The contributors to Faithful is Successful, Notes to a Driven Pilgrim are very much interested in feedback from and interaction with Emerging Scholars. That’s why they’re sharing their material with a volunteer ESN writer team to review and respond to via an ESN blog series. As you may remember, Andy Walsh kicked off the series with In Response to “The Difficulty Discerning Calling”. Please join the on-going conversation. . . . ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Editor.
I’m having an unexpected emotional reaction to the chapters I’ve read so far from the book project, Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. I emphasize emotional, because this isn’t a rational response. I can convince myself rationally that I shouldn’t feel this way. But I do, and I’m not completely sure why. When Tom Grosh asked me a while back to consider responding to draft chapters on the ESN blog, I thought it looked like a great idea. Vocation is something I believe in. Following God’s calling. Faithfulness. Supporting Christians in careers that lack a significant Christian presence. Dialog about all this on a site for Christian students and scholars sounded ideal.
But frankly, as I’m reading through the table of contents and initial chapters (I have read drafts of the first two chapters in full), I’m finding myself uncomfortable. The chapters are testimonies of successful men stepping out in faith, letting go of their own plans and allowing God to direct their steps. Bryan McGraw describes giving up youthful dreams of adventure to follow God into academia, and then leaving a tenure-track position to prioritize family and “Kingdom work.” He explains how his view of vocation changed as his position at a “small Midwestern Christian liberal arts college” made worldly success “wildly elusive.” Dano Jukanovich, who wrote the second chapter, was likewise a (self-described) “young, goal-oriented, relatively successful, type-A male,” a recipient of the Harvey Fellowship awarded to Christian graduate students at premier institutions in hopes that they make a difference in their field. He gave up a lucrative position in corporate finance to open a consulting firm in Rwanda aiming to “alleviate poverty, improve community, shape industry and inspire others.” Both are stories of God’s faithfulness as men who had made it in worldly terms re-evaluated their idea of vocation. These are the kind of men I’ve been raised to see as role models, and whose lives I’ve sought to emulate.
But that may be the problem. (Bear with me as I try to think through this. I may still change my mind.) These are exactly the kind of people that the American evangelical middle-class subculture—my subculture—designates as role models. This is what I wanted to be when I grew up. They are successful, well-educated, middle-class white men, married with children, respected in their careers. They made it! And beyond that, they trusted God enough to give up excellent positions to follow His calling on their lives. Appropriately, God has blessed them in new ways. They were chosen to contribute to this book for that very reason: the book project website explains that “We asked a group of ambitious, driven people—professors, scientists, artists, investment bankers and more—to give us their stories….”
I’m not trying to be cynical. Their stories are inspiring and challenging. But it stings a bit—reinforcing an ideal that I now know I’ll never achieve. I’m McGraw’s age, but don’t have tenure, much less at the Harvard of American evangelicalism, Wheaton College. (I cringed hearing him describe a career at Wheaton as limiting his influence, given the number of Christian leaders Wheaton shapes.) My childhood dream was to do what Jukanovich does—to work overseas toward social justice and the eradication of poverty, even adopting children internationally, as he has. But despite my best efforts, those doors never opened to me. While I love my current position now, I mourned a lost dream when I accepted the job offer, feeling like a failure for “settling.” Worldly success was never my primary goal; I wanted to be out there serving the poor, working for justice, and training a new generation of Christian leaders, like those presented to me as examples of a faithful Christian life.
My story doesn’t end there. I, too, can tell of God’s faithfulness in my own unique circumstances. Like these authors, my understanding of my calling has changed over time. But while I can learn from McGraw and Jukanovich, their stories don’t resonate with me. I haven’t achieved the Christian ideal. I’m not a married white man with a family and a career. (The list of contributors to the book gives only last names, so I don’t know how many women are involved.) And if I feel this way even though I have achieved a modicum of success, what about those who haven’t made it as far as I have? What about my colleague in the humanities who has been an adjunct professor for over a decade, while his wife pays the bills? What about my former student, a committed Christian turned down for ministry positions because he’s gay? Both McGraw and Jukanovich experienced worldly success early in their careers. What about the many students graduating this spring who don’t have even worldly success to look forward to in their immediate future? (There’s a marked difference, after all, between surrendering worldly success to follow Christ and not succeeding at all.) What about those who were forced to drop out of college for family, health, or financial reasons? Or the majority of the world, who doesn’t go to college at all? What does vocation mean to them? What is success in God’s eyes? Does it normally mean a book published by Cambridge University Press (as McGraw has), or an influential ministry overseas (like Jukanovich)? According to the book project website, the question asked of each contributor was how they “follow Jesus in the real world?” But is this the real world?
I recognize the hypocrisy in my response. I’m well-educated, solidly middle-class, and white. I don’t speak for the majority of the population. (For an interesting look at the social and cultural bubble that I and, presumably, the majority of contributors to this book inhabit, take this quiz.) I’m not male, but I’m certainly not faulting the contributors to this book for their gender. Nor am I faulting them for their ambition or success.
So why am I uncomfortable with a book written by those who have achieved what I have so long striven toward? Am I jealous? Perhaps a bit. Is it my own low self-esteem? As I said, this is an odd emotional response that I’m having trouble putting into words. It’s not the content of the chapters I read that bothers me—the stories are encouraging and their theological insights are sound. But the underlying message still feels wrong, the affirmation of a Christian ideal that most of us will never achieve. What message does it convey that “professors, scientists, artists, and investment bankers” write about following God in the “real world,” while kindergarten teachers, accountants, nurses, office managers, journalists, and stay-at-home parents are left out (not to mention the careers open to those without a college education)? What about those who don’t have tenure-track positions or six-figure salaries to sacrifice for Kingdom work? Why aren’t there more women contributors? Why is the “real world” understood to be those who are doing exciting and fulfilling things with their lives? (Even the chapter on failure is written by an M.D.!) What about the unemployed, people with disabilities, those who struggle with their sexuality, those who struggle with their faith? That’s the real world for most of us.
While there’s nothing wrong with being a successful middle-class well-educated married Christian man—if that’s what God has called you to be—let’s be wary of declaring this to be the “real world.” We’re doing them a disservice if we convey to our students (or our children) that we expect this of them. Or even worse, that God does. What did Christ mean when He said that the meek—not the ambitious, driven, influential or successful—will one day inherit the earth? (Matthew 5:5)