Mild-mannered and gentle with his friends, Steve Garber must be very hard-nosed and disciplined in his management of his time and productivity.
He reads books all the time—history, biography, literature, theology, philosophy. He catches independent movies with profound themes. He listens to the latest music. He’s always mentoring students or people who aspire to significance in Christ, not just success on the world’s terms.
His latest book, Vision of Vocation (IVP Books, 2014), ranges from books to movies to music in a profound analysis of contemporary American culture. His title suggests a discussion of faith applied in the workplace, and he does address that topic.
But Garber does so much more. He picks up where the late Francis Schaeffer left off in Schaeffer’s unusual ability to bring Christian faith to bear in critical thinking about contemporary culture.
Schaeffer died 30 years ago this May and was known more in his later years for support of politically conservative causes. Apart from politics, though, he spoke of existentialism, modern art, music, ethics, theology, and movies in a rare way for evangelicals of his era or of any era.
Garber follows in that noble tradition in this book.
He identifies the problem of moral relativism from several angles. The cynical use of “whatever!” doesn’t cut it as a philosophy of life.
He also contrasts the practical impact of relativism with a moral decision by Gary Haugen to try to bring justice to victims of bloody killings in Rwanda and other atrocities. “Gary believed that some things are true and right and that some things simply, profoundly are not,” Garber writes. The result is Haugen’s exemplary work with the International Justice Mission.
Garber brings historical perspective to bear on it all. He is old enough to long for the good old days when he was growing up in the 1950s. Yet he knows that the world was fallen in the 1880s, or the 1950s, and so it is in 2014. The problems of the Fall are just manifest in different ways now.
“This is not the worst of all worlds. There is no golden moment historically,” he writes. “Pre-modern, modern, post-modern: every age is marked by graces and groans.”
Yet he has a keen grasp of our current problem of post-modern relativism. “There is no voice, not perspective that carries more weight than any other, because no one has access to certainty about anything,” he writes.
Like Schaeffer, Garber doesn’t offer cheap answers to hard problems. He feels the weight of a world marred by sin. Education by itself doesn’t make the world better. “Very, very bright people do not always make very, very good people,” he notes.
He recommends biblical wisdom and spells out the danger of the well-educated elite. We can get good grades and still flunk life. Or we can make lots of money and flunk life.
Running through the book is the theme of learning to be a doer of the Word, not a hearer only. His repetition of this theme is appropriate because in a fallen world we forget it almost as soon as we turn the page.
“Over many years, after many conversations, my conviction is this: moral commitment precedes epistemological insight. We see out of our hearts,” Garber writes.
He ties together some loose ends of the constant analysis of how we are overloaded with information, as in such books as The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. That adds to the problem of knowing, but not doing. “We disengage, hoping to hold onto ourselves, to that which matters most to us, trying to protect ourselves from being overcome and overwhelmed,” he laments.
One of his most interesting chapters offers a contrast between the stoicism of Tom Wolfe and the cynicism of John le Carré.
Another point of wisdom: his careful use of the word “proximate.” He speaks of proximate justice. We won’t achieve perfect justice, or perfect love, but we should not give up because idealistic dreams fall short. Here he echoes the way Schaeffer would speak of substantial healing.
Through his first book, Fabric of Faithfulness (1999), Garber has helped many university faculty and administrators learn how to connect with students as human beings, not just as academic machines. This book has assigned him to another very useful calling—heir to the legacy of a pioneer in modern Christian thinking, Francis Schaeffer.