All posts tagged “common good

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What Gives You Hope?

This summer, Comment Magazine is hosting a series of symposia in which they ask friends of the magazine a fun question and then share the brief responses. They asked the first group what they’re reading these days.  They asked the second group what rest looks like for them this summer. I was invited to participate in the third group, responding to the question: What gives you hope in your corner of the world? Here’s what I had to say:

This spring I spent a day at Fuller Seminary’s campus here in Phoenix, where N.T. Wright was speaking on the life and teaching of the Apostle Paul. During a wide-ranging Q&A time following one of the lectures, someone asked Wright how he managed to maintain a sense of hope while serving as Bishop of Durham, given the problems he inevitably encountered within his congregation, his diocese, and in the Church of England as a whole. Wright acknowledged that he dealt with his share of discouragement, but that being a bishop gave him a unique vantage point to continually see pockets of hope throughout the diocese—even when other challenges near and far would have prompted despair.

I’m not a pastor, nor am I a bishop, but I found myself resonating with his response as I reflected on my own work. Here in Phoenix, after all, we have good reason to be discouraged as well—and not just because it’s that time of year when temperatures hover well above the triple digit mark. Bad as that may be, even worse is the fact that our city and state have come to serve as punching bags. You may have seen the recent article, for instance, that declared in no uncertain terms that Phoenix is ”the worst place ever.”

But some of us genuinely enjoy living here, believe it or not. I happen to be one of those people. I love the big skies punctuated by desert outcroppings. I’m inspired by the can-do attitude I encounter among our city’s entrepreneurs, artists, and activists. I’m grateful for the abundance of flavorful Southwest cuisine like the carne adovada at Richardson’s. And the list goes on.

Phoenix has it’s share of challenges, to be sure, and complicity in this city’s brokenness is something we cannot ignore. But I believe there is good reason for hope, even here in “the world’s least sustainable city.” I sometimes find myself discouraged when I read the news, hear about the latest proposed boycott, or consider how few of my neighbors’ names I’ve actually gotten to know. But when I come across signs of life in otherwise hidden corners of our city, my imagination is stirred and my hope is renewed.

You can read the rest of the responses—which include goose droppings, pick-up basketball, and Thomas the Tank Engine—over at Comment‘s website.

If you’re not familiar with the magazine, I encourage you to check it out. Goofy symposia contributors like me aside, they publish a lot of thoughtful stuff under the rubric of “public theology for the common good.” And as I recently tweeted, the print magazine itself is a sensory delight to behold.

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Book Review: Visions of Vocation

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]

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Honor everyone, no matter what

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.

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On knowing and being known

We do not flourish as human beings when we know no one and no one knows us; we do not flourish as human beings when we belong to no place and no place cares about us. When we have no sense of relationship to people or place, we have no sense of responsibility to people or place… In every country and every culture there is an integral connection between knowing and doing, and it is most fully expressed in love.”

– Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good

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Book Review: Playing God

As I said on Tuesday, my nod for book of the year for 2013 goes to Andy Crouch for Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. My review has just been published in the winter issue of PRISM.


Here’s an excerpt:

As we reflect on human history and as we deal honestly with the failures that so often characterize our own lives, it is apparent that we haven’t always “subdued the earth” in God-honoring and others-serving ways. Indeed, this is the dangerous nature of our God-given power. When twisted by sin, power becomes destructive. This is why we instinctually decry power as inevitably evil, or why we do what we can to avoid it altogether. But if Crouch’s thesis is right—that power is a gift entrusted to us by God for the common good—it would be wrong to eschew our power, even if such a thing were possible.

You can read the rest here.

Previously, I reflected on a couple of the book’s important themes here and here. For more on the book, here’s an insightful conversation between Crouch and Book & Culture editor John Wilson.