Václav Havel, playwright, anti-Communist dissident and former president of the Czech Republic, died yesterday at the age of 75. There has been an outpouring of tributes to the great man today. In light of that, I’d like to point PowerBlog readers to the September-October 1998 issue of Religion & Liberty and the article “Living Responsibly: Václav Havel’s View” by Edward E. Ericson.
Ericson says that Havel offers a particularly penetrating analysis of our times based on the understanding that, in Havel’s words, “we are going through a great departure from God which has no parallel in history.” It is no coincidence that, Havel adds, that “the first atheistic civilization” has produced the bloodiest century in history.
In 1998, Ericson wrote that Havel could not be described as a believer but admitted to “an affinity for Christian sentiment” and that he tries “to live in the spirit of Christian morality.” Yet Havel’s understanding of Christianity’s formative work in building what is today Europe was deep. He praised the “blending of classical, Christian, and Jewish elements” that has created “the most dynamic civilization of the last millennium.” The news report linked above said that Havel spent his last moments in the company of his wife, Dagmar Havlova, and a Catholic nun.
According to Havel, ordinary people everywhere can live in the truth only by embracing the “notion of human responsibility.” Responsibility is “that fundamental point from which all identity grows and by which it stands or falls; it is the foundation, the root, the center of gravity, the constructional principle or axis of identity.” Thus, Havel declares, “I am responsible for the state of the world,” and he means a “responsibility not only to the world but also ‘for the world,’ as though I myself were to be judged for how the world turns out.” Citing Dostoevsky’s spiritual dictum that all are responsible for all, he points to that “‘higher’ responsibility, which grows out of a conscious or subconscious certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere ‘above us,’ in … an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is liable.”
With its subject, use of Scripture, and majestic soaring choruses, George Ferederic Handel’s Messiah is easily the most recognizable musical piece in Western Civilization. It is also perhaps the most widely performed piece of classical or choral music in the West. After hearing a performance of the Messiah, fellow composer Franz Joseph Haydn simply said of Handel, “This man is the master of us all.” Not to be outdone, Beethoven declared, “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.”
The text of the Messiah, compiled from Scripture, was sent to Handel by his friend Charles Jennens and begins with Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” Part 1 of the Messiah deals with the prophetic pronouncements of the Virgin Birth, and the actual birth account taken from Luke’s Gospel. Part II deals with Christ’s passion and his atoning death, his resurrection and ascension, and sending out of the Gospel. Part III is a celebration of the general resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, the victorious nature of Christ and his triumphant reign. It is a bounty of Christian doctrine packed into an English oratorio. Amazingly, Handel composed the work in 23 days. Quoting the Apostle Paul, Handel said, “Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.”
Messiah is so masterful and celebrated it overshadows some of Handel’s other stellar work. Concerning the Messiah in particular, there is quite a bit of information out there about Handel the entrepreneur. Below is an audio story about Handel’s entrepreneurial endeavors and his charitable work tied into the Messiah that aired on PBS in 2009. You can watch the video version of the story here.
The Royal Family, fellow Germans from the same region of Hanover, were staunch supporters of his work, but this did not translate into financial security for Handel, as the Crown only sporadically underwrote his opera seasons. When weddings or other occasions called for it, the Hanovers commissioned music from him, but this was never enough to live on, and, anyway, Handel was no court composer. By temperament he was an entrepreneur. He spent several months of every year striking business deals with theater owners, auditioning and hiring singers, and rehearsing and performing instrumental music, operas, and oratorios. His fortunes rose or fell with the public’s reception of his music, and there were lean times as well as prosperous ones.
Messiah, while popular at the time, was certainly not as beloved as it is today. There was controversy surrounding the performance, specifically that such a sacred piece of music would be played outside of the Church and in secular music halls and venues. And while Messiah was composed for charitable purposes, it showcased more of Handel’s entrepreneurial skills and willingness to take risks.
Handel, a devout Lutheran, loved sacred music and believed every word of what he wrote and composed. As mentioned earlier, Handel took a lot of risks with his music because he liked to perform what he loved most. He was bankrupt at various times in his life and had fallen out of favor with the public. Just a few years before the Messiah was composed, Frederic the Great declared that, “Handel’s great days are over. His inspiration is exhausted.” Handel himself was even close to being sent to debtors prison. Before Messiah, Handel conducted what he thought would be his last performance and retired for a time. When Messiah was first performed in 1742, it raised enough money to free 142 men from debtor’s prison so their sons and daughters would not be orphans.
Many readers have of course seen the Messiah performed and may have attended a performance this year or selections may have been performed in their places of worship. It was originally intended as a Lenten piece, but is now largely played in the Christmas season. What is so remarkable about the Messiah to me is not that it is just such a majestic and beautiful work of music, but that it is impossible to separate Christ from the performance. While many sacred works are embraced by a secular world and secular music performers, the meaning of the Messiah is so plain it cannot be overlooked. In fact, Jennens selected the text of Messiah to counter the rising arguments of the deists and secularists of his day.
Messiah thunderously crushes the secular agenda and goals of today or of any period. Theologian Tom Oden offers some profound words on the Western world and Christ in his systematic theology The Word of Life. “It would be strangely unhistorical if the historians accidentally ignored him [Christ] or decided to study all figures except the one who has affected Western history most,” says Oden. He adds that “Western history would not be Western history without him.” Later on Oden observes, “Deeper even than the mystery of his astonishing historical influence is the simpler, starker question that rings through Christian reflection: Cur Deus Homo? Why did God Become human?” Handel answers that so thoroughly, beautifully, and triumphantly with his Messiah.
On the American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines the baleful influence exerted on economic thought and public policy for decades by John Maynard Keynes. Gregg observes that “despite his iconoclastic reputation, Keynes was a quintessentially establishment man.” This was in contrast to free-market critics of Keynes such as Friedrich Hayek and Wilhelm Röpke who generally speaking “exerted influence primarily from the ‘outside’: not least through their writings capturing the imagination of decidedly non-establishment politicians such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and West Germany’s Ludwig Erhard.” Perhaps not so surprisingly, many of Keynes’ most prominent devotees are also “insider” types:
The story of Keynes’s rise as the scholar shaping economic policy from “within” is more, however, than just the tale of one man’s meteoric career. It also heralded the surge of an army of activist-intellectuals into the ranks of governments before, during, and after World War II. The revolution in economics pioneered by Keynes effectively accompanied and rationalized an upheaval in the composition and activities of governments.
From this standpoint, it’s not hard to understand why New Dealers such as John Kenneth Galbraith were so giddy when they first read Keynes’s General Theory. Confident that Keynes and his followers had given them the conceptual tools to “run” the economy, scholars like Galbraith increasingly spent their careers shifting between tenured university posts, government advisory boards, international financial institutions, and political appointments — without, of course, spending any time whatsoever in the private sector.
In short, Keynes helped make possible the Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Reichs, Joseph Stiglitz’s, and Timothy Geithners of this world. Moreover, features of post-Keynesian economics — especially a penchant for econometrics and building abstract models that borders on physics-envy — fueled hopes that an expert-guided state could direct economic life without necessarily embracing socialism. A type of nexus consequently developed between postwar economists seeking influence (and jobs), and governments wanting studies that conferred scientific authority upon interventionist policies.
A recent study by the Barna Group examines the generation gap within various Christian traditions in the United States. The Millennial Generation (roughly anyone currently 18-29 years old) has become increasingly dissatisfied with their Christian upbringing. According to the study,
… 84% of Christian 18- to 29-year-olds admit that they have no idea how the Bible applies to their field or professional interests. For example, young adults who are interested in creative or science-oriented careers often disconnect from their faith or from the church. On the creative side, this includes young musicians, artists, writers, designers, and actors. On the science-oriented side, young engineers, medical students, and science and math majors frequently struggle to see how the Bible relates to their life’s calling.
There is, it appears, an urgent need for Christian traditions to develop and employ a robust theology of vocation, especially with regards to arts and science related professions. Indeed, according to the article, “The Barna study showed that faith communities can become more effective in working with the next generation by linking vocation and faith.”
As a Millennial myself, I found the study especially fascinating. The approach when I was a teenager was that the bigger the sound system or video screen or the more “alternative” sounding the music, the more likely a church was to keep us around. Maybe I am not a good representative of my generation as a whole, but I remember finding this approach especially shallow and even a little insulting. I wanted a deeper faith, something that stands out from the world around me, not something nearly indistinguishable from it. Perhaps if more churches would take the time to show how the Gospel of Jesus Christ permeates all facets of life, especially our vocations, fewer of my peers would be leaving those churches behind.
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So we sojourn with you in the world, abjuring neither forum, nor shambles, nor bath, nor booth, nor workshop, nor inn, nor weekly market, nor any other places of commerce. We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings—even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit.
This passage, in which Tertullian describes the involvement of Christians in all the workings of Roman life, first occurred to me awhile back when there was the brief flurry of worry over undue Christian influence, particularly “Dominionism,” on politics. The essay I wrote in response to that phenomenon has now appeared in The City, which you can check out here, “Christians, Citizens, and Civilization: The Common Good.” In this piece I make the claim that “the commitment to Jesus Christ as another prince, the ‘prince of Peace,’ makes us better, not worse, citizens.”
I had been thinking that contra the New Atheism and virulent secularism of much discourse in the public square, including that of the recently passed Christopher Hitchens, we need a kind of Tertullian for the twenty-first century. In the meantime this piece appeared from Al Mohler, which I thought articulated quite well just how evangelicals are (and are not) “dangerous” to the secular establishment: “We’re dangerous only to those who want more secular voices to have a virtual monopoly in public life.”
And as Mohler also notes, “over recent decades, evangelical Christians have learned that the gospel has implications for every dimension of life, including our political responsibility.” But in addition to political responsibility, the gospel also has implications, as I write, for “those Christians who occupy the pews every Sunday morning and pursue various occupations throughout the week. The range of cultural engagement by Christians is therefore coextensive with the panoply of morally legitimate activities in the world.” This latter piece, “How Christians Ought to ‘Occupy’ Wall Street (and All Streets),” is the other recent item in which I use the quote from Tertullian.
If you haven’t read the Apology before (or haven’t done so lately), take another look and see what you think about the prospects for a similar defense of the Christian faith and life in the contemporary world.
Over at the Patheos Evangelical Portal, I write about “How Christians Ought to ‘Occupy’ Wall Street (and All Streets).” My argument is that the occupiers that ought to be foremost in the minds of religious leaders are those who “occupy” their pews on Sunday mornings and jobs in the world throughout the week. Indeed, “Christians therefore must occupy the world in their occupations.” That’s where the renewing and reforming presence of the church in its organic expression finds its greatest work.
As I note, the “Occupy” movement has created some distress for religious leaders. The perennial question reverberates: What would Jesus do? For some, it’s clear: there must be an institutional embrace of the Occupy movement by seminaries and churches.
But the implications of my call to recognize that Christians already occupy “all streets” is that Christians must learn to, as Jonathan Chaplin puts it, embrace institutions, and not just those that are “sacred,” like churches and seminaries. As Chaplin writes, “Christians need to reckon with the fact that all institutions are in some sense faith-based, and that Christians should be unapologetic both about working to shape existing institutions from within according to their own vision of hope or, where necessary, founding their own institutions.”
So, with respect to Wall Street in particular, for instance, a recent letter published in the Times of London notes that Christians already “occupy” Wall Street in their occupations: “Many Christians today work within mainstream business, attempting to be ‘salt and light’. Others run organisations…that are committed to using business and finance to bring social benefits, raise living standards and create jobs.”
Contrast all this with Makoto Fujimura’s advice to the Occupy movement to resist positive embrace of institutions: “The moment we institutionalize, the local movement dies a slow death as it consumes the very resources we are trying to release.” On this view institutions and systems are by definition exploitative and dehumanizing. To this type of view Chaplin responds that while there is much that is true in such a diagnosis, the proper response is not to flee institutions but to work to reform them, and where necessary recreate them. Chaplin speaks of
institutions that, even in limited ways, can embody the central norm of love, a norm which in turn needs to be fleshed out in more specific directives about justice, solidarity, peace, stewardship, and so on. Our challenge is to work toward developing institutions that can serve as conduits of this kind of love, with all its differentiated concrete applications on the ground. Such institutions we should indeed learn to love.
The payoff here is that one of the ways the church fails its members (and its business people in the case of Wall Street), is that it does not usually provide them with the worldview, the tools, and the sense of responsibility for living out their Christian faith in a responsible way in their occupations. Thus, says John C. Knapp, “Many Christians struggling to make their faith relevant to their daily work find the church oddly indifferent to their lives on the job.”
Part of the answer is to get these institutions (churches, seminaries, businesses) and their representatives to start talking to one another again. And that’s something that the Acton Institute has been doing for more than two decades. One of the best starting points for this conversation that I know of is Lester DeKoster’s little book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective.