Author: James K. A. Smith

Patronage: Being Intentional About our Cultural Investments

We’ve sent the Winter 2013 issue of Comment to press.  It will hit iPads in a couple of weeks and mailboxes soon thereafter.  It’s another rich conversation with contributions by Mako Fujimura, Roberta Ahmanson, Lukas Naugle, and many more.  Check out the Table of Contents here.

Our theme for this issue is Patronage, inviting you to think more intentionally about all of the ways you invest in culture and the common good.  It’s not a question of whether you patronize; only what–which is precisely we need to think and talk about this.

My editorial, “Let’s Talk About Your Investment Strategy,” invites you into these questions.  Here’s a snippet:

We are patrons, not just in our “charitable” giving, but in our day-to-day lives. When we spend our money, we are not just consuming commercial goods, we are also fostering and perpetuating ways of being human. To be a patron is to be a selector, an evaluator, and a progenitor of certain forms of cultural life. You didn’t realize you exercised such power, did you? 

When you start to think in these terms, you realize that all of us are patrons. And you start to realize that maybe we should think a little more carefully about how to do this well. By decisions we perhaps don’t think about, we are effectively saying “yes” to some version of the good life. In this issue of the magazine we have gathered wisdom from a range of practitioners with a view to equipping you to be a better patron—in philanthropy and charitable giving, but also in our nitty-gritty, workaday lives. We’re interested in patrons as culturemakers and helping culture-makers to see their responsibility as patrons.

Read of the rest of the editorial.  Then, if you’re not yet a subscriber, I hope you’ll sign up today for just $30/year.  Or consider our reduced iPad subscription at just $19.99/year (and get a bonus issue).

Already a longtime Comment subscriber?  Then I have another suggestion for you:

1. Think of three people whose lives you want to invest in: they might be students who are going to graduate this year, staff members you are cultivating, leaders in your congregation, grandchildren who are beginning to make their way in the world.  

2.  Buy them gift subscriptions to Comment. It’s a great way to invite them into a wider conversation.  

3. We’ll send you a signed copy of my new book, Discipleship in the Present Tense.  (Hurry! Offer ends December 9.)

Whither Oliver O’Donovan?

I’m just wrapping up a doctoral seminar at Calvin Theological Seminary on Oliver O’Donovan’s moral and political theology.  We focused on close readings of Resurrection and Moral Order, 2nd ed. (1994) and Desire of the Nations (Cambridge, 1999), along with some critical readings by Jonathan Chaplin and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

We didn’t have time to give proper attention to The Ways of Judgment (2005) or his most recent volume, Self, World, and Time (2013), so I promised students I would spend a day trying to summarize the trajectory of O’Donovan’s work post-DN.  I thought the resulting notes (notes!, please note) might be of some service to others so I share them here.

Comment Magazine iPad App

When I was enlisted as editor of Comment magazine, one of my first hopes was to launch a tablet version of the magazine within the year.  Given the incredible work of our team, that dream is now a reality: the Comment iPad app is now available.

In addition to its functionality, we see the iPad version as a way for students and young people (and others, of course) to subscribe to the magazine at a reduced rate.  (We all know about those students loans!)  So an iPad subscription is only $19.99.  This is a great way to invest in a conversation that can grow with as you pursue your calling.

We’re absolutely committed to print–as our new print design demonstrates.  But we also hope the tablet platform can expand the circle of folks who are part of the conversation.  If you’re not yet a subscriber, subscribe today and you’ll get access to our most recent issue, “We Believe in Institutions.”  If you’re already a subscriber, please pass along this news to your friends.

If you have questions, check out our FAQ for the iPad version.

And watch for our next issue, on Patronage, which will be in your mailboxes and on the iOS Newsstand in December. 

“The Enlightened Conservative”

As you’ll note, this blog has been languishing (how many first lines of blog posts are some version of that?).  What time I have for blogging is now generally spent at the Cardus Daily.  More significantly, I spend most of my off-the-cuff energy on Twitter (@james_ka_smith).  [If you’re not on Twitter, do consider it.  I’ve found it to be a blast.]  My longer online reflections appear as essays for Comment magazine.

In the meantime, not wanting to abandon the Ruskinian legacy of Fors Clavigera, I thought I might use this space as a kind of tumblr, a place to collect and curate some choice quotes that double as “notes to self.”

In that spirit, I was interested to see that the good folks at The Imaginative Conservative are republishing Russell Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives: A Compass for Rediscovering the Permanent Things.  Here’s a representative quote:

The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learned that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. He apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death. He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them with him bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars.

“We Believe in Institutions”: The Fall Issue of Comment

I’m very excited for people to read the Fall issue of Comment magazine, devoted to the decidedly un-hip theme, “We Believe in Institutions.”  If you subscribe by Monday, September 9, you’ll be assured that your subscription will begin with this issue.

And, lo and behold, we’re also having a summer subscription sale! So seriously, what are you waiting for?

The issue is rich and diverse: a feature interview with James Davison Hunter, articles on the institutional imagination, the role of the institutional church in cultural renewal, reviews of two important books (Thinking Institutionally and The Institutional Revolution), and more.  We’re also debuting our new format that includes brand new features like “World View,” an annotated take on the contemporary scene.

You can check out the Table of Contents and read some samples from this issue, including my editorial.    Here’s a snippet from that:

For a boy growing up in Ontario, it was never a question: you’re going to play hockey. Though Embro was a village of only 600 people at the time, we had a new arena, a robust minor hockey system, and a long legacy of the sport encoded in our civic DNA. So at four years old, we all moved from the pond to the ice pad, donning the purple hockey sweaters that many of us wore until we were twenty. 

This was also part of something bigger. You could count on neighbouring villages like Drumbo and Plattesville and St. George having minor hockey systems, all webbed together by the OMHA. 

When you’re ten years old, you think this is just part of the furniture of the cosmos; something given, natural, and taken for granted—that Saturday morning clinics and Tuesday night practices are just part of the rhythm of the universe, as if when God said, “Let there be light,” the big klieg lights in the rafters of the arena also came on. You never really think about what sustains all this, and if you do, you just imagine some anonymous “them” holds it all together, a vague, distant “they” who are responsible for all of this. 

But when you’re an adult you realize: this doesn’t just happen. That something as mundane and yet enduring as Embro minor hockey is not a given; it is an institution. It is only because it is sustained by communities. It is bigger than the people who inhabit it, but it also depends on the people who embody it. The “they” you never saw in your youth turn out to just be people like you who have taken the reins and taken ownership. We could only take minor hockey for granted because, in fact, each generation received it anew, owning it, tending it, reforming it, and passing it on to the next generation. 

In this issue of Comment we proudly profess that we believe in institutions. It is part of our creed. The lilt of this profession carries echoes of The Creed in which we profess, “I believe in the holy, catholic church.” But that’s not theonly institution we believe in. We also believe in institutions like Embro minor hockey, the Hamilton Public Library, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Surrey Christian School, the Calgary Planning Commission, the United States Congress, and that quiet but powerful culture-making institution that is the family.

Read the rest, then subscribe to the magazine.  This is the conversation you’ve been looking for.

New Book: “Discipleship in the Present Tense”

Cover image by Madison Smith

I’m happy to share the news that my new book, Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture is now available from Calvin College Press, Amazon, and hopefully your local bookseller. (A Kindle version is also available for just $7.99, and an Apple iBook version will be available soon.)

Think of this book as “James K.A. Smith, without all the footnotes.”  Well, there are a few footnotes.  But this book is really a collection of my more popular articles, essays, reviews, interviews, and op-eds from the last few years (sort of a sequel to The Devil Reads Derrida, without the daunting, off-putting title).  My hope is that the book is an accessible read for those who might find Desiring the Kingdom or Imagining the Kingdom still a tad intimidating.  
The book includes reflections on theology, church, worship, and Christian education but also poetry, parenting, politics, and the prosperity gospel.  It also includes some of my reviews of authors like James Davison Hunter, D.A. Carson, and my saucy review of Brent McCracken’s Hipster Christianity (the chapter is called “Poser Christianity”).  Check out the Table of Contents [pdf].
Here are a few of the endorsements, for which I’m grateful:
Few people are as qualified as James K. A. Smith to write a book on the intersection of faith and culture. Whenever he speaks, I listen. In this book, you’ll find winsome but profound essays on following Jesus in the 21st century. Read it and be challenged.
— Jonathan Merritt
faith and culture writer; author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars
Delivering profound insight in stunningly lucid prose, Smith focuses on the importance of both imagination and embodiment, not only in worship and education, but also through the arts. Drawing attention to beauty in architecture, poetry, and music, as well as through sacramental practices, Smith celebrates “creational abundance,” which he beautifully presents as our “culture-making mandate.”
— Crystal Downing
Distinguished Professor of English and
Film Studies, Messiah College
Anything by James K.A. Smith is required reading for Christians wanting to winsomely engage culture.  He brings philosophy to the street–putting it to work on the great questions of our time.
— Gabe Lyons
Founder, Q Ideas; author of The Next Christians

Discipleship in the Present Tense reflects on the intersections of faith and culture in our contemporary world. “Intersections” may bring to mind two roads meeting at right angles, with stop signs. The intersections in this book are more like freeway cloverleafs: the traffic keeps moving. Suggestion: start at the end, with two interviews that are real conversations, not perfunctory Q&As. Then pick and choose, tapas-style, from the tasty selection of essays.
— John Wilson
editor, Books & Culture

On the American Dream: Families, Flourishing, and Upward Mobility

Over at the Cardus Daily, our think-tank’s daily blog, I have just posted a column that engages the findings of the Equality of Opportunity Project out of Harvard and Berkeley: “Families, Flourishing, and Upward Mobility.”  Here’s a snippet:

If the “American dream” is anything it is a dream of upward mobility: the dream of getting ahead, climbing the ladder, leapfrogging from one class to another in a “land of opportunity”—all if you’re willing to work for it. Too often, fantastic “rags to riches” tales push aside the more mundane stories of generational accomplishments over time, where parents who finish high school make it possible for their children to go to college, achieving some security within the middle class. We shouldn’t discount the unique joy that comes from simply seeing your grandchildren not have to live hand-to-mouth as you once did. 

It is certainly true that this dream easily slides towards idolatry. It can become a nightmare of crass materialism and selfish ambition. But we shouldn’t confuse idolatrous perversions with more humble aspirations of families to simply enjoy a mode of economic security that is conducive with flourishing. Those who are passionate advocates of the poor are often, oddly, knee-jerk critics of the American dream and aspirations to be middle class. How odd. It reminds me of the lyrics of an Everclear song: “I hate those people who love to tell you / money is the root of all that kills. / They have never been poor, / they have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.” The God who cares about the poor must also be a God who celebrates economic flourishing and stability as features of shalom.

Read the rest of the article.

Naturalizing “Shalom”: Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist

Comment magazine has just published my new article, “Naturalizing ‘Shalom’: Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist.”  This is part autobiography, part cautionary tale.  Here’s a snippet:

I’ve come to realize that if we don’t attend to the whole Kuyper, so to speak—if we pick and choose just parts of the Kuyperian project—we can end up with an odd sort of monstrosity: what we might call, paradoxically, a “Kuyperian secularism” that naturalizes shalom.

Read the whole article.