Whereas William Placher’s book Callings examines the concept of vocation from a historical, theological perspective, Leading Lives That Matter tackles the question of vocation from a more “popular” or “secular” vein (to use the editors’ words). Readings from a wide variety of authors are included in this compilation, such as Albert Schweitzer, Aristotle, Theodore Roosevelt, Homer, Robert Frost, H. G. Wells, John Milton, Malcolm X, John Steinbeck, and even Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. While there are some specifically Christian works included in the book (such as the excellent selections from Lee Hardy, Gary Badcock, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and C. S. Lewis), the editors assume that readers will consult Placher’s book for Christian views of vocation.
The question asked by Leading Lives That Matter is how a person defines “significance” in his or her life and how the modern Western worldview either contributes to or deters from one’s understanding of vocation. The editors state, “This is not a self-help book that provides ready answers or prefabricated exercise. Instead, the book is designed to lead readers to know their own mind better by encountering the minds of others who have gone before them. To read this book is to become another pilgrim along life’s way, as we travel in the company of other pilgrims who have left behind them records of their own journeys or the journeys of others” (p. 5).
The book discusses answers to seven questions. First, are some lives more significant than others? Is the “short and splendid” life more virtuous than the “long but undistinguished” life? Second, must one’s job be the primary source of one’s identity? Is the American cliché, “What do you do for a living?” a fair way of assessing a person’s life? Third, is a balanced life possible and preferable to a life focused primarily on work? Fourth, should people follow their talents in deciding what to do to earn a living? Fifth, to whom should one listen when seeking advice on life decisions? Sixth, can one control what one does and becomes in life? Seventh, how does a person tell the story of his or her life?
In answering these questions, Schwehn and Bass pull from a variety of past and present writers in various genres, and the editors present a wide variety of views, even intentionally selecting some articles that contradict each another. For example where Aristotle praises the virtue of a short but valiant life, Lewis praises the work of the scholar who stayed home during the war.
This is a fascinating book; at times it reads more like a college English literature textbook or a sociology textbook than a theological reader. Yet the book has some definite nuggets of gold if one is willing to dig past a surface reading. This book could be used in a college or seminary classroom as a sort of “casebook” for students to use as they work through their own thoughts on vocation. Unfortunately the book asks many questions but answers few of them.
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