JIGS IN T.O. | As we were working on our “Cultural Jigs” issue, a fascinating book came across my desk. Revisiting “Toronto the Good”: Violence, Religion and Culture in Late-Victorian Society is the fruit of years of study by Bill Reimer, whom many of you will know as the long-time manager of the Regent College bookstore and an indefatigable champion of the life of the mind. (Around Comment, we think of Bill as the West Coast version of Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds Bookstore—and vice versa.)
Taking the city of Toronto as a case, Reimer’s study is a fascinating blend of history and sociology. He challenges the reductionistic assertions of the social sciences by arguing that any explanation of the remarkable decline in violence in the late nineteenth century has to take into consideration the role that “British evangelical Protestantism” had on habits and mores, particularly on men. In the language we adopt in this issue of Comment, you might say Protestant Christianity became a cultural jig that “constrained” human behaviour, but in a way that bent it toward a more peaceable kingdom. The study also left me with an uncomfortable worry: What happens to a society when that jig is demolished?
ANGEL ON LINE 1 | Parents can always use encouragement, so let me share a vignette from a number of years ago that somehow bubbled up into my memory recently. I think it speaks to the ways you and your community are shaping and forming your kids that you might not realize. Or it might further speak to the sorts of findings that the Cardus Education Survey confirms—that Christian schooling is shaping young people who are concerned about their neighbours and invested in the common good.
Our oldest son was probably a freshman or sophomore in high school (that’s grade 9 or 10 for our Canadian readers). He answered the phone one day—this was the era of land lines, people!—and quickly became engrossed in a conversation. We assumed it was a friend and didn’t think a thing about it as he nestled into his room for the call. But then we heard him crying and stepped into his room, concerned.
As it turned out, the call was a wrong number! But on the other end was an elderly woman named “Jane”—alone, blind, helplessness, trying to reach someone. Grayson immediately began pleading with us: we needed to help Jane. She needed groceries; she needed money; she needed someone to visit; she needed three cases of Diet Coke. Grayson continued to talk to her in ways that were soothing, encouraging, attentive, sympathetic. Agreeing to help, he got Jane’s address, assured her we’d be there soon, and hung up.
We made this a family affair. We all went to the grocery store, Jane’s grocery list in hand, procured what was needed, and then drove to the northwest side of town—kind of foreign territory for us southeasters. We wended through unfamiliar streets and found ourselves on the other side of the tracks, as they say—in a neighborhood that exuded disappointment and despair. As we pulled up to the curb in front of Jane’s house, we all paused with a new realization of the worlds some of our neighbours live in.
When we knocked on the door Jane, chairbound, called for us to come in. We eased into the daytime darkness of her home, encountering an environment that smelled like sadness. All of us experienced a visceral realization of our privilege. Deanna had to work very hard not to cry. We brought Jane her provisions, engaged in conversation, and tried to get a sense of her situation. Did she have family in town? Was she part of a church? Were there agencies nearby that might provide ongoing assistance? As I remember, Jane became impatient with the conversation so we excused ourselves and drove home in silence.
I’ve never ruled out that this might have been a ruse—that Jane regularly rang random 616 numbers angling for someone to bring her groceries and cash, a somewhat sophisticated form of armchair panhandling. No matter. Giving alms doesn’t require a background check. As I tell my kids, sometimes you have to be willing to be taken.
But in the end I don’t think that’s the case. Rather, I think this was a Hebrews 13:2 call, an angel on line 1, and I continue to be grateful for a son who answered that call in more ways than one. He was teaching us that day. But we could also take heart: sometimes despite all your self-doubt and failures, your children are becoming just the people you hoped they’d be.
YOUR NEXT READ | It could well be that our son’s inclination to compassion and service was an effect of his Christian schooling. In fact, that is suggested by the evidence that emerges in the latest fruit of the Cardus Education Survey, highlighted in our Headquarters update in this issue. The 2016 report, “Educating to Love Your Neighbour,” is an encouraging, evidence-based assessment of the effects of religious school for the public good. And you could be reading it for free right now! Just go to www.carduseducationsurvey.com and download the sumptuous PDF report (which looks great on a tablet, by the way). Kudos to our Cardus colleagues
Beth Green, Doug Sikkema, David Sikkink, Ray Pennings, and designer Kira Lodder for their excellent work.
COME QUICKLY! | There is surely some irony in the fact that the doldrums of human existence we’ve just emerged from—I refer, of course, to the US presidential election— largely took place in what the church calls (tongue in cheek, I sometimes wonder) “ordinary time.” The long stretch from Pentecost to Advent encompassed the shenanigans and drama of national conventions, vitriolic campaigns, heinous revelations, disheartening endorsements, fractured families, and a daily stream of news that deepened both despair and cynicism. These are anything but “ordinary” times.
But then again, there has always been a bit of an inside joke in that nomenclature. “Ordinary time” is bookended in the church’s calendar by the descent of the Spirit and the advent of the Son of God. There is no “ordinary” tick-tock of temporality when you are a people who believes that God has interrupted history—that when time was “full,” the Son of Man was “born of a woman”; the sovereign Lord was “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). “Ordinary” time is a season in which the Spirit of God still suffuses creation, Christ reigns at the Father’s right hand, and people die and rise in Christ every single day. In short, what the church considers “ordinary” is not defined by the strictures of naturalism’s biologistic clock or the market’s ringing bell or even the second Tuesday in November. We keep time differently.
Which is also why we need not despair. We can be concerned, disappointed, aggrieved, even mad as hell—all fair and just responses to the tumult of democracy in which we find ourselves. But we should remember that, as Aquinas put it, despair is a vice. Why? Because it is a refusal of hope. In his comprehensive Summa Theologica, Aquinas argues that despair is a sin that believes the wrong things about God. Despair is what you fall into when you stop believing that God is sovereign. And not only is despair a sin, he argues, it is “also the origin of other sins.” When you think you’re backed into a corner, when you believe all is lost, when you stop believing in the One who raises the dead, then in your frenetic despair you start doing all kinds of things out of desperation. That, it seems to me, explains a lot of behaviour we’ve witnessed over the past year, not least (unfortunately) from those who profess to be Christians.
In contrast, Aquinas reminds us, hope is a posture that is rooted in trust, a gift of confidence in the God who transcends time and circumstance, who hears our laments but is also our only hope. As this fractious experience of “ordinary time” comes to a close, let us enter Advent as an opportunity to learn how to hope again and remember that our citizenship is in heaven and that our anthem has always been “Maranatha!”
WE’RE LISTENING | A big thank-you to those readers who took the time to participate in our recent reader’s survey. We know we asked a lot of you! Thanks for being invested in Comment in that very tangible way. This is something we’ve been wanting to do for several years now, and I’m especially grateful to senior editor Brian Dijkema for taking leadership on this initiative, and to our friends at the Calvin College Center for Social Research for helping us execute the survey. We’re now processing the results, listening to your feedback, and we are grateful for both encouragement and challenges. In the coming months you’ll see changes in Comment that directly reflect the time you graciously took to complete the survey. Thanks for partnering with us.
ADIEU ET MERCI | With many others, we at Comment were sorry to hear that Books & Culture will cease publication at the end of 2016. For over twenty years the review curated by the inimitable John Wilson has been “our” New York Review of Books, so to speak—a space that hosted thoughtful conversations about books and ideas. Emerging as a response to what Mark Noll had described as The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (the scandal being that there wasn’t one!), Books & Culture was more than just a forum or a magazine. It also served as a “commons” of sorts for a network of Christian intellectuals and scholars. To read Books & Culture was to step into a parlour where you could overhear conversations that were hard to stumble on in many corners of evangelicalism. If you were a historian in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, or a physicist in Ancaster, Ontario, Books & Culture was a lifeline in spaces that could otherwise feel lonely.
Even more importantly, Books & Culture was like a faculty club where you could hear smart people and distinguished scholars talking in a way that didn’t treat Christianity as an antiquated relic or contagious disease. Theoretical models that took religion seriously got a hearing, and books that the NYRB should have been reviewing received due attention in the pages of B&C. Wilson also had fun with it, concocting wonderful chemical reactions in the pairing of reviewers and books, even sometimes having authors review each other’s books alongside each other. John’s own capacious curiosity was also reflected in the ecumenical range of interests and concerns in the magazine.
This will all be missed. There is, no doubt, something to be said about the failure of a Christian public to sustain a substantive cultural production like Books & Culture. But there might also be another side to the story. The end of Books & Culture might also be a sign of its success. By encouraging a rising generation of Christian scholars and intellectuals, this movement launched Christians who are now able to speak into mainstream outlets, publish in Harper’s, get a hearing on NPR, and more. The new scandal might be that evangelicals no longer need subcultural institutions.
But we will miss visiting John’s parlour, and wish him all good things in the next chapter of his literary passion. In the meantime, if some of your friends experience withdrawal symptoms when B&C no longer lands in their mailbox, we hope you might encourage them to consider Comment as a way to continue the conversation.