Russell and Duenes

“No Crooked Table Legs or Ill-Fitted Drawers ever…Came Out of the Carpenter’s Shop at Nazareth”

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My cousin-in-law tipped me off to Dorothy Sayer’s little essay: Why Work? It has some really fabulous tidbits in it about a Christian view of work which may help guide one’s thinking, particularly about secular jobs. She writes,

The habit of thinking about work as something one does to make money is so ingrained in us that we can scarcely imagine what a revolutionary change it would be to think about it instead in terms of the work done. To do so would mean taking the attitude of mind we reserve for our unpaid work – our hobbies, our leisure interests, the things we make and do for pleasure – and making that the standard for all our judgments about things and  people.”

I don’t think Sayers means by this that we must have the same affection for our paid work that we have for our unpaid work. I may work as an attorney, yet gain a great deal more enjoyment out of building things or writing music or penning poems. Rather, I take her meaning to be that I should do my work as an attorney, butcher or teacher for the sake of the work itself, with the same attitude toward quality and excellence that I would take toward my work in building things on the side. The fact that I get paid to be an attorney should not affect the manner and enthusiasm by which I go about it at all.

Sayers says that one of the questions we should ask of work is not “how much a week?” but “will it exercise my faculties to the utmost?” She analogizes to wartime production, stating that,

“In war, production for wasteful consumption still goes on: but there is one great difference in the good produced. None of them is valued for what it will fetch, but only for what it is worth in itself. The gun and the tank, the airplane and the warship have to be the best of their kind. A war consumer does not buy shoddy . . . He buys the thing that is good for its purpose, asking nothing of it but that it shall do the job it has to do.”

This is the kind of work that has real value, according to Sayers. It is the way we should do work in peacetime as well. She says that this is not really an economic issue, but fundamentally a religious one.

Sayers goes on to provide three principles which she says make up a Christian understanding of work.

(1) “Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.” One consequence of this way of approaching work is that we will view the relationship between leisure and work differently. As Sayers says, we will stop seeing work as something to “get through” so that we can get to our leisure. Rather, we will see leisure as a necessary time of refreshing ourselves so that we can get back to “the delightful purpose of getting on with our work.” This also presupposes that work is not a curse, not a burden imposed on us by man’s fall into sin and condemnation, but rather, a blessing which God fitted man to engage in from the very start, in the perfection of the Garden of Eden. We were created for work, not eternal idleness.

(2) “It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred. Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work.” In other words, the Bible knows of no “secular-sacred” divide when it comes to life, and work in particular. A man or woman “must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation.”

Sayers asks the question: “How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?” This was something I was confronted with as a high school Bible teacher. At the Christian school there was constantly lurking this premise that “full time Christian ministry” was the real work of ministry, and that impact for the kingdom of God was somehow going to be greater if one became a worship leader, pastor or high school Bible teacher. Men are “called” to be pastors, we are told. No one ever said, “I’m called to be a tool and die maker.” Even the terms “vocational ministry” or “full time Christian ministry” are misleading.

Sayers really finds her stride when she starts talking about how the Church allows itself to excuse shoddy workmanship  as long as that workmanship is “Christian” or done at the hands of Christians. She writes:

Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate or permit a pious intention to excuse so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.”

Sayers gives her reason for why this is, namely, that we have forgotten that God’s truth and nature is expressed in good work, not just any old work. I would say that it also comes from a modern theological position which relegates large swaths of life, work included, to the designation of a “means to an end.” In other words, all of our work is going to “burn up” in the end, so work is therefore only good insofar as it gives one a chance to verbally share the gospel message, make money to provide for one’s family and advance the full-time ministries of the church. But I wholeheartedly agree with Sayer’s contention that “work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.” It is not good enough for a Christian filmmaker, say, to hire actors on the basis of their Christian character, even though they are marginal actors. Incompetence brings ill-repute on the Church, says Sayers.

Sayers goes on to emphasize that work should be the main thing we are engaged in:

It is your business, you churchmen, to get what good you can from observing [the secular worker’s] work – not to take him away from it, so that he may do ecclesiastical work for you. But, if you have any power, see that he is set free to do his own work as well as it may be done. He is not there to serve you; he is there to serve God by serving his work.”

(3) “The worker’s first duty is to serve the work.” By this Sayers means that workers should not aim to “serve the community,” but rather, to serve the work. She gives three reasons for this: (a) If you pay attention to how the community is receiving your work, you lose your focus on the excellence of the work, and “work that is not good serves neither God nor the community; it only serves mammon;” (b) If you try to serve the community first and foremost, rather than serving the work, “you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community;” and (c) If you try to serve the community, you may lose the goodness and integrity which the work demands by playing to the ever-changing whims and demands of the community. “The work has been falsified to please the public, and in the end even the public is not pleased. As it is with works of art, so it is with work.”

Finally, Sayers says that, for the Christian, work must flow from who we are; “as we are so we make.” Thus, the Church exists to make us Christians, and once we are Christians, our work will flow from this. Our work will be “the expression of ourselves.” But the Church does not exist to tell the worker the manner in which to go about his or her work, “except to insist that the workman should be free to do his work well according to its own integrity.”

Obviously Sayers’ essay is not the only word on work, and I did not agree with all of her musings on what produces a thriving economy. Further, she does not comment at all on how so-called domestic work might fit into her paradigm (though one can imagine what she might say). That said, I found the above portions good meat to chew on as I go about the sacred task of my daily secular work under God’s rule and reign. I heartily recommend her piece.




Written by Michael Duenes

December 27, 2014 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Duenes, Economics, Work

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