Posts tagged with: culture

Acton On TapIf you couldn’t make it to Derby Station in East Grand Rapids last night, there are a couple of things you should know. First of all, you missed a great event and some good conversation. Secondly, you need not worry: we recorded it, and you can listen to David Michael Phelps’ presentation on Art, Patrimony, and Cultural Investment via the audio player below.

The bad news is that I was planning to post a little video clip for your enjoyment, but for some reason beyond my ability to understand after too much time spent struggling with computers and such, it’s not working. Which is a bummer, considering that it was a video of Dave inciting the audience to sing a bluegrass tune. The best I can do for you at this point is a quick little screengrab with the promise that I’m going to troubleshoot this thing into submission at the earliest possible opportunity.

Regardless, the audio is below; enjoy, and make plans to join us at Derby Station next time!

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

David Michael Phelps - 9.21.10

David Phelps, Chorusmaster

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.

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.

September in Grand Rapids means the return of ArtPrize, which bills itself as a “radically open” art competition, juried by the general public, and awarding the largest cash prize for an art competition in the world – $250,000 for first place.

As the competition takes place in the hometown of the Acton Institute – in fact, many artists exhibited their work in our building last year, and will do so again this year – it’s hard for us to miss it. And frankly, the questions that have been raised about the impact of such a non-professional, wide-open art contest with such a large prize at stake on the art world (for example, does ArtPrize foster real art, or are artists simply pandering to the public to have a shot at the prize) are too intriguing to pass up.

This edition of Radio Free Acton tackles the question of how Christians should steward the arts. The participants, Professors Nathan Jacobs and Calvin Seerveld, previously debated this topic in the Controversy section of our Journal of Markets & Morality (Volume 12, Number 2 – you can read the first part of their debate at this link), and we thought it would be interesting to bring them together for a live exchange as well. Special thanks are due to David Michael Phelps, who agreed to sit in as the moderator of the program.

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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.

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.

During a recent conversation, a Chinese friend of mine commented on the lack of political involvement that she has observed in her peers, especially in comparison to American college students. She attributes this lack of involvement to the fact that the Chinese do not believe that political action can change the policies or even the identities of their leaders. As a result, non-politicians in China do not get involved in politics, and politicians there focus on achieving their own goals rather than on improving society, resulting in a tremendous amount of corruption. This attitude is the result of a variety of cultural and social factors, but one of the most prominent is the single-party system in which the dominant (Communist) party actively suppresses dissent.

This attitude seems sharply different from attitudes in America, where everyone holds political opinions and political action is seen as the primary vehicle for social change. However, the Chinese attitude toward politics has a close parallel in the prevailing American attitude toward work.

Just as the average Chinese citizen does not see political action as an activity that will affect social conditions, the average American does not see work in relation to society. We tend to consider work a necessary evil that provides for us and pays our bills, possibly providing some satisfaction. As a result, Americans who seek social change do so through politics or volunteering, while disregarding the effect of their work. Just as this attitude toward politics in China results in widespread corruption, our view of work as a self-centered activity bears some blame for the unethical behavior that contributed to our current recession.

People naturally desire significance and a sense that they have affected the lives of other people, so many are frustrated by the necessity of spending so many hours every week working on something that doesn’t satisfy.  Executives dream of retiring early so they can “give back” to their communities. Workers do just enough to get by, figuring that it does not matter whether they perform their job with excellence. And when they hear about needs not provided for in society, they look to the people whose “job” it is to fix these problems, in particular the government, never thinking how their own work might contribute to providing for people’s needs.

In contrast to this, Christianity considers work a positive activity that builds up society. Genesis 1 claims that humans are made in the image of a God who worked for six days creating the universe before resting from this labor. When God first created Adam, He gave him jobs of tending and keeping the garden and naming the animals, indicating that work is a natural part of nature, not a result of sin. Further, the Garden of Eden was filled with fruit that could be easily picked, showing that the goal of Adam’s work was not merely to provide himself with sustenance. Instead, the purpose was to improve on the garden’s natural state for God’s glory and to benefit nature and other people.

Clearly, there is more to life than work. People should be willing to give, volunteer, and perform their roles within their families and neighborhoods rather than devoting everything to work. However, we need to recognize that work itself is also a way for us to obey God and love the people around us.

In his book Work: the Meaning of Your Life, Lester DeKoster argues that in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, God separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of their attitude toward work:

The Lord does not specify when or where the good deeds he blesses are done, but it now seems to me that Jesus is obviously speaking of more than a vocational behavior or pastime kindnesses. Why? Because he hinges our entire eternal destiny upon giving ourselves to the service of others—and that can hardly be a pastime event. In fact, giving our selves to the service of others, as obviously required by the Lord, is precisely what the central block of life that we give to working turns out to be!

On the simplest economic level, any company that does not provide goods or services that customers desire to purchase will soon have no customers and go out of business. Customers are only willing to pay for goods or services that benefit them, so any company, and thus any worker, is in some way working to meet people’s physical, intellectual, or emotional needs.

Certainly, our salaries compensate us for the acts we perform at work to serve others, but this in and of itself no more diminishes the service we perform than being thanked for volunteering diminishes its moral status. Jesus forbids giving to the poor solely for the purpose of receiving praise (Matt. 6:2-4), but in the same sermon He commands us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16). Clearly, the problem is not with being observed in doing good; it is in seeking the earthly reward rather than being motivated by love for God and neighbor. Similarly, receiving a salary can become an end in itself, or it can be a just reward for one’s service to others.

Someone I met at my church demonstrated his understanding of the significance of his work when I asked him what he did for a living. With a grin, he replied “I help people by helping them to figure out what kind of insurance to buy.” His understanding of the benefits that his work brought to his customers filled him with a palpable enthusiasm for his vocation.

On a societal level, this type of enthusiasm can benefit everyone, as it stimulates people to do their jobs better, since they have a goal larger than filling up the hours they are paid for. But it is even more essential for the workers personally.

People made in the image of an eternal God have a desire to make contributions that will last. People made in the image of a triune God have a desire to be part of a community, to be in relationships with other people, just as the members of the Godhead exist in relation. To reduce people’s vocation to a means to provide for themselves, or at best their families, and to see workers as only cogs in a corporate machine is to deprive them of the opportunity to fulfill these desires in the one area that consumes most of their time and energy (with the possible exception of family life). Recognizing the significance of one’s vocation is more than a motivational management technique — it is an expression of human dignity.

This week’s commentary by Rev. Gregory Jensen. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.

Finding the Balance: Privacy and the Civil Society

Privacy in our culture has come to serve not a deepening of community life but an ever deeper sense of social isolation.  Even otherwise laudable behavior is increasingly justified not by the goodness of what is done but by the modern sense of privacy.  Even among those who ought to know better, the Gospel is presented in terms that are almost wholly personal without any sense of its public character and demands.   Our sense of isolation from each other has become so profound that even to suggest that there is a human nature and that true happiness is only possible when we live in conformity to our nature, is seen a provocation and an assault on the radical autonomy of the individual.  

Paradoxically, when privacy is in the service of isolation it is also the source of what Peggy Noonan (The Eyes Have It) describes as our increasingly "exhibitionist culture."  She writes that more and more we "know things about each other (or think we do) that we should not know, have no right to know, and have a right, actually, not to know.”  While technology has a role to play here, Noonan sees the cause as rooted in the loss of what I would call the right sense of personal privacy.  Lose this, Noonan says, and "we lose some of our humanity; we lose things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as, actually, children of God."  And with this loss comes as well the loss of a truly civil society.  "We also lose trust, not only in each other but in our institutions, which we come to fear. “ 

Not that the modern sense of privacy is all bad.  Without privacy, without a door I can close (and the trust that you will respect that closed door) I cannot from time to time withdraw into solitude.  Rightly understood, privacy is the functional expression of solitude.

Solitude as a discipline of the spiritual life is both the antithesis and the cure for culture’s wild and destructive vacillations between isolation and exhibition.   Privacy serves, or rather should serve, those moments in my life when — like Jesus — I withdraw from the ebb and flow of daily life "to a quiet place" to pray (see Luke 9:10).  It is in these moments of recollection that I am able to restore myself and to re-evaluate and, if need be, correct how I go about meeting the myriad personal and professional demands of life.  And so just as privacy serves solitude, solitude in turn serves my wholesome involvement in the broader society.   

What critics, and even defenders, of the free market and democracy often forget is that both institutions are rooted in the solitude that privacy defends.   Neither social isolation — which sees my neighbor as a threat to my dignity — nor exhibitionism — which in the final analysis is merely another form of lust –is a sound anthropological foundation for a free market economy, democracy, or a civil society. So where ought we then to look?  

Rodney Stark (The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) is correct when he argues that Western culture owes much of its success to Christianity in general and monastic life in particular.  Monasticism is a life of disciplined solitude in the service of community; it is also part of the shared cultural and spiritual patrimony of the Christian West and East.   As such it represents not only our best cultural self, it also can serve as a meeting place for Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians as we work to respond to an increasingly secular and fragmented culture at home and the threats of Islamism worldwide. 

Though we need not ourselves be monks or nuns (though I think we do well to promote and encourage monastic life within our respective Christian communities), this should not stop us from seeing in monastic life a rich source of anthropological wisdom with which to respond to our culture’s deformed, and deforming, view of the relationship between the person and society.   Most importantly, among these is an inconvenient truth that even Christians are likely to overlook.   

Important as they are, economic activity, scientific research and even public policy shaped by the Gospel are insufficient.  True human freedom — personal and political — is a divine gift and so always outside our control.  Though he was not a monk, the Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993), gives voice to a central monastic insight for our time.  In his monograph, “Prayer and Holiness,” he writes that, "The man who does not pray remains a slave, enclosed in the complex mechanisms of the natural world and of the movements of his own passions by which he is dominated even more than by the world outside."  Individualism and exhibitionism, to say nothing of the brutishness and violence that are common in all areas of contemporary culture, are the symptoms of our servitude.   

In response to this self-imposed slavery and for the sake of a truly humane and civil society, we must cultivate in ourselves a right sense of privacy and so of solitude and community life. Monasticism is a tangible sign that such a life of solitude and of civic engagement is possible. It reminds us as well that we must place our great material and cultural wealth and technological prowess at the service of something greater than our own comfort or economic success.  

Since reading Rousseau raises a questions on almost innumerable topics, you can imagine that the Q&A after a lecture I gave on Rousseau was broad and varied. Among other things, love, family, and problems with relationships and maturity within modern liberal culture were a recurring theme. Two pieces that came up in discussion were:

1. Karol Wojtyla’s (John Paul II) Love and Responsibility. This is a beautiful book on human love and an antidote to most of the nonsense that goes around on love these days. I highly recommend it, but if you haven’t studied philosophy formally it might be best to skip the introduction on objects and subjects, and instead begin with the chapter, “Metaphysical Analysis of Love”

2. An interesting article by Kay Hymowitz in the City Journal called Child-Man in the Promised Land

The second one provoked quite a bit of response when it came out—I would be interested in hearing your comments.

One more on adolescents that didn’t come up in the discussion, but is worth reading, is a piece from six years ago by Joseph Epstein called The Perpetual Adolescent. Epstein worries that modern life which perpetuates and glorifies youthfulness and adolescense is not only a problem for society, but for human flourishing. He writes:

The greatest sins, Santayana thought, are those that set out to strangle human nature. This is of course what is being done in cultivating perpetual adolescence, while putting off maturity for as long as possible. Maturity provides a more articulated sense of the ebb and flow, the ups and downs, of life, a more subtly reticulated graph of human possibility. Above all, it values a clear and fit conception of reality.

Perpetual Adolescence is a serious problem for a free society since as William Allen says so well–“self-government requires self-governors” and adolescents as we know, no matter their age, are not reputed for self-control.