For those who enjoyed my faith & science history series over the past couple of weeks, there’s a treasure trove awaiting: The recent Christian History issue(s) on the same topic. You can browse the issue in full color and download pdfs of individual articles here.
Which reminds me to say . . .
. . . if I had a nickel for every time someone has said they didn’t know that Christian History had re-started after its then 26-year run ended in the fateful year 2008 . . . well, I’d be able to buy a fancy coffee or two. And little did anyone know – leastwise the magazine’s editors and parent (non-profit) organization – that in 2022 we’d be cruising into CH’s 40th anniversary year (special anniversary issue coming – keep an eye out at this link!).
But since 2011, the magazine has indeed lived again – and what a run it’s been, under the indefatigable editorial leadership of scholar/editor/writer/priest extraordinaire Jennifer Woodruff Tait. Among the topics we’ve covered just in the past few years: America’s love affair with the Bible; CS Lewis’s friends & family and their influence on him; Christian support for the common good in science, healthcare, higher education, the public square, and the marketplace; Christianity and Judaism; plagues and epidemics; Latin American Christianity; the women of the Reformation; the Quakers . . .
And for those interested in topics churchly/scientific, check out the following issues:
The “faith and work movement” in America is in danger of deepening the sacred-secular divide . . . by approaching and understanding church in some secularizing ways. If we want to find the sacred in the world – including in our workplaces – we must first find it in our churches. And when we do, our work can be revolutionized.
That is the burden of this short TED-style talk I recently presented at a meeting of faculty members teaching in the Oikonomia Network of seminaries. The talk draws from a still-popular book called For the Life of the World, based on a series of talks on the mission of the church by the late Alexander Schmemann of St. Vladimir’s Seminary (Eastern Orthodox) in New York.
On Luther, more later. But now another challenging question arises in our complex, post-Christian workplaces full of real, fallen people:
Does practicing the virtues demanded by the working life (such as industriousness, self-control, service to others, obedience to rules and leaders) reduce us to drones or pawns in exploitive structures of modern work? Or, Does becoming a good Christian worker mean sacrificing social conscience for placid obedience—prophetic witness for financial security?
To help us answer this, we turn to our second past leader, England’s 18th-century evangelical pioneer, John Wesley.
Anyone remember the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics? As the spectacle started, before millions of worldwide viewers, England’s pastoral island paradise rose slowly into view from below ground, to the wafting strains of British composer Edward Elgar.
But then – suddenly – the paradise was shattered.
Like missiles from silos, belching smokestacks shot up to dominate the landscape, accompanied by violent drumming and harsh music. The Industrial Revolution had arrived. Legions of laborers overran the green land, marching and working rhythmically under the watchful eyes of black-coated capitalists. TV commentators gleefully quoted the Victorain poet William Blake, describing how the Industrial Revolution’s “Satanic mills” had brutalized the landscape and crushed workers. The ceremony’s creator, they told viewers, had titled this section “Pandemonium,” after the capital city of hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
This dramatic vignette sets the stage for our second question about whether Christians are capitulating to immorality if they lend their labor to the industries of a secular world. Certain historians have leveled exactly this charge against one of the most active British Christian movements during the time of the industrial revolution: the Methodists. These historians have argued that the early Methodists simply capitulated, like sheep and slaves, to the worst of the Industrial Revolution, perpetuating its abuses when they should have stood against them.
Methodism was born in the late 1730s—when the steady industrious virtue of the old Puritans and the new capitalist habits of long-term investment were beginning to build the commercial machine that would drive Western economic growth in the centuries to come.
Here’s a piece I did a little while back on Patheos.com on who evangelicals are and where they’re headed – getting to the nub of the matter.
A little taste:
“What do this fundamental immediatism and this youth-driven quality mean for the future of evangelicalism? First, they very likely mean that whatever touches the hearts and minds of the generation rising right now – the adolescents of today – that will shape evangelical worship, ecclesiology, and doctrine for years to come.
“An optimist could point to the dynamism and renewal that emerged from past youth movements, or to the laudable and faithful concern of many young evangelicals today for justice, creation care, and other historical blind spots of the movement.
“A pessimist, however, would say that this is very bad news indeed. They could point to sociologist Christian Smith’s famous diagnosis of evangelical youth as mired in “moralistic therapeutic deism”: the theologically vapid belief in a kindly grandfather God who lavishes blessings and requires no accountability—this we might call immediatism gone, at last, to seed . . .”
Attending the Q Conference in Boston this past week, I was reminded that almost any evangelical who wants to leverage their vocation to change the world takes William Wilberforce’s Clapham group as a sort of knights-of-the-round-table paradigm. But few seem to know much about this remarkable group. So as a public service, here’s my . . .
10 Things You Don’t Know about the Clapham Sect
First the basics: The Clapham Sect was a group of aristocratic evangelical Anglicans, prominent in England from about 1790 to 1830, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery (among many other causes) and promoted missionary work at home and abroad. The group centered on the church of John Venn, rector of Clapham in south London.
Today these activists are frequently held up as an example of Christian social-justice reform to be emulated. It’s always good to know a few things about someone you’re going to emulate, so here are 10 things you probably don’t know about the Clapham Sect:
Aside from the great parliamentarian William Wilberforce and several other MPs, the group also included a
The term “Clapham Sect” was a later invention by James Stephen in an article of 1844 which celebrated and romanticized the work of these reformers. In their own time the group used no particular name, but they were lampooned by outsiders as “the saints.”
Though they were of aristocratic background and many of held positions of power and influence, the Clapham group’s involvement in the abolition cause brought significant social stigma on their heads. The English ruling classes viewed abolitionists as radical and dangerous, similar to French revolutionaries of the day
It is well known that early Methodism flourished most among the new working and middle classes – the artisans and entrepreneurs who were rising up above their formerly lowly status in the ancestral class system, in which for example Anglican priests were members of the upper class, and wielded disproportionate social as well as religious authority in the towns. It was the newly discovered mobility that allowed them to rise through industry, frugality, and investment of their time, talents, and treasures that also allowed them to question and challenge the Anglican religious establishment. Such people naturally gravitated to the fervent, warm-hearted, and freeing message of Wesley’s “born-again” religion and its free, democratic organization in small groups and mutual aid societies.
Methodism itself was in many ways entrepreneurial, and so it shouldn’t surprise that it enjoyed good relations with business such as the mining companies of Cornwall. Many of Wesley’s early converts were miners and other workers. The Wesleyan message, meetings, and organizations gave confidence to the people working in the mining businesses, and helped those who led the businesses to do so in ways that made their communities more healthy. Numerous mine captains were also Methodist preachers who communicated to their communities the powerful messages of respectability and self-improvement, thus helping to ensure that Methodism became the most relevant religious institution for laborers and the working class – far more so than the Established Church of England. Continue reading →
While Wesley (1703–1791) claimed that Christians ought to preach repentance often and politics rarely, except when necessary to defend the king, he was actually not shy about expressing his political and economic opinions. Those opinions were typical of an upper-middle-class, Oxford-educated clergyman, but that did not mean he was unconcerned about the problems of English society.
One of his responses was to issue scathing indictments of those who profited off of others. His tract “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions,” for instance, claimed that the poor were hungry because of the influence of “distilling, taxes, and luxury.”
This is what I said at a lunch event with a roomful of SPU professors:
“How God Makes the World a Better Place: Wesleyan Contributions to a Social Framework for Human Flourishing”
First, I want us to understand the service that David has done to the church by opening the conversation on Wesley and economics in this little primer.
When I first knew that I’d be here today with you to think together about this topic, I contacted the smartest scholar of Wesley and things Wesleyan that I know: Randy Maddox, who is now at my alma mater, Duke University. “Randy,” I said, “A group is getting together in your old stomping grounds in April to talk about what Wesley can teach us about work and economics. Can you point me to some sources on that?”
Now I had full expectation that Randy would set me in a good direction. After all, this was the man who decades ago, in a chance conversation on an airplane, basically gave me an entire starting bibliography for my dissertation on the American Wesleyan holiness movement.
Instead, Randy said: “That’s great. So glad you’ll be talking about this. But this is a seriously understudied area. Almost nobody has written about this. There just aren’t that many sources I can point you toward.” Shocking! One of the world’s leading experts on Wesley not only couldn’t tell me much about this topic, but he couldn’t even point me to scholarly sources on it. That’s when I knew I had my work cut out for me. Continue reading →
This is what I said at a breakfast event with a roomful of eager SPU school of theology students and fellow-travelers:
Where can we learn from Wesley in the area of work and economics?
Theological first principles
The focus of this primer is “Work as cooperation with God.”
“In the Wesleyan view, godly work is not defined by what one does, but by the way one does it,” says David. I think that’s fair to say, and I would add, not only the way one does it, but the motivations and character out of which those actions flow. In examining the motives behind John Wesley’s extraordinary lifelong dedication toward bringing material as well as spiritual flourishing to the poor, Duke’s Richard Heitzenrater argues that it comes most fundamentally from a Christian virtue ethic, not an ethic of obligation.
An ethic of obligation sets the rules and laws for behavior, and then lays down the imperative: Go and do it! A virtue ethic recognizes that despite what Nike would tell you, you can’t “Just do it.” You have to “be it” before you can “do it.” Ethical behavior flows from ethical character. And ethical character is not a matter of gritting your teeth and performing a series of actions. It is about having your heart changed. Continue reading →
One of my favorite pedagogues these days is James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College. In his series-in-progress entitled Cultural Liturgies, he argues that human beings are not primarily thinking animals but must be regarded instead as “desiring animals.” Head knowledge, especially head knowledge gained from an instructor who is “teaching to the test,” is aimed at the wrong part of the moral anatomy to make good citizens. We need a pedagogy that “aims below the head,” says Smith, in order to help students rightly order their loves and desires.
. . .
The kind of close reading advocated by Lewis meets what I believe is an innate desire for self-transcendence. “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own,” Lewis writes. He compares close reading with love, with moral action, and even with the fundamental act of learning. “In love we escape from our self into one another …. [E]very act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place .”
Thanks, David Neff, for your reflection on education today. You (and C. S. Lewis and James K. A. Smith) hit the nail on the head.
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