The contributors toÂ Faithful is Successful, Notes to a Driven PilgrimÂ 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,Â Andy WalshÂ kicked off the series withÂ In Response to â€œThe Difficulty Discerning Callingâ€. Please join the on-going conversation. . . .Â ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Editor.
Iâ€™m having an unexpected emotional reaction to the chapters Iâ€™ve read so far from the book project, Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. I emphasize emotional, because this isnâ€™t a rational response. I can convince myself rationally that I shouldnâ€™t feel this way. But I do, and Iâ€™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 Godâ€™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 Iâ€™m reading through the table of contents and initial chapters (I have read drafts of the first two chapters in full), Iâ€™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 â€œKingdom work.â€ He explains how his view of vocation changed as his position at a â€œsmall Midwestern Christian liberal arts collegeâ€ made worldly success â€œwildly elusive.â€ Dano Jukanovich, who wrote the second chapter, was likewise a (self-described) â€œyoung, goal-oriented, relatively successful, type-A male,â€ 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 â€œalleviate poverty, improve community, shape industry and inspire others.â€ Both are stories of Godâ€™s faithfulness as men who had made it in worldly terms re-evaluated their idea of vocation. These are the kind of men Iâ€™ve been raised to see as role models, and whose lives Iâ€™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.)Â These are exactly the kind of people that the American evangelical middle-class subcultureâ€”my subcultureâ€”designates as role models.Â 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 websiteÂ explains that â€œWe asked a group of ambitious, driven peopleâ€”professors, scientists, artists, investment bankers and moreâ€”to give us their storiesâ€¦.â€
Iâ€™m not trying to be cynical. Their stories are inspiring and challenging. But it stings a bitâ€”reinforcing an ideal that I now know Iâ€™ll never achieve.Â Iâ€™m McGrawâ€™s age, but donâ€™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 doesâ€”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 â€œsettling.â€ 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 doesnâ€™t end there. I, too, can tell of Godâ€™s faithfulness in my own unique circumstances.Â Like these authors, my understanding of my calling has changed over time. But while I can learn from McGraw and Jukanovich, their stories donâ€™t resonate with me. I havenâ€™t achieved the Christian ideal. Iâ€™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 donâ€™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 havenâ€™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 heâ€™s gay? Both McGraw and Jukanovich experienced worldly success early in their careers. What about the many students graduating this spring who donâ€™t have even worldly success to look forward to in their immediate future?Â (Thereâ€™s a marked difference, after all, between surrendering worldly success to follow Christ and not succeeding at all.)Â What about those who were forced to drop out of college for family, health, or financial reasons? Or the majority of the world, who doesnâ€™t go to college at all? What does vocation mean to them? What is success in Godâ€™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 â€œfollow Jesus in the real world?â€Â But is this the real world?
I recognize the hypocrisy in my response. Iâ€™m well-educated, solidly middle-class, and white. I donâ€™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.) Iâ€™m not male, but Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m having trouble putting into words. Itâ€™s not the content of the chapters I read that bothers meâ€”the stories are encouraging and their theological insights are sound.Â 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 â€œprofessors, scientists, artists, and investment bankersâ€ write about following God in the â€œreal world,â€ 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 donâ€™t have tenure-track positions or six-figure salaries to sacrifice for Kingdom work? Why arenâ€™t there more women contributors? Why is the â€œreal worldâ€ understood to be those who are doing exciting and fulfilling things with their lives? (Even the chapter on failureÂ 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? Thatâ€™s the real world for most of us.
While thereâ€™s nothing wrong with being a successful middle-class well-educated married Christian manâ€”if thatâ€™s what God has called you to beâ€”letâ€™s be wary of declaring this to be the â€œreal world.â€ Weâ€™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 meekâ€”not the ambitious, driven, influential or successfulâ€”will one day inherit the earth? (Matthew 5:5)