Review of Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good by Steven Garber

Artists know that it is more powerful to show than to tell. Yet it is rare to find writers (of non-fiction) who are able to convey their vision of the Christian life by capturing our imagination poetically rather than by spelling everything out prosaically. Happily, Steve Garber possesses that rare gift. Drawing freely from the work of musicians and writers as well as the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people, Garber paints a vivid picture of how to live a life of common grace for the common good.

Most discussions of Christian vocation that I have seen begin with the premise, explicit or implicit, that the “spiritual” life—which is seen as something distinct from our ordinary, day-to-day life in the material world around us—is what the gospel is primarily concerned with. Vocation, work, and ordinary life then present a knotty problem—they seem inescapable, but how can we shoehorn them into a worldview that values only the “spiritual”?

Garber takes a totally different approach. He begins with an invitation. If you have eyes, then see. Pay attention to the world around you. Do not romanticize it or coast through life without thinking. Garber cites Hannah Arendt’s brilliant analysis of Adolph Eichmann, one of the chief operating officers of the Holocaust. After a detailed study of the evidence, Arendt concluded that Eichmann was being perfectly sincere when he said that he was simply doing his duty, and even when he said, “With the killing of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter—I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill a Jew or a non-Jew; I just did not do it.” Unlike the court, who insisted that Eichmann must be lying, Arendt suggested that

He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. … It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.

To be evil, according to Arendt, we need not be actively wicked. It is enough that we fail to see. Garber goes on to point out that the modern world is an “info-glut culture,” that bombards me incessantly until, as the U2 song says, “I feel numb,” or as the Smashing Pumpkins song says, I feel like “a rat in a cage.” The temptation is strong to retreat into a “culture of whatever,” and cease to react to what we see. But that, above all, is what we must not do.

Seeing with our eyes, however, is only the first step. The crucial question, which Garber repeats over and over again throughout the book, is this: Knowing what I know, having heard what I have heard, having read what I have read, what am I going to do? Garber offers what he calls a “covenantal epistemology.” As he puts it, “each time a covenant is made, a relationship is offered, a revelation is given, a responsibility is expected.” Knowledge always carries with it a responsibility to act.

What does it mean to “know”? If we were to take the Hebrew scripture, from Genesis to Malachi, listening to and learning the way that knowledge is understood, it would come to something like this: to have knowledge of means to have responsibility to means to have care for. If one knows, then one cares; if one does not care, then one does not know.

Garber is fond of the take that Václav Havel has on responsibility: “Whenever I have encountered any kind of deep problem with civilization anywhere in the world—be it the logging of rain forests, ethnic or religious intolerance or the brutal destruction of a cultural landscape that has taken centuries to develop—somewhere at the end of the long chain of events that gave rise to the problem at issue I have always found one and the same cause: a lack of accountability to and responsibility for the world.”

The perfect example of how to know and be responsible and to care for is, of course, Jesus Christ. In ten carefully crafted pages, Garber masterfully walks us through the Gospel of John. Words have to become flesh. The woman at the well was forever changed by the Man who knew her and yet still loved her. At the death of Lazarus, “we see [Jesus] entering into relationship more fully and deeply as he shares in the weeping over Lazarus’s death.” Despite his supernatural powers, Jesus does not neglect to mourn with those who mourn. And after the Resurrection, “He could have shown them anything, he could have done anything. The resurrected Lord that he was, he could have done something noticeably ‘religious’ for them, like baptism or the Eucharist. He could even have preached to them or prayed for them. What he chose to do was honor their work and then eat with them.”

Garber never suggests that it is easy to properly respond to what we see and know. The world is a broken place with overwhelming problems. The “great temptations,” Garber says, are to react with cynicism or stoicism. As cynics, we throw up our hands and declare that things are as they are, and we can do nothing about it. As stoics, we refuse to let what we see touch our hearts. Garber describes a mealtime conversation between Neil Postman and Camille Paglia, organized by Harper’s Magazine.

Toward the end of the meal, Postman made an observation that summed up his criticism: “How is it possible to watch the evening news, and in five minutes hear about a plane crash in India, an earthquake in Chile, a rape in Central Park, that the Mets beat the Cardinals, and finally an ad for hemorrhoids medicine—and somehow take it all in?” He argued that as human beings we cannot do so, and we choose to step back, unable to respond to the torrent of information, poignant and horrific, playful and commercial as it is. Paglia responded, “But Neil, that’s the way the world is. Buddha smiles at it all.”

Garber, who at the time had just been grieving a friend who had been brutally murdered, found himself unable to accept Paglia’s response.

When I read her words, I recoiled, knowing that was not an adequate response to my friend’s murder. How could it ever be? There was a profound moral and metaphysical equivalency in her judgment, and it seemed completely out of touch with the painfulness and evil of cold-blooded murder. But I realized she was not alone in her conclusion. Reflecting on what I knew of the world and the worldviews of it, I knew that one of the deepest streams in the human heard is stoicism, and that its vision of life under the sun is manifest in both the East and the West, in pantheism as well as materialism.

The great challenge that each of us faces is to know the world and still love it. Early in the book, Garber explains the task that he has set himself.

This is a book about the most difficult task, the most important task. There is nothing we are asked to do that requires more of us than to know and to love at the same time. Mostly we choose otherwise. Mostly we choose to step away, now knowing as we do. Whether it is in the most familiar of relationships, as in marriage, or in the most far-reaching of responsibilities, as in the global AIDS crisis, when we begin to really know what someone is like or what something or someplace is like, the calculus of our hearts more often than not leads us to conclude that it will no longer be possible to love. How can we, after all? Now we know!

But Garber insists that it is possible. One of his favorite authors is Walker Percy, whose novels unflinchingly confront the problem of alienation from God and from the world, to the extent that some have called him “the American Camus.” Percy, however, has resisted this description of himself, saying, “But I always want some hint of hope in my writing.”

Chapter 6, “Vocation as Implication,” is one of the most encouraging parts of the book. Garber gives several examples of people he knows personally who have not turned away from the challenge of knowing and loving at the same time. “They see themselves as having vocations that call them into life, into the world—into a way of knowing that implicates them, for love’s sake.” These people are not necessarily tremendous movers and shakers in the traditional sense. Garber requires all his students to read Wendell Berry, whose vision of life emphasizes the importance of strong personal ties to the people that surround us in our ordinary, day-to-day lives. Most of us are not, and will never be, in a position to revolutionize the entire world, but we can make a difference in our immediate circle, striving for love and justice proximately. One couple that Garber writes about is Todd and Maria Wahrenberger, both physicians.

Todd and Maria both went into residency programs, he into family practice and she into internal medicine. At the end of those years he became the chief resident and, with some other residents, began dreaming of another way to do medicine, something that would draw on passions they had been exploring together for years. One book they read was Denis Haack’s The Rest of Success, and his writing gave them reasons to rethink what ambition meant and what a good life might look like. A year later they formed a health clinic on the north side of Pittsburgh, near the stadiums, in a neighborhood that was medically undeserved.

Over the years Todd and Maria have invested themselves in the city, becoming known as good doctors who do good work. Being attentive to the wider world, they have gone to other places too, giving themselves away to people who rarely see a physician, who rarely have any access to medical care. To see them in their work is to see people who love what they do and who love the ones they serve.

That is the best part of a vocation—to love and serve with gladness and singleness of heart. When we take the wounds of the world into our hearts—not just for a day, but for a life—we long to see the work of our hands as somehow, strangely, part of the work of God in the world, integral to the missio Dei, not incidental to it.

When I began reading Visions of Vocation, I found myself frustrated that Garber would often skip over details and dart from one idea to another unsystematically. The book’s introduction describes a fascinating opportunity that Garber had to meet with several young Chinese leaders from the Tiananmen Square protest. I wanted to know more about what exactly they had talked about, and what Garber had said in response to their pointed questions: “We have been reading the philosophers of the world, asking each, ‘Do you have a good reason to be responsible for history? And is your reason sustainable, philosophically and politically?’ We have not been satisfied, and we wonder whether the Christian vision is different. Does it have a better answer? We wonder what you think.” By the end of the book, I realized that Garber’s omission of a snappy answer to these questions was intentional. His main purpose is not to offer easy solutions but to offer a vision, and the most effective way to convey that is through vignettes. Come and see, he says. Visions of Vocation is an inspirational book in the best sense of the word.
Posted May 2015

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