How Do We Love a Broken World?

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on September 23, 2014.

“Knowing what we know about the world, with all its wonder and wounds, what we will do? Do we see ourselves implicated, for love’s sake, in the way the world turns out?”

That’s the question at the heart of Steve’s Garber’s book “Visions of Vocation.” If we know the world the way God knows it and if we love the world the way God loves it, then what, when we confront the brokenness, will we do?

The answer, Garber says, is found in our individual callings. It’s there, he says, that we see the world as it is. And it’s there — with the duties and responsibilities we each have — that we’re able to proactively and redemptively love the people and places around us.

We spoke with Garber about the major themes in his book.

You’re pretty straightforward about the condition of the world: There’s sickness, corruption, injustice. In light of that reality you ask, “Can you know the world as it is and still love it?” Why is that such a pivotal question?

At our best and worst, we are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, and so the most perennial questions are our questions. As I listen to the world and to the people who come into my life, there is no question that is more important and more difficult. Because we are shaped by the story of Scripture, that should not surprise us. In the allusively named Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil — an epistemological temptation with a moral heart — God Himself understands who we are and what will be hard in this world. What will we do with what we know?

From Genesis 3 on we live with the reality of the Fall, echoing across history and into every heart. As Bob Dylan once sang, “Everything is broken. Broken bottles, broken plates, broken switches, broken gates, broken dishes, broken parts, streets are filled with broken hearts.” That is not simply poetry but is the hard edge of everyone’s life, and it often feels too much.

How do we respond? Called as we are to love God and to love what God loves, how do we love a world that is broken like that? It is only if we see our vocation as an imitation of God’s. It is in and through our own callings that we are to know the world — and the worlds of business, the arts, politics, education, the church, families and neighborhoods, cities and societies — and love the world.

There is nothing that asks more of us, and yet that is why it is at the heart of the Incarnation and at the heart of our discipleship, of our understanding of who we are and how we live. That is what vocation is and is about, for everyone everywhere.

You reference Colin Gunton, who argued that disengagement is the essence of modern life; that seeing the immensity and complexity, we step back. That’s understandable, isn’t it? Given the scope of all these problems, how do ordinary people step forward?

Of course it is understandable, for anyone who is honest. We can choose stoicism, which is an understandable response, or we can choose cynicism, which also makes sense. Both of course allow us to say, “I know, but,” and they are the most common responses to life in a broken world, and human beings have responded in these ways for thousands of years. I understand them, and on some days am drawn to them.

But then what? In his book “The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity,” Gunton was perceptive about the challenge of modern life. His words are sobering for a culture formed by the Enlightenment with its promise that the more we know, the better off we are. Disengagement is the essence of modern life. He had unusual insight into the challenge of being alive in this time, so “knowledgeable” as we are in the Information Age.

It was about 20 years ago, after listening to U2’s “Numb,” when I first began thinking about this. The song is written by Edge, not Bono, and the MTV video of it begins with a faucet drip-drip-dripping onto Edge’s forehead. He sits up and begins to offer what I have called a Levitical litany of “don’ts,” e.g., don’t try to make sense, don’t connect, and on and on. All the while every experience of life is offered him, and he does not respond, seeming to be disinterested. Halfway through the song, the rest of the band begins to sing, “I feel numb, I feel numb… . Too much is not enough, I feel numb.” There is a flickering translucence on Edge’s face throughout the song; he is watching a television screen. The eyes of his heart are plugged into this icon for the technological society, and he will not be unplugged. That opened my eyes, and during the next few years I began watching academic and cultural sources make the same argument, with articles like “The Numbing of the American Mind” and books such as “Mediated” and “The Shallows.”

All this was intriguing to me because we live in the Information Age, when we can know everything all the time. One thoughtful observer, James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, calls it “the info-glut culture,” seeing that we are unable to take it all in — and so we become numb.

We have to be careful about what we see and hear and read. We need to understand our frailty. If we are to know as God knows and love as God loves, then we have to guard our hearts, making sure that we are being faithful to the vocations that God has given us, and not taking on more than we should.

To keep Bono in the story for a bit more, I have taken his description of vocation to heart. “I’m a musician. I write songs. When the day is done, I hope that I’ve been able to tear a little corner off of the darkness.” What will it be for us — ordinary people in ordinary places as we are? I have yet to meet someone who cannot find a way to “tear a little corner off of the darkness” in and through what is theirs to do. Every one of us has that same calling.

You remind us that we live in a post-Enlightenment world, where no voice and no perspective carries more weight than any other. “The worst face of postmodernism,” you write, “is that nothing has metaphysical or moral weight.” How do we proactively love a world like that?

With difficulty. The question is hard, isn’t it? How will we know this world, and still love it? The stories of people doing this go on forever though, and they are all around us.

I’m involved in a project, the Wedgwood Circle, which exists to address the reality that the culture is upstream from politics. As long as I have lived in Washington D.C., and have had political responsibility on my heart, the deeper truth is that Washington, D.C., like capital cities the world over, responds to what takes place in Seattle and Denver and Miami. It is a sober truth that the culture is upstream from politics.

So if we care about the way the world is and ought to be, what do we do? Rather than cursing the darkness, some of us decided that we would step into Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville, the cities where the stories that shape the world are being told, and ask the question, “What would it look like for us to take responsibility together for the way the world turns out?” So bringing artists of all sorts together with investors of every kind, we have been working at this for a while now, and good work has been done.

We all sigh at the Lady Gagas of the world, the Grand Theft Autos, and the films, plays, and novels that argue for ways of life that destroy us as human beings, diminishing our hopes for what true flourishing means. But what do we do? Stay away from the film industry? Write novels so that Christians buy them in Christian bookstores and talk about them with their Christian friends?

We are called to be salt and light. As John Stott taught us, salt and light are affective commodities; they affect their environments. So we are never to curse rooms that are dark; rather we are to ask, “Why wasn’t the light turned on?” In a culture of whatever, which is oppressive in every way that matters, we are called to enter in — with faith, hope, and love — in and through our vocations, offering visions of what might be, of what could be, of what someday will be.

We are called to be signposts of the kingdom in a world where nothing seems to have metaphysical or moral weight — and yet it does, and that it does, it is ours to steward, with imagination, winsomeness, clarity, and determination.

Invoking Wendell Berry, you talk about the concept of a “covenantal cosmos,” arguing that we don’t flourish as human beings “when we belong to no place and no place cares about us.” In practical terms, what does it mean to take responsibility for a place?

I should say that Berry does not use that language. Seeing that as the deepest truth about this world, and having read all of Berry, I see him assuming its truth in his writing. At the core of his literary vision is the belief that when we casually disregard people and place, we give up something that is crucial to our humanity; when we sever the link of relationships to people and to place, we lose any sense of responsibility. That insight is profoundly covenantal.

Within your own communion, take the congregations known as New City Fellowship. I have been to two, in Chattanooga and St. Louis. They live into that vision of people and place with unusual commitment. The questions of the neighbors and the neighborhoods have become their questions; they share hopes and heartaches, joys and sorrows, together. When streets need repair, everyone suffers, both those who love God and those who don’t. When schools don’t work, everyone suffers. To know more is to love more, and that is what I have seen in the lives of those who are in these congregations.

I have also seen this in San Diego with the Harbor Presbyterian Church and its different congregations. All over the wide city, these people have taken on their places, getting to know the people they live with, play with, and work with, inviting them into their common life to “come and see” what the Gospel means. And I have met folks who have come to faith through the simple, persistent commitment to people and place that marks the Harbor vision.

The Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville is its own story. Home as the city is to the University of Virginia and the cultural richness that a large university brings, Trinity has developed an arts initiative for the whole city. Not “Christian” art for the church, but good and true and beautiful art for the flourishing of the city. The City Church of Richmond is working on a similar vision, seeing its work as common grace for the common good.

Finally, twice this year I have been in Birmingham with some remarkably visionary people from Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church (see story on page 13). Given the history there, with letters from jails and bombings of churches tragically notable, these folks — driven by a deep sense of the Gospel of the kingdom — are stepping into that history with hope and energy, bringing together people from the arts, medical, business, and education communities for the sake of the city, especially those whose lives have not kept up with Birmingham’s flourishing.

There are more stories to be told, and I see them everywhere I look. The truth is that we have no other world to live in than the covenantal cosmos of God. We will either understand that reality and live that way for our flourishing and for the flourishing of our cities, or we will not.

You tell the stories of men and women who, seeing distortions in the way the world works, view themselves as “implicated.” Could you tell us what that means? And what, practically speaking, does it mean?

As the novelist Walker Percy said so well, “We can get all A’s and still flunk life.” It is possible to “know” a lot, and yet, and yet.

Since most of life is pretty autobiographical, I’ll start with me. For most of my life I have been caught by the vision of the responsibility of knowledge. To know, and to do. From an early course in college on the pastoral epistles where I chose Romans 12:1-2 to study for a longer paper, threaded through different degrees, on through my teaching many students over many years, my intellectual passion has been the relationship of what we know to how we live. The word “implicated” is at the heart of this. Knowing what we know about the world, with all its complex wonders and wounds, what will we do? Do we see ourselves implicated, for love’s sake, in the way the world turns out?

One of my great teachers was Václav Havel, the Czech playwright who became president of his nation. In parliaments and universities all over the world, he argued, “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” That insight is profoundly biblical, woven from beginning to end in the story from creation to consummation. We are able to respond, responsible. As Augustine saw us, Adam and Eve were “posse peccare, posse non peccare,” able to sin, able not to sin. At the Fall, we became not able not to sin. With the grace of the Gospel, we become able not to sin. And at the renewal of all things, we will be not able to sin, being finally and fully made new. Being responsible threads its way through the whole story, and everyone’s story.

For those of us who are shaped by this biblical vision, written into the very meaning of knowledge is its responsibility. The Hebrew word “yada” is a million miles from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment understandings of knowledge, where it is fully possible, even expected, that to know does not mean to do. Of course in the “Seinfeld” era, the word was bastardized to mean “whatever/whatever/whatever.” We can “know” all kinds of things, and say “So what?” Or “Of course I know, but what do you expect me to do about it?” The visions of knowing in both Old and New Testaments tell a different tale. To know is to care; and if we don’t care, we don’t know. To know is to love; and if we don’t love, then we don’t know. Isn’t that what the parable we call “The Good Samaritan” is all about?

Think about marriage. With any moral meaning can we say, “I know my husband, but I sure don’t love my husband”? Or perhaps more tenderly, isn’t it the deepest longing of every heart to be known and to be loved, at the same time? For me this question never ever gets very far from my marriage — and it shouldn’t.

But if we take that seriously, learning from our most personal relationships, we see that in our public responsibilities we are called to the same vocation. In a culture fixated on “House of Cards,” the television drama in both the U.K. and the U.S. that seems to be “must-see TV” among the 20- and 30-somethings — where the more we know the more cynical we become — we need to be deeply schooled by Scripture, and the vision of a knowing that necessarily means doing, of a responsibility marked by love.

In our homes, this has consequences. On our streets, this has consequences. In our schools, this has consequences. In our businesses, this has consequences. In all we are, in everything we do, this has consequences. Simply said, there are implications, because, for love’s sake, we are implicated.

Steve Garber served at Regent College from 2017–2020 as professor of marketplace theology. He is founder and principal of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture, which is focused on reframing the way people understand life, especially the meaning of vocation and the common good. He is also the author of “The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior” and “Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good.” 

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