The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior During the University Years

This article originally appeared in the February 1997 issue of Ministry Exchange. After discussing the book with students at OCBP 2000, Byron felt the time was right to remind us of this important work, which gives us a long-range vision of what it means to be "transforming college students to transform the world." Byron will be back with a new article next month. --Ed.

In the middle of the remarkable new book The Fabric of Faithfulness, Steve Garber tells the story of a meeting with one of his students, a student who "asked wonderful questions about important ideas." As one experienced in discipling college students, Garber saw that the student seemed not to take his intellectual search all that seriously. Our author found himself doubting that the fellow "really understood the difference of truth and the difference it makes." In a move which seems uncharacteristic for the gentle teacher, Garber issued an ultimatum: he would talk no further with this student until he watched all of the films of Woody Allen, from Annie Hall on. It should be a clue as to who might enjoy this book, as well as who ought to.

Laden with quotes from popular cartoons, film and rock music, The Fabric of Faithfulness is a book which takes young people--specifically people in their university years (what developmentalist Sharon Parks calls "the critical years") and their culture seriously. In fact, it is a book which takes everything seriously, including the quest for meaning in Woody Allen movies. (Indeed, at least one critical reader has suggested that this is a hindrance of the book: it perhaps takes itself too seriously.)

At times lyrical, nearly always eloquent, occasionally written with such wisdom it can only be called profound, The Fabric of Faithfulness is a passionate plea for those who work in higher education to help young people develop a coherent and meaningful worldview which issues forth in a life-long commitment to relevant, radical discipleship. In the face of the obstacles that latter-day modernity and the dawning postmodern milieu place before us, which Garber helpfully explores to considerable benefit, his desire to help students weave together beliefs and behavior is no small thing. That he apparently has motivated some of his young friends and students to struggle towards a thoughtful, evangelical faith which is able to stand, even amidst broken lives and perverse culture, earns him the right to tell his story.

As the author points out in the opening pages, however, the story of this book is significantly intertwined with the stories--successes and failures, brave attempts and false starts, foibles and faithfulness--of the scores of people he interviewed for the book. It is their animating presence throughout The Fabric of Faithfulness that gives it such a real-life feel and keeps the philosophical reflections (with visits from Richard Bernstein, Alastair MacIntyre, George Steiner and Lesslie Newbigin) from becoming ivory-tower speculation. Its ultimate practical application is seen in rave advance reviews from the likes of InterVarsity Press's resident intellectual guru James Sire (who called it "the best book on moral education I've ever encountered") and Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University's resident alien, who wrote, "If there is any book I would want to give to a son or daughter going off to college, it would be this one."

If the playful yet deadly serious question "Why do I get up in the morning?" is asked by Professor Garber to his college students, he asked similarly pregnant queries of the 40- and-50-somethings he interviewed for Fabric. His guiding passion was to determine what happened to folks who got serious about their faith in their college years that enabled them to endure and thrive in their desire for a life-long commitment to godly service in their careers, loves and lifestyles. Were there discernible traits of those whose faith journey led them through the "valley of the diapers" and across the threshold into the beginnings of middle age with their Kingdom cares and commitments intact? Were there certain scenarios of discipleship that provided the context for such idealistic faith to endure and mature? How and what sorts of habits of heart (as Garber often puts it) were formed which served to develop character in the lives of those interviewed? Quite specifically,

Each person responded to a series of questions that asked them to reflect on their "cares and commitments" at this point in their lives, and what had happened during their university experience that gave "shape and substance" to them. In a variety of ways, this question was asked again and again: What is the relation between how you are living today--particularly your sense of what is most important, what you most care about--and the tapestry of influences on you during your university years? (p. 35)

Over and again, Garber discovered three traits which emerged from the interviews. And in teacherly fashion, he reminds us of them in numerous ways throughout the book:

As the stories were told, during the critical years between adolescence and adulthood they [those that thrived and continued to live out their vision of a coherent life] were people who (1) formed a worldview that could account for truth amidst the challenge of relativism in a culture increasingly marked by secularization and pluralization; (2) found a mentor whose life "pictured" the possibility of living with and in that worldview; and (3) forged friendships with folk whose common life offered a context for those convictions to be embodied. (p. 160)

A faith understood as comprehensive and true, a mentor and a community. If these are the essentials for building a story of healthy fidelity over the long haul of one's life, how might ministry plans, Christian ed programs and discipleship strategies nurture such traits? Garber is only suggestive (since this is not the book's focus). But if his own ministry style is any indication, the typical youth pastor, campus minister or college teacher could learn volumes: read good books with students, eat lots of meals together, view films and discuss novels, analyze the lyrics of pop songs and struggle to understand the cultural visions being promoted through pop culture, listen to the pains and fears of post-adolescents, talk, write letters, speak honestly, encourage deep friendships, help folks make connections, model a concern for current events, always and everywhere ask questions of "knowing and doing" and how to live a whole, integrated life. (If this sounds like the rigorous whole-life approach modeled by Francis and Edith Schaeffer and others in the L'Abri movement, it should come as no surprise. Garber himself dropped out of college in the early '70s and made his way to the Swiss study center for a season.)

Life-long learning and commitments to long-haul discipleship best happens, then, in community with other like-minded folk reflecting together on real life, and Garber's stories offer adequate proof that there are plenty of spirituality-hungry young adults seeking lives of moral consistency and integrity. True to the "Generation X" research, they long for genuine and deep relationships and one wonders, at times, if these profoundly struggling young adults are being patronized or trivialized in many church and parachurch ministries. Even at our finest Christian colleges, some observers wonder if students are truly challenged to unite life and learning, telos and praxis; in a phrase, have we created authentic communities of Christian learning or just religious shadows of secular institutions of higher education? Those who lay awake worrying about such things--and some, I'm sure, do, including some of those who appear in this book--would do well to reflect on Garber's work, digging through the footnotes and citations, as soon as possible.

Despite the media blitz about the cynicism of Gen X, Garber and his colleagues from organizations with which he works, such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Pittsburgh's Coalition for Christian Outreach, and the American Studies Program of the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities, can offer vibrant testimony that there are those who want more than a cheap faith or a cheap thrill. There are those who want to deeply connect what they believe about the world and how they live in that world. There are young men and women who are thoughtful about their culture and long to make a difference in their callings, vocations, life and times. Throughout this book, Garber seems to imply that working with this strategic group is extremely important (these are, after all, in many ways, tomorrow's leaders and cultural gatekeepers) and uniquely rewarding. The stories which are told here certainly lead readers to agree.


If the invitation to engage in this sort of thoughtful mentoring of those in the "critical years" doesn't make many potential readers (who may not have any connection to campus ministry) rush out and buy The Fabric of Faithfulness, traditional church leaders ought to know this, too: this book is an exceptionally useful guide to some of the most important moral philosophers and social critics writing today. As such, it can serve as a helpful introductory crash course, a way to get a taste of authors you've heard of but with whom you may not be adequately familiar.

In a fairly brief and quite readable way, Garber interprets for us three primary "lenses" through which contemporary cultural critics tend to view the influence of the world on people's worldviews and lives. With biblically-based insight, happily, Garber looks at and through all three lenses, showing the compelling insight of each perspective. He explains, firstly, the "history of ideas" approach which emphasizes how intellectual presuppositions guide our worldview formation. (As a representative of this approach, think, for instance, of Francis Schaeffer, or, as Garber suggests, the work of Thomas Oden.) In this view, what people believe is influenced most by the philosophies of the books they've read, the movies they've seen, the doctrine or ideologies they've been taught. As the old saying goes, "ideas have legs."

Inevitably, however, this gives way to a deeper question, the matter of the "ethic of character" and the complexities of the dichotomy between personal and public lives. Think here of Stanley Hauerwas, whose work such as Vision and Virtue and The Community of Character have influenced significantly the discussion about moral development and character formation. Simplistically put (and Garber does him much better), this approach asks not so much what we claim to believe but who we are. This is profound stuff and his discussion here on the difference between idealistic optimism and becoming people of hope are pages which are alone worth the price of the book.

Thirdly, Garber walks us through the role of the "sociology of knowledge" approach, that is, the thesis that "What I believe is deeply affected by my social experience: my family, community city, society and century" (p. 34). Peter Berger's book The Social Construction of Reality is a standard here--or consider his writings about the impact of "privatization" on the possibility of developing meaning-systems. Somewhat similarly, consider, too, the influential work of evangelical scholar Os Guinness and how he reminds us of the pressures of modernity on the Christian mind. There is no doubt that we all, as Garber phrases it, "bear the bruises of modern consciousness." In a stroke of understated genius--almost too good to be true--Garber suggests a linkage of these three ways of understanding (and their respective emphases upon the role of convictions, character and culture) with the three traits uncovered in his interviews: worldview, mentor, community. A sense of truth undergirding a worldview seems to be a trait best understood by the history of ideas perspective. The role of the mentor is helpfully highlighted by Garber's ruminations on the ethic of character and the role of culture is mediated and nuanced by the role of one's own subculture or supportive community. Three different lenses help us see the three traits which enable young disciples to thrive and endure.

The Fabric of Faithfulness is a splendid resource even if one doesn't work with young adults or new Christians. It is well worth reading for the sheer joy of walking through a near barrage of contemporary Christian authors (from the prophetic social critique of Jacques Ellul to the Christian educational theory of Craig Dykstra), wise novelists and writers (from Dostoevsky to Milan Kundera and Walker Percy) and classic theologians (Augustine, Lewis). But the sources are wider still; one is often surprised with an excerpt from a Mike Royko column or a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon...


Early on in The Fabric of Faithfulness, Garber shares a letter from one of his anguished young friends who has become disillusioned with the painful difficulties of remaining Christianly steadfast and redemptively active in current affairs while pursuing her new career and lifestyle. Her last line to him was, "Your secrets for dealing with the brokenness are coveted by one who has been blind-sided by the reality of the world." Interestingly, though, it seems that one of the convictions most dearly held by those enduring 40-somethings Garber interviewed was a sense that their faith and Christian obedience was, in fact, in keeping with the reality of the world. Firmly rooted in a biblical doctrine of creation (as well as fall and redemption), mentored by leaders who embodied a principled and realistic Christian lifestyle and surrounded by a community of caring fellow-travelers, they were convinced--contrary to the fact/value dichotomy of modernism or the radical relativism of postmodernism--that Jesus Christ is Lord, Lord of politics, of history, the economy, careers, romance, culture...this is the fundamental reality. It is this awareness (along with the community of fellow-believers) which creates "plausibility structure."

It is my prayer that this excellent book, rooted in Garber's own diligent and creative work with students and careful listening to former students, will inspire many of us to find for ourselves such a plausibility structure, the sense that we together can live out the implications of an integrated Christian life. Perhaps reflecting on this book and its stories will help us not be "blind-sided by reality" when the going gets tough but, like Sophie Scholl and the other anti-Nazi students with which Fabric ends, "face the consequences of their convictions, addressing not only the indifference of the university but of Germany itself." These youngsters stood up and paid up, sadly, with their very lives. That is the sort of faithful Christian this book hopes to help produce. May we in the established churches be worthy to receive the gifts, insights, courage and questions of such young disciples. And may we hear them as they call us who may already be beyond the "university years" to weave together our own belief and behavior.