Favorite Books I Read this Year – Christian Vocation

I am going to reflect on a few of my favorite books from 2011.  But note that these are books I read in 2011, not necessarily ones that were new in 2011 .

One theme I harp on with the college students is calling.  Growing up I got the impression that God calls people (well, men) to be pastors and missionaries.  Being called into one of these fields was honorable, you had been set apart to do work in ministry.  If you were not called into one of these areas then you could do whatever work interested you and hopefully tell people you work with about Jesus.  But your work during the week was not really spiritual or holy.  It was just what you did to fill the time between church and church activities.

What I want my students to know is that this is the wrong way to look at work.  The truth is that God calls people into all sorts of work.  If you are not called to be a pastor or missionary you are not exempt from calling.  Your work done during the week is vitally important to the kingdom of God.

I’ve written about this before, here and here and here.

Two books I read this year illustrate this point.  First, Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling” (2008).  Crouch diagnoses four ways evangelical Christians have related to culture: condemn, critique, copy, consume. Although each of these may be appropriate for particular things and at particular times (condemning pornography, for example), as a way of relating to culture as a whole they are unsatisfying. Instead Christians should be creating and cultivating culture. Crouch grounds this in the Bible story, from creation on through Jesus Christ and into new creation.

Here is one good quote to illustrate what Crouch is saying:

Culture is what we make of the world. Culture is, first of all, the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else.  This is the original insight of the writer of Genesis when he says that human beings were made in God’s image: just like the original Creator, we are creators. God, of course, began with nothing, whereas we begin with something. But the difference is not as great as you might think. For every act of creation involves bringing something into being that was not there before-every creation is ex nihilo, from nothing, even when it takes the world as its starting point. Something is added in every act of making. This is clearest in the realm of art, where the raw materials of pigment and canvas become more than you ever could have predicted. Even a five-year-old’s finger painting is more than the sum of paper and paint. But creation, the marvelous making of more than was there before, also happens when a chef makes an omelet, when a carpenter makes a chair, when a toddler makes a snow angel.  Culture is all of these things: paintings (whether finger paintings or the Sistine Chapel), omelets, chairs, snow angels. It is what human beings make of the world. It always bears the stamp of our creativity, our God-given desire to make something more than we were given (23)

Crouch argues that we change culture by creating more of it.  Too often evangelical Christians have been content to copy culture, so if there is a popular style of music soon there is a “Christian” version.  Crouch would argue that Christian musicians should be creating the new styles of music.  He also spends time talking about how Francis Schaeffer and his disciples were very good at critiquing films, but this ended up being a mere academic philosophizing.  They may critique art, but they do not create art themselves.  Crouch would argue that Christians should be creating good art rather than just critiquing art.

This book calls Christians in all fields to set about creating and cultivating culture.  In this we find vocation:

The religious or secular nature of our cultural creativity is simply the wrong question. The right question is whether, when we undertake the work we believe to be our vocation, we experience the joy and humility that come only when God multiplies our work so that it bears thirty, sixty and a hundredfold beyond what we could expect from our feeble inputs. Vocation-calling-becomes another word for a continual process of discernment (256)

In 2010 James Davison Hunter released a book titled To Change The World: The Irony, Possibility and Tragedy of Christianity in the Late Modern World.  Hunter demonstrates that while nearly every Christian institution seeks to “change the world” today, Christians have become largely irrelevant.  Why is this so?  The question becomes more intriguing when you realize that Christianity is still the dominant religion in America.  So if the majority hold to Christian beliefs, why does Christianity hold such little influence.

One of the main reasons, if not the main reason, Hunter diagnoses is that Christians have bought into the idea that the world is changed through politics.  The “Religious Right” seek to take American back to an idealized past.  Their method is to convert people individually, assuming that new beliefs will lead people to vote in new ways and thus to “change the world.”  Hunter shows how a growing “Religious Left”, while differing on what changing the world entails (as they focus on things like poverty, the environment, and war) also see the solution as political.  A third group, the “Neo-Anabaptists” may appear different as they find no hope in politics, but Hunter argues their identity is based on the state and political powers being corrupt, showing they too adhere to the idea that politics is where cultural change happens.

But converting more people to the correct belief system, assuming this will change how they vote and thus get more people with the right belief system into political power will not change the culture.

Hunter shows, historically, how cultural change occurs as the “elites” in a culture buy into an idea and this trickles down.  Change occurs from the top-down.  I don’t recall Hunter putting it this way, but the implication is that for change to occur we need Christians who are the best of the best at what they do, shaping and influencing culture in the highest spheres (one example he gives is that though the USA Today has a much large readership, the NY Times is much more influential in terms of influencing those in power).

In the end, this book is not a manifesto on how to change culture (which is why Hunter does not simply say the method to change culture is to get more Christians in elite positions).  Rather, the book is a challenge to Christians to be faithful in their calling, as individuals and on a local level, and beyond that to trust the Holy Spirit for the big change.  Or as Hunter says in an interview on Amazon: “A third thing that I would like for readers to take away is that there are alternative ways of thinking about the world we live in, and engaging it, that are constructive and draw upon resources within the Christian tradition. In the end, these strategies are not first and foremost about changing the world, but living toward the flourishing of others.”

Christians have approached culture with attitudes of “defensive against” (Christian Right), “relevance to” (Christian Left) and “purity from” (Neo-Anabaptist). Hunter offers a new way of engagement, which he calls “Faithful presence”.  Faithful presence sees Christians as fully present and committed in their spheres of social influence; it is a “constructive resistance that seeks new patterns of social organization that challenge, undermine, and otherwise diminish oppression, injustice, enmity, and corruption and, in turn, encourage harmony, fruitfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy, security and well-being (247).”

You could almost say Hunter deconstructs his own work, as early on he shows how cultures do change, but by the end he does not put forth a program based on that on how to change the culture.  Cultural change is not the point, faithful presence is.

Interestingly, Hunter offers a brief critique of Crouch’s book.  Crouch responds, saying that he and Hunter agree though Hunter does not appear to realize it.

Both these books are profound and thought-provoking.  There is much more in each than I could possibly speak on in a brief post.  Thus, I urge you to check them out.

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