Vacancy at the Christian Mind: Only Arty Middle Class Intellectuals Need Apply

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I confess that I am reeling from the fact that, at an age when I was still reading books with titles like Biggles Beats the Boche and comics where crowds of German soldiers, screaming words like `Achtung! Achtung!' and `Ze Britisher peegs must die!' were regularly massacred in hails of bullets fired from guns held by chipper British Tommies, Liam was reading Barth. A twelve year old reading Barth, for pity's sake!?! That kind of thing should get your parents reported to the social services.

Still, here's a thought (or a small collection of them).   In class the other day, I was talking about Luther's veritable annihilation of the sacred-secular divide in his Appeal to the German Nobility of 1520, and it caused me to spend a few moments reflecting on the whole notion of `the Christian mind' and the idea of the `Christian life and world view.'

Whenever I reflect on this, my mind goes back to the summer of 1987, when I spent a few months working on a production line in a local factory.   8 till 4:30 every day; an environment so noisy that headphones were highly desirable, if not quite legally required; and work so repetitive that I had hoped to spend the time doing some thinking; but as the noise killed the possibility of conversation, so the potential danger of not focusing on the machinery at hand prevented meaningful meditation on beautiful themes.

For me, the job was a means to an end: I wanted to earn the money to spend a month  self-indulgently bumming around Morocco with a backpack and a couple of friends in order to `find myself.'  The amazing thing was that, at the end of the trip, I had indeed `found myself,' and, surprise, surprise, it turned out that I had never really been lost but had been here all the time!   Surprising as it may seem, I was located in the space between the soles of my feet and the top of my head. Amazing.   In retrospect, I could just as easily have `found myself,' whilst at the same time saving all the money I earned in the factory, if I had just stayed home that September and gazed at my own navel; but, that being conceded, I would have missed out on the delights of having a drink in Casablanca at a bar called `Rick's' (hey, aren't they all?), seeing snake charmers and holy men in action in Marrakesh, and, most memorable of all, finding an alien toe nail of dubious provenance and odd pigmentation at the bottom of a Diet Coke I had just finished.  Strange how some memories stay with you for life.

I hated the factory job: it was boring, mindless, dirty, and grim; but it was temporary, brief, and a means to an end.  It also changed my way of thinking: some years later, I was driving past the factory at clocking off time and then I saw them, the same people I had worked with that summer, filing out of the factory gate and hurrying home. Then the obvious hit me: what had been a drudge for me for a few months was real life for these people.  It  gave them their only income.  They were not slumming it for a season to finance some fatuous but fun pilgrimage of self-discovery; this was who they were, each and very day, year in, year out..  

The juxtaposition of their situation and my own had a striking affect on me.  It was, humanly speaking, mere time and chance that had meant I had a relatively decent IQ and was born into a family environment where I was loved, encouraged, and given opportunities to, in the words of my father. `make something of myself.'  My factory friends had simply not been so lucky in the lottery of life.  I was by this time employed in a job I enjoyed and from which I gained both personal satisfaction and a decent salary (these two things not being identical with each other, but not being unrelated either).  They were still there, in exactly the same places, on exactly the same production line, as they had been years before.

Their work possessed no intrinsic dignity: it was unskilled, repetitive, poorly paid, and provided no sense of achievement.   Yes, it gave them a wage; but not a wage that provided for anything more then the bare necessities of life plus a few packs of cigarettes and some cheap booze on a Friday or Saturday night.  And it raised questions in my mind to which, more than twenty years on, I have still not found answers.

First, how does the church enable those in such jobs to find God-given satisfaction?  It is oh-so-easy for those of us who have jobs which we enjoy doing to talk about `the dignity of labour' when the labour we have has, in a sense, its own intrinsic dignity.  But what of the labour that does not have such dignity in and of itself?  Which is monotonous, unskilled, boring, poorly paid, and which slowly but surely bleeds any last vestige of creativity and spontaneity out from the veins?  The obvious answer is, of course, to find such dignity in extrinsic factors, supremely in doing everything to the glory of God.  But, let's face it, it is a whole lot easier to do an enjoyable job to the glory of God than to sweep the factory floor day after day to the same.

Nostalgic agrarian feudalists will no doubt reach for their goose-feather quills, ink derived from crushed elderberries, and paper made from dried bulrushes at this point, and argue for a return to a time when humans were allegedly more connected to the earth; and such musings will then no doubt be communicated to the wider world  by printing press, mass transport, computer networks and all those other necessities of modern society, even as said agrarians sit around and watch the grass grow.  Again, it is so much easier to wax eloquent about agrarianism when it isn't your hands being torn to shreds by harvesting without the use of industrial machinery.

Second, what about the Christian  mind?  So often the Christian mind is identified with some Christian life and world view or another.  Such may differ in the details, but often they focus on movies, art, literature, politics, indeed, all of those things about which middle class intellectuals like to talk.  The problem, of course, is that when the Christian mind is functionally identified with such concerns, or when these become the primary talking-points, then it becomes a preserve of the middle class intelligentsia; those who are not part of this particular cultural bracket can, by definition, possess no true Christian mind or, at best, only a very defective version of the same.  Why, for example, do we only ever have Christian conferences on things such as the performing arts, or politics, or literature, or movies?  Why never on toilet cleaning, factory floor sweeping, or production line manufacturing?   Is it because God is not sovereign over these things?  Or is it because the whole Christianity and culture thing has been essentially hijacked and subsequently defined by the chatterati of the intelligentsia?  Is Shakespeare intrinsically more susceptible to being approached from a Christian perspective than working in a call centre?

Don't misunderstand me here: this is not a pharisaical rant of the `I thank you Lord that I am not like other men' variety. Remember: I am the self-absorbed twit who went to Morocco to `find himself' -- not exactly a mainstream proletarian pastime of the ferret-breeding, pork pie eating, or pigeon-racing variety.  It is rather to raise the point that talk of the Christian mind, of the dignity of labour, and the need to do all things to God's glory, is very easy if you are well paid, enjoy your job, and have cool hobbies like ballet and opera.   It is not so easy if you work eight hours plus a day in a dirty, noisy factory for peanuts.  Yet even there, the Christian mind, and doing all to the glory of God must apply; it is just not immediately obvious to me how (immediately?!?  I've had twenty years to think about this.....).  Somebody should write a monograph on it.  It could be the textbook for an elective course on the subject at a Christian liberal arts college.
Posted September 28, 2010 @ 8:45 AM by Carl Trueman

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