The goal of this column is to provide something of a curated view on the world—to look at our contemporary moment through a Christ-honed lens in order to see the world anew, watching out for brokenness and hope, looking for the foretastes of shalom we might not otherwise notice while listening for the cries that demand justice. For this issue, I thought I’d do this in the form of a travelogue, taking you along on my journeys in the first month of 2015 which was, for me, an itinerary of hope. Think of this as an invitation to join me and see where the Spirit is afoot in a few corners of the country.
San Francisco, CA | In early January we make our way to the Bay Area. I am always energized by a visit to San Francisco precisely because, compared to my home in Grand Rapids, the city is like another country. It’s a world with completely different plausibility structures. What’s believable here at home is almost literally unbelievable in SoMa, the neighborhood that is home to hip companies like Twitter, Square, and Airbnb. And yet what I find energizing and fascinating is the “startup ethos” of the area. This isn’t a place that believes in institutions; or rather, it’s a place that believes in new institutions, organizations, companies, and inventions that carry in them a certain suspicion of traditional institutions. This is a place that creates and innovates, scrapping the status quo and imagining the world otherwise. For those of us infected by Midwestern timidity and a kind of Calvinist take-it-as-you-find-it passivity, there’s something exhilarating about the audacity, even the hubris, of the Bay Area’s version of eschatology.
The world they imagine is not always one I would want to live in, I should note. We make what we want, but what we want can be informed by very different visions, and I’m not sure that the default vision of Silicon Valley is necessarily consonant with the biblical vision of shalom.
But here’s the first stop on our hope ride this month. I was in San Francisco to meet with an incredible collection of young Christian entrepreneurs and wise, faithful mentors who were assembled by Praxis, a nonprofit organization created by Dave Blanchard, Josh Kwan, and Evan Loomis. The organization operates on the basis of a key insight about cultural influence and change: businesses can change the world. Blanchard points to the insight of
Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square: “The most efficient means to spread an idea today is corporate structures.” Culture is shaped by influential organizations. Praxis exists to help shape the organizations that will shape culture.
So each year Praxis invests in twenty-four different organizations—twelve for-profit business ventures, twelve not-for-profit—all led by entrepreneurs who want to be in the center of innovation, play by the rules of the market, and bend culture just a little bit more in the direction of what God desires for his world. That is a harrowing and exhilarating place to stand. So these young entrepreneurs invest a year of their lives to discern how Christ’s lordship should shape their work; how a biblical vision can be at work in the nitty-gritty of getting a business off the ground; how a vision can be sustained amidst the pressures of 100- hour work weeks and venture capital that might be less interested in shalom. There are a million tangible questions that emerge when you seek to be “faithfully present” in global centers of entrepreneurship. By bringing these young innovators into relationships with wise mentors and experienced practitioners, Praxis is investing in a world to come. Thank God.
Wichita, KS | After the whirlwind of mindstretching conversations at Praxis, I make my way from San Francisco to Wichita. Decamping from the avant-garde of Silicon Valley, I arrive at a center of the airline manufacturing industry where Koch Industries’ murals greet you in the airport—not exactly Berkeley, if you know what I mean.
But let’s not be hoodwinked by the cultural clichés about flyover states and Middle America. Such coastal snobbery confuses cliquish preference with genuine discernment. Because the fact is Berkeley and Brooklyn don’t have what Wichita does: the remarkable, singular treasure that is Eighth Day Books. Conceived, founded, and sustained by Warren Fahra, the bookstore is a spiritual and intellectual oasis where Dostoyevsky rubs shoulders with Gregory the Great and Athanasius is seen as the perfect companion to Wendell Berry. It’s also the sort of place where Deanna requires me to hand over my credit card before entering. But if the ships of Tarshish get to sail into the kingdom of God (Is. 60:9), surely I’ll get to browse Eighth Day Books when the economy of abundance arrives. Right?
Growing out of his employment at the bookstore, the energetic Erin Doom founded the Eighth Day Institute that organizes an array of activities aimed at “renewing culture through faith and learning,” including an annual symposium you should attend if you ever have the chance. This year’s symposium, devoted to the theme “Whatever Happened to Wonder? The Recovery of Mystery in a Secular Age,” was the occasion for my visit. (The invitation to speak at the conference had an ominous beginning: I opened my email one morning to find a message in the inbox simply from “Doom.”) The Eighth Day Symposium is a national treasure hidden in Middle America. A singular institution, bringing together Christians from Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic traditions, the Symposium also blends theological rigour with accessibility and practical relevance. It is a tangible opportunity to conduct what Erin described as a “dialogue of love” in which Christians from various streams of catholic Christianity come together to consider what faithful cultural witness looks like in a post- Christian age. (And let me just testify: Orthodox Christians know how to feast. On the Friday evening we enjoyed a festal banquet devoted to St. Athanasius and the work of cultural renewal. More, please.)
One evening at Eighth Day Books, fellow symposium speaker Rod Dreher and I were drooling over the shelves and marveling at this unique community of culturally-engaged Christians we had found in Wichita, which was drawing others from across the country. We were both jealous and wished we had something like this in our hometowns. “This is what the Benedict Option looks like,” Rod observed. “This is where you’ll find it: in places like Wichita.” Don’t be fooled by the headlines and your Twitter feeds. The Spirit of God isn’t only afoot in Manhattan and Seattle. He’s quietly building transformative communities like the Eighth Day Institute. Renewal comes from unexpected places.
Boston, MA | After a little time at home I’m off to downtown Boston—which is, existentially, about a million miles away from Silicon Valley (think: old-monied Harvard vs. newmonied Stanford). In a short window between snow storms I spent two days at the annual retreat of the Augustine Collective—one of the most wonderfully encouraging organizations you’ve never heard about.
Some background: in 2004, then Harvard student Jordan Hylden launched the Ichthus, a student-run journal that aimed to be an articulate, credible, and Christian intellectual voice in the campus conversation at an Ivy League institution. When Andrew Schuman was on his way to college and saw a copy of the Harvard Ichthus, it birthed a vision for a similar journal at Dartmouth and the Dartmouth Apologia was born. Such ventures began to multiply at Yale and Brown, Penn and Princeton, and finally spilling beyond the Ivy League to Berkeley and Claremont, with new journals being founded every year. (In Boston I had a wonderful lunch conversation with a team setting up a journal at Cal Poly.)
And it is the alumni/ae of this network who are behind the fresh voice of Fare Forward magazine.
The Augustine Collective is an organization that brings these ambitious, faithful, creative student leaders together to encourage them in the faith, ground them in the Christian intellectual tradition, share the wisdom of best practices, and build a network of young Christian leaders who will be launched from these influential institutions into the cultural epicenters not only of North America but the world. Think of The Augustine Collective as a kind of “hot spot” for the formation of a generation enacting James Davison Hunter’s vision of “faithful presence.” In the middle of some of society’s most influential institutions, they are unapologetically articulating a Christian understanding of the world, but in ways that are winsome, inviting, and value what the university stands for.
So before you believe the screeds about the godlessness of the universities, remember the Augustine Collective and be encouraged that, in fact, there are ambassadors of the risen King there who are bearing his image creatively and faithfully.
Grand Rapids, MI | After the energy of Boston and—let’s be honest—the January sun of California, you might think my homecoming was a serious denouement. But that would be to fall into the trap of thinking God is only active somewhere else—a sort of spiritualized version of the “fear of missing out.”
But of course that’s not true. When the Word became flesh he moved into my neighbourhood, too (as Eugene Peterson puts it).
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you.”
I just need eyes to see and ears to hear. And thanks be to God, in the Spirit we’re given both.
On the plane ride home from Boston, I found myself sitting beside the mayor of Grand Rapids, George Heartwell. We don’t agree on everything, but he has been a champion of the city I call home. I expressed gratitude for his service and as we chatted I couldn’t help but notice the book in his hands: Michael Zantovsky’s new biography of the Czech writer and statesman, Václav Havel—a dissident turned president who emphasized the importance of hope. “Hope,” he once said, “is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” As I saw my mayor reading alongside me, I was quietly cheered to be governed by such a reader, and found myself imagining what the Spirit might have in store for our city.