In class I often revisit the question of “how can I play my role fittingly?” in light of the biblical story. This is a nod to both N. T. Wright’s “five-act play” of the biblical story and Kevin Vanhoozer’s “drama of doctrine” approach to Scripture and the Christian life. Turns out it is also an important question we should be asking from a civics perspective. That’s what Yuval Levin is asserting, at least, in A Time to Build, which picks up the thread (and threat) of our failing institutions (and our perceptions of those institutions). From the New York Times excerpt:
All of us have roles to play in some institutions we care about, be they familial or communal, educational or professional, civic, political, cultural or economic. Rebuilding trust in those institutions will require the people within them — that is, each of us — to be more trustworthy. And that must mean in part letting the distinct integrities and purposes of these institutions shape us, rather than just using them as stages from which to be seen and heard.
As a practical matter, this can mean forcing ourselves, in little moments of decision, to ask the great unasked question of our time: “Given my role here, how should I behave?” That’s what people who take an institution they’re involved with seriously would ask. “As a president or a member of Congress, a teacher or a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor, a pastor or a member, a parent or a neighbor, what should I do here?”
The people you most respect these days probably seem to ask that kind of question before they make important judgments. And the people who drive you crazy, who you think are part of the problem, are likely those who clearly fail to ask it when they should.
I really like that last paragraph.
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As I write this, I’m 2/3 the way through A Time to Build. It’s a great read. Levin’s most basic premise is that institutions serve a formative role in society . . . or at least they should. In today’s culture, though, the formative has been replaced with the performative. He also puts it this way: institutions that should be acting as molds are now perceived primarily as platforms. And so a Congressman sees Congress as more of a place to “perform” a position instead of being shaped by Congress’s internal practices. It’s like a teacher who uses the classroom as a soapbox for ideology without seeing the classroom’s practices as shaping students.
I look forward to the final chunk of the book, where Levin turns from the institutions he sees as being most affected by this shift to finding some way towards institutional renewal.