October 3, 2003

The Fabric of Faithfulness

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The week before last, as I mentioned in other entries, I read Steven Garber’s The Fabric of Faithfulness. I’d heard it highly recommended by Gideon and Stanley Hauerwas has a blurb on the cover, but the friend who gave me her copy of the book didn’t really care for it.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, I do appreciate Garber’s emphasis on convictions, character, and community (or, if you will, worldview, mentors, and community). But on the other hand, it did seem to me that Garber could have made his points in a few pages and that most of the book was padding. I didn’t particularly mind the stories of his conversations with students so much (though that kind of stuff drives my friend nuts), but I suspect I was more interested in the stories (and perhaps the students) than in the points Garber was making with the stories, most of which seemed pretty obvious.

As well, it seemed to me that Garber may have fallen into a kind of quick and rather shallow “worldview” analysis, the kind of analysis that I have associated in my mind with, say, Francis Schaeffer. This sort of analysis pulls in all kinds of things from a culture as illustrations of a “worldview.” If I recall correctly, for Schaeffer, a statue by Michaelangelo (probably unfinished) becomes an encapsulation of the Renaissance: “Renaissance man pulling himself from the rock.” Garber sometimes seems to do something similar: he gives passing references to movies and music (e.g., the Smashing Pumpkins), all of which allegedly illustrate or encapsulate “the modern worldview.” But I’m not sure whether he’s really interacting with the cultural artifact itself or simply (and perhaps rather dismissively) using it as an illustration of an “idea.” If someone writes bleak lyrics, for instance, is that bleakness an instance of modernism‘s fruit? Maybe. Maybe not.

Furthermore, I wonder whether Garber’s portrait of the culture in which we (and today’s university students) live is accurate. Part of the problem is that “the culture in which we live” is more complex than Garber describes. After all, if he can quote from MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Steiner, Bernstein, and a bunch of other guys who critique modernism, then it seems that we no longer live in a world completely dominated by (his view of) modernism. He spends a long time on the facts/values dichotomy, but, given that postmodernism insists (rightly) that there are no uninterpreted, valueless facts, is the worldview he’s presenting really dominant today?

Another aspect of the book raised some questions for me. Perhaps it’s because he works with a particular sort of student on Capitol Hill, and he’s writing about the kinds of people he knows, but at times, Garber gives the impression that the goal is to produce students with a drive to change the world. He talks about the importance of people having “a radical comitment to justice and love … and a selfless passion for a transformed world” (p. 37).

But what about the guy who gets out of school and struggles to make ends meet? Granted that Garber is talking about university students, but what about blue collar worker? What about women who go through university and then become housewives and mothers? “A transformed world” — does that include a changed diaper?

It might, and, to be fair to Garber, it probably does. But the kinds of stories Garber tells may make it seem as if working for “a transformed world” involves doing something big (e.g., becoming involved in a think tank, getting into politics, etc.) or dramatic (e.g., going overseas to teach school). The ordinary lives most of us — and, let’s be honest: most university or college graduates — will live may seem to Garber’s reader to be less “world-transforming.”

Now, lest I be misunderstood, I’m not saying that it’s wrong for students in university to dream big about how their lives might impact the world. I do think it’s important for students (for everyone!) to have a strong concern, as Garber says, for justice and love and service to others — and I suspect mothers may exemplify that concern better than, say, philosophers or politicians. Again, I do appreciate his focus on the importance of mentors and community (even more than his focus on “ideas” and “worldviews”). On the whole, though I didn’t find the book entirely satisfactory, I did enjoy the book and I found it helpful, not least for causing me to think about how best to help university students grow in their faith.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:41 pm | Discuss (0)

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