Weave These: Convictions, Character and Community

John Heaton reviews Steven Garber's The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

A very good teacher and administrator I know has a stack of four or five good books in perpetual company on the night stand. Each demands to be read now, but at the end of a long day of teaching, paper grading, and preparation for the next day’s classes, progress is slow. That’s why I’m five years late in getting to Steven Garber’s helpful title, The Fabric of Faithfulness. Not to worry. His message is timeless enough to be appreciated when you get to it. It is imperative enough, however, to move it to the top of your stack.

His question is straightforward: Having taught stu- dents what to know, how do we help them connect belief to action such that they maintain a life of faithfulness over the long haul? To answer this question, Mr. Garber interviewed dozens of seasoned men and women from vocations in business, academia, and the Church, searching for common themes in their life experiences – those things that explain how they came to a “functional unity” (31) between “world- view and way of life” (47). Their experiences do unite, but more on that later.

The answer requires context, of course, which Mr. Garber amply supplies by the inclusion of dozens of stories of young people he has taught, mentored, pastored, or with whom he had a chance conversation over coffee on the side- walk outside the Bodleian library. These stories also unite. They share a crisis common to students from Tiananmen Square to Washington DC to Rice University.

The stream of current culture is fed by the tributaries resulting from the thaw and crack-up of the deep freeze of the Enlightenment. For two centuries academia has in- sisted on an objectivist and secular view of the world, which can be observed, measured, and quantified. But, quoting Richard Bernstein, “when values enter, they must be treated as noncognitive emotional responses or private subjective preferences” (66). In other words, the introduction of values as we interpret the facts of the world has been relegated to an interior, personal world disconnected from the public square. At bottom, it creates disjuncture between telos or purpose, and praxis, how we live (57-58), resulting in a loss of meaning, and a tendency to alienation and isolation from reality.
Enlightenment thinking may have taught us much about the world, but it has left us with incoherence as we seek to understand our place in it. The dirty water flowing from the tap has been polluted with “Nietzschean relativistic nihilism, Marxist social planning, Freudian therapy and Bultmannian historicism” (107), which Thomas Oden calls “mod rot.” The result is a definition of freedom that per- mits us “to devote ourselves to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true” (107). Each represents a labyrinth of dead-ends for students who ask, “How do I coherently connect what I believe…with the realpolitik of the public square? (66).

So far, nothing new here. However, Mr. Garber’s contribution to educators and parents who seek faithful- ness in their children – and the heart of his project – is found in the tapestry of the experiences of those seasoned men and women mentioned above. Three findings emerged: 1) Convictions – Each formed a worldview sufficient for the challenges of the modern world; 2) Character – Each found a teacher who incarnated that worldview; and 3) Community – Each forged friendships with folk whose common life was embedded in that worldview (51, 124,174). Woven together, these components proved to be powerful sustainers over the trajectory of a full life.

In the neighborhood of educators served by the SCL, everyone I know is paying close attention to the first finding, attempting to impart a robust Christian worldview, which must, as Garber notes, “bring integration to the whole of one’s existence” (126). It is the second and third findings that are particularly instructive. Helping students con- struct a worldview is challenging; after all, a worldview is a complex thing. Instructional success, however, does little to guarantee coherence over the decades-long arc of a life.
A Christian worldview is not merely a body of ideas to be mastered; it is the mainspring of commitments that must be lived out.

We should not be surprised, therefore, to find that men and women who maintain coherence in thought and behavior over time, early on found a mentor who impressed them powerfully and encouraged them as their lives took shape in young adulthood. This single realization creates an enormous horizon of opportunity for the teacher who will re-orient his professional objectives to extend beyond a student’s graduation from high school. Quoting Augustine, “…boys do not need the art of grammar which teaches cor- rect speech if they have the opportunity to grow up and live among men who speak correctly” (150). As I tell my own faculty, the teacher is the primary text, but that text must be read within the bonds of an authentic relationship.

The most difficult finding is the last – integrating into a community in which common life is embedded in that worldview. “What we believe about life and the world be- comes plausible as we see it lived out” (159). Some schools like mine overtly refer to themselves as a community but then struggle to give real legs to the claim. Many students will seek such a community in their churches, and they should. Sadly, what they will often find is more relativism, a religious practice intensely reduced to the level of individu- alism that fails to engage faith with broader culture, a pre- dictable piety flowing from post-Enlightenment “faith.” As a result – and I have witnessed this – some students will give up and leave the Faith altogether, concluding that Christian- ity should be discarded with the rest of the mod rot.

For this problem Mr. Garber does not offer an answer. But who could? He does offer a challenge along with the encouragement of grace. He has provided a densely nar- rated anecdotal account of those who have struggled to weave their own tapestry, and he has shown us how others succeeded in that effort. In doing so, he may have shown us the next step in the way forward to faithful living.