Review of Caleb D. Spencer’s “Working Knowledge: Faith, Vocation, and the Evidence of Things Unseen,” in Faithful is Successful.
The man standing at the podium swipes his hair back and continues with his presentation. He has a new theory, challenging one that has staved off competing explanations for decades. He drops numerous names and somehow in the mix mentions the deficiencies of his father. I begin to suspect that this proud, brilliant, and yet surprisingly insecure scholar is no longer filling just a lacunae in the field but a hole in his heart.
The image of that speaker came to mind as I read the ending of Caleb D. Spencer’s essay on Christian literary criticism. Spencer asks if literary critics with the resources of the Church and the Holy Spirit bring special knowledge to their work. He reviews four models of Christian approaches to literary scholarship but ultimately points out that non-Christians might have access to the same resources, including–when they’re not even looking for it—revelation. He provides scriptural examples of individuals not yet considered regenerate receiving revelations: “Abram, Saul of Tarsus, and the Magi” (likely the most contentious point of his essay).
If reading this, your heart plummets that your approach to your vocation is not uniquely Christian after all, he encourages you that you can “understand that when the Spirit does his revelatory work, it is a peculiar moment of grace for which we should give thanks.”
However, he goes on to say that from those kinds of experiences “we shouldn’t theorize an account of our collective responsibility as Christians.”
Both my graduate degrees, linguistics and English, were practically focused, but I was still surprised by the friends who clung to a specific academic theory with a religious fervor. Spencer’s essay leaves me wondering if we don’t, as is a favorite word of theorists I read, reify even our theories for our approach to vocation as Christians, making them the pillars we hold onto instead of the Rock they are set upon.
Because the topic of my dissertation was Christian in content, I was required to analyze myself and my personal journals for a lengthy self-critique as a Christian and I was questioned that since, in a reader’s estimation, conservative Christians’ voices were already prevailing in the U.S., why should there be another text out there allowing more such voices. Perhaps if I had (privately) claimed that my approach to my scholarship was unique because I was a Christian, I would have felt much more secure in myself.
But what hole in my heart would I have been attempting to fill? Instead, as Spencer does so well, I can do the work of studying Christian vocational approaches and their presuppositions, as well as those of major disciplinary theories. But, also like him, day-to-day my faithfulness is my dependency on God illustrated by the thanks I give as I do my work.
Prayer for the Right Use of God’s Gifts (from The Book of Common Prayer, 1979)
Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we
possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our
substance, and, remembering the account which we must one
day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- Consider moments in your life in which you felt or wondered if the Holy Spirit had given you special knowledge and thank God for them.
- What could you do to foster a spirit of thankfulness to God throughout your work day?
- Ask God if your skills and experience are the center of your confidence in your vocation rather than God Himself and pray to hold them lightly and see them as His gifts.
Spencer, Caleb D. “Working Knowledge: Faith, Vocation, and the Evidence of Things Unseen.” Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and S. Joshua Swamidass, eds. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2014. 178-197.
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