Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass
Eerdmans, 650 pages
What is my purpose in life? This question haunts not only college students but adults in middle age as they assess their life choices. Even those who are retired face this question, especially if they wrapped their life’s purpose around the work for which they got paid. Helping readers wrestle with questions related to purpose, identity and work is the goal of this massive collection of writings related to leading lives that matter. Editors Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass do not seek to offer answers but wise guides along the way, to help readers clarify their own thinking and convictions.
This anthology is organized around seven big questions:
- What “vocabularies” should we use to “think and talk about what makes a life meaningful and significant?”
- “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?”
- “How shall I tell the story of my life?”
Each big question includes a selection of voices offering their insights, whether through fiction, poetry, nonfiction, lecture or sacred text. Schwehn and Bass admit in their introduction that many of the voices in the anthology belong to the Christian tradition or to the “tradition of democracy.” The book has a Western bias, yet they also include a handful of Eastern religious writers as well as secular voices. I appreciated that authors of color were represented in each of the questions. Still, the editors admit that this project is incomplete. They hope “other authors will … add resources from other traditions to contemporary conversations about the questions explored in this book.”
The strength of this book is that it asks more questions than it answers. The selections sometimes disagree with one another. Each piece opens with a brief explanation as to why the editors chose it and how they hope readers will engage it. This sets up helpful context for each selection and makes this book not only a good college textbook but a wonderful resource for Christian adult education courses.
Some of the selections are more readable and accessible than others. Schwehn and Bass open with a prologue and close with an epilogue that lay a foundation upon which the rest of the book is built. The first selection in the anthology is by William James, and while it likely had good foundational insight, I found it difficult to read. Slogging through the first piece did not launch me into reading the rest of the book. I discovered that this is not a book to be read in order, but to be picked over, choosing what looks most interesting or relevant to the reader. Schwehn and Bass start a conversation about what makes life meaningful. The answers are up to the readers.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of congregational health at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church in Houston.