Book Review – Visions of Vocation by Steven Garber

What the heck am I supposed to be doing with my life?

Working with college students I hear that question all the time. It seems like it is a perpetual mystery among college age/post-college age adults. To be honest it seems to be a perpetual mystery for myself as well.

In recent years we have seen a sort of resurgence among books, sermons, and blogs about Christian visions of vocations. What is a vocation? Is a career the same thing as a vocation? What does faith have to do with work? How do our vocations contrSteven Garberibute to the missio dei? Tim Keller and the people over at The Center for Faith and Work have done a lot to help Christians answer those questions. Another person who has been contributing answers to these sorts of questions for many years now has been Steven Garber. He heads up the Washington Institute – an institute which exists to help people pursue “a vision of vocation that is fully engaged with the realities of life in the 21st century.” This book, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common God, is birthed out of Garber’s many years of reflection upon the topics of vocation and social engagement.

Summary

Vocation is an ethereal concept – invoking images of a divine calling or a sort of mystical experience where one is called into one’s destiny, a destiny that has been set out for you since before the foundations of the earth. But are we complicating the concept of vocation by making them, for lack of a better word, so epic? Garber seems to think so. According to Garber – our vocations boil down to the different ways “wVisions of Vocatione are responsible, for love’s sake, for the way the world is and ought to be. We are called to be common grace for the common good.” (18) As Christians we are called to many levels of responsibility – we are responsible for our own relationships with God, we are responsible for other’s flourishing as human beings, and we are responsible for the flourishing of creation – these three things are part of the cultural mandate which God gave Adam and Eve in the Garden. All that we do, or don’t do, contributes or detracts from our ability to fulfill those responsibilities.

Sadly though the world is broken, and for most seeing brokenness leads to apathy or stoicism – yet the challenge, as Garber points out, is to live a life of engagement, choosing to step into the mess of the world, understanding it and choosing to serve it.

If we have eyes to see we are forced to make a decision. Will we serve the world or serve ourselves? This is the central theme of Garber’s book – it’s a sort of existential crisis, that shapes one’s entire life:

Knowing what I know what will I do?

Having read the things I have read, having seen the things I have seen, having heard the things I have heard, having met the people I have met, what will I do about those things? Will I choose to grow numb, as our westernized – hyper connected culture has chosen to do, or will we love this world and contribute to the common good? This does not necessarily mean we will be idealistic about the possibilities, this does not mean we should pretend that perfect justice is possible – yet we should aim for proximate justice. Given the fact that we live in a now/not yet reality of the Kingdom we cannot expect the world to be “fixed” by us, nevertheless we have a responsibility to contribute to the common good.

The choice is ours, will we chose to serve the world we live in – using our talents, passions, experiences, resources – or will we choose to settle for lives that revolve around ourselves? To do the first, to step into the frailty and brokenness of the world is what vocation is all about. Some people will choose to serve others through education or agriculture. Some will shoes to do the same through the world so business and law, or healthcare and the arts, or butchering, baking, and candlestick making. Some will even choose to serve the world by blogging about books. All these sorts of vocations are answers to the question, “knowing what I know, what will I do?”

Review

This book was timely for me; recently I have been asking a lot of questions about vocation and calling. I have read plenty of books about the integration of faith and work (both for the college students I work with and for myself). I have found myself in a position stuck between two seemingly opposing trajectories – academia and ministry. In fact I was reading this book while sitting on a plane to Fort Worth to deliver a paper at the Evangelical Theological Society regional conference. As I read the book, and thought about my own future – whether I would be spending the rest of my days sitting on planes going to deliver papers or whether I would spend the rest of my days equipping the church for the works of the missio dei – one question kept haunting me:

Knowing what you know, what will you do?

There are a few things I know, and I am responsible to my fellow man and more importantly to God to do something about those things. As Garber says “knowledge means responsibility and responsibility means care.” (221)

That question – Knowing what you know, what will you do? – Is an extremely powerful question. It’s a question that forces you to make a decision. Everybody knows certain things about the world, everybody has certain conceptions of what the world ought to be like – that question forces everybody who hears it into a point of decision – will I do something about it or will I withdraw? After hearing that question over and over how could I withdraw? How could I fail to step forward into answering the call?

Conclusion

At times the way Garber talks about vocation seems to privilege “world shaping” vocations – educators, teachers, politicians, artists – and seems to neglect more typical vocations – retail worker, mid-level management, service industry workers, homemakers – so I wonder what he thinks about those sorts of callings. Nevertheless, Garber sets out a clear vision of what vocation is – its your answer to the question “knowing what you know, what will you do?” Whatever answer you give to that question will contribute to the common good.

Weaving together personal stories, literature, film, music, and scripture to show us what vocations are all about, Garber has written a book that will certainly inspire you to see your place in the world a bit differently. He not only aims at our heads, he aims at our hearts, drawing us into the story of what God is doing in this world. He invites us into the critical task of coming alongside of God as God himself give grace to a world that is broken and falling apart. Answering that invitation is what vocations are all about.

As a side note – I know its early in the year, but this book is so well written, so theologically powerful, and packs such a powerful devotional punch that it is definitely a frontrunner for my book of the year award.

(Note: I recieved this book courtesy of IVP in exchange for an impartial review.)

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