This is a revised version my capstone paper for the communication studies program at TFC. The full paper can be found here.
Workin’ Nine to Five
The workweek is often viewed as a prerequisite to the weekend. This is to say the workweek is a necessary, but somewhat contemptible, element of surviving 21st century American life. For many, the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. represent a sort of paid servitude in which they submit themselves to the whims of corporations so they can live the good life on weekends and holidays. The work done from Monday through Friday is often a kind of ritual we participate in as a tradeoff: daily labor in exchange for daily sustenance and the freedom and means to enjoy the weekend. Implicit in this paradigm is the conclusion that if we could bypass the ritual of the workweek and live in a constant state of “weekend,” we would experience a much more fulfilling existence. However, in order to understand the nine to five workweek and subsequent weekend from a biblical perspective, we must understand humanity’s purpose in culture and the true meaning of our work.
What Is Culture?
The essentialist notion suggests culture is merely the sum total of individuals melded together – that our identity is formed and then imposed upon culture in an impactful way. I don’t think this is a good way to understand the situation. Rather, culture is the space where our identity is worked out, where choices are made, and where meaning is constructed. Apart from culture we cannot know our identity. We cannot make sense of our existence apart from culture, for it is in the space of society that we negotiate, construct, and share meaning.
We cannot know or experience God apart from culture. In culture, we realize our purpose, become holy, and fulfill the task of being God’s image bearers. Culture is where humanity glorifies God by creating and ruling, and no attempt should be made to escape from the context of culture. Not only is this impossible, but to do so is to flee from the invitation to meet God.
[Christology] How Does Christ Demonstrate True Humanity?
Christ comes to earth as the “seed” spoken of prophetically all the way back in Genesis 3. He fulfills the tasks given to humanity, and he does so as a man. Christ is the first human to truly and completely bear God’s image, thus he is the first true human since Adam. Throughout his life, Christ demonstrates the love of God, always yielding to the Father’s will and never committing a single act of sin. If it is true that Christ’s triumph was located in the space of culture and cultural activities (brushing his teeth, going to market, learning a trade etc.), then it must be true that these are activities inside the realm of the sacred work God intends for humanity to do.
[Ecclesiology] How Does the Church Function as True Humanity?
When Christ came to earth, he did not integrate with the flesh nor did he integrate into culture; he became flesh – he was born into culture. As the complete and perfect vision of what humanity ought to be, the divine Word took on flesh and lived the life of a human being familiar with he struggles and experience of humankind (Heb 4:15). Christ is not human in some abstract way, nor is his humanness limited to the pain he felt on the cross. For thirty-three years, Christ experienced an embodied life on earth and participated in the activities of culture. He learned to speak, learned to walk, learned what kinds of foods his particular set of tastebuds liked, developed a unique personality, made friends, went through puberty, etc. It was not in spite of these elements that Christ was able to demonstrate what true humanity looks like; rather, it was through them. And though he lived as true humanity, his own brother failed to recognize him as such, a testament to the regularity and normalcy which served as the context for his perfect life.
Tish Harrison Warren writes,
“The crucible of our formation is in the anonymous monotony of our daily routines.”
Like Christ, we inhabit cultural space, and this is the position in which we meet God. Like Jesus, the saints find themselves in the crucible of the everyday, situated inside familiar worlds with familiar routines and tasked with working out what it means to represent God faithfully. It is in the minute-by-minute actions and choices of the everyday that we construct our identity, that we lay claim to a status quo, that what will be normal is brought into existence. Whether this reality will be one of kindness or exploitation is decided in the space of the everyday, because it is in the everyday that the self works out what and who it will be.
A sign hangs on the wall in a New Monastic Christian community house: “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.”… I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s in the dailiness of the Christian faith – the making the bed, doing the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading the Bible, the quiet, the small – that God’s transformation takes root and grows.(Warren, 36).
Warren’s point is that we can glorify God in the space of culture not in spite of, rather because of, our embodiment. However, it is only when we understand our bodies as instruments of worship that we are able to give the whole of our lives in service to God. Too often, we fear the worship we are called to can only take place in what we’ve deemed to be special or spiritualized contexts. There is a messiness and uncertainty about parts of our lives which often leads us to understand only certain pieces of our existence as potential contexts for worship.
[Streams of Meaning] How Do We Make Sense of Our Lives?
Within Evangelical Christianity, there is a prevalent, and often implicit, principle by which all of life is organized. This principle organized life into two streams: one sacred and the other secular. From this perspective, every action, artifact, event, and person can be understood as existing in either the one stream or the other. A clear line of delineation separates the holy from the profane, the Christian from the worldly, the sacred from the secular. This creates a dichotomy and envisions effective believers as those who build bridges between the sacred and the secular in hopes of impacting culture. Implicit in the framing of the Christian’s place in the world is the understanding that to be sacred is to be apart from culture – that to be kingdom minded is to move actions, artifacts, events, and persons from one stream to the other, secular into sacred.
“Secular” spaces are viewed as places to be won over into (or influenced by) the “sacred” sphere. This framework often leads us to be suspicious of creative, artistic endeavors which aren’t done for the express purpose of evangelism and perhaps why films like God’s Not Dead, though a bit cheesy, are so appealing. It’s easy to see understand owning Atheist professors as God-honoring, perhaps it takes a bit more faith to see weeding a garden, painting a portrait, or going to a concert as such. So Christians have often sought to create outside the context of “the world.” The word Christian is a moniker for supposedly non-cultural creative endeavors. Movies, music, conferences, consumer items, businesses, etc. are created in hopes of being a bridge between us and them, church and world, sacred and secular. Perhaps a better, and more biblical, model is to understand all of creation, that is every inch of culture, as a potential dwelling place for God. This would mean the Christian’s task is to institute the order of God wherever she finds herself. The two-stream model gives way to the understanding that God did not give humankind only a small piece of the world to inhabit and rule.
The command to exercise creativity and authority is not limited to “Christian” spaces if all of creation is a potential dwelling place, a temple, for God. Our obedience to God makes present the kingdom of heaven and moves towards the restoration of relationships between God, humanity, and creation. Yet the potential for this work is severely stunted when we try to impact culture from an understanding in which the church exists outside of and then moves into culture.
[The Workweek] How Can Vocation Be Understood as Temple and Work as Worship?
The 40-hour work week must be understood as a space in which we worship God and in which we become holy. All the tasks which await the worker are opportunities to glorify the God who made humankind with the ability to create, to arrange the chaotic cosmos into an ordered world, to take an acre and make it a garden, to take raw data and draw a conclusion. Warren writes, “We grow in holiness in the honing of our specific vocation. We can’t be holy in the abstract. Instead, we become a holy blacksmith or a holy mother or a holy physician or a holy systems analyst. We seek God in and through our particular vocation and place in life” (Warren, 94). Whether we find ourselves as mothers, architects, teachers, ditch diggers, or mathematicians, the workweek must be understood, in faith, as a cultural ritual in which we joyfully participate for the purpose of meeting God and offering him our work as worship.
Martin Luther said, “God himself will milk cows through him whose vocation it is.”
I remember listening to Mike Donehey say with an air of profundity between songs at a Tenth Avenue North concert that he was not a musician who happened to be a Christian, but rather a Christian who happened to be a musician. Warren is suggesting that we cannot become properly “Christian”, which is to say like Christ, outside of embodied experience. We cannot become rightly Christian before we become musicians – it is only in working out what it means to be a Christ-like musician, or a carpenter like Christ, or a metalworker in the image of God that we can become Christian, that God will make us holy. We are intended to live lives of worship grounded in cultural space. Quips like Donehey’s, while perhaps helpful in some way, suggest implicitly that one can develop an essential identity in Christ and then impose it upon the outside world. However, Warren’s approach is preferred as it is able to give a much fuller, more holistic account of the everyday. Whereas Donehey’s Christianity comes before his cultural vocation, Warren’s doesn’t exist without it.
In Exodus 31, there is a connection between being filled with God’s Spirit and being able to do vocational work well.
See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. (Exod 31:2-5)
In this passage it seems being spiritual and being vocational are intertwined. It was precisely in these acts of crafting that Bezalel demonstrated wisdom, understanding, and communion with the Spirit of God. Yet many Christians are only able to draw a connection between vocation and communion with God, or worship, if the work is explicitly church related. In this way, we default to the two-stream paradigm of some work being sacred and some being secular, and we miss out on understanding all the labor of our vocation as an offering of worship.
When we lack the faith to believe God might receive the worship we offer him through our ordinary work, we resort to other conceptions of the workweek. Tim Keller notes some popular options we tend to choose:
“a place to get rich so we can be generous, a place to wear a cheerful face, a place to evangelize coworkers, or a place to find satisfaction in enjoyable tasks.”
These conceptions of vocational worship may have their place, but in them the potential for understanding work as worship and culture as temple is diminished. The faithful Christian teaching holds that all work which is not immoral or unethical is part of God’s kingdom mission, his plan to redeem all things. If the Lord is serious about redeeming all things, then there is no task which cannot be understood as kingdom work. Warren writes,
When we use our bodies for their intended purpose – in gathered worship, raising our hands or singing or kneeling, or, in our average day, sleeping or savoring a meal or jumping or hiking or running or having sex with our spouse or kneeling in prayer or nursing a baby or digging a garden – it is glorious, as glorious as a great cathedral being used just as its architect had dreamt it would be.Warren, 45
We must not be content with any eschatological conception of work which relegates activities into realms of sacred and secular based simply on spiritualization. If Christ really became a man born of woman, and if he really did rise from the dead, then believers can take to the world and joyfully bring their God-given creativity and authority to bear in the cultural context of the everyday. We can be confident the ordinary tasks of everyday existence are acts of worship if we will only offer them.
[Sabbath] How Can the Weekend Be Understood as True Rest?
Life in the 21st century west is governed by cyclical rhythms. Most of these rhythms are drawn from the natural order: the four changing seasons signaled by the weather, 365-day years signaled by the earth’s revolution around the sun, 30 day months signaled by the moon’s orbit of the earth, etc. However, there is no clear indication from the natural world which would signal a seven-day week (or a two day weekend). This rhythm is an arbitrary social construction which, in Judeo-Christian thought, originates from the creation account in which God works six days and rests on the seventh. In 1926, Henry Ford decided to give employees Saturday and Sunday off, and he instituted the forty-hour work week. “An altruistic move in part, it also gave his workers the opportunity to spend their down time buying consumer products, keeping cash circulating through the economy” (BBC, 2019). It wasn’t long before the weekend caught on nationally and became a defining element of American life.
A prevailing conception of the contemporary workweek/weekend paradigm understands the forty hours of work from Monday to Friday as a barrier to the good life. The weekend is the ideal – it is where we revel in enjoyment, freedom, and leisure while the stress of the next workweek looms. From this perspective the workweek is a barrier, and the weekend is a destination. This desire to escape the workweek ritual is evidenced by the willingness of the working class to play the lottery. Millions of dollars are spent each year in hopes of hitting the jackpot – this incredible sum of money is sought as a guarantee that the workweek will no longer be a necessary part of the American experience.
In their study, Bankrate found “Americans earning less than $30,000 admit to spending about 13% of their income on lottery tickets”
For the believer who understands the workweek as a site of worship, exhausting though it may be, the weekend can be understood as a time of rest, reflection, and anticipation. Rather than an escape from the meaningless and mundane, the weekend can be viewed as Sabbath rest. Here, there is space for reflecting on the work of the previous week, regaining strength for tasks to come, and looking forward to the sacred tasks which are in view. In this way the weekend and the workweek are not disjointed, opposed realities but elements of a sacred rhythm. The weekend from this perspective is no longer the ideal, rather it is a celebration of what God has allowed us to do as well as preparation for the work he has planned for us. Congregants can gather together on Sunday as brothers and sisters in the process of being made holy through their vocations and celebrate the presence of the kingdom manifested in their workweek. They can also understand their Sunday (or Monday or Tuesday…) afternoon at the lake or in the woods as worship.
If any action cannot be understood as a sacred, kingdom oriented, God-glorifying task, then either it is sinful or the framework for understanding that action is insufficient.
Our theology of culture must be able to account for every act performed by the Christian in freedom as a fulfillment of the task given to humanity, provided that act is not unethical or immoral. As such, every interaction with a coworker, every email, every purchase, every step, every breath is an opportunity to be the image of God – not by spiritualizing every interaction – but by choosing the way of Jesus moment by moment. The vast majority of Christ’s life is not recorded in Scripture. Yet we know he was faithful in every regard; in every cultural activity he embodied faithfulness. With this in view, we can say with confidence: if God has tasked humanity with bearing his image through creativity and authority, and if the Spirit of God has set free from bondage those who are in Christ, and if Jesus himself exemplified true humanity by living within the context of embodied experience on earth, then every moment may be sacred. Every floor tile may be holy ground. Every action may be one which expands the order of the kingdom. Every inch of creation may be a temple for the Lord God.