Review of The Call by Os Guinness

I first heard of Os Guinness when I saw him speak at Socrates in the City in 2012 about his book “A Free People’s Suicide”. In it, he spoke of the “Golden Triangle of Freedom” in speaking of the American founders’ vision of a free society. Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom. It was one of those truths that seemed fairly obvious on the surface, but as you started to think about how society has grown so far away from concepts like faith and virtue, you start to realize how radical his commentary is.

Os Guinness wrote “The Call” in 1998 and was immediately considered a classic; it’s recently been updated with several additional chapters and a thought-provoking study guide after each chapter to help you reflect on the chapters.

This book couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’m in the middle of a career transition, plus being a new parent, plus going through a mid-life crisis. So I’ve been asking the questions we all ask with increased urgency: “what’s the purpose of my life?”, “what was I put here on Earth to do?”, and “how can my life be meaningful?”

The Call doesn’t answer those questions for you–to paraphrase Billy Crystal in City Slickers, that’s an answer everyone need to come up with themselves. On the other hand, the book does provide valuable context in which you can ask those questions.

As a Christian apologist, Guinness doesn’t mince words in laying out what the word “Calling” means. Early in the book, Guinness lays out his definition of calling: “Calling is the truth that God call us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service”.

He goes on to discuss two common “distortions”. The first is one he calls the “Catholic distortion”, that your “Calling” can only be fulfilled by doing sacred or “holy work”. The second is one he calls the “Protestant distortion”, discussing how in our society today, words like “calling” and “vocation” (derived from the Greek word “voice” or “call”) have taken on generic and watered-down meanings–you refer to something you do well or something you enjoy doing. His argument is that whatever place God has put you, and whatever talents God has given you, that can be the basis of a highly meaningful calling.

Each chapter further unfolds the concept of “calling”. Do we fear God enough to hear and acknowledge the call? How can we distinguish the voice from other voices? How can we achieve the full potential we were created to be? How do we dedicate our lives to answering the call? Are we frustrated with a church that seems to have lost its heart? How do we live an examined life? Do you view and use your talents as something for yourself, or for something greater? Do you feel jealous of others with a similar calling? Does money cloud your understanding of calling? Do you long to rise above a mediocre and tedious life? Is your faith just something you see in private or is it salt and light to others?

I won’t lie–this book is dense and not the easiest of reads. Because of the range of topics it covers, it’s not exactly the kind of book you can pick up an read in one sitting. If you’ve ever heard Os Guinness talk in person, the language of the writing mirrors his speaking style–imagine a distinguished, upscale British voice pontificating on deep matters. It takes some getting used to, especially for those of us Americans that have been grown accustomed to taking information in 140-characters at a time.

But on the other hand, you will hardly find a better assemblage of insights, stories, and teachings relevant to the question of “What is my calling in life”. Funny thing is, as I read it there were no parts that really jumped out at me as “a-ha! That’s the secret”. It all seemed more or less like…common sense. But like Ezra reading the Torah after decades of exile, it all seemed refreshingly new too, as if all the misconceptions and deceptions that the world has used to obfuscate the original meaning of “Call” is methodically swept away.

Like I said, this book won’t answer your questions about what your call is. But if you can make it through it (and I’d suggest doing it one chapter at a time, perhaps spread a few days apart), you’ll have an excellent foundation and background to start really thinking about the question.