Though some work may seem useless, Christians understand that all work is God’s work. Our work only seems insignificant because we fail to grasp the big picture. This is what economists refer to as the “knowledge problem.” The knowledge problem means we can’t always see the big picture because knowledge is dispersed among many people; no one person knows everything. In the vocational sense, this means we may not understand how our work is part of a much larger economic dynamic. If we can’t easily see how our work contributes to the common good, we may understate the effect of what we do.
Some positions make it difficult for workers to see the end product, but that certainly does not mean that their work is insignificant. Just because a factory worker doesn’t receive the instant gratification of seeing the final product that he helped to create doesn’t change the reality that his effort contributed to that product…
… It’s important to remember that the value of our work may never be fully realized in our lifetime. In medieval times, it could take hundreds of years to build a single cathedral. The laborer laying the cornerstone might never live to see the top of the steeple. (more…)
On a return trip from summer camp, Michael Hess’s young son was stuck at Chicago O’Hare airport on a four-hour layover. Having run out of his spending money, he soon grew hungry and called his Dad for help.
His father’s recommended solution: “go to any of the sit-down restaurants and ask if his dad could give them a credit card over the phone.” His son tried it, and everyone turned him down. “None would even try to figure out a way to help,” Hess explains.
What happens next is quite delightful:
But as a concerned dad, I couldn’t give up. Knowing O’Hare practically by heart, and being addicted to pizza, I knew that there was a Wolfgang Puck Express (“WPE” in the dialog to follow) not far from where he was killing time, and with two or three calls I was able to reach them directly. This is how the call went:
Me: “Is there any way you can take my card and charge his meal? I’ll send a picture of the card, whatever you need to feel comfortable.”
WPE: “Unfortunately, we have no way of taking a credit card over the phone…”
Me (assuming that was the end of the sentence): “But, there must be some…”
WPE: “..so just send your boy in here and we’ll make sure he gets a good meal. My store manager and operations manager are both here, and we don’t want him to be sitting around hungry. You don’t have to worry about paying for it.” (more…)
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.
Over at Think Christian, Aron Reppmann asks whether there is a distinctly Christian way to vacation: “We have learned to approach our work as vocation, a calling from God, but what about our leisure?”
Reppmann notes that one major temptation in modern society is to view vacation as a form of escape. Put in your 40, week after week, and hopefully, in Week X of Month Y, you’ll be able to leave your day-to-day activities behind. Close your eyes, sip your fruity drink, and let it all just slip away.
But escape from what? What does such a view indicate about how we’re approaching our daily work?
The word “vacation” itself doesn’t offer much help for this kind of reflection; with its echoes of “vacant” and “vacate,” it mostly conjures up a sense of absence. Vacationers commonly express a desire to “get away from it all,” but it’s hard to derive a positive sense of vacational vocation from that atmosphere of emptiness. While there’s nothing wrong with taking a break, stepping away – in a word, sabbath – there is also a trap in holding a merely negative definition of vacation…. Vacation understood simply as “getting away from it all” is a sign of a negative concept of freedom.
Reppmann goes on to argue that modern society over-elevates negative freedom — freedom from something — which has led many Christians to forget or ignore the positive freedom — freedom for something — that Christianity is all about.
This, he concludes, leads to an unfortunate imbalance in our thinking on work and leisure: (more…)
Over at Think Christian, I reflect on an “authentically Christian” view of work, which takes into account its limitations, failings, and travails, as well as its promises, prospects, and providential foundations.
The TC piece is in response to a post by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, in which they juxtapose the pscyhologizing of work as subjectively authentic self-expression with their own preferred view of work as something done simply “for the sake of sustenance.”
Critchley and Webster are right to point to the dangers of unchecked subjectivism, but are wrong in devaluing work as merely instrumental. David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary penned a monumental indictment of the inroads radical subjectivism has made in Christian, and particularly evangelical, circles in his 1994 book, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. As Wells puts it, the difference between the objective and subjective points of departure for our knowledge amount to two different ways of seeing the world; one is biblical, the other is worldly. “The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the sense can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent,” writes Wells.
More recently, Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia analyzed the shift from objective measures of oppression to subjective psychologizing in the context of political ideology. “Supplementing the economic categories of Marx with the psychoanalytic categories of Freud, Marcuse and his followers effectively broadened the whole notion of oppression to include the psychological realm. Such a move is dramatic in the implications it has for the way one views politics. Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes something rather more difficult to see, i.e., a matter of the psychology of social relations,” writes Trueman. (more…)
The problem, Kruse argues, is that such a strategy doesn’t exist:
As leaders, we need to realize that to make faith and discipleship integrated in our congregations, we cannot do it with our congregation’s existing knowledge and skills, requiring those in our congregation (including ourselves) to make a shift in our values, expectations, attitudes, and behaviors. You see, while some of us sense a need for better integration of faith with vocation, there are significant obstacles.
Most Christians do not have a theological framework that accommodates the integration of faith and vocation. Many are even hostile to the idea. They are more comfortable with a life that is not integrated, compartmentalizing work and discipleship. Any attempts at integration feel like intrusions into their private lives. Worship is viewed as an escape from “secular” concerns. And let’s face it, if we really pursue integration, we will discover uncomfortable things about our lives.
Indeed, as the Acton Institute’s Stephen Grabill points out in his foreword to Lester DeKoster’s Work: The Meaning of Your Life, despite many Christians having an “implicit sense that work is good because it carries out the cultural mandate,” we have failed to grasp that work is, further, “one of the core elements of discipleship and spiritual formation.”
To start chipping away at this convenient and comfortable disposition, Kruse offers some basic and broad ideas to help church leaders begin the integration process with their congregations. (Amy Sherman offered a similarly themed set of recommendations a few months ago.) (more…)
“Retirement as a cultural concept needs to go away.” So says Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in a thought-provoking piece today over at Forbes.
I agree with the sentiment, in large part because good work never ends.
But as Gobry also illustrates, we need to rethink our conceptions of work as well as retirement, which for many is just another way of talking about the end of work.
Most of us have spent at least a little time working in jobs we weren’t thrilled about. For me, it peaked with McDonald’s (no offense, Ronald).
For Trevin Wax, it was Cracker Barrel:
I never wanted to work at Cracker Barrel. I had business experience as an office manager, plus five years of international missions experience tucked under my belt.
But none of that mattered when the most pressing question was, How will you provide for your wife and son this week? Like many before and after me, I did whatever was necessary.
In the past, I’ve referred to such work as “needs-based” — an adjective that would seem highly redundant to most of our ancestors, not to mention plenty of today’s poor. Our now-widespread discussions and contemplations about vocation and personal calling are somewhat new, and we should be careful to recognize why exactly we have the reactions we do about working at reliable, air-conditioned joints like Cracker Barrel.
Each new wave of economic progress and individual empowerment has brought more opportunity to look upward and onward, beyond meeting our own needs and toward something bigger and brighter and so on. This is a marvelous thing, but with such opportunity and privilege also comes a temptation to look inward when it’s convenient — to rejoice in ourselves when we succeed and get grumpy when we wind up sniffing grease at Cracker Barrel.
Wax, however, looks back on his experience as much more than a pay-the-bills moment. Rather, the 18 months he spent at Cracker Barrel serves as “a reminder of the Lord’s faithfulness to us during a difficult, sometimes frustrating, season of life.” Pointing out that “there are hidden blessings in unwelcome work,” Wax proceeds to offer four reminders for those who find themselves in work situations that don’t seem to fit the mission. (more…)
In the most recent issue of Religion & Liberty, the “In the Liberal Tradition” section profiles Metropolitan St. Philip II of Moscow for his defense of faith and freedom in the face of the tyranny of Tsar Ivan IV, known to history as “Ivan the Terrible.” In contrast to Ivan, who used his power to oppress his own people, Philip taught, “He alone can in truth call himself sovereign who is master of himself, who is not subject to his passions and conquers by charity.” Among the many spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition geared towards freeing a person from being “subject to his passions,” we can see Philip’s love of labor in his many projects at the Solovki monastery in the years before he was made Metropolitan of Moscow. (more…)
As already discussed, Matthew Lee Anderson’s recent Christianity Today cover story on “radical Christianity” has been making waves. This week at The High Calling, Marcus Goodyear offers a healthy critique of one of Anderson’s key subjects, David Platt, aligning quite closely with Anderson’s analysis about the ultimate challenges such movements face when it comes to long-term cultural cultivation.
Focusing on Platt’s latest book, Follow Me, Goodyear notes that, despite Platt’s admirable efforts to get Christians “off their seats,” he often “emphasizes the great commission so much, it overshadows all other teachings of the Bible.”
Pointing to John Stott’s book, Christian Mission in the Modern World, Goodyear argues that we mustn’t neglect the rest:
[Platt’s] kind of thinking can lead us to forget that God is “the Creator who in the beginning gave man a ‘cultural mandate’ to subdue and rule the earth, who has instituted governing authorities as his ‘ministers’ to order society and maintain justice.”
According to Stott, Christians must take the original cultural mandate in Genesis as seriously as the great commission. Our approach to missions must view social justice and vocational good as more than a means to evangelism. We are called to share our faith. There is no question about that. But we are also called to more than words. We are called to work in the world today just as we were before the Fall.
Indeed, there is an unfortunate tendency in evangelicalism to prioritize short-term evangelism over long-term cultural engagement, whether in business, the arts, or even the family. Yet in addition to the negative impacts such an approach is bound to have on both our cultural impact and our evangelism, it all begins with a fundamental distortion of how we view our daily work in and of itself. (more…)