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.
David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1989
OK folks, here’s my review of (the first half of) my friend Jennifer Woodruff Tait’s University of Alabama Press book, The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism (2011). Dr. Woodruff Tait is (I say it frequently) the best writer I know, hands-down. She has 18th-century clarity and 19th-century passion for her topic.
True confession: This blog tour has hit me at an extraordinarily busy time. I did read Jenn’s dissertation all the way through several years ago—and not just because she cited my dissertation several times in her first chapter. I was fascinated by the story she tells. I can say that this time around, I read 69 of her 129 pages, and I remembered why I appreciate her historical scholarship so much, and why I hope she will research and write again, to our edification.
Without further ado, then: Continue reading
OK, now that I’ve got the attention of all the Danny Kaye fans (yes, the headline quotation comes from the wonderful movie The Court Jester) . . .
Watch this space tonight for a brief review – part of a “blog tour” – of Jennifer Woodruff Tait’s fascinating book The Poisoned Chalice. All I’ll say now is that it’s about the 19th-century shift in American Methodism from wine to grape juice in the Eucharist. And if that seems a small or limited topic, you won’t believe how many other things come spilling out when Jennifer pulls that thread (or that cork?).