Review: Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues
COMMON CALLINGS AND ORDINARY VIRTUES: Christian Ethics for Everyday Life.
By Brent Waters. Baker, 2022. Paper. 268 pages. $27.99.
Whether overtly stated or not, books typically stake out for themselves worthy aspirations and substantive goals intended to inspire, provoke, and equip readers to ascend into increased levels of insight, understanding, skillful activity, spiritual wholeness, or meaningful living—and sometimes all of these. It is somewhat disarming, then, when a book freely admits its goal to be the production of “people pursuing the good of being boring” (245). Wisely, however, the author does not forthrightly reveal this agenda until the final pages. That same wisdom yielded a careful suppression of boring or its cognates on either cover of the book. Still, Waters is unabashed about his goal to encourage the great good of being boring (which is not, he makes clear, the same as being bored or a bore (244)). As the author sees it, to be boring is simply to take seriously the importance of doing well the mundane and routine tasks of ordinary life, “cleaning, repairing, shopping, cooking, and on and on” (245). This universal and uninteresting work matters, Waters argues, because these activities are the habits that shape character and have much to do with determining the sort of people we become.
With such unremarkable material available for consideration, it seems that this might be a book destined to serve best as a drug-free remedy for insomnia. That Waters evades this fate is a testament not only to his skill as a writer, but also to the accuracy and importance of his thesis. Waters is right. The everyday stuff of life is what life is all about and the way that each of us goes about the tedious tasks of maintaining our corporeal lives (after all, “we are embodied creatures, and bodies demand a great deal of attention” (164)) has much to do with the kind of people that we are and become. Waters helps us see what we miss because it is all too familiar, but does not aim too high and suggest a fresh new love for the mundane or offer a way to supercharge or spice up the ordinary. The ordinary remains ordinary, and its significance for our lives is the fact that it does not sparkle or shine and yet matters enormously for human flourishing.
Overt and extended theological work is not prominent in the book yet underlies all that is argued. And when it does appear, it is faithful to Christian confession. Waters excels at integrating the regular stuff of life with the central tenets of our faith. With reverence and insight, he explores how eating, working, playing, cleaning, and communicating are all connected to the eternal truths of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Fulfiller of this world. Waters helps us see not only our everyday activities but also our everyday relationships as shaped and directed by the realities of God’s design for his creation. He offers especially keen insights into the distinctions between strangers, friends, and family, and pushes back against the alleged but counterfeit intimacy of our virtual world. A great strength of the text is that it touches carefully and rightly on an array of widely divergent ethical concerns including marriage, work, social stratification, poverty, technology, friendship, patriotism, and even manners, and interacts with a host of disparate authors from Hannah Arendt to Roger Scruton to Miss Manners to Gustaf Wingren and yet integrates them into a consistent and compelling whole. That he turns not primarily to personal experience but to an assortment of novels to illustrate his arguments enriches and validates the case he builds.
Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues deserves a wide reading if for no other reason than to help those of us who live in an age of hyperbole and what is purported to be extraordinary and unprecedented events to be simple people who follow Christ in the everyday and who excel at being boring in the best possible way.
Dr. Joel Biermann