World View

An annotated reading of your world.
Appears in Spring 2018 Issue: Is the University Worth Saving?
March 1 st 2018

ON THE ROAD | As I've mentioned before in this space, one of the blessings of my work is the opportunity to visit different corners of the continent, sometimes well off the beaten path. While I regularly visit megalopolises like New York and Los Angeles and Toronto, I've also spent time in Manhattan, Montana, and Lynchburg, Virginia, and more time than you might guess in Langley, British Columbia. I've done the drive from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Sioux Center, Iowa, more than once, and ran alongside the loping French Broad River in Knox County, Tennessee. I've slept in places that remind me how dark and silent the night can be away from the incessant glow of street lights, punctuated by the wail of sirens that are the hum of the city. I learned that, if you catch the sun just right, the golden fields outside Siloam Springs, Arkansas, can feel a bit like Tuscany. In the past several months I've visited iconic Big Ten towns like Madison, Wisconsin, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio—seeing how universities become hubs of commerce and commercialism, research and idolatry, and sometimes even a little learning. So in this issue's installment, let me share some of what I've learned about the Spirit's work in the world.

MANHATTAN, MT | "Not that Manhattan." Manhattan, Montana, is a small settlement outside of Bozeman. Nestled in the Gallatin River valley, children make their way to the school surrounded by mountains and under the canopy of that proverbial Big Sky. Founded in 1907, the school is thriving at all levels, drawing students from well beyond the tribe of Dutch immigrants who founded the institution.

I was in town for their annual Campaign Dinner, a key event to raise the funds needed to underwrite this venture and make Christian education accessible for those who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford it. No one batted an eye at the November snow in the valley and happily made their way to the gymnasium. After dinner the din of table conversations quieted as the high school choir took to the risers and sang beautiful renditions of ancient Latin chants and African choruses, and I couldn't help but notice the way a developmentally challenged young woman was woven into the choir and lit up the room. Sitting in that gymnasium, I was struck by two thoughts.

First, these "flyover" territories are more cosmopolitan than many of the parlors of the Upper East Side in the other Manhattan. Here are young people being initiated into ancient traditions, in solidarity with sisters and brothers in Africa, showing hospitality and learning from someone the abortion industry is bent on eliminating as "unwanted." I'm not romanticizing such spaces as if they are virtuous simply because they are not "New York." That's a delusional populism to which we are too prone. But there is a kind of complexity to these places that you could never grasp from thirty thousand feet or parachuting in from the coasts.

Second, it struck me that I was witnessing exactly what astounded Tocqueville about America in the mid-nineteenth tour he recounts in Democracy in America. This fundraising dinner for a Christian school in the village of Churchill was everything we prize about civil society and flourishing nations: a voluntary, faithful, passionate investment in institutions beyond the state and the market, animated by enduring convictions and care. Thousands of miles and light years away from the circus of Washington, DC, there are bastions of good work and institutional investment that endure and that we can all too easily miss when we let cable news narrate the world. Turn it off. Look around. Give thanks. Get involved.

PORTLAND, OR | My wife, Deanna, joined me for a pilgrimage back to Portland, Oregon, this time to take part in a panel on my new book organized by the Society of Christian Ethics. Since the conference fell over the weekend, on Sunday morning we made the trek to the east side to attend Bridgetown Church, pastored by a friend, John Mark Comer. Old Laurelhurt Church was alive and packed in this secularized slice of the country, filled with young people hungry for the Word.

But I was especially moved to learn of the church's partnership with a remarkable organization called Embrace Oregon. Growing out of the grassroots initiative of Christians and congregations in Portland, Embrace Oregon identified a particularly vulnerable population—children who have been removed from the care of their biological parents—and aimed to stand in the gap to nourish and protect them. But rather than simply demonizing bureaucracy or decrying government, Embrace Oregon marshals the compassion and hospitality of Jesus followers to partner with the state's Department of Human Services to both sustain them in their work and to open up homes to welcome children into foster care. I'm sure not everyone that morning was thinking of "enkaptic interlacements" and Dooyeweerdian conceptions of civil society, but everyone could see the testimony of congregations moved by the gospel to care for the vulnerable and willing to partner with existing institutions to see them cared for and protected. In fact, the program has been so successful in the tri-county area of Portland that the state is now asking Embrace Oregon to help them replicate this throughout the state. Thanks be to God for Christians and congregations with the courage and imagination to answer such calls, and for social entrepreneurs willing to create organizations that step into the middle of need and heartbreak.

LANGLEY, BC | The Fraser River valley is becoming more and more familiar to me over the years. I regularly visit the cities of Langley and Surrey and surrounding environs to speak to Christian teachers there, some of whom have now become treasured friends. Recently I revisited Langley to speak to a joint conference of educators from CSI and ACSI schools in British Columbia and Washington state. The conference gave me hope because of the partnerships and collaborations it represented. Transcending old divides and even national borders, the gathering brought to the surface a shared vision and energy, as well as the necessity for collaborative, creative thinking in a post-Christian North American environment. I was especially encouraged to detect a persistent motif of hope—a sense that, despite contemporary challenges, there is also an opportunity in our secular age.

The weekend was capped by a lovely evening with sometime Comment author Matthew Beimers, his wife Bev, and his sister Sophia Nagtegaal, both also working in Christian education. Matthew rehearsed the wonderful story of how his school "loaned" him to serve as interim principal of a small Lutheran school in the area, forging an unexpected partnership. Over the course of two years, the Lutheran community welcomed him with open arms and deepened his sense that Christian education has missional possibilities in a secular age. And in a development that would surprise anyone who has been a trustee or board member, the Lutheran school has now been seamlessly enfolded into the Surrey Christian school system, bringing new life and missional energy while Surrey Christian could offer stability and institutional cover for a small, vulnerable institution. Sometimes building institutions looks like mending them and blending them with creative courage.

BOSTON, MA | There are some things about life on the road I've learned the hard way. Don't eat fried food. Bring ear plugs. Take your shoes off when flying a red-eye home. Exercise. Et cetera. But perhaps most important: worship. While the road is a chance to anonymously opt out, it is also an opportunity to worship with saints in new places, to see what God is doing beyond your congregation and denomination. Go somewhere you'll be uncomfortable. Open yourself to surprise.

I kept to this when I was in Boston for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, a gathering of about ten thousand scholars of religion from an array of disciplines and faiths and no faith at all. The late November wind was frigid, and we mostly walked through tunnels from one conference hotel to another. But when Sunday morning approached, I realized that I was just a healthy walk away from St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church in the Roxbury neighbourhood.

Roxbury had lodged in my memory from a disheartening vignette in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's Vietnam documentary I've mentioned before. Roger Harris is one of the most memorable characters in their recounting of the story—a hard-edged Marine from a tough neighbourhood who offered unvarnished accounts of the horror and despair of tours in Vietnam. But I also remembered his homecoming: Getting off the airplane at Logan Airport, no cabbie would take him to Roxbury, a black neighbourhood. This was the country he had fought for?

I thought of Roger Harris as I walked to St. Cyprian's. The building is humble but stout. The doors from the street spill almost immediately into the sanctuary, which was warm with dark-stained wood and enlightened by stained glass around the sanctuary. There was a bustle and energy as parishioners streamed in, attired in their finest, with almost all of the women wearing hats. A robust choir was already gathering in the front in a classical quire that had echoes of Yorkminster Cathedral.

I'll confess that I felt like a bit of an intruder, not because of any lack of hospitality from the parishioners, but because I quickly realized I might be the only white person in the congregation that morning. And I started to wonder if my presence would be a disruption. I could even understand an imagined resentment: You've got Beacon Hill and Harvard Square. Can't you at least give us this parish in Roxbury?

Of course this was all just the imagining of my own self-important guilt. As the service began, it felt both familiar and strange. The cadences of historic worship—including a high-church procession with a crucifer, the Scriptures held aloft, priests and deacons in vestments—were familiar to me and made my inner Anglican sing. But again, everyone in the congregation except me was black. I quickly learned that the majority were of West Indian descent—from Jamaica and Barbados and other islands that bear the marks of the slave trade. Indeed, the history of this congregation is a history of the kind of determined discipleship that has characterized black Christianity in the colonies. Hoping against hope, wresting the gospel from their oppressors, refusing to let their masters own the Scriptures, this congregation nonetheless received the tainted gift of the Anglican tradition and redeemed it for their own salvation and liberation.

As the recessional began, I had a chance to look more closely at the stained-glass windows and realized that a unique Christian inheritance was enshrined there. For alongside images of the Lamb and the apostles were saints and exemplars we don't see in other churches—a forgetting to our detriment. At St. Cyprian's, the saints are surrounded by ancient African Christians like the martyr Cyprian and Augustine, but also by African Americans like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Absalom Jones and Martin Luther King Jr. These are not saints for black Christians to emulate. These are saints from who we all need to learn. These are friends I need.

 

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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