I had the pleasure of being a guest on today’s installment of Coffee & Markets, the fine podcast hosted by Kevin Holtsberry and Pejman Yousefzadeh. I got to talk about Abraham Kuyper and his essays on common grace, particularly in the areas of science and art.
Check out the podcast and some related links over at the Coffee & Markets website.
“Stupid is the new smart,” and “Pop culture is a wasteland” are just a few lines from Daniel J. Flynn’s introduction to Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America. Certainly, one does not need to read Flynn’s account to surmise that there are grave problems with our culture. But many would miss some great stories and a return to a people and time that crafted a great uplifting for mass audiences.
Flynn has profiled six intellectuals or thinkers who sprung out of the immigrant backgrounds and / or a working “blue collar” origins. They opened up and popularized the great works, theories, and conversations of Western Civilization for the everyman. It seems it is of little coincidence that in profiling Mortimer Adler, Eric Hoffer, Ray Bradbury, Will and Ariel Durant, and Milton Friedman, Flynn touches on diverse streams of thought such as history, literature, economics, philosophy, and popular story teller. Flynn laments that we do not see these type of public intellectuals today and we are surrounded by passive and meaningless entertainment that not only debases but detaches us from the great ideas and a common heritage.
Will and Ariel Durant popularized history with their widely popular 11-volume The Story of Civilization. Flynn lauds them as writers who “extracted history from the academic ghetto whither it had retreated, opening the conversation about the past to all comers.”
Mortimer Adler, who compiled The Great Books of the Western World set, once quipped, “The only education I got at Columbia was in one course.” That course studied the classic works of Western Civilization and Adler sought to package them for mass consumption. A brilliant mind, Adler received a Ph.D from Columbia without ever receiving a high school diploma, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Adler held a disinterest and disdain for the academic bubble, and in turn academics turned their noses up at his work for packaging and popularizing the great works. “The Great Books Movement, for better or worse, offered education minus the middleman. It is no wonder the middleman objected so vociferously,” says Flynn.
The idea that somebody who took on entrepreneurial endeavors and worked a myriad of jobs in the economy might make a better or more notable economist makes sense. But it’s not always the case, when one looks at say the lifelong academic John Maynard Keynes. Flynn notes what many free marketers already know about Milton Friedman and that is he “waited tables, peddled socks door-to-door, and manned roadside fireworks stands. He attended the public schools and lived in rent controlled apartments.” Friedman harnessed his experiences, professorship, books, a “Newsweek” column, and a PBS series to popularize libertarian free-market economic principles. He transformed public policy and much of the economic lingo and ideas we borrow today directly comes from the free-market economist.
Eric Hoffer, the longshoremen philosopher, was the favorite author of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His book The True Believer covers the psychology of mass movements. “Hoffer’s patriotism stemmed from the belief that America was the workingman’s country. That the everyman became president hardly proved America’s mediocrity; it proved the excellence of the American everyman,” says Flynn.
Ray Bradbury, still writing, and most noted for Fahrenheit 451, could not afford college. He has proudly said that he is an alumnus of the Los Angeles Public Library. Bradbury glamorized small town Midwestern life and the significance of books, while slamming the detached superficial culture that suffers from a lack of education and critical thinking.
Flynn has weaved together some wonderful stories to remind us that great culture and deeper ideas are accessible to the masses. I have often wondered how some history professors could turn a lively and passionate subject boring. History, and other academic subjects, have too often been turned into gender-bending, “evil colonialist” type studies, eschewing much of the established work of Western Civilization. They deliberately use their own inner language and codes. “The ivory tower has become a tower of babble,” Flynn says.
He makes the easy case that a vapid society is objectionable and bankrupt of purpose, meaning, and ideas. He also highlights the less known significance on society of six influential thinkers, who because of their background, were able to help uplift the masses to the great ideas and release those ideas from an academic ghetto. Outside of Friedman, I did not know much about these figures and the stories he tells are lively and I did not realize how some of these thinkers already had had an influence on me. Growing up, my family had the set of The Great Books of the Western World, so it was fascinating to hear the story behind it.
As somebody with a divinity degree, and as an observer of ministry and churches, I thought about this problem in our faith culture. Today, there is a serious issue with the need to see Church as a form of entertainment first. Too often churches reflect the very same problems that plague our culture. There is little use for serious deeper reflection in some churches, and little use for the study of doctrine and traditions. The consequences are that confusion abounds today about what Christianity teaches and its transformative power. A revival and renewal is not just needed in culture, but in many of our churches too. There is a great need for teachers and preachers to deliver that word in days such as these as well.
I thought it would be a good idea to feature a few articles on the Civil War in Religion & Liberty. I asked Mark Summers, a historian from Virginia to pen something on the topic. I have known Summers for over a decade and I knew that he understood the Acton Institute and Religion & Liberty enough to deliver. He is a first class historian and the ideas for the articles were entirely his own.
The first piece, “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War” is a fascinating look at the evangelical revivals that spread through the Confederate ranks. The revivals, and of course the war itself, definitely played a significant role in shaping today’s strong religious vibe in the American South. Summers says himself in the piece,
Prior to the American Revolution, New England had been the “Bible Belt” of America, while church attendance in the South was scant. The Second Great Awakening shifted the culture of Dixie, and America as a whole. The revivals took hold in the “backcountry” amongst the yeoman. Southern evangelism reflected the charismatic and independent character of the Appalachian farmers. Southern yeomen declared their independence from the staid faith of the plantation gentry. While planters dominated politics and business, humbler folk shaped the culture of Southern Sundays.
Summers wrote about the Catholic Church and Catholic soldiers in the Fall 2011 R&L. He primarily focused on Catholics in the North and how the Church was unique from American Protestantism with its ability to stay unified despite the horrific conflict. Those who have studied American Protestant history are well aware that many denominations split along sectional lines and many of the divisions we have today resulted or were exacerbated by the Civil War. Summers notes,
Indeed, it was this unity of the Catholic Church which proved unique among American Christianity. While Protestant denominations split over theological and sectional lines, the Catholic Church stood as the only major church which remained united during the war, even if its congregants fought on opposite sides.
These two articles tell powerful stories about faith in this country during its bloodiest, most heartbreaking period. The country had never seen or experienced such a massive slaughter of life. The pieces authored by Summers tell a story about our own American history but they also tell the story that points to the ancient truth, and that is that God is at work redeeming that which is separated, broken, and in despair. In the words of Isaiah:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:1-3)
Dolphus Weary has a remarkable story to tell and certainly very few can add as much insight on the issue of poverty as he does. When you read the interview, now available online in the Fall 2011 R&L, or especially his book I Ain’t Comin’ Back, you realize leaving Mississippi was his one ambition, but God called him back in order to give his life and training for the “least of these.” One of the things Weary likes to ask is “Are you going into a mission field or are you running away from a mission field?” It’s a great question we should all ask ourselves.
Historian Mark Summers returns to offer another piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Last issue, Summers penned “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.” In this this issue he has written an article focusing on Northern Catholics and the Catholic Church during the conflict.
David Deavel has offered a very timely review of Mitch Pearlstein’s, From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation. Pearlstein focuses on the 33 percent rather than the one percent. Deavel observes:
This is the percent of children living with one parent rather than two. These children, victims of what many call ‘family fragmentation,’ start out with tremendous social and educational deficits that are hard to narrow, nevermind close. These are most often the children for whom upward mobility has stalled. Their economic well-being has led to decline in American competitiveness and also the deeper cleavages of inequality that have been so widely noted.
I reviewed the new biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. by Carl T. Bogus. This book, written by a self-described liberal, is critical of Buckley but works at achieving fairness. If you want to read a comparison of two very different biographies of Buckley, I also reviewed Lee Edwards sympathetic biography of Buckley in the Spring 2010 issue of Religion & Liberty.
Finally, I just want to say learning from Dolphus Weary’s story was a spiritually enlightening experience. I read his book in one night in preparation for the interview and he is truly humble. While Weary offers a lot of insight, I believe his greatest strength is teaching and leading through example. It’s no wonder many ministries have tried to replicate what he has done and now does in Mississippi. There is something to be said for somebody who remains tied to their roots and is proud of where they come from, especially if where they come from may look hopeless by the world’s standards.
In an interesting side note, the state of Massachusetts still has blue laws on the books that prevent employees from working before midnight on Thanksgiving Day. The Boston Globe editorializes that “the blue laws are creating nothing but inconvenience; many stores adjust by simply opening at 12:30 a.m. instead of midnight. Workers still come in – but half an hour deeper into the night.”
One rejoinder concerning the relationship between Thanksgiving and Black Friday is that those who have to work on Thursday ought to be thankful to have a job at all, particularly in these times of economic hardship. This is certainly true, but I don’t think this means that employees simply have to silently accept whatever their employer demands of them. As I’ve said, the remedy for this moral problem is best sought in the context of the complex web of relationships between employees, employers, and customers. And we need not derogate the true blessing that work is to say that it ought to have its limits. It seems to me that the widespread impingement of non-essential commercial activity into holidays like Thanksgiving probably crosses these limits, at least in some cases.
All of this means that customers need to be more aware of what their shopping habits and practices demand of businesses. And some companies might realize that the moral demand in certain cases might mean not giving customers what they want (e.g. opening at midnight on Thanksgiving). A salutary example of this kind of response is found in the folks at Hobby Lobby, who have never operated on Sunday.
Their reasoning goes like this: “We have chosen to close on the day most widely recognized as a day of rest, in order to allow our employees and customers more time for worship and family. This has not been an easy decision for Hobby Lobby because we realize that this decision may cost us financially. Yet we also realize that there are things more important than profits. This is a matter of principle for our company owner and officers.”
It’s wonderful when we don’t need laws to tell us what’s the right thing to do.
If you’ve watched any football or baseball recently, you’ve probably seen this Audi commercial. It’s quite funny, and it’s right up Acton’s alley: it artfully distinguishes between proper and improper stewardship of one’s wealth. In this case, an awkward after dinner exchange shows what happens to the use of wealth when culture is diminished:
We have on the one hand a couple appreciative of the aesthetic triumphs of humanity (the Browns), and on the other, a couple of barbarians (the Joneses). In order to get to know each other, the Browns go over to the Joneses’ house for dinner, where they are struck by the Joneses’ art collection – the latter, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seem to be the world’s greatest collectors of the Dutch master Vermeer.
But it turns out that the Joneses are boors who have no idea of the value of their collection, and can appreciate only the Smiths’ expensive car. Their wealth may have been acquired by the virtues of industry and thrift, but it is wasted if it is not spent on things of value.
On MercatorNet, Sarah Phelps Smith writes what must have been intended as a companion piece to the Audi commercial: a review of the Florentine art exhibit Money and Beauty; Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities running right now in that city. The exhibit is a collection of banking artifacts, coins, and art from the Medicis and other Florentine banking families.
The exhibit is particularly relevant right now because, as Wall Street has done, the Medicis became wealthy by providing indispensible financial services, and along the way they made some rather imprudent decisions (Dr. Smith provides the example of business done with royalty, who could default at will). The Medicis also supported the work of Botticelli, Leonardo, and others Renaissance geniuses, and for that, Western Civilization will always be in their debt.
It’s easy to point out that a months-long drum circle in the middle of New York City isn’t a cultural achievement, no matter how many sleepless nights are inflicted on the neighbors. But what should have instead of those drum circles? Besides making you depressed about federal funding of the arts (with apologies to cowboy poets in all states), Dr. Smith reminds us that you can’t take it with you:
Do we, as a culture, use “disposable income” to foster artists who have put the time and effort into learning their craft so that they can make beautiful objects with a beauty that will last five hundred years? Perhaps the exhibition can leave us with a desire to encourage people with means to commission, support and propagate works of art that will be timelessly beautiful and universal in appeal, so that when history looks at the products of our culture we (or rather those who come after us) will find our legacy worth looking at.
The Audi marketing team breaks the cringe making silence in their commercial with the text “True greatness should never go unrecognized.” They playfully acknowledge that their big sedans are toward the bottom of the important-things-in-life scale, and that someone for whom a Vermeer might as well be a Thomas Kinkade is not living a fully human life. It’s funny — you can’t be in the business of selling high end cars without rejecting cultural relativism.
A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from the gospel text of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with the title, “Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?” You can check out the video here. One of the things Rev. Eichinger highlights is what a gift the ability to work and earn a living truly is.
Echoing Martin Luther’s famous dictum Wir sein pettler (“We are all beggars”), Rev. Eichinger says, “It is God demonstrating his grace when he provides us with work and vocation so that we can provide for ourselves and our family.” The hymn following the sermon was, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling.” Here’s the first stanza:
Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,
“Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?”
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
“Here am I. Send me, send me”?
In God’s Yardstick, their book on stewardship, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef note that it is our habit to “take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.”
The way in which God’s providential care for us extends to providing us the regular means to earn our daily bread was the theme in a brief reflection on President Obama’s jobs speech a few weeks ago. In the meantime, Baylor University released a survey that found some correlation between faith in God, work, and government. According to Christianity Today, the survey “found that nearly three-quarters of Americans agree that ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ Those who agreed more strongly were more likely to see financial success as the result of hard work and ability. As a result, they were also least supportive of government programs that help those out of work.” Below the break is a full story courtesy ENI that explores the Baylor study. For a heart-breaking glimpse into what uncritically sharing a “denarius” with a stranger can do, read this story.
Awhile back someone questioned the scholarly credibility of the Acton Institute on the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) Facebook page in connection with one of our student award programs, specifically contending the institute is “not scholarly.” To be sure, not everything the institute does is academic or scholarly.
But we do some scholarship, which as an academic and a scholar I like to think is worthwhile. In fact, our commitment to quality research is one of the things that is most remarkable about the institute.
So as an evangelical scholar at the Acton Institute, I was excited to have a chance to discuss the work we do, particularly with respect to the academic research the institute supports and publishes, with the Emerging Scholars Network, an outreach of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship “called to identify, encourage, and equip the next generation of Christian scholars who seek to be a redeeming influence within higher education.”
Given the ESN’s significant task, I was also glad to be able to extend an offer to the ESN community to become more familiar with the scholarly work of the institute by offering a complimentary two-year digital subscription to the Journal of Markets & Morality, our peer-reviewed publication indexed by the leading databases of both religion and economics. The latest issue includes our first installment of papers presented in connection with the Theology of Work Consultation of the Evangelical Theological Society.
James Hoffa put on quite a performance this weekend—first on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and then in Detroit at a Labor rally with President Obama. Also this weekend, President Biden revealed that the White House seems to have given up and decided America is already a “house divided,” with “barbarians at the gate” in the form of the Tea Party. Coverage of these incidents is available from whichever news outlet you trust, but there is one thing that CNN has probably missed: this weekend’s rhetoric is a vivid reminder that most labor organizations have moved far beyond their proper and defensible role.
Though “the condition of the working classes” is much different now than it was when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891, the document provides a strong justification of labor unions and their position in society. This is done in the context of a response to the advances of socialism on one hand and atheistic individualism on the other. It would be inflammatory, perhaps even violent, to identify the labor leaders of today with Leo’s socialists, and it would be a stretch to say that Hoffa & co. advocate state-owned means of production, but their contribution to political discourse is remarkably similar to Leo’s characterization of socialist tactics:
They are moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.
So far as I can tell, requiring American companies with savings in the bank to spend that money hiring American workers is (1) robbery of the lawful possessors of those savings (which are not, by the way, buried in fields on corporate campuses) and (2) distortion of the functions of the State.
What I can’t find in Rerum Novarum is a justification for Hoffa’s insulting the mothers of Republican leaders. The “spirit of revolutionary change” which caused Leo to write the encyclical is not endorsed by it. (Video of Hoffa’s “remarks” here—strong language warning.)
As for Vice President Biden, he does seem to have read Pope Leo’s encyclical, or at least the part that says “perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.” But he seems to have missed the sentence that follows:
Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvelous and manifold.
The Vice President’s careful maintenance of his wall of separation between faith and government is admirable.