Near the end of 2018, James K. A. Smith announced his departure from Comment Magazine as its editor. Each quarter, Smith would write about his perspective on some in-the-moment issues using his “World View” column, something he called “an annotated reading for your world.”
His final column, which came with the journal’s December issue, reflected on his time as an editor, tracing out some of the reasons why he took the position and relating some of the benefits of the task (which was beyond his role as teacher and writer).
That he would take an editorial position at a journal is cool in its own right. But when he agreed to step into the role, he did so out of a passion for the genre (he describes himself as a “magazine junkie”), knowing the good work periodicals can do to create a kind of community. Smith says,
As someone who spends a lot of time on the road, I never tired of meeting Comment readers face to face. It has been humbling to have readers thank me in person for what our team does. Their faces and names provided a tangible sense that this “community” of Comment readers was an actual thing. And for many of them, Comment stemmed a certain loneliness they often felt in their contexts, giving them a sense of being hooked up to something bigger—that they had friends they’d never seen but who “got” them.
Beyond that, Smith acknowledges that the journal has been a kind of education, both for the readers and for the contributors, who often were tasked with working specific themes. And as much as it was about education, it was also ultimately about friendship.
But it’s when Smith gets to the change that has happened to the public arena since he started with the journal that you get the sense of something deeper going on, something that Smith perceives as a step in the right direction. From the end of the essay:
There were times when I couldn’t imagine not editing Comment. The work came naturally to me; I was energized by the range and variety of the work; and I believed in what we were doing (and still do). But over the past couple of years, I have found the space that Comment needs to speak into—the realm of politics and civil society—is more toxic than when I started. At some point over the past couple of years, I’ve realized I don’t have the stomach for being a pundit. Some might say it’s a lack of courage. Perhaps. In any case, it’s important work that has to continue. As for me, I feel my tour of duty in these trenches of public debate is up.
There is something prescient in this, I think. Even the last two weeks of public discourse have revealed how quickly we are to jump to “precluded possibilities” that line up with our own narratives. And that’s caused at least some reflection amongst those who “write about the moment in the moment.” Which makes Smith’s next move all the more interesting:
In the new year I will assume a new role as editor in chief of Image journal, a quarterly devoted to art, mystery, and faith. Curating such a space resonates with the outcome of a period of discernment over the past year and my sense that God is calling me, in the next season of my career, to work at the intersection of the arts, imagination, and culture.
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I’ve written a few times about my “temporary vocational stretch.” And while it’s gone on at least twice as long as I’d hoped or expected, what I have learned in the process continues to accumulate. This about myself, sure. But also things about a larger culture, a larger moment, an understanding of what it looks like for God to work and an understanding of what it looks and feels like when He seems silent. It makes you wonder about what has become the common approach and if there are other and better ways of faithful engagement.
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Smith has already posted his first full article for Image. I’ll get to it here soon. For now, it is enough to remember that you can take a vocational stretch and that it can be used by God to change us and continue making us. He can teach us and shape us through friendships. And He can prepare us for other things.