Category: Bible and Theology

Today at Mere Comments I highlight what I’m calling the “Neo-Anabaptist temptation.”

Check it out.

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
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Whittaker Chambers began Witness, the classic account of his time in the American Communist underground, with the declaration: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” The line was most of all a deep recognition of the power of God to redeem what was once dead. Witness was a landmark account of the evils of Communism but most importantly a description of the bankruptcy of freedom outside of the sacred. “For Chambers, God was always the prime mover in the war between Communism and freedom. If God exists then Communism cannot,” says Richard Reinsch II. And it is Reinsch who reintroduces us to Chambers, the brilliant intellectual, anti-communist, and man of faith in Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.

After his exodus from the Soviet Communist spy network in Washington, Chambers then outed U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss as a communist, setting up a dramatic espionage trial played out before the nation. Chambers became a household name thanks to a trial that was wrapped in intrigue, treachery, and Cold War drama. Chambers would become a hero for many in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. called him the greatest figure who defected out of communism. But Chambers’ pessimism about the future of the West led him to be dismissed by many others, conservatives too.

This pessimist view of the survival of the West against Marxism stems from Chambers’ understanding that the West was abandoning its sacred heritage of Christian thought, and within it, the proper understanding of man. A supposedly free but rampant secular and materialistic society still leads to the same ending as Marxism, outside of God, and unable to explain its reason and purpose for life.

One of the chief takeaways from this book is that there must be more to conservatism than free-markets and limited government. For liberty to be prosperous it must be oriented toward greater truths. Reinsch points out that Chambers understood that the “West must reject Communism in the name of something other than modern liberalism and its foundation in the principles of Enlightenment rationalism.”

Reinsch delves into Chambers prediction of the eventual collapse of the West and his belief that there was a lack of moral fortitude to combat the communist surge. The apparent unwillingness of the free world to sacrifice and suffer for freedom troubled Chambers. He also surmised that the intellectual class possessed a waning ability to articulate a meaningful defense of the ideas and value of the free society.

The United States did indeed emerge as the leader of the free world after the Second World War, rebuilding its former enemies with the Marshall Plan and other programs. Early on, the United States and Western Europe showed a stoic and moral resistance throughout the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. Future presidential administrations would pledge support for free people who toiled anywhere across the globe. President Ronald Reagan emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century, unveiling his own crusade against communism, making many of the deeper spiritual contrasts with the Soviet system first articulated by Chambers.

Reinsch also notes that while Chambers perhaps underestimated some of the spiritual will and capital to resist and overcome the Marxist onslaught, most of Chambers’s identification of the sickness of the West remained true. Reinsch declares of an America in the 1960s and 1970s:

Racked by mindless violence, strikes, rampant inflation, economic torpidity, and the rapid unfolding of sexual liberation, liberal democracy seemed to display, in acute form, the crisis of a material progress that had been severed from faith and freedom. Thus, the spirit of Chambers’s brooding over the fate of the West retained relevance.

This is evidenced in part by the immense suffering of Hanoi Hilton POWs like Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who in his captivity memoir When Hell Was in Session, described the disconnect of a man who sacrificed so much for freedom and who came out of the dark night with a deep sense of spiritual renewal only to come home to unearth an increasingly secular nation that was also retreating in its ability to defend and define its greatness.

Reinsch even points to further evidence that Chambers was right about the dangerous trajectory of the West when he cites the victory of the Cold War and how that surge of freedom did not posit any great change or realization of a higher transcendent understanding and purpose. While the superiority of markets was temporarily buoyed by the events, socialism has shown a staying power in the West.

Reisnch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.

Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is at its core within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.

Believers can see this clearly when they look at the vanity of a society that prods, primps, and chases after meaning outside of God. Thus, as Reinsch adds, Chambers so wholly understood that “man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.” And that problem exists under communism just as it does in democratic capitalism, with its temptations to consumerism and selfishness.

The Marxist Utopian dream was man’s attempt at trying to fulfill its incompleteness with all the wonders and technology of modernity and materialism. The free world still is unable to relocate itself in the proper order. And, as Reinsch declares, this is a great warning to us all. Chambers so thoroughly understood and knew that “man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.”

Carl Trueman has a lengthy reflection and asks some pertinent and pressing questions on the nature of work and human intellectual development.

Recalling his job at a factory as a young man in the 1980s, Trueman writes concerning those who were still at their positions on the line when he had moved on:

Their work possessed no intrinsic dignity: it was unskilled, repetitive, poorly paid, and provided no sense of achievement. Yes, it gave them a wage; but not a wage that provided for anything more then the bare necessities of life plus a few packs of cigarettes and some cheap booze on a Friday or Saturday night. And it raised questions in my mind to which, more than twenty years on, I have still not found answers.

First, how does the church enable those in such jobs to find God-given satisfaction? It is oh-so-easy for those of us who have jobs which we enjoy doing to talk about `the dignity of labour’ when the labour we have has, in a sense, its own intrinsic dignity. But what of the labour that does not have such dignity in and of itself? Which is monotonous, unskilled, boring, poorly paid, and which slowly but surely bleeds any last vestige of creativity and spontaneity out from the veins? The obvious answer is, of course, to find such dignity in extrinsic factors, supremely in doing everything to the glory of God. But, let’s face it, it is a whole lot easier to do an enjoyable job to the glory of God than to sweep the factory floor day after day to the same.

Read the whole thing. There are more pressing observations and questions throughout.

But to at least point to the beginning of an answer, I’d refer to what Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write regarding work as the basic form of stewardship:

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

I think this insight is accurate regardless of the nature of the work itself, whether our job is inherently repetitive and mundane, or exhilarating and stimulating. If you want a look at how workers have infused their seemingly undignified work with dignity, check out the episode of Undercover Boss that focuses on Waste Management.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
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The conversations over the last few weeks here on work have raised a couple of questions.

In the context of criticisms on the perspectives on work articulated by Lester DeKoster and defended by me, commenter John E. asks, “…what is it that you hope readers will change in their lives, and why?”

I want to change people’s view of their work. I want them to see how it has value not simply as a means to some other end, but in itself. I want to change how they view their relationship to their work.

To echo DeKoster and Berghoef again, many of us simply view work as “a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial.” It may well be that. There is work that is better and work that is worse (to anticipate one of Schumacher’s points below). But we should also know that “the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more your will to persevere schools the soul.”

I want to add a bit of mystery back to the concept of work as well as a bit of spirituality. Again, DeKoster and Berghoef:

The results of one’s work can never be fully known. What will become of the produce raised, of the machine built, of the person fed? No one can foretell what will be the final consequence of today’s effort. Nor does the pay check really measure the value, nor the effort, of the work for which it is given. Wages are set by the market, and the results of work are hidden in the mists of tomorrow. What endures is what happens to the worker who bravely makes it through the day.

An aspect of this perspective, I think, is similar to that articulated by E.F. Schumacher in the essay, “Buddhist Economics” (HT: The Western Confucian).

Grace Marie Boggs notes the importance of the essay, in which Schumacher writes,

The modern economist has been brought up to consider ‘labour’ or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility'; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice.

By contrast, the view of work in Buddhist economics is that it gives man “a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”

On this point, at least, there is some correspondence between the Christian and the Buddhist view of work as school for the soul. Joshua Snyder relates how Schumacher said of the essay, “I might have called it ‘Christian Economics’ but then no one would have read it.” The views of DeKoster and Berghoef on the one hand and Schumacher on the other are not identical. But what they share is, in Schumacher’s language, a criticism of “a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”

In a related vein, David Michael Phelps wonders whether the perspective he articulates between work and art “is something that Reformed theology could/would/does support).”

The answers are affirmative, I believe: Yes, yes, and yes. Beyond the perspective on the schooling of the soul as written by DeKoster and Berghoef, the seventeenth-century theologian and pastor Richard Baxter has valuable things to say about the relationship between work and temporal goods and spiritual and eternal goods. But these are just a small sampling of the rich Reformed resources that can and ought to be brought to bear on these topics.

Phelps will be discussing “Art, Patronage, and Cultural Investment,” at tonight’s Acton on Tap, and he moderated our RFA podcasts on “The Stewardship of Art” (you can listen to part 1 and part 2 respectively).

You can also preorder Lester DeKoster’s little book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective today at the Acton BookShoppe.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
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There have been some engaging challenges to the view presented of work and its relationship to culture and civilization over the past few weeks (here, here, and here). I hope to post a more substantive response to some of the comments in the next few days. But in the meantime, let me pass along a helpful item that outlines the view of Pope John Paul II on the relationship between “culture” and “cultivation.”

Here’s a taste of the post, “Leisure and Art: A Start,” from David Michael Phelps:

It is also worth noting how closely JPII’s descriptions of the artist parallels his description of workers/entrepreneurs/etc. in other writings. [NOTE: here and here in particular] They follow from the same understanding that man transforms the world (and in doing so, himself) as he gets his hands dirty with the stuff of the world, enacts his creative will upon it, whether it be for a utilitarian end (work) or some gratuitous end (art).

Gratuitous work does not require leisure. In point of fact, as I think every artist worth his salt would agree, making art is rather laborious. Leisure doesn’t enter the picture until one lights a pipe, pours a beer, and sits back to admire the work.

As an aside, David Michael Phelps is the moderator of the latest installment of the RFA podcast, “The Stewardship of Art.” He’ll also be hosting the next Acton on Tap event the night before ArtPrize opens here in Grand Rapids, “Art, Patronage, and Cultural Investment.” You can check out details at the event’s Facebook page.

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, September 10, 2010
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From On Living Simply, Sermon XLIII. (HT: American Orthodox Institute Observer, et al.):

Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.

Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth.

Lest anyone think I post this to cast St. John Chrysostom as some sort of proto-free marketer, that is not the point. He was equally severe with those who had accumulated wealth. Their responsibilities to the poor and to the neighbor were non-negotiable. But those responsibilities were to be exercised freely, in accord with our nature, and without compulsion.

If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom (be glory, honor, and might,) to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen (On Wealth and Poverty).

More on St. John Chrysostom.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
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There has been some good discussion over the past week and Labor Day holiday about the nature of work and its role in our lives (particularly here).

The first thing I’d like to point out about Lester DeKoster’s claims regarding work is that he has in mind, at least partially, the classical Greek philosophical distinction between the active and contemplative life, particularly its disdain of manual labor. You can get a hint of this from the video short, “How did Plato and Aristotle Justify Slavery?” Some people are simply born to work with their hands and be governed by those who are wiser and able to think, take responsibility for society, and so on.

It’s with this distinction in mind that DeKoster and Berghoef write,

The forms of work are countless, but the typical one is work with the hands. The Bible has reference to the sower, to the making of tents and of things out of clay, to tilling the fields and tending the vine. Hand work makes visible the plan in the mind, just as the deed makes visible the love in the heart. While the classic Greek mind tended to scorn work with the hands, the Bible suggests that something about it structures the soul.

WorkIn his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, as some comments have noted, DeKoster explicitly takes on Pieper’s thesis that leisure is the basis of culture. DeKoster writes,

The writer who speaks of Leisure, the Basis of Culture (Josef Pieper) is confused, even though he can quote some ancient Greek thinkers in his support. Work is the basis of culture. Leisure cultivated as a way of life produces no harvests but only dilettantes—drones that absorb culture without sacrificing for it, merely thieves of others’ sweat.

The disdain of manual labor, literal manufacturing, and the celebration of leisure, contemplation, rest, are in this way correlated.

We get a sense of why this is so in DeKoster’s distinction between work and play. He defines work as that which we do for others, but play as “that which is done to please or serve the self.” Thus he observes,

Play may absorb much effort, long planning, and lots of time. But so long as the end in view is the satisfaction of the self, such effort cannot be called work. This is true whatever the form of play, whatever its esteem in the community as compared with work. What the self heaps up in time for its own use does not carry over into eternity, and burdens the soul which is thus occupied.

Play may be indulged as recreation, that is as preparation for doing work better when the worker has been so refreshed.

This is, in many ways, a more helpful distinction than Pieper’s juxtaposition of work and leisure. For after all, work in DeKoster’s sense is really much more than what we do for a paycheck. It includes all of the things we do primarily for others. Service in its various forms is work, including that work done by mothers and fathers for their children inside the home.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s views on work and culture complement DeKoster’s in that his social ethical structure makes no basic distinction between work and culture [Bildung]. Each term is used essentially synonymously to cover the estate of our interrelations along with the church, family and marriage, and government [Obrigkeit].

We’ve pointed to play as one of the concepts that limits work. But some of the discussion has also pointed to a kind of sacred/secular distinction, that between worship and work. And here the traditional pairing of prayer and work comes to the fore.

In his Life Together, Bonhoeffer has a helpful way of putting how prayer and work are distinct and yet relate intimately. He says,

The unity of prayer and work, the unity of the day, is found because finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work is what Paul means by his admonition to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). The prayer of the Christian reaches, therefore, beyond the time allocated to it and extends into the midst of the work. It surrounds the whole day, and in so doing, it does not hinder the work; it promotes work, affirms work, gives work great significance and joyfulness. Thus every word, every deed, every piece of work of the Christian becomes a prayer, not in the unreal sense of being constantly distracted from the task that must be done, but in a real breakthrough from the hard It to the gracious You.

Prayer is not conflated with work in this account, but rather provides work with its limits, its boundaries, and orients it towards its ultimate end in God.

For more on Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of work as an order of divine grace in the context of global Lutheranism, see “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth.”

And for the rest of this week you can pre-order the new paperback edition of Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective at a special Labor Day discount. Just add the book to your cart to see the discounted price, or download it to your Kindle reader right now.

Today’s NYT has an op-ed by David Brooks that’s been getting good cyber-circulation, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Brooks highlights in particular Southern Baptist pastor David Platt, who is touted as the youngest mega-church leader in the country. Rebelling in many ways from the new traditions associated with mega-churches, Brooks says Platt inhabits the nexus between “between good and plenty, God and mammon,” spirituality and materiality, and that Platt “is in the tradition of those who don’t believe these two spheres can be reconciled.”

Here’s what Brooks concludes: “Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity. But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not. People like Platt are central to that process.”

It’s true that the call to follow Jesus is a radical call. But it is false to juxtapose that radicalism with a demarcation between those areas of life in which one can be faithful to him and not.

What we can really hope for is that each of us will be obedient to Christ in our own callings, whether in plenty or in want, in abundance or scarcity. In the realm of economics, for most people that will mean that they act responsibly with their money, avoiding the temptation to live in the midst of crippling debt and seeking meaning in buying and identity with what we purchase and consume. This is what I’ve called the “fourth” pillar of the new economy, “Spend all you can.”

But as Brooks points out, the pursuit of sustainable wealth and profit in the midst of responsible giving and saving isn’t at all a new idea. It’s only the excessive spending and unsustainable consumption of recent decades that make it seem new.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, September 3, 2010
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Leading up to next week’s Labor Day holiday we’ve been reflecting on the nature of work the last few days. Today I’d like to conclude this little series with a note on the relationship between work and civilization, with specific reference to work in the context of Western civilization.

Yesterday I passed along the perspective on work as a formative influence on the soul of the worker: “…the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity.”

But as DeKoster and Berghoef also note, “God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.” What they mean is that God has providentially arranged that the work of each individual in a society, when properly oriented toward the service of others, to create a civilization, in which the needs of others are met by the work of their neighbors, whether proximate or at a greater remove.

WorkIn his little book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, DeKoster puts these pieces together. The two definitions fit well. Work is “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” And civilization is “sharing in the work of others” and “good and services to hand when we need them.”

As he writes, “It is a circle we will finally see close: our working puts us in the service of others; and the civilization which work creates puts us in the service of ourselves. Thus work restores the broken family of mankind.”

You can pre-order Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective in hardcopy today from the Acton BookShoppe or download it to your Kindle reader and read it right away. There’s a special Labor Day discount for the pre-order (add the book to your cart to see the discounted price).

And for the broad account of the relationship between the Christian faith, including the theological perspective on work, and the development of Western civilization, see the Acton Media production The Birth of Freedom. You can view the trailer below:

You can also visit The Birth of Freedom website to get more information on the related small-group curriculum, as well as complementary video shorts, which address questions related to work and civilization, like “Why didn’t China have an industrial revolution before the West?” and “If medieval Europe was so great, why were so many medievals poor?”

One of this week’s contributions to Acton Commentary, in honor of the upcoming American Labor Day holiday is titled, “Work and the Two Great Love Commandments.”

In this piece I focus on how we can view work as a means to express our love for our neighbor and for God. I say a bit about what work does for us as individuals as well.

There’s a great deal that could be said on this very important topic. Work is a huge area of our lives. Lester DeKoster, whom I refer to in the commentary, goes so far as to call work the “basic form of stewardship.” (You can find out more about DeKoster’s view of work in his little book of the same name, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective.)

He has another important perspective on work related to its formation of our souls and thereby the formation of civilization.

He writes, along with Gerard Berghoef,

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about work and civilization.