What do markets have to do with monasticism? Quite a lot to the Benedictine monks of St. Andrew’s Abbey in Southern California, according to a recent press release. Their prior Fr. Joseph Brennan describes MonksInk, the monks’ business selling ink and toner cartridges:
Every monastery has something unique about them. For example, a monastery in Louisiana makes soap. Some make jellies and jams. The Camaldolese make amazing fruitcake. But we never developed anything like that. Until now, we only produced ceramics, and even these were designed by a brother monk in Belgium. We really needed to do something different. MonksInk was a good fit.
The article goes on to detail their offerings:
Product selection meets or exceeds what one could find at any big box office supply store — including ink and toner options for every make and model of printer, fax and copy machine, from HP and Epson to Xerox, and every brand in between. Buyers also have their choice of original manufacturer products, alternative cost-saving brands, or re-manufactured items. And, the monks are quick to point out, anyone can always add a prayer request or two as well! (more…)
Over at Rough Trade, the always intriguing James Poulos celebrates the increased attention now being given to the “relationship between economic and religious life,” pointing to the Acton Institute’s very own Samuel Gregg to kick things off.
Yet he remains unsatisfied, fearful of a return to what he views to be unhelpful “conceptual frameworks and cultural antagonisms” of the past, and urging us to push toward “a new mode of analysis that breaks away from the old, exhausting debates.” For Poulos, this means embracing an “economics of grace,” an interrelated component of something he has called “radicaltarianism” in the past (see more on this here and here).
Poulos observes the typical divides among Christians as follows:
Christians who accept these teachings [about the fall of man and grace] tend to split into two economic camps: those who lean toward an uncritical embrace of free-market capitalism, and those who tilt toward a far more skeptical, suspicious attitude. For the first group, the social upshot of Christianity is an institutional framework that supports flourishing with minimal reliance on the state. Christianity supplies a good foundation for market activity. For the second, the most durable and authentic institutional frameworks supplied by Christianity raise damning questions about the sustainability of neoliberalism — the secular “democratic faith” that gives market capitalism its modern philosophical foundations. For both groups, the key is that, ultimately, religion drives sustainable economic life. The difference is that the first group typically understands religion in a Protestant way, as a driver of explosive, and morally legitimate, economic growth, while the second takes a more Catholic view, doubtful of the moral purity of explosive growth, and focused much less on growing capital than other sorts of things, like families.
Describing the state of the debate more broadly, Poulos argues that our political factions have also proven unhelpful, using terms like “economic growth” based on limited materialistic assumptions. (more…)
I recently argued that although vocation is important, there is a certain something that goes before and beyond it. As Lester DeKoster puts it, “The meaning we seek has to be in work itself.”
Over at Think Christian, John Van Sloten puts forth something similar, focusing on our efforts to work for the common good— something not altogether separate from vocation:
There’s a lot of talk in faith/work circles about the idea of working for the common good – for the good of your neighbor, city, company, classmate, family member, environment and world.
It’s a good idea and an integral part of a balanced vocational worldview. But I think it falls short. And it’s not all that work is meant to be. In fact, sometimes it gets in the way.
Sometimes working for the common good is an impediment to what is work’s primary purpose: a real-time knowing and experience of God. Sometimes working for the common good becomes a works-based means of vocational salvation. And life with God becomes something that’s based on what we do for God as opposed to who we are before Him…
…Work must first be a gratitude-based response to a grace-filled encounter with our co-working God. It must be a place where we experience the presence of, are swept away by the creativity of, are enthralled by the beauty of, are humbled by the service of and are blown away by the mind of … God. (more…)
According to Fikkert, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation between 1900 and 1930 encouraged the welfare state to grow to its size today. Church historians refer to this era as the “Great Reversal” because the evangelical church’s shift away from the poor was so dramatic.
In Faithful in All God’s House: Stewardship and the Christian Life, Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster make a similar case. They argue that “the church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” They also cast the hopeful vision that another reversal might occur: “The church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems if enough believers caught the vision.”
While Fikkert is largely drawing on the early twentieth century in America for his argument, Berghoef and DeKoster examine more broadly the Christian perspective on the relationship between faith and works of charity. This dynamic is, after all, is a perennial challenge for Christian social engagement, and the interaction between the Social Gospel and evangelicalism in America is just one example. Another is the reversal over the last century or so in the Netherlands, where there has been a move from Abraham Kuyper’s claim that “all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” to the church’s plea “for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government.” (more…)
Joseph Sunde’s fine post today on vocation examines the dynamic between work and toil, the former corresponding to God’s creational ordinance and the latter referring to the corruption of that ordinance in light of the Fall into sin.
Joseph employs a distinction between “needs-based” work and something else, something privileged, a first-world kind of “fulfilling” work. The point DeKoster makes is right on target; we need to, in Bonhoeffer’s words, break through from the “it” of the work to the “you” (ultimately the divine “You”) that we meet in the work itself.
The discussions of these kinds of distinctions between “hard” work and “head” work have a long pedigree. There was a philosophical dispute running throughout the ancient and medieval eras about the value of the active versus the contemplative life. But I’d like to highlight a more proximate antecedent for some of this thinking, the British controversialist and critic John Ruskin (1819-1900).
Television is often lamented for its propensity to exaggerate the mundane and the ordinary. Yet when it comes to something as routinely downplayed and unfairly pooh-poohed as our daily work—the “rat race,” the “grindstone,” yadda-yadda—I wonder if television’s over-the-top tendencies might be just what we need to reorient our thinking about the broader significance of our work.
As I’ve argued previously, we face a constant temptation to limit our economic endeavors to the temporal and the material, focusing only on “putting in our 40,” working for the next paycheck, and tucking away enough cash for a cozy retirement. Whether we know it or not, plenty of transcendent activity is also taking place in such efforts, whether through our service, creativity, productivity, collaboration, relationship-building, or plain-old ordinary exchange. How we think about the greater significance and spiritual potential of our efforts is bound to impact how we behave in our daily efforts, either pushing us in the direction of earthbound toil or unleashing us further toward transcendent ends.
If, as Lester DeKoster puts it, work is the “meaning of our lives,” whether we’re scrubbing toilets or selling high-priced widgets, it would seem that such a striking and all-encompassing reality deserves at least a little drama. Thus, below is a select list of my favorite TV shows that draw out some of these features (some more sincerely and effectively than others). None are “Christian” in any explicit sense, and each involves its own share of tasteless theatrics and contrived scenarios, but each nevertheless illuminates some untold truths about the significance of our work beyond the merely material.
(Tip to producers: Add a concerted focus on the will of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to any one of these shows, and that Emmy is a shoo-in.)
5. Dirty Jobs
Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe is passionate about “celebrating hard work and skilled labor,” and by trying his hand at some of the dirtiest jobs in the land, from coal miner to sewage sifter to animal-husbandry parts-grabber, he has drawn enormous attention to some of the less celebrated and most essential jobs around. Each has its own unique requirements and pay scale, but plenty of Rowe’s undertakings involve manual labor that we might be tempted to label “undignified” or “dehumanizing.” Yet even the persistently cheery Rowe—who is surely well paid for his toil—is rarely able to outdo the positive attitudes of these workers. These are folks who ooze with passion, pride, and an acute awareness of the pressing needs they are meeting in their local communities and society at large. (more…)
In his latest column, Ross Douthat contemplates what a world without work might look like:
Imagine, as 19th-century utopians often did, a society rich enough that fewer and fewer people need to work — a society where leisure becomes universally accessible, where part-time jobs replace the regimented workweek, and where living standards keep rising even though more people have left the work force altogether.
If such a utopia were possible, one might expect that it would be achieved first among the upper classes, and then gradually spread down the social ladder. First the wealthy would work shorter hours, then the middle class, and finally even high school dropouts would be able to sleep late and take four-day weekends and choose their own adventures.” — “to hunt in the morning,” as Karl Marx once prophesied, “fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner …”
Yet a widespread decline in work is not just an imaginative possibility. As Douthat goes on to argue, such decline has become “a basic reality of 21st-century American life,“ but without following the typical Marxist trajectory. “Instead of spreading from the top down,” Douthat notes, “leisure time – wanted or unwanted – is expanding from the bottom up. Long hours are increasingly the province of the rich.” Despite our persistent longing for rest and relaxation, however, this trend is not viewed as a positive development for society, even for the folks at Mother Jones.
Further, as Charles Murray explains in his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, our attitudes about work have also begun shifting, again, disproportionally among the lower classes. Pointing to a General Social Survey study that asked participants what they prefer in a job, Murray points out that the leading preference across all income groups during the 1970s was a job that “gives a feeling of accomplishment.” Soon thereafter, beginning in the 1990s, this preference began to shift significantly among the lower classes, who began to put higher preference on jobs with “no danger of being fired” or where “working hours are short.” (more…)
I recently pondered what might come of the global economy if we were to to put God at the forefront of our motives and decision-making. The question came as a reaction to Tim Keller, whose recent book calls on Christians to challenge their views about work. By re-orienting our work to be a “servant” instead of a “lord,” Keller argues, we will actually find more fulfillment in the work that we do.
Keller’s main point in the video I discussed was to caution against our human preferences for idol carving. Although this is a valuable word of warning, it’s also worth noting that in a more basic sense, our work is already service.
The extent to which this is practically true will depend on a variety of factors — the type of work we’re doing, the type of economic system we’re engaged in, the levels of cronyism, artificiality, and misinformation in the economic environment that surrounds us — but by and large, our work is concentrated on actually fulfilling the particular needs of particular persons. As Lester DeKoster writes in Work: The Meaning of Your Life: “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.”
Through this understanding, perhaps a clearer way of expressing things is that work is less about whether we’re serving and more about who we’re serving. At the core, this simply rehashes Keller’s original point, prodding us to ask ourselves whether we’re serving God or something else (i.e. anything else). But beyond this, in those rougher, hazier areas of human discernment, it also empowers us to ask some other productive questions.
For example, in examining the ways in which trade and exchange impact human relationships across broader society, DeKoster contrasts life in the African bush with life in Western civilization, noting that the primary difference lies in work: “The bush people have to do everything for themselves. Civilization is sharing in the work of others.”
As DeKoster goes on to explain:
Our working puts us in the service of others; the civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind… Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding…As seed multiplies into a harvest under the wings of the Holy Spirit, so work multiplies into a civilization under the intricate hand of the same Spirit. (more…)
On the one hand, when we understand DeKoster’s definition of work, we might be a bit more amenable to the suggestion. DeKoster says that work is essentially our “service of others.” This means that “work” as such is not strictly defined as waged labor outside the home, for instance.
But there is another sense in which even this more restricted and perhaps common sense of work has under-appreciated significance. As DeKoster opens the book, he puts it plainly: “Work gets the largest single block of our lives.” Doubt this assertion? Take a look at this infographic from Planet Money that breaks down a typical day for someone with a full-time job:
Time spent on something is only one measure of importance, to be sure, but it is an important one. And the fact that, as DeKoster puts it, “work gets the single largest block of our lives,” makes it even more critical that we understand what makes work meaningful. For that understanding and as we approach this Labor Day weekend, DeKoster’s book is a great place to start.
Thank you to our friends at The High Calling for excerpting this passage of Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life, recently republished by The Acton Institute and Christian’s Library Press. DeKoster, the former professor and director of the library at Calvin College and Seminary, also edited The Banner, the Christian Reformed Church’s monthly publication. Acton is grateful for its relationship with both The High Calling and DeKoster, who left his 10,000+ book library to the Acton Institute upon his passing in 2009.