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 . . .”
Posted in Resources for Radical Living, Work with purpose
Tagged ancient-future, Bible, biblicism, Christ and culture, conversion, emotion, evangelicalism, immediatism, pop culture, popular culture, youth culture
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.”
He also tried to help. Continue reading
A couple of months ago, Seattle Pacific University held a conference centered on a new book by Indiana Wesleyan University Provost David Wright, How God Makes the World A Better Place: A Wesleyan Primer on Faith, Work, and Economic Transformation. I was invited to introduce a couple of the meetings at the conference with some remarks tied to David’s work and to Wesley’s thinking on work and economics.
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