Leading Lives that Matter (Mark Schwehn & Dorothy Bass, Editors) - A Review

LEADING LIVES THAT MATTER: What We Should Do and Who Should We Be. Second Edition. Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020. Xvii + 632 pages.

How might we lead lives that matter? What should we do and what should we be? These are the questions the editors of the second edition of Leading Lives that Matter want us to wrestle with. In an age when the focus of higher education is on vocational preparation, questions are being raised about the role of education in forming the person as a whole. A liberal arts education is designed to further that goal, but it seems to many of us that this kind of education is being sidelined. The question is, are we paying for this in unforeseen ways? Believing that life is more than a job, the editors of this rather large volume, offer it as a storehouse of readings that can help the reader ponder what it means to live a life that matters. These are readings that will assist young and old alike ponder how to a make difference in the world. They don’t disregard the value of work or the need to prepare for a vocation, but they invite the reader to set that goal in a larger context. The editors write that “because jobs are such a focus of concern for people in our culture, the anthology often considers other vitally important parts of lives that matter—love and friendship, family and community, leisure and play, study and worship—primarily in connection to paid employment” (p. 2).  In other words, they are raising the important question of whether our jobs define us as a person.

The first edition of LeadingLives that Matter was published in the mid-200s. In the revision, the editors have expanded the book itself, adding new sources, which contributes to a greater diversity of voices. At the same time, they’ve trimmed other pieces to make room for the additions, both in text and questions explored. Thus, we have before us in this book a valuable resource for students, educators, and might I say, preachers.

The book is edited by Mark Schwehn, a senior research professor at Christ College of Valparaiso University. Dorothy Bass is the director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith, which is funded by the Lilly Endowment.

This anthology is designed to be used in college/university settings, though as noted above, I can foresee its use by preachers and teachers. It provides a set of resources for anyone seeking wisdom from the ages that deal with life in all its complexity. They note that more than half the texts are new to this edition, which runs over 600 pages. While the book is enlarged, the structure remains largely the same as before. There are three sections to the book. Part One is titled the "Prologue and includes readings from William James and Vincent Harding. It is recommended that the introduction and readings from this section be read as a starting point because they deal with the significance of life and what it means to feel a sense of call. James is a famed philosopher and psychologist. His essay is titled “What Makes Life Significant?” The second essay is written by Vincent Harding, who speaks of a calling, both in terms of ministry and life in general. He concludes his essay with the words “Callings are strange things.” I think I have heard many voices in many times and places, but it may be that I have heard only One” (p. 39). 

The opening section or prologue is followed by Part Two titled: "Vocabularies." Through sets of readings under the terms authenticity, virtue, exemplarity, and vocation, we hear from a diverse set of writers who define and explore these terms in ways particular to their own perspectives and concerns. The contributors range from modern philosophers such as Charles Taylor, who writes on the “ethics of authenticity” to Aristotle who speaks to the question of virtue in an excerpt from his Nicomachean Ethics. There are essays on exemplarity by Dorothy Day and vocation by Chuang Tzu, who writes about “Mastering Life.” Most of the contributions come from writers who are western and Christian, but there are readings from eastern traditions as well, such as that by Chuang Tzu and ones by Mencius and Hsun Tzu. I sense that the section on authenticity will be of great value as much is made of that term in our day. 

The lengthiest section of the book is part Three simply titled Questions. The editors focus our attention on six questions: Must my job be the primary source of my identity? To whom and to what should I listen as I decide what to do for a living? With whom and for whom shall I live? Is a balanced life possible and preferable to a life focused primarily on work? What are my obligations to future human and other life? Finally, they ask the question how shall I tell the story of my life? The two new questions focus on “with whom and for whom shall I live? and the second is “what are my obligations to future human and other life? One of the responses to the third question “to whom and for whom shall I live? comes from Martin Luther King’s final book Where Do We Go from Here?  In answer to the question King writes: “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace” (p. 388). These are prescient words, fitting for his day and ours. As for whether a balanced life is possible, Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes about the Sabbath that it is a “day for the sake of life” (p. 436). He writes that the seventh day is “the armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man . . . . “ (p. 440). These are but a few of the contributions.  

The epilogue features Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych." The editors suggest that this might be the most important reading in the book because it "raises in a vivid and complete way all the questions that the anthology addresses." As a result, they suggest it can do two things. First, it offers an opportunity to apply the questions of the readings. Secondly, it offers rich wisdom about the meaning of life. The editors note that this was the first piece of fiction that Tolstoy wrote after his conversion to what they call a “rather idiosyncratic form of Christianity.” They note that critics have argued that the power of the novella derives “in part from tensions within the story between Tolstoy’s Christian and non-Christian self” (p. 568).  

This isn't the sort of book one sits down and reads cover to cover. It is an anthology that is meant to be explored and pondered and even savored. It invites us to ask important questions that are too often neglected. What does it mean to live a life that matters? There is more than one answer, as the readings in this anthology make abundantly clear. While vocation is important it is not the only thing. So how might we not only make a living but live in truly fruitful ways? Take and read Leading Lives that Matter and ponder these questions!


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