Book Review: The Call
With books as with cars and cameras, the good ones stand up over time. Much has changed in the fifteen years since Os Guinness’s now-classic disquisition on work, The Call, was first published. Economic recession has stonewalled the prosperity and optimism of the late 1990s and early 2000s, an era in which opportunity seemed unbounded and which produced, by consequence, a rash of evangelical books and sermon series that too often touted as supreme virtues in Christian discipleship the quest for purpose, meaningful work, and the fulfillment of lifelong passions and desires. Faithfulness and joyful obedience took a backseat to freedom and choice. It sometimes felt that to be a mature Christian meant to be one’s own boss.
These were the choppy waters Guinness waded into with The Call. Although the book is soaked in the language of the genre—the subtitle is Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life—it is one of the few work-related titles from the nineties and noughties that still seems apropos in 2013, when for many in our churches the hope of snagging a dream job has been replaced by the more modest hope of finding and keeping a job that pays the bills. Writes Guinness:
If there had been no Fall, all our work would have naturally and fully expressed who we are and exercised the gifts we have been given. But after the Fall this is not so. Work is now partly creative and partly cursed. Thus to find work that perfectly fits our callings is not a right, but a blessing. (50)
Guinness’s recognition of the inevitable dissonance between the life we often feel called to and the realities of this fallen, faltering world gives The Call a refreshing grittiness, a truer-to-life air. I had country singer Steve Earle’s “Someday” playing low in the background on repeat as I read the book (“Now I work at the filling station on the interstate / Pumping gasoline and counting out-of-state plates”); the song wasn’t out of place. Here is a read for the Christian doing the thing he always wanted and thus tempted to genuflect at the altar of work. And here is a book for the one toiling away in thankless fields (Earle’s gas station attendant, for instance), grappling for motivation, struggling to trust God.
The broadest applications often stem from the simplest claims. The basic principle that Guinness hammers home again and again in The Call is that vocation, which the author dubs the “secondary calling,” is changed utterly—is indeed irrevocably infused with meaning—by a more primary calling, namely our call to Christ in the gospel.
Thomas Nelson, Guinness’s publisher, could have marketed the book as an extended meditation on 1 Corinthians 10:31. “[T]here is no sacred vs. secular, higher vs. lower, perfect vs. permitted, contemplation vs. action where calling is concerned,” Guinness writes. “Calling equalizes even the distinctions between clergy and laypeople. It is a matter of ‘everyone, everywhere, and in everything’ living life in response to God’s summons.”
In a wide-ranging 2010 interview with 9Marks, Guinness, an Oxford-trained sociologist who started the D.C.-based leadership-training outfit the Trinity Forum, was asked about his work as a public intellectual. “I try to make serious scholarship intelligible and practical to ordinary people,” he said.
Indeed part of the pleasure of reading The Call comes from witnessing Guinness do that very thing. He is an adept synthesizer of history, of arts and culture, of the proclivities of the human heart. The book is philosophically sprawling, yet anecdotally flush. Guinness nimbly surveys the historical distortions of the theology of work—on the one end the Protestant tendency to elevate the secular over the spiritual, on the other the Catholic penchant to do the reverse—all the while finding exemplars of his ideas everywhere.
Among the luminaries he taps for support are Leo Tolstoy, Soren Kierkegaard, Leonardo da Vinci, Vaclav Havel, T.E. Lawrence, Salvadore Dali, Dorthory Sayers, John Keats, John Coltrane, George Foreman, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Winston Churchill, and Oswald Chambers. Of the Dutch prime minister and Protestant reformer Abraham Kuyper, in a chapter on how calling figures into public and political life, Guinness writes, “Kuyper’s Herculean portfolio of jobs was due not just to overwork and what his daughter called his ‘iron regiment’ but to his inspiring vision of the lordship of Christ over the whole of life” (155).
Occasionally The Call’s short chapters feel overstuffed with stories and quotations. Here and there Guinness’s contentions come off as speculative. (Can we really trace the decline of heroism and the shortcomings of capitalism back to misunderstandings about calling?). He is prone to hyperbole, reticent to quote Scripture, and for a book entitled The Call, Guinness has precious little to say about how to discern whether one should go into vocational ministry.
Some of the book’s more memorable sections are Guinness’s autobiographical asides. Nearly 200 pages in, he relays the story of how his down-and-out great-great grandmother in Dublin was dissuaded from leaping to her death from a bridge by the sight of a plowman working happily in a nearby field. It is a moving narrative, powerful, unforgettable. So unforgettable, in fact, that the editor in me wanted to cut and paste it onto the very first page.
Despite these shortfalls, The Call remains a stellar overview of how to think about calling here between Calvary and Christ’s return. It has held up for fifteen years as a motivational field guide to Christian discipleship in the workplace. There is no reason to think it will not remain a vital resource for years to come.
Drew Bratcher is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. He is a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
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