Archives For Culture

sunset-wheat-fields-near-arles

Two years ago (almost to the day, as it happens), I shared some thoughts about The Fabric of Faithfulness by Steven Garber. Though the book was written primarily for college students, my post-college, post-grad-school self found it quite beneficial anyway. In my review I reminisced aloud about my college years, when I picked the major I did because—no joke—it was the one with the fewest math requirements. I went on to say:

Somehow it hasn’t all turned out terribly, which I attribute solely to God’s grace, but I do wonder how my college years would have been different had I made life-altering decisions based on even better questions than how to avoid math requirements—for instance, questions about the nature of the world, and God’s relationship to it and to me and to everyone else, and how a college education may actually be a gift to be stewarded for God’s glory and to be used for loving our neighbors.

Garber’s new book, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, is a natural follow-up to his earlier one. Writing with the same graceful, wise voice that so many of us found so winsome in The Fabric of Faithfulness, Garber expands his explorations of vocation beyond the university classroom to the classroom and laboratory that is the world itself. Quoting poets and singers and theologians, telling stories about his friends and acquaintances, Garber invites us to ask deep questions about the world around us, and to find our vocation more or less, it seems to me, where the novelist Frederick Buechner famously did—that place “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

18499998Garber wants us to see the world with new eyes. Indeed, he wants us to behold it gratefully, truthfully, and hopefully. He wants us to recognize and appreciate its created splendor. He wants us to be honest about its brokenness and limitations. And he wants us to orient our lives around the hope—in answer to the question Sam Gamgee asked Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, which each of us in one way or another continues to ask—that yes, one day every sad thing will come untrue.

In broad strokes, I think that’s the story the scriptures are telling as well, the story in which we are invited to find ourselves—or, better, the story in which we are invited to lose ourselves.

But knowing is not the same thing as living, and weaving belief and behavior together, as Garber has previously written, doesn’t happen automatically (more on that, by the way, from N.T. Wright in After You Believe). In fact, it’s possible that the more we know—about God, about ourselves, about our neighbors and our world—the more paralyzed we can become. At root may be self-righteousness or fear, narcissism or prejudice, or even mere fatigue, but the resulting paralysis looks very much the same.

Garber acknowledges these dangers, but he urges us to press further on, further in:

Can we know the world and still love the world? Can we know the messes of the world and still work on them because we want to, because we see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake? Sometimes some people make that choice… and always it is a vocation of imitation of a vocation. At our best and truest, we stand in the long line of those who remember the profound insight of Thomas à Kempis in calling us to “the imitation of Christ.” To choose to know, and still to love, is costly; it was for God, and it is for us. In fact it is the most difficult task imaginable.

Just as he finds clues in the fifteenth century writing of Thomas à Kempis, he finds encouragement in J.I. Packer’s modern classic Knowing God, in which the Anglican author and theologian urges us not to be content with merely knowing about God, but actually knowing him and being known intimately—as we are invited to do. Packer writes:

God knew the worst about us before he chose to love us, and therefore no discovery now can disillusion him about us in the way that we are so often disillusioned about ourselves, and quench his determination to bless us. He took knowledge of us in love.

Garber and his colleagues at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture like to say that vocation is integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei. Flipped on its head, we might say that the work God has given us to do—whether we’re paid to do it or not—is corrupted when it stops with us.

As Garber puts it:

To see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake, is both hard work and good work—and it cannot be done alone.

[Header Image: Sunset, Wheat Fields near Arles (detail) by Vincent Van Gogh]

honor-everyone

Every so often I stumble upon a book that merits repeated readings. One of those books is He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace by Rich Mouw, the philosopher and now-retired president of Fuller Seminary. I first raved about it two years ago, paying particular attention to Mouw’s conviction that there are “multiple divine purposes in the world”—a conviction that has significant ramifications for our public life, to say the least.

Having just read it for the second time through, I want to highlight another couple of insights. In a chapter on seeking the common good, Mouw adapts some of the things he has to say in Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (another of Mouw’s books that warrants multiple, careful readings—see a pattern here?).

9780802821119Mouw argues that “the case for Christian civility”—which is closely related to Christian efforts to seek the common good—rests on two key principles. First, he writes, “Christians must actively work for the well-being of the larger societies in which we have been providentially placed.” This is spelled out perhaps most evocatively put in Jeremiah 29:7, in which the people of God are commanded, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The second principle is that “sanctified living should manifest those subjective attitudes and dispositions—those virtues, if you wish—that will motivate us in our efforts to promote societal health.” Mouw notes that in the second chapter of I Peter, the apostle urges his readers, “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles” (v. 12) and to accept “for the Lord’s sake… the authority of every human institution” (v. 13). We’re warned that even while seeking to do good we may very well be maligned, but we’re also reminded that our being liked isn’t what ultimately matters. More important is that “they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (v. 12).

Perhaps most instructive for us, however, are the four obligations Mouw notes in I Peter 2:17 that have direct bearing on us as we participate in public life as “exiles” of one kind or another:

1. We are to fear God.

2. We are to love the family of believers.

3. We are to honor our fellow citizens.

4. We are to honor our governing authorities.

For most Christians, the first two are recognizable, and presumably reasonable, commands (despite our difficulties in observing them). But I wonder about the second two. These days, I hear a lot of Christians who believe that we are under attack for our beliefs, and in some ways I agree (more of my thoughts on that here). But while many of the most vocal defenders of religious freedom communicate certainty about their Christian convictions, I’m afraid this certainty isn’t always clothed in the conviction that we are obligated—for Christ’s sake—to honor everyone, to have regard for their well-being.

We may not have the luxury of convenient cultural conditions. Neither did the people to whom Peter and Jeremiah first issued their instruction in two very different times and places. Even so, as “exiles” of a somewhat different kind today, we have the obligation to do good and to honor our fellow citizens and our authorities—even when we are ignored, disrespected, or maligned with outright hostility for doing so.

vanzantenThere has been much talk in recent decades about the shift in the center of gravity in global Christianity from the west and the north to the south and the east, and books like The Next Christendom by Baylor historian Philip Jenkins have brought the conversation to a popular level. Indeed, the numbers are indisputable. While churches in much of Europe and North America have seen declining and stagnating attendance levels, respectively, the pattern does not hold elsewhere in the world. Rather, throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America there has been a remarkable degree of Christian dynamism and numerical growth, especially in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

Whereas the Global South has long been seen as “the mission field,” the tables are increasingly being turned, and the implications for churches, global mission agencies, faith-based NGOs, and Christian institutions of higher learning cannot be overstated. What can our brothers and sisters closer to Christianity’s new center of gravity teach us about our common faith? In what ways would we do well to rethink our long-held assumptions and practices?

Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa, the second installment in a new series of books from Baker Academic called Turning South, is a memoir of Susan VanZanten’s literary, theological, and spiritual journey. The story begins in her close-knit and conservative Dutch Reformed community in the Pacific Northwest, leading through various educational institutions as a student and then as a teacher, all the while discerning her calling as a literature professor. We trace the contours of her intellectual and scholarly life from an early interest in Flannery O’Connor to a dissertation on Moby-Dick and ultimately to a keen interest in the literature of South Africa.

Many of us, myself included, take for granted the ready accessibility these days of books written by authors from around the world. Among the books in my home library are works with spines bearing names like Achebe, Beah, Coelho, Tutu, Hosseini, Perez Esquivel, Rusesabagina, Chang, Sen, Escobar, Katongole, Satrapi… and the list goes on. Few of these required going very far off the beaten path to acquire. But such access has not always been the case, as VanZanten reminds us. Indeed, it’s one of globalization’s blessings that we can now learn more about the world around us than ever before.

VanZanten’s burgeoning personal and professional interest in South African literature had a lot to do with her Dutch Reformed upbringing and with the unavoidable apartheid-related headlines of the day. She was haunted, it seems, by the ethnic and theological roots she shared with the oppressive and racist Afrikaners, and sensed an inescapable responsibility to do something

Continue reading at Englewood Review of Books.

Every use of language can be a venture for truth and a denial of fantasy. The work of writers is to piece back together some of the brittle glass of ordinary human experience, to assemble little windows through which the world looks at God and God looks back at the world. Writing, then, is a spiritual exercise. Its whole aim is to become supple and receptive, yielding gently to the strangeness of the one who is quietly and subversively at work in our words, ploughing the dark furrows of our language, sowing in our speech the seeds of a new world.”

– Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams

The work of writers

urban-idolatry

In the current issue of Books & Culture (Jan/Feb 2014) there’s a good piece called “In the City We Trust.” It’s written by Noah Toly, who teaches urban studies and international relations at Wheaton College. The article is essentially a review of two books: A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook and Why Cities Matter to God, the Culture, and the Church by Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard.

I haven’t read either of those books myself (nor do I necessarily plan to), but the general trend of Christians showing a renewed interest in cities and neighborhoods is something I’ve found, on the whole, positive and encouraging. In spite of that—or better, because of it—I really think Toly is on to something here:

If the flood of books about the city tells us anything, it is that cities don’t just have stories that draw us into idolatry, but are becoming the story that draws us into idolatry. Cities themselves are becoming the things in which we trust for deliverance. Brook falls into this trap, making the dynamism and diversity of the city our great hope for deliverance from oppression. By not identifying the city as a potential idol, Um and Buzzard stumble into the same mistake, at points seeming to trust our idols to deliver us from our idolatry. Ironically, this idolatry will take any true dynamism right out of our urbanism. When we idolize something, we don’t try to change it. Instead, we absolutize it. We don’t critique our idols. We may hope that the diversity and dynamism of the city will deliver us from oppression, but placing our hope for the city in the city is likely to result in the perpetuation and sedimentation of social ills. People will suffer as we give up our ability to critique the city.

Like Brook, I appreciate the dynamism and diversity of urban areas. In fact, those were two significant factors that led us to buy a home in Tempe, a college town that is also more demographically diverse and densely populated than the sprawling Phoenix metro area as a whole. And like Um and Buzzard, I recognize that cities are places of renewal, yet prone to idolatries of various kinds. I’ve lived in enough cities (Guatemala City, Lancaster, DC, Phnom Penh, Phoenix, etc) for long enough to be disabused of the notion that they are entirely magical, happy places. Neither are cities merely places of hardship and struggle—they are also places of beauty, energy, shelter, and joy. Moreover, as places “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (in Frederick Buechner’s eloquent words), cities are where God calls many of us to move, breathe, and have our being.

Toly, however, is right to say that advocates for the city—those reacting to the decades-old trend of withdrawal and suburbanization—can all too easily find themselves trusting the city itself for something the city is inadequate to provide. I hope those of us with “the flourishing of the city” effortlessly rolling off our tongues heed his wise caution.

Once again, I’m glad the narrative surrounding cities is changing, that urban areas are no longer simply thought of as places of blight, necessary evils to anchor immaculate suburbs. Until fairly recently, cities did not elicit warm and fuzzy feelings, at least among most of the evangelicals I know, so what has transpired recently has been a helpful paradigm shift.

Toly reminds us that where there are social ills, a loving critique is required, and some celebrations of the city fall short on that front. But it is also true that for a critique to be loving, we must first know what we love. It’s clear that a growing number of us are proclaiming our love for the cities to which we have been called, where we have been “sent into exile.” May it now be demonstrated that we love our cities enough to be honest about our city’s particular excesses, abuses, and failures, and then to sacrificially, courageously, and faithfully work toward shalom—comprehensive flourishing in all directions for our city and our neighbors.