Saint Mugg

One of the most interesting stories of conversion to Christian faith I have ever read is that of Malcolm Muggeridge. Educated at Selwyn College, Cambridge and the son of a Labour MP, Muggeridge spent his early career as a member of the Fabian Socialists. He was hired by the Manchester Guardian to be their correspondent in Moscow. This was, of course, the dream job for a young liberal elite. Unfortuately Muggeridge arrived in the USSR right when Stalin was in the process of consolidating his power: not exactly a worker’s paradise. He observed forced starvation of villages and other crimes against the Imago Dei in man.

This led Muggeridge to reject socialism. He returned to England and began to write for a more conservative newspaper. Over the span of his life, he gradually was seemingly drawn to God and the mystery of faith as the only possible way to deal with the madness of life in the modern world. Eventually he was received into the Catholic Church. Given that for most of his life Mugg drank hard, lived hard, and slept with a lot of women other than his wife, he was frequently lampooned as St. Mugg (rather tongue-in-cheek). Despite the obvious “hypocrisy” of his life (someone has remarked that Muggeridge gave up the sins of the flesh just as the sins of the flesh were about to give him up), his coversion to faith was remarkable and produced a number of very significant works.

I commend Thomas Wolfe’s biography (Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography) as a good read. I especially also enjoyed Mugg’s work, Jesus: The Man Who Lives in which he traces depictions of Christ down through the received traditiion of the church. Another good book by Mugg is published by the Bruderhof entitled, A Third Testament.

The Christian Life – Scougal

“I cannot speak of religion, but I must lament, that among so many pretenders to it, so few understand what it means; some placing it in the understanding [i.e., the intellect], in orthodox notions and opinions; and all the account they can give of their religion is, that they are of this or the other persuasion, and have joined themselves to one of those many sects whereinto Christendom is most unhappily divided.

Others place it in the outward man, in a constant course of external duties, and a model of performances; if they live peaceably with their neighbours, keep a temperate diet, observe the returns of worship, frequent the church, or their [prayer] closet, and sometimes extend their hands to the relief of the poor, they think they have sufficiently acquitted themselves.

Others again put all religion in the affections, in rapturous heats and ecstatic devotion; and all they aim at is, to pray with passion, to think of heave with pleasure, and to be affected with those kind and melting expressions wherewith they court their Saviour, till they persuade themselves that they are mightily in love with him, and from thence assume a great confidence of their salvation, which they esteem the chief of Christian graces.

Thus are these things which have any resemblance of piety, and at the best are but means of obtaining it, or particular exercises of it, frequently mistaken for the whole of religion. Nay, sometimes wickedness and vice pretend to that name. I speak not now of those gross impieties wherewith the heathens were wont to worship their gods; there are but too many Christians who would consecrate their vices, and hallow their corrupt affections, whose rugged humour, and sullen pride, must pass for Christian severity; whose fierce wrath, and bitter rage against their enemies, must be called holy zeal; whose petulancy towards their superiors, or rebellion against their governors, must have the name of Christian courage and resolution.”

Revd. Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man

Scougal (1650-1678) was a minister in the Scottish Anglican Church, and Professor of Philosophy and Divinity at the University of Aberdeen, an appointment he took at the age of nineteen.

One hundred years later a copy was sent to George Whitefield by his friend, Charles Wesley–it was instrumental in Whitefield’s conversion.

Why Work?

In her essay entitled, “Why Work?” Dorothy L. Sayers writes a scathing critique of the West (specifically, England). Her words were written during the Second World War when all of England was experiencing what might be called drastic shortages of certain food stuffs. Sayers points out that all industrial capitalist economies are based on consumption. That is to say, there is no market for goods and services except that there are parties who wish to consume (i.e., use) these goods or services. I might attempt to go into business as a physic advertizing that I can achieve wonderful results for sufferers of the gout by treating it with leaches and blood-letting. Not have consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I am fairly willing to say that there is not a strong market for this sort of thing. There are no consumers.

The central point of her critique is that consumer capitalism erodes the Christian doctrine of vocation. Why? Sayers claims that the advent of modern capitalism has produced jobs rather than vocations (“callings”). The industrial revolution provided massive increases in the efficiency of labor. By dividing labor tasks (i.e., conveyor-belt) the production of goods could be radically increased. The problem? Increased efficiency in production is negligible apart from a similar increase in demand for said goods. If there is no corresponding increase in demands then the price of the goods falls.

The result of these advances was the removal of the worker from the creation of an item/product. In other words where once the same wheelwright was responsible for the creation of a wheel from start to finish, now one person treats the wood, another steams and shapes it, another makes the spokes, another forges the iron band, another markets and another delivers it. The division of labor here can drastically increase the number of wheel produced, but at what cost to the worker?

Sayers critique is based upon a couple of presuppositions. The first is that each individual is called to a vocation and that this vocation must be morally good, creative, constructive, and provide fulfilment to that person. [By this logic, no one is called to the vocation of tele-marketer.] Second, this vocation is one of the chiefest purposes of this person’s life and therefore, in Sayers’ mind, “we live to work rather than work to live.” She has no time for, indeed she claims it is sub-Christian, to work simply for the purpose of getting a pay check.

At the time of writing this essay, massive amounts of money were being spent on the war in Europe. Sayers poses the question, will the material sacrifices made during the war endure when the war ends? If anything, the war proved that “man does not live by bread alone.” Even with very little affluence, comfort, or luxury, the British people managed to live good lives. Of course, the war itself was serving as the chief consumer at the time, and the majority of businesses (public and private) were directed at providing products useable in that market.

Of course, we know now that the Post-War Western hemisphere has plunged headlong into the type of consumption that Sayers decried in Pre-War Europe. Does capitalism then actually improve lives? Does technology actually make humanity more contented? This is, of course, difficult to gauge. However, I will concede the point to Sayers that the world would be a better place if there were more artists–those who work because they must, not simply to get paid. Of course, given that I am writing this in a coffee shop on a notebook computer with a wireless card shows that I enjoy consuming plenty of goods and services!

There are many people who work simply to get a pay check. Perhaps they need not do this. Perhaps they grow accustomed to the comfort of a certain (or at least relatively certain) amount of money coming into their checking account each month. They could do otherwise, but over time they give up on their dreams. It is, perhaps, here that Entrepreneurs can teach us (and Sayers) something. At the start, the only reason to start a company is because you believe in it (unless you are a fraud). When you’re working 60 hours-a-week for next to nothing, you are building the character and discipline that will regulate you when the profits begin. Entrepreneurs are artists. We can quibble about whether the services they provide are truly necessary/good/worthwhile (or whatever justification you might require for the consumption of a good or service), but most entrepreneurs believe in what they’re doing. And they are the financial bedrock of their communities.

It’s encouraging to know that from a Christian perspective, entrepreneur can be a virtuous vocation. Once upon a time I would have agreed with all that Sayers’ wrote. Now I see the wisdom and limitations of her words. It is, after all, the same moral compass that creates wealth both by fueling wealth-creating businesses and precluding mindless consumption of unnecessary or overly-wasteful goods and services.

In Praise of Normalcy

Ours is not a culture that praises and extols the virtues of normalcy. My reason for writing on this subject is that this morning over coffee, Anna was telling me about Frederica Matthewes-Green’s article in First Things, “Against Eternal Youth.” I have not read the article (yet), but Anna has read parts to me. One paragraph was especially resonant, Matthewes-Greene writes of the fate of a young woman upon graduating with a master’s degree in flute performance. The options for such a highly-trained person are, to be certain, somewhat limited in our day and age. You can imagine the scene. The door to the employment agency swings open. A young, cheerful woman strides confidently to the counter. “I’m looking for work.” To that statement, the reply, “What training or experience do you have?” The rejoinder (with some pride), “I have a master’s degree in flute performance.” With dropped jaw, the equally over-qualified reciptionist at the agency (probably a Ph.D. in English) replies, “Great! Sam’s Club is hiring. Down the street, second turn on the left. Bonne chance!”

I know the feeling. When I first left seminary, I did not waltz into a glorious parish. I actually ended up spending a year-and-a-half doing work that barely paid the bills (not the least of which was the expense of re-paying the cost of my education plus interest). Now, another year on, I am settled and working in a position that I love and toward a cause that I believe in. It feels good.

However, look at the culture around us and observe the myriad of messages that it sends to us. Anna and I watched HGTV last night. Through some fluke, it is the only channel we get on our TV even though we don’t have cable. We were watching a show that detailed the search of a couple to find that perfect house. LIstening intermittently to the conversations between the purchasers and their realtor as well as the those uniquely contemporary “spots” where the subjects get to “share their hearts” directly with the camera, I was seriously dismayed.

“It has to have a pool.” “The garage has to be big enough to fit the Escalade, and the two Harleys, and the wave-runner.” “We really need sub-zero refrigerators to store the beer and the microwave meals we eat when we don’t have the energy to go out and have our meals prepared for us and served to us by under-paid short-order cooks at Chili’s or wherever else.”

Call me bizarre, but is this normal? Is this the life that we are supposed to be aiming for? If so, I’d like to put a request in to move to some other country. Why? It’s not because I am an anti-capitalist. I am not. I think that the free market provides the greatest chance of success to the greatest number of people and is the only system of economics that actually provides and encourages freedom. My problem is that what lingers in our contemporary culture is the mechanics of the free market stripped of its moral compass and guided by unenlightened self-interest. Can it be any other way? Capitalism bereft of a moral order that constrains and limits it, morphs into greed and into a greed that is ultimately self-destructive to the individual and to the system itself.

Why are personal bankruptcies at an all-time high? Why is it that the Congress is considering legislation to curtail the remedies of bankruptcy to individuals thereby limiting their freedom to escape crippling debt? Why is it that after the Enron, Healthsouth, and Worldcom scandals the passage of Sarbannes-Oxley has actually made it significantly more difficult for small, regional businesses to bear the increased cost of complying with new regulatory requirements. What Congress meant for good in Sarbannes-Oxley has, in reality, created a full employment act for lawyers. Lawyers cost money to businesses, they do not create money.

I don’t know what the solution is, but it might help if major corporations took seriously the only half-joking suggestion of the Wall Street Journal (made about a week ago, I think), that they ‘out-source’ their CEO positions to European and Asian executives whose cost would be lower by a factor of ten than their American counterparts.

But more than this, what is required is some constraint on our sense of entitlement. More than that, we need to learn about contentment. It is possible to be content with what you have even as you save toward buying a new house. The key here is saving rather than stretching with 100% financing, interest-only (or sub-interest) loans, or any of the other new “products” pushed by the mortgage industry.

What actually will make the change is uncertain. But some sensible teaching from America’s churches would go along way. Beyond that, I am afraid that the biggest lessons will be learned when the economy constricts and those who have stretched too far find they cannot keep the pool, the Harley’s, the wave runner, the Escalade, and the new platinum grill built into the back yard.

Some Thoughts on Ministry (Part One)

In an attempt to focus my ministry to graduate students, I am attempting to put down on paper the end of my ministry. This is my attempt to answer the question, “If everything went perfectly according to my plans and my desires, what would the outcome be in the lives of the people to whom I minister?”

This is not my attempt to prescribe a formula for Christian growth. I have no wish to sound as though the life of faith is little more than fixed progression along a continuum of spiritual growth. Most lives, mine included, are much more mucky and meandering than that. However, as a minister I am forced to ask questions about who I am to be and what I am to do in order to be faithful to God. The answer to this question, or so it seems to me, can come through describing the end at which I am aiming. Christian growth is more about ends than about means, and the ends are more important than the means.

So what are the ends of the Christian life? To simply affirm that, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” (WSC Q1) seems to me to be rather minimalistic. It’s good as far as it goes, but the problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. If I am to be faithful in my ministry I need to ask some secondary questions; ones that follow-up and amplify the initial question posed by the writers of the catechism.

So, what does a God-enjoying and God-glorifying Christian (metaphorically) look like? By that I mean, what are the observable qualities of life found in such a believer? They are several.

Some preliminary points

• God is at the center of the life of a God-enjoying and God-glorifying Christian. If God stands in the periphery of one’s life, one cannot be enjoying God. This is only common sense. People we enjoy and things we find pleasure in usually will gravitate toward the center of our lives. The realization that we are enjoying something may be gradual, but once there is recognition, that person or thing will not be very far from the center of one’s life.

• More than that, a God-enjoying and God-glorifying life is one that is lived in a God-ward stance. Once we find the joy of God, we cannot be without them. We will run, seek, long for the presence of God. In other words, the type of Christian life I am describing is not passive, but very active in the pursuit of God.

When I write about the qualities of life (above) that mark this type of Christian, I am in reality attempting to flesh out the ways in which these sorts of believers will pursue God in order that they may find pleasure in God’s love and in God himself, and that they may ascribe glory to the Sovereign God.

We call the ways in which Christians pursue God, the means of grace. Means of grace are the vehicles that spiritually confer to the participating believer some measure of God’s grace for the purpose of encouraging the believer in his faith journey, assuring him of his acceptance by God because of the work of Christ, and equipping that believer with spiritual gifts that are to be used to strengthen body of Christ.

[NOTE: There is more to come. I am just getting started.]