SYMPATHY FOR THE CYNIC |It is curious that one of the sacred rites of Western democracies so often brings out the worst in us. Election campaigns spiral into sordid spin machines, hijacked by money and vitriol, particularly in a country like the United States, where the cult of the presidency is coupled with the hunger of media empires and the seemingly unending influx of capital to feed the machine. (And I don’t think Canadians can comfort themselves by imagining this is only true south of the border. While there are differences of scale, as Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan have documented in Tragedy in the Commons, Canadian electoral politics has not been immune to these shifts. The recent federal election would seem to confirm this.)
As Jody Bottum has pointed out in An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, to the extent that we invest this world with ultimacy, and find our “confessional” identities in our political profiles and moral stances, we can expect our public and political lives to be more and more charged with an all-or-nothing, us-or-them demand for ideological purity and declared allegiance. (Facebook during election season is as good an example of this as any.) We will invest the political with religious fervor and, once again, sacrifice our actual religious beliefs to political partisanship. Whether it’s Dear Leader or “our side” that calls the shots, the result is assimilation of faith to the demands of The Party.
One can almost sympathize with cynical distance in the face of all this. Indeed, cynical apathy could be a portal to a different way. I’m reminded of a line from the Avett Brothers: “When nothing is owed, deserved, or expected / And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected.” Admittedly, this could be the anthem of skeptical withdrawal, the safety of the ironist’s redoubt: “Who cares? So what? What difference does it make?”
But this could also be heard as a backhanded, unintentional testimony to the fact that our institutions endure over personalities; that power will peacefully change hands in our democracies once again; that while we spend months fighting about what political messiah will save us, it turns out that not even the presidency makes all that much difference. And we might invite the cynic to a new appreciation of this cultural miracle, to recognize that the luxury of their cynicism is made by possible cultural accomplishments that aren’t merely “natural.”
Christians, I suggest, should be especially sympathetic to the cynic precisely because our own posture with respect to the political has its own sort of distance—not of apathy or ironic self-preservation, but the distance of an eschatological people who pray “Thy kingdom come” every single day and are thus well aware that the kingdom certainly hasn’t arrived, and that no candidate is a savior. If Christians forget this, it might be because we are insufficiently cynical.
AN ANCIENT POSTURE | In my editorial for the winter 2015 issue, I encouraged contemporary Christians to cultivate ancient friendships as a way of learning to remember forward—to tap into the deep well of wisdom that the Spirit has been drilling over the ages. The biblical imagination is an advantage, not a liability, in the contemporary marketplace of ideas. When you’ve tapped into the well of Christian wisdom, you can venture into the cultural deserts of our time with life-giving water, equipped with ideas that will be strange, unheard of, almost unimaginable for our generation, but also—just perhaps—welcomed. Our mission, in that sense, is an invitation: “Taste and see.”
But pursuing these ancient friendships can also be a way to cultivate a healthy, critical distance from the lure of the idols of our age. As pundits and parties press us to pick sides and pledge allegiance, consider the sanctified aloofness yet engaged presence exhibited by the early Christian community as described in the Epistle to Diognetus. “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language or custom,” the writer points out. “For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life.” Their distinctiveness doesn’t prevent them from going to the market and taking the kids to the soccer practice. And yet there is something different—a different posture, we might say, a different angle of repose. They inhabit their cities but do so lightly. The epistle writer goes on:
They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
This ancient epistle is a timely missive for those of us trying to live out our heavenly citizenship in twenty-first-century North America, this latest outpost of the earthly city.
OUR EITHER-OR EPOCH | While on an extended road trip that took us across the country for a sojourn in California, we made the usual pilgrimage to our favourite bookshops: Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena (an old favorite of our friend at Books & Culture, John Wilson), Skylight Books in the Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles, and the fabled City Lights Books in San Francisco. In these places I like to open myself up to a kind of bibliographical providence, browsing tables and shelves to see what catches my fancy and what divine appointments I might find there.
In Skylight Books I discovered a gorgeous little edition of Stefan Zweig’s biography of Montaigne (Zweig, it’s been said, was something of the inspiration for Gustave in Wes Anderson’s caper, The Grand Budapest Hotel). Given that morning headlines at the time were dominated by the histrionics of presidential debates and polarizing campaigns, perhaps it’s no surprise that I highlighted this passage in Zweig’s meditation on Montaigne, the sometime mayor of Bordeaux:
For years the powerful had looked down on Montaigne with a kind of disapproval which the professional politicians and party men always reserved for the free and independent man. They scorned him for his passivity in an epoch in which, as he says, “the whole world was simply overactive.” He was not attached to any king, any party, any group, and had not selected his friends for their party badge or their religious affiliations, but solely for their individual merit. Such a man was of little-use in an either-or epoch, in an epoch when either victory beckoned or the extermination of the Huguenots in France.
An either-or epoch will chase the best from the public stage. “But now,” Zweig observes, “after the bestial ravages of the civil war, after the fanaticism which bordered on the absurd, what was once a political flaw, not belonging to any particular party, suddenly becomes a badge of merit; a man who has always remained aloof from prejudices, stayed apart from factions, eschewed political gain or glory, becomes the ideal mediator.” One might hope that a Christian statesman would be described the same way.
The present is not forever. The spiritual and political doldrums we might experience, in which people paddle all the more feverishly, are not the end of the story. The tyranny of the present is to prevent us from imagining the future otherwise. But this is precisely why the stretched people of God—heirs to a history and longing for kingdom come—have a purview that transcends despair. On the other side of the either-or epoch, let us be ready as mediators for a society that will be looking for it, ambassadors of the Prince of Peace to a world exhausted by its own enmity.
PUBLISHING AS MISSION | In January I had another opportunity to spend time with students involved with the Augustine Collective, a network of student-led Christian journals published on leading university campuses in the United States (a movement recently highlighted by Molly Worthen in a New York Times op-ed). I joined them wearing two hats: as a university professor and as a magazine editor.
I shared with them the story of one of my heroes and exemplars—that nineteenth-century renaissance man Abraham Kuyper, who on top of his pastorate and professorate and political life also spent a lifetime as an editor of a daily newspaper and Sunday journal.
This provided a unique platform for cultural influence that continues to resonate. For example, his manifesto for Christian social concern, Our Program (recently translated into English by our friends at the Acton Institute), began its life as a series of seventythree columns in his newspaper. Kuyper’s role as an editor outlasted almost all of his other vocations.
There is something both inspiring and daunting about Kuyper’s model. As I reflected on what I love about editing Comment, it struck me that there is something about the ongoingness of a journal or magazine that is a very different experience from publishing books. A magazine is like an ongoing conversation— a kind of covenant in ink and paper. You have to keep showing up, and that in itself requires a kind of faithfulness that can be both a discipline and a model. Moreover, it means you have to keep thinking. You can’t repeat yourself— the very commitment to publishing a magazine is a commitment to remain open, to keep asking questions, to face new challenges. Granted, sometimes this will feel like the steady drip of some kind of cruel torture. You want to celebrate putting an issue to bed with a nip of Laphroaig but then remember you need to start recruiting authors for the next issue. But it’s precisely showing up that models your care and concern about the questions, and about your readers.
Perhaps this is why the Christian tradition has long seen publishing as mission, a commitment to print as a kind of covenant with an audience, a commitment to faithfully articulating the faith. And since we’re still talking about Kuyper’s newspaper columns over a hundred years later, it’s also a reminder that in the mysterious providence of God, our occasional, contextual, sometimes meager, up-against-a-deadline work can gain a life of its own and be used by the Spirit to bless and challenge future generations.