no cocktails at Clapham House (though there was some delicious red wine), one could see a parallel salon beginning. Never underestimate the power of hospitality to renew the face of the earth. If, as Dostoevsky says, beauty will save the world, the beauty of convivial hospitality is surely part of it.

In fact, the power of beauty is also part of the Clapham Institute. Mike Metzger likes to emphasize something we might miss when looking at the example of culture shapers like Wilberforce: the Clapham Sect depended on metaphor and images, not just arguments and ideas. They helped people see how the world could be different by showing rather than just telling.

If you visit Clapham House you'll see some tangible expressions of this. On one wall of a small gallery you'll find mugs with a succinct, captivating encapsulation of the Four- Chapter Gospel: OUGHT. IS. CAN. WILL. Creation lays out how things ought to be; but in a fallen world, we find the world as it is; in the wake of Christ's redemption and the empowerment of the Spirit, we can work to bend creation toward its original calling; and we long for the day when the world will be what it ought. But better than simply telling people this ad nauseum, let's imagine how we can show them. That's what the conversations at the Clapham Institute are about. You might want to pay a visit.

CAMPAIGNING VERSUS GOVERNING | Both Canada and the United States find themselves in the seething cauldron of federalelection campaigns. But there is a slight difference: while the U.S. campaign was already gaining steam before Prime Minister Harper announced the Canadian election on August 2, the Canadian election will be held on October 19, 2015, only slightly before the U.S. presidential election on November 8, 2016. As a Canadian living in the United States, I had to grin when the Canadian press immediately began lamenting the "long campaign": it would last a whopping—and unprecedented— eleven weeks. (The average length of Canadian campaigns is less than fifty days.) But Canadians might encourage themselves by glancing south at the inanity we endure down here, where governing has been almost entirely swallowed up by campaigning. While the checks and balances of elections and term limits understandably emerged from a sense of caution woven into the American experiment, it would have been impossible for the Founders to imagine the chemical reaction of media and money that constitutes our world. For Canadians who might be unfamiliar with the U.S. system, consider that members of the House of Representatives face elections every two years. That means that almost as soon as a U.S. representative is elected, they must begin campaigning for reelection. If Orwell showed us the disorder of a society beset by "perpetual war," what of a society immersed in a perpetual war by other means?

But the fact is, the length of "official" campaigns only intensifies the endless campaign that is now the baseline of our political life. And campaigns, let's be honest, don't appeal to the angels of our nature. Even the best candidates are easily drawn into a cynical, superficial game managed by operatives who stand to profit from the mechanisms of democracy. But perhaps the most worrisome by-product of the endless campaign is that politics is overwhelmed by politicking. Amy Guttman and Dennis Thompson succinctly identify the problem in their 2012 book, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It. The characteristics that get one elected (or worse, chosen in a primary battle) are not synonymous with the virtues needed to govern.

It's hard to see a way out, and if there is any light at the end of this tunnel, it is distant and dim and I'm not at all confident this train will get us there. Various "structural" solutions have been ineffectual. While there are legitimate considerations about campaign finance, and rules can be enacted to limit campaigning of a certain sort, endless campaigns will not be ended by government action. Ending the endless political campaigning requires a change of hunger. The mechanisms of democracy live off the habits (both virtuous and vicious) of nongovernmental civil society—the commercial interests of the "fourth estate," for example; the populace's unending hunger for spectacle and vitriol; our need to constantly display our outrage and demonize those who disagree; and our fallen penchant for tribalism.

That means undoing the endless campaign is as much a bottom-up endeavour as it is a top-down initiative. The renewal of our political discourse belongs to us. Ending the campaign and getting down to the work of governing depends on the virtues of the governed as well as the governing. And here is a small but not insignificant opportunity for the church, those citizens of the city of God, to model politics otherwise. Let us not underestimate the power of a people who refuses simplistic demonization, sees through cynical facades, works hard to inform themselves, and understands the reality of "faithful compromise." Scholars like Oliver O'Donovan and John Witte have shown how democracy emerged from distinctly Christian convictions about the dignity of the person and a sense of the penultimacy of earthly kingdoms. Let us hope and pray that Christians could equally contribute to the renewal of democracy in our day.

AN ODE TO NEWSPAPERS | While I did not grow up in a home with books (I can only remember Danielle Steele paperbacks around the house), my mother was a regular reader of the London Free Press and an occasional reader of the Woodstock Sentinel Review (we called it the "sentimental" review). My earliest memories of my adult newspaper-reading habits are bound up with pleasant memories of Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay. Early in our marriage, the only vacation Deanna and I could afford was a few days at an old family cottage—a rustic retreat without hot water, with rough-hewn pine walls and ceilings. But it was paradise for us. One of the simple luxuries I remember was beginning each day with a walk to a nearby receptacle to pick up the Globe and Mail and poring over the thick newsprint education I held in my hands.

I confess I'm still awed and mesmerized by the treasures that arrive on my doorstep every morning. Even the mechanisms that deliver them to me are mysterious wonders: I try to imagine the whir of technologies and systems and networks that make it possible for this tangible artifact to be on my counter in Grand Rapids at seven in the morning, reporting on a game or debate that ended in Toronto or New York at just eleven o'clock the night before. But more importantly, every single day of the Wall Street Journal or the National Post is an ongoing education that invites me into worlds that are new to me. Newspapers are like daily excursions into the nooks and crannies of the world under your nose.

Without nostalgia, I recommend getting your fingers dirty with newsprint simply because turning pages seems to leave more of your learning to providence than the Pelagian exercise of clicking on what interests you. The almost spiritual discipline of working through the paper, section by section, means I will encounter swaths of society that might otherwise remain hidden: I'm confronted by the horrors of war and violence; learn about the nuances of domestic policy and international finance; contemplate beauty and brokenness in the arts and film; consider financial stewardship, health, and what it means to keep a home; watch the drama of victory and defeat unfold in the world of sport; reflect on my mortality in the obituaries; and so much more. A newspaper subscription is a simple, tangible, formative way to care about every square inch of God's good but broken creation.

EDUCATION FOR WHAT? | It's easy to take for granted one of the remarkable accomplishments of Western democracy: the availability of free, universal, public education. Once the luxury of a privileged elite, now a fundamental education in the arts and sciences is available to all. Despite its problems and deficiencies, a wide-angle view of history can only cause us to marvel at the realization of what was a dream for our forebears. And many go on to postsecondary education as well: over 65 percent of high school seniors in the United States go on to college; and about 65 percent of Canadians have a postsecondary education. In the long arc of history, we in North America are the privileged 1 percent of educated elites.

Given this remarkable cultural accomplishment, permit me one curmudgeonly observation. It's hard for me to imagine that our forebears dreamed of universal education so that we could spend hours upon hours glued to screens playing Words with Friends or trying to slice digital fruit like a ninja. And yet, as someone who spends countless hours on airplanes, I never cease to be amazed at the number of professional, college-educated adults who, when presented with a three-hour stretch of downtime, proceed to spend that time playing video games. Our countries invest 5 percent of their GDPs in universal education; teachers invite us into the labyrinths of history and the imaginative worlds of literature; parents make sacrifices for us to attend Christian schools and colleges. And we play Angry Birds. We're not educated for this, surely.

A flight or a train ride or a even a doctor's waiting room is a little gift from a God who delights in the liberal arts—a tiny sabbatical from the drudgery and distraction of our workaday existence in which we can continue our educations and cultivate the intellect. Think of a plane ticket to Vancouver or Los Angeles as the opportunity to finally pick up The Brothers Karamazov or read Shelby Foote's history of the Civil War or tackle Bavinck's Dogmatics. Or at least resist the People magazine and catch up on issues of the Walrus, the New York Review of Books, and National Affairs. Don't waste your education.

I told my students recently, just before graduation: If I ever see you on a plane playing a video game, I will accost you, and I will be disappointed, and I will forthrightly remind you: you weren't educated for this. The world needs your (continuing) education, and your soul is starving for it. We are remarkably well-educated dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants who could only dream of what we enjoy. Let's not squander our inheritance.

LIFELONG LEARNING | Given the societal investment in education, it shouldn't be surprising that the cadences of an entire culture are largely governed by the academic calendar. Whether or not we're going to school, all of society turns a corner after Labour Day. After the revels and relaxed pace of summer, we get back down to business and return to our routines. (Stay-at-home moms across the country started praying for this day around mid-July!) And of course many—about 25 percent of the population—actually returns to class at some level of education.

But some this September will for the first time not be experiencing "the first day of school," a day that has been an annual rite for them for most of their lives. This can be jarring and disappointing and rightly mourned. But take heart: just because schooling comes to an end doesn't mean learning should. If you have a child or grandchild or friend who might be adjusting to the realities of post-school life, buy them a newspaper subscription. And, of course, a subscription to Comment. We'll never let them stop learning.

Topics: Public Life
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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