Although Ballor’s book is very accessible, the reading is by no means “light.” I would call it “engaging heavy reading.” While the concepts are clear and the analogies riveting, Ballor has a way of putting so much into a sentence that it can take some time to work through his ideas. I found myself time and time again putting the book down for a few minutes to digest a thought, or re-reading a paragraph to make sure I followed the contours of his thought. There is a lot here, and it is thought provoking. Whether one agrees with all of Ballor’s ideas or not, he offers clarifying insights into many aspects of Christian social thought and action. Even where I disagreed with Ballor, I found his writing helpful for articulating my own positions.
A few basic assumptions underlie Ballor’s work, assumptions that would not surprise anyone familiar with Christian tradition. Central to Ballor’s thesis is the fact that human beings are created in the imago dei, the image of God. Like God, we are naturally oriented to love. Like God, we are naturally creative and industrious. Like God, we are naturally inclined to give of ourselves for the sake of others. Of course, because of the fall of humanity into sin, these naturally inclinations and orientations have been corrupted and twisted by evil. Nevertheless, there remains a natural order of things, inherent in creation and revealed in Scripture, towards which we as responsible human persons ought to strive: love for our neighbor, care for creation, industry, community, procreation, responsible use of resources (in all senses), and mutual recognition and respect of one another’s humanity.
One particularly poignant theme that Ballor strikes home again and again in the book is the nature of human beings as social persons in community, and the corresponding responsibility that we have to that community, which always was, but increasingly (and obviously) is global.
Jordan J. Ballor has spent the past decade working for the Acton Institute. At Fieldnotes Magazine he share five lessons he’s learned from working at a think tank focused on the intersection of theology and economics:
1. Treat people like people. The Golden Rule, “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12), may seem like common sense, but it is much more uncommon to see what it really should look like in practice. I experienced this when I was walking back to my car from the office after work one day when I was approached by someone asking for help. At the time I was caught up in my own thoughts and worries, and the person in front of me was really just a problem, an obstacle. I took the easy way out and missed an opportunity to treat a person as if he was a person, made in God’s image and likeness.
2. Your work matters to God. It doesn’t matter if you are a preacher, a plumber, or a politician; the work you do is important to God. Most of us are not tasked with leading Fortune 500 companies, passing laws, or proclaiming the gospel from the pulpit. But we are all called to be faithful, to use our various gifts to serve others. The work you do matters to God because you matter to God and he has placed you where you are for a reason. So be a channel of grace in whatever you do. As Peter puts it, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).
I share Fr. Robert Barron’s concern about many of the attitudes on display in this Time magazine cover story on “the childfree life.” As Barron writes, much of the problem stems from the basic American attitude toward a life of “having it all.”
Thus, Barron observes, “Whereas in one phase of the feminist movement, ‘having it all’ meant that a woman should be able to both pursue a career and raise a family, now it apparently means a relationship and a career without the crushing encumbrance of annoying, expensive, and demanding children.”
The other night, I sat down with my kids to read one of my favorite Rudyard Kipling poems, “The Camel’s Hump,” a remarkable 19th-century takedown of 21st-century couch-potato culture.
With typical color and wit, Kipling takes aim at idleness, decrying “the hump we get from having too little to do” — “the hump that is black and blue.” Kipling proceeds to elevate labor, noting that hard work refreshes the soul and reinvigorates the spirit: “The cure for this ill is not to sit still / Or frowst with a book by the fire / But to take a large hoe and a shovel also / And dig till you gently perspire.”
The illustrations in my 1949 version of the poem offer additional flair to Kipling’s contrast, aptly showing what can happen, physically and spiritually, if we do or don’t get our hands dirty. But don’t let the boy’s youthfulness fool you: “We all get the hump / Cameelious hump / Kiddies and grown-ups, too!”
[The above pages are taken from Volume 2 of the 1949 Childcraft collection, Storytelling and Other Poems.]
In this week’s Acton Commentary, I adapt a section from my latest book focusing on an instance of “cowboy compassion” we find in an episode of Bonanza. I focus on the example of Adam Cartwright, who helps out an economically-depressed family faced with the tyranny of a greedy scrooge, Jedediah Milbank.
There are many reasons to appreciate Bonanza, even if it is a product of its times, as in the stereotypical portrayal of Hop Sing, for instance. I also mention another favorite western of mine, Have Gun–Will Travel, in which Paladin functions as a kind of one-man A-Team. But this show, too, traffics a bit in the well-worn caricature of Asians, as the only other semi-regular appearing character is a Chinese bellhop known as “Hey Boy” (as in, “Hey, boy, come over here and pick up this suitcase.”).
But we have something to learn from such shows, warts and all. In the case of Bonanza, I think we have a kind of libertarian-cowboy in black, who no doubt wore “the black for the poor and the beaten down,” a man firmly committed to wedding together liberty and love.
As I conclude, “We can get our hands dirty by grubbing for money,” or as in the case of Adam Cartwright, “we can get them dirty by helping fix a broken well.”
Over at Capital Commentary, Byron Borger has a review of Jordan Ballor’s new book, Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action):
Although his book is not simple, he is a fine popularizer, writing serious material in sometimes playful ways, with the occasional nod to pop culture, drawing on themes from Deadwood or Lost or a contemporary novel. The book is neither introductory nor scholarly. Readers of journals such as First Things, Cardus, or The Journal of Markets & Morality (for which he serves as the executive editor) will most appreciate the four long essays in this volume. Ballor often cites, with unusual insight, the work of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Bonhoeffer, and Kuyper.
Darryl Hart has a bit of a go at “the hyperventilation that goes on in some neo-Calvinist circles when folks talk about the power of the gospel to redeem all of life,” using the woes of the city of Detroit as a trump card.
Hart wonders why he hasn’t “seen too many posts from the transformers about Detroit’s decline and bankruptcy.” I don’t know if The Gospel Coalition is going to have anything say about Detroit’s bankruptcy, but Tim Keller does reflect more generally on the future of cities in America:
Some of the most troubled, such as Detroit, are going to have to make drastic changes, essentially shrinking their urban footprint deliberately and redesigning themselves as a smaller municipality. But that will not be the norm in the U.S. I believe that immigration and broader cultural factors still make cities highly desirable destinations for the most ambitious and innovative people, and that will be crucial in continuing the rise of cities.
PowerBlog readers will be excused for missing this, as I suspect there are not many who frequent the MTV Teen Choice Awards. But don’t let your skepticism prevent you from watching this video of Ashton (really, “Christopher Ashton”) Kutcher’s acceptance speech, in which he exhorts the younger generation to get its hands dirty with hard work:
“Opportunity looks a lot like hard work.” There are many connections to be made here with this insight, not least of which is with Lester DeKoster’s view that work is “a glorious opportunity to serve God and our neighbors by participating in God’s creative work through cultivation of the creation order.” Kutcher’s basic point is that work has some important lessons to teach us. “I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than,” says Kutcher. He was, rather, grateful to have the gift of productive work, and passionately describes how each job, whether manual labor or minimum wage work, was a “stepping stone” to the next.
One of the great things about the speech, as Richard Clark writes, is the way Kutcher addressed his audience, how “he told them what he’d want to be told, and he treated them in the way he’d want to be treated.”
Kutcher concludes by invoking the example of Steve Jobs, who Kutcher plays in an upcoming biopic, and urges his audience to “build a life” through their work. Kutcher manages to include some insight about the nature of institutions and what it means to engage cultural realities as we live and work. This is something Millennials desperately need to hear, as David Brooks has written, and it’s something that Steve Jobs has to teach us about the nature of our jobs.
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Disability, Service, and Stewardship,” I write, “Our service of others may or may not be recognized by the marketplace as something valuable or worth paying for. But each one of us has something to offer someone else. All of us have ministries of one kind or another. Our very existence itself must be seen as a blessing from God.”
During a sermon a couple weeks ago at my church, the preacher made an important point about common attitudes toward old people (to listen, click the “Launch Media Player” here and listen to Rev. David Kolls’s message, “Following God Through Transitions” from July 28, 2013). In the same way that we often view those with visible disabilities as passive objects of pity, we often think of those who have reached a certain age as having nothing to offer. This is simply wrong-headed.
We all are important to God. “God don’t make no junk,” as the saying on the T-shirt reads. This isn’t to deny the reality of brokenness and sin. But in the face of these evils, God still affirms and preserves his creation. Life itself is a blessing from God, and mere existence is proof enough that God values people and has purposes for us. Every one.
One of the more curious cultural movements in recent years has been the increasing interest in zombies, and in particular the dystopian visions of a world following the zombie apocalypse.
Part of the fascination has to do, I think, with the value of thought experiments in speculation about such futures, however improbable. There may be something to be learned from gazing into a sort of fun house mirror, the distorted image of humanity as seen in zombies.
But zombies have not only captured the popular imagination. They have also become the object of academic (or at least ‘intellectual’) discourse.
Peter Paik, for instance, has a working paper at SSRN on “The Walking Dead” as an exploration of attempts to escape the “state of nature,” characterized by pessimism regarding “a better future and the fear of moving beyond an economic system that permits unlimited acquisition.” Neoliberalism is for Paik the defining feature of the run-up to the zombie apocalypse, which might say more about the captivity of academic discourse to dominant modes of cultural interpretation than anything of value about real-world political economy: “The mindless, undead ghoul that consumes the flesh of human beings lends itself almost too easily as a metaphor about our current economic predicament.”
One of the takeaways from the surprisingly (at least to me) interesting World War Z has to do with a central insight into post-apocalyptic political economy, and is a word of caution pace Paik concerning the relative valuation of a “neoliberal” order. At one point, Gerry Lane’s wife Karin appeals to Gerry (Brad Pitt) to talk to his friend, Thierry, an official with the UN. Gerry response: “Thierry isn’t in charge of anything anymore.”