Category: Vocation

“How are we to be in the world but not of it?”

It’s the question at the center of Acton’s film series, For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, and our response has a profound impact on the shape of our cultural witness.

In a lecture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bruce Ashford frames the same question around our perspectives on nature and grace, asking: “What should be the relationship between God’s saving works and word and all of the rest of life?”

To answer this, Ashford explores five competing visions, and though he approaches each with a specific focus on education (given his audience), the basic theology applies to all other spheres of culture: (more…)

Whether derided as a devil of modern industry or hailed as a saint of modern philanthropy, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller remains a controversial figure.

Although the reality of the man is surely complex, those who attack his legacy tend to indulge in more than a few historical errors and economic myths, painting him as a supreme symbol of all that is wrong with industrialization and capitalism. And yet, despite some troubling tactics and cronyist maneuvering, the man himself is a symbol of much that is good.

As historian Burt Folsom explains, the real picture has a bit more color and brightness. Contrary to his critics, Rockefeller’s empire prioritized ingenuity above indulgence, gift-giving above greed, and economic transformation above static consumerism.

Rockefeller’s special gift to the world? “Cheap kerosene,” says Folsom, and “cheap enough that anyone could buy it.” (more…)

kickstarter1Several years ago, as a music student in college, I remember hearing constant complaints about “lack of funding for the arts.” Hardly a day would go by without a classmate or professor bemoaning the thin and fickle pockets of the bourgeoisie or Uncle Sam’s lack of artistic initiative.

Little did we know, a shake-up was already taking place, driven by a mysterious mix of newfound prosperity, entrepreneurial innovation, and the market forces behind it. The digital revolution was beginning to level the playing field and drain power from tanks and banks of all kinds, from the Hollywood execs with dollar signs in their eyes to the aesthetically enlightened cronies at the National Endowment for the Arts. Despite the many prophecies of a creative apocalypse, a bottom-up revolution was taking place.

Amid the sea of new technologies and tools that were soon to emerge — streaming music, streaming movies, ebook publishing — crowdfunding rose as a powerful path to creative independence: artistic, economic, and otherwise. Leading the pack is Kickstarter, with success stories abounding, from inventors to thespians to foodies to photographers, and with routine funding results that actually surpass the NEA. (more…)

DeKoster-3-dimensions-of-workLester DeKoster’s short book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, sets forth a profound thesis and solid theological framework for how we think about work.

Although the faith and work movement has delivered a host of books and resources on the topic, DeKoster’s book stands out for its bite and balance. It is remarkably concise, and yet sets forth a holistic vision that considers the multiple implications of the Christian life.

The book was recently re-issued, along with the new afterword by Greg Forster. In it, Forster outlines DeKoster’s underlying framework, which “invites us to view work as a complex, three-dimensional reality.” Each of these dimensions is summarized as follows (quoted directly from Forster).

1. Objective-Subjective

One dimension of our work is defined by the distinction between objective and subjective. No matter how pious your feelings about it are, it still matters to God whether your work is actually having a beneficial effect on other people. At the same time, human dignity and the shaping of the self for God can only be lived out if we do our work with the right sense of identity and motives. We see this dimension most clearly in DeKoster’s twofold understanding of God’s presence in our work—that we love God in our work by serving our neighbor (objectively) and shaping ourselves (subjectively).


Work-New1Originally written in 1982, Lester DeKoster’s small book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life, has had a tremendous impact on the hearts and minds of many, reorienting our attitudes and amplifying our visions about all that, at first, might seem mundane. More recently, the book’s core thesis was put on display in Acton’s film series, For the Life of the Worldparticularly in the episode on creative service.

Christian’s Library Press has now re-issued the book, complete with new cover art and a hearty new afterword by Greg Forster.

In the afterword, Forster revisits the book in light of the broader faith and work movement, noting DeKoster’s keen awareness of the struggles and hardships we often experience at work, and the hope of Christ in the midst of such struggles.

Although the book applies to every occupation and vocation — from the Wall Street executive to the independent artist to the stay-at-home mother — one of DeKoster’s primary audiences in his own life was blue-collar workers, who he routinely taught in night classes at Calvin College. “His message of hope to them is an outstanding model for our movement today,” Forster writes.

Indeed, DeKoster realized that without a proper understanding of God’s ultimate purposes, we will find ourselves trapped in a “wilderness of work,” lost and without meaning. But when we understand God’s grand design for all things, everything changes. (more…)

onward-russell-moore-culture-gospelOne of the long-running mistakes of the church has been its various confinements of cultural engagement to particular spheres (e.g. churchplace ministry) or selective “uses” (e.g. evangelistic conversion).

But even if we manage to broaden the scope of our stewardship — recognizing that God has called us to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty across all spheres of creation — our imaginations will still require a strong injection of the transformative power of Jesus.

When we seek God first and neighbor second, we no longer proceed from the base assumptions of earthbound goods — the “love of man” what-have-you. Yes, our goals and actions will occasionally find overlap with those of the world, but eventually, the upside-down economics of the Gospel will set us apart. We will do certain things and make certain sacrifices that are foreign and incomprehensible to those around us.

This has implications for all areas, but much of it boils down to our basic views about the human person: his and her dignity and destiny as an image-bearer of an almighty God. Once our hearts are transformed according to his designs and our views about our neighbors are aligned to God’s story about his children, our cultural engagement will manifest in unpredictable and mysterious ways. This is, after all, what it means to be strangers in a strange land, as Episode 1 of For the Life of the World artfully explains.

In his latest book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Russell Moore offers some valuable reflections along these lines, noting that we can’t possibly stand as witnesses of God’s love if our cultural comings and goings fail to respond through the lens of Christ’s kingdom. “The kingdom of God changes the culture of the church by showing us a longer view of who’s important and who’s in charge,” he writes.

What cultural engagement really requires, then, is a careful destruction of that basic lie the enemy continues to spread and embed across societies and civilizations: that the love of man and the worship of his goals is, indeed, enough. (more…)

Blog author: jsunde
Wednesday, September 2, 2015

creativity-capitalism-money-crashCapitalism is routinely castigated as an enemy of the arts, with much of the finger-pointing bent toward monsters of profit and efficiency. Other critiques take aim at more systemic features, fearing that the type of industrialization that markets sometimes tend toward will inevitably detach artists from healthy social contexts, sucking dry any potential for flourishing as a result.

But what if the opposite is true? I offer the argument over at The Federalist.

Free economies introduce their own unique challenges for artists and consumers alike. We are justified in cringing at the array of bottom-dollar record-company execs and merchandising-obsessed Hollywood crackpots (though I will always prefer their ilk to your run-of-the-mill Commissar of the Arts). But the increases in economic empowerment that have led to these many marketing machines have also led to plenty of artistic empowerment in turn.

In an article for New York Times Magazine, Steven Johnson reinforces this very point, observing that the many apocalyptic prophecies about arts in the digital age have not quite manifested. “In the digital economy, it was supposed to be impossible to make money by making art,” he writes. “Instead, creative careers are thriving — but in complicated and unexpected ways.” (more…)

What is the purpose of money? Is it for our survival? For our status, significance, or success? Is it for the service of ourselves or for the service of others?

In a talk for the Oikonomia Network, theologian Darrell Bock sets out to answer the question, drawing from the numerous treatments of money in the book of Luke — from the rich fool and Lazarus’ wealthy neighbor to Zacchaeus and the widow’s mite.

“Money is to be surrendered into stewardship,” he says, “because that is the way God has designed not just the resources that he gives us; that’s the way he’s designed our very lives.”

Money is ultimately about a stewardship of managing the creation in which God has placed us. It’s for others, and it’s for Him…It’s a stewardship that serves and leads to flourishing, and we are all stewards, every one of us. It’s a surrender to Christ. It’s a surrender to others. And it’s a surrender to the divine design. It’s a commitment not to serve the self, and it’s a commitment not to use other people as currency…

Yes, money does make the world go around, but we drive that bus. And it’s not the money that’s the agent of change; we are the agents of change. So how do we make money that matters? We don’t make money the old fashioned way, by earning it for ourselves. We make money useful the divine way, by stewarding it so that others can flourish and be developed, and by generating value for those who are around us.


amazon-workIn the movie Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells an old joke about two elderly women having dinner at a Catskill mountain resort. One of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

Alvy says that’s essentially how he feels about life: it’s full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. Many people seem to have a similar complaint after reading the recent New York Times exposé about The company is a terrible place to work, and it’s almost impossible to get or keep a job there.

The article certainly makes Amazon sound like a brutal place to work. As one former employee says, “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” In the third paragraph the Times claims,

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.

Many people will read that and be horrified while others will shrug and say, “Sounds a lot like the company I work for.” There are also those who question the accuracy and fairness of the article (Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, also owns the Washington Post, a primary competitor of the New York Times). One current employee even explains in detail what the story gets wrong.

I don’t want to bash or defend Amazon. But I do think it is worth asking why, if the company is so horrible, are people beating down Amazon’s door to work there?

Braekeleer_Ferdinand_de_A_Peasant_Family_Gathered_around_the_Kitchen_Table_Oil_on_Panel-largeWith the expansion of economic freedom and the resulting prosperity, we’ve reached an unprecedented position of personal empowerment and vocational choice. This is a welcome development, and it can be seized for good in any number of ways. But it also comes with its own risks and temptations.

As with any surface-level “freedom,” unless we seek God first and neighbor second, our action will quickly be steered by pleasure, pride, pursuit of power, or plain old personal preference — leading to shackles that may be looser, but remain shackles nonetheless. Such illusions are nothing new, and lurk no matter what the sphere of our stewardship. But if modernity has wielded a tangible, visible blow to one area in particular, it’s that of the family.

Over the last few decades, marriage has increasingly been misunderstood, and our misaligned approaches to business, education, and politics haven’t helped. Rather than a basic starting point, a foundation of a flourishing society, the family has become just another optional perk in the worship of narrow self-fulfillment.

“Oh that? It’s not for me. Not now.”

As a result, marriage is increasingly seen as a mere contractual arrangement, a 50-50 partnership for the purposes of personal pleasure rather than duty and sacrifice. In turn, culture and family have “evolved” accordingly. Fewer and fewer people are getting married, and those who do are doing so later and later and having fewer and fewer kids, if any at all. Divorce is routine. The basic definition of marriage is constantly questioned. (more…)