That eye-on-the-object look

W. H. Auden–another major poet who converted to Christianity–has written perceptively about vocation.  This is from his poem entitled “Sext,” part of his Horae Canonicae, poems on the canonical hours on Good Friday.  (It gets a little obscure towards the end, but he is referring to the medieval guilds, praying to the patrons of their particular crafts, each of which was thought of as a “mystery.”  The last stanza ties to the hour (“noon,” which is when “Sext” was prayed) and to the death of Christ.

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

To ignore the appetitive goddesses,
to desert the formidable shrines

of Rhea, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana,
to pray insted to St Phocas,

St Barbara, San Saturnino,
or whoever one’s patron is,

that one may be worthy of their mystery,
what a prodigious step to have taken.

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Where should we be but for them?
Feral still, un-housetrained, still

wandering through forests without
a consonant to our names,

slaves of Dame Kind, lacking
all notion of a city

and, at this noon, for this death,
there would be no agents.

via theskelfs: SEXT – one of WH Auden’s Horae Canonicae.

HT:  Laura via Comment magazine

The vocation of card sharking?

Recently, we discussed what occupations would be off-limits for Christians–that is to say, not a true calling from God, a.k.a. “vocation.”  We talked a little about blackjack dealers.  Well, what do you think about this, a group of card counters who give the money they win to “ministry”?

By day, Mark Treas leads worship and baptizes new believers. By night, he plays blackjack at Caesars Palace and other Vegas casinos.

It’s all in a day’s work for Treas, who calls himself a Christian card counter. He’s part of a highly successful team of professional blackjack players known as the Church Team. The group was composed of 90 percent active Christians, included pastors, worship leaders, and church planters.

At times, the team acted like any other fellowship group, gathering for quarterly meetings, keeping each other accountable, and encouraging each other to be lights in the dark casino environment. But they spent their nights in Las Vegas, winning more than $3 million in three years and getting kicked out of casinos across North America.

Colin Jones, the co-founder of the Church Team, said the group’s overarching goal was to use their activities as a platform for living out their faith: “The way we see the world, everything a Christian does is a ministry, whether you’re a plumber or a priest.”

But many question if card counting is compatible with a Christian worldview. Even the players themselves mention the gray areas and differing opinions about their work.

Card counting is a strategy in blackjack where the player mentally tracks what cards are played to calculate the probability of a certain hand. While not illegal, casinos consider the practice cheating and will ban players they catch beating their system.

Jones and Ben Crawford first picked up the basic techniques of card counting as a hobby, but when friends from church expressed interest, they created the Church Team as a business venture in 2006.

Using money from outside investors and their own bank accounts – some risking mortgages and life savings – the Church Team rolled in $3.2 million from 2006-2009, with investors making a 35 percent annual return on their money. The players were confident in the statistics behind card counting and compared playing blackjack to playing the stock market. . . .

Many players . . .[say]  they hate the way casinos exploit people. Liberating money from casinos was an extra motivator, and one player said that he considered playing blackjack “a calling,” not a hustle.Jones also said that professional gambling can actually keep players from falling into gambling addictions. “Most addictions have everything to do with trying to escape reality. But when you’re a professional blackjack player, you’re not escaping reality at all. You’re exhausted after eight hours of sitting at a table using your mind to play.”

They also tried to hold each other accountable while working in an environment with a lot of temptations: “We felt that if people were falling into sin because of this job we’d shut the business down,” said Jones.

But as unhappy casinos continued to kick out the card counters, more “gray areas” arose.

Casinos have a business’s right to deny service to any customer, including card counters, and players sometimes disguised themselves to avoid detection by security. In the documentary, Crawford is seen donning a range of costumes, including an MIT professor and a black-lipped goth.

via Holy card shark | World on Campus: news for college students from a Christian perspective..  [Free subscription required]

This particular group has disbanded.  Notice the attempt to invoke vocation (“everything a Christian does is a ministry, whether you’re a plumber or a priest”) without really understanding what that doctrine entails (plumbers and priests are masks of God in loving and serving their neighbors, but how is a card shark a mask of God and how is he loving and serving his neighbors who run the casinos?).

Which is worse, gambling or cheating at gambling?  An honest blackjack dealer or a dishonest Christian player in a disguise?  Gambling or a theologically  problematic understanding of ministry?

Are some vocations off-limits for Christians?

We discussed David Brooks’s column wondering if Christians should ever be professional athletes as did a number of other bloggers.  The debate gave Collin Hansen of Gospel Coalition the idea of asking me how the doctrine of vocation addresses the question of whether some occupations should be off-limits to Christians.

He gave me 2000 words, which is longer than a typical post, so you can click over to the site to continue reading.  Here is what I came up with.  Feel free to comment at Gospel Coalition–I’d like the rest of the world to know the caliber of my readers (plus it’s interesting to see how  some of the non-Lutherans react to these ideas, such as Christians selling alcohol!), but do comment here too.   I would like your input as to whether these guidelines are helpful or if I’m missing something:

Which Vocations Should Be Off Limits to Christians?

The Reformation doctrine of vocation teaches that even seemingly secular jobs and earthly relationships are spheres where God assigns Christians to live out their faith. But are there some lines of work that Christians should avoid?

The early church required new members to give up their occupations as gladiators or actors. Whether Christians should enter military service has been controversial at several points in church history. So has holding political or judicial offices. Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that Christians should not become professional athletes. He observed that “the moral ethos of sport”—which centers on pride—“is in tension with the moral ethos of faith,” which requires humility.

So what guidance can we find from the doctrine of vocation? There is more to that teaching than most people realize, so let’s review some of its more salient points. (To study this in more depth, you can check out my book God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life and follow the Bible references and footnotes. Also see my new book Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood for yet more facets of this critical teaching for how Christians can live out faith in the world and in their everyday relationships.)

God Never Calls Us to Sin

“Vocation” is simply the Latinate word for “calling.” The doctrine of vocation means that God assigns us to a certain life—with its particular talents, tasks, responsibilities, and relationships—and then calls us to that assignment (1 Corinthians 7:17). God never calls us to sin. All callings, or vocations, from God are thus valid places to serve. So strictly speaking there are no unlawful vocations; the question should actually be whether or not a particular way of making a living is a vocation at all.

God himself works through human vocations in providential care as he governs the world. He provides daily bread through farmers and bakers. He protects us through lawful magistrates. He heals us by means of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. He creates new life through mothers and fathers. So we can ask whether or not God extends blessings through a particular line of work.

The purpose of every vocation, in all of the different spheres in which our multiple vocations occur—the family, the workplace, the culture, and the church—is to love and serve our neighbors. Loving God and loving our neighbors sums up our purpose (Matthew 22:36-40). Having been reconciled to God through Christ, we are then sent by God into the world to love and serve him by loving and serving our neighbors. This happens in vocation. So we can ask of every kind of work we doing, “Am I loving and serving my neighbor, or am I exploiting and tempting him?”

Obviously, those who make their living by robbery are not loving their neighbors. Heroin dealers, hit men, con artists, and other criminals are hurting their neighbors and have no calling from God to do so.

But there are some legal professions that also involve harming their neighbors instead of loving and serving them. An abortionist kills his small neighbor in the womb. An internet pornographer is abusing the neighbors he is exploiting sexually and, moreover, causing the neighbors who are his customers to sin.

Continue reading.

Has Lutheranism caused secularism?

A Danish scholar looks at the influence of Protestantism–specifically, Lutheranism–on modern Scandinavian culture.  Some of her conclusions:

Lutheran Protestants are free from religiosity

For centuries, Lutheran Protestant Christianity in Northern Europe and the US taught our ancestors that there was nothing they could do to make God think better of them. Neither good deeds nor giving money to the church was seen as having importance in the eyes of God.

“For Protestants, life can be good just as it is. Life does not have to be lived in any particular ’religious’ way in order to have a good relationship with God,” says [Matias] Dalsgaard.

Protestants are free from obligations to God. They don’t have to live according to strict rules. Instead they have been charged with a rather nebulous task.

“Protestants are commanded to live an ordinary life together with other people. It is a tough task because Protestants are not told specifically how to do this,” says Dalsgaard.

‘Protestant’ countries have a culture of freedom

Throughout history, Protestant Christians have tried to manage their freedom in the best possible way. Over time, this has permeated the culture in countries that subscribe to the Protestant tradition, even though Christianity has gradually slipped into the background.

In Denmark, Sweden, the UK and Germany, this freedom meant that around 500 years ago, citizens started to become what is termed ‘modern’. It occurred after the Reformation in Northern Europe in the first half of the 16th century.

In this context, ‘modern’ has nothing to do with fashion, but means that people feel more free to make their own decisions without causing others to react negatively to those decisions.

“One could go as far as to say that the Protestant tradition squeezes out religion, because it rejects the idea that something holy exists here on Earth,” says the researcher.

Kierkegaard furnishes a good example

The author has analysed a large number of the most significant Christian texts. But the most important writer referred to in his book is the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

“Kierkegaard is perhaps the sharpest existential analyst in the Lutheran Protestant tradition. He is the one who best presents the existential challenges, conflicts and opportunities. That is why I use him as a starting point,” he says.

You shall not know yourself

Kierkegaard describes the situation in which modern people find themselves today. In his book ‘Either/Or’, Kierkegaard introduces a person whom he calls ’the aesthete’. This is a man who cannot find a way to ‘choose himself’.

Kierkegaard criticises the aesthete for not choosing himself. Instead, he avoids himself by constantly acting out multiple roles.

But although you should ’choose yourself’, there is no prescription for what to choose, because you cannot find a core that is yourself.

“The Delphic Oracle – which existed in Ancient Greece – said ‘know thyself’. But Kierkegaard says ‘choose yourself’ – it is action-oriented. You should actively be the one you are, where you are – and not think so much about who you are. This is a task given to us by God,” says Dalsgaard.

via Protestantism has left us utterly confused | ScienceNordic.

This scholar, of course, misses the distinction between orthodox Lutheranism and the liberal, culturally-conforming state church.  Kierkegaard’s emphasis on “choosing” would not seem to go well with Luther’s “bondage of the will.” And, of course, there is nothing about Christ, much less the Law (which destroys all complacency–I thought guilt and gloominess were part of the Scandinavian legacy!) and the Gospel.  Or the Cross.  The notion that one can have the influence of Christianity without Christianity–  “even though Christianity has gradually slipped into the background”–is  ludicrous on the face of it.

And yet, aren’t there some valid observations here?  Lutherans, even orthodox ones, do seem to have less “religiosity.”  And there is quite a bit of the doctrine of vocation here:  “live an ordinary life with other people”; “you should actively be the one you are, where you are–and not think so much about who you are.”

Can sports be a vocation?

David Brooks argues that the nature of competitive sports is in conflict with Christianity and, indeed, all religions.  Not just that sports can be rough–not all of them are–but that sports require pride, whereas faith requires humility.  Here is part of what he says:

We’ve become accustomed to the faith-driven athlete and coach, from Billy Sunday to Tim Tebow. But we shouldn’t forget how problematic this is. The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.

The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.

He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.

His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.

This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.

But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.

Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.

For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.

The most perceptive athletes have always tried to wrestle with this conflict. Sports history is littered with odd quotations from people who try to reconcile their love of sport with their religious creed — and fail.

via The Jeremy Lin Problem – NYTimes.com.

In terms of this blog, Brooks is arguing that playing sports, professionally, say, is not a legitimate vocation for a Christian.   Do you agree?

I don’t, and this column has precipitated a request from another blog to write about whether or not some vocations are forbidden to Christians.   I’ll link to what I wrote when it comes up on the blog that invited me to contribute.  In the meantime, how would you answer Brooks?

An interview about “Family Vocation”

Christianity Today interviewed Mary and me about our new book:

For Gene Edward Veith Jr., provost and professor of literature at Patrick Henry College, Martin Luther’s doctrine of vocation undergirds a truly Christian theology of the family. Vocation, as he describes it, is “the way God works through human beings.” In his latest book, Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood (Crossway), Veith looks to Luther’s ideals of loving and serving our neighbor, and to his view of the family as a “holy order” unto itself. Coauthored with daughter Mary J. Moerbe, a deaconess in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the book applies Luther’s understanding to the various family vocations (marriage, parenthood, and childhood) and the “offices” within those vocations (husband, wife, father, mother, and child). Author and Her.meneutics blog contributor Caryn Rivadeneira spoke with father and daughter about Luther’s vision of family life.

Did writing this book together help you learn anything about your own family?

Veith: As I look back, I can see how God has been working through our family; how he brought Mary into her callings as wife and mother and everything else she does. Of course, that’s the part of vocation that is often forgotten: that God works through our vocations. God is present and active, and he works through fallen, weak, mistake-prone human beings to accomplish his purposes. It’s illuminating to see how even ordinary family life is really God’s working through us.

In terms of everyday life within the individual family offices, is there freedom to re-interpret or step outside of one’s roles?

Veith: We do say that there are roles within family. There is authority in family. But at the same time, Christian books tend to reduce things to, “Who has to obey whom?” It reduces roles to power relations, whereas the Scriptures and the doctrine of vocation teach that the purpose of every vocation is to love and serve your neighbor.

When we forget the mystery of how God works in vocation—that it’s about loving and serving—we end up with a legalistic set of rules. That’s what happens when the gospel is drained out of our view of vocation.

Moerbe: There’s also a tendency to oversimplify our understanding of vocation by prioritizing vocations. Yes, motherhood is great, and frankly, motherhood takes so much time that it’s often difficult to be active in a lot of other vocations. However, when I think about God being the source of vocations, he is Father, he is Son, and he is King. Do we say that God the Father is more important than God the King? No, he relates to us in different ways.

Veith: These differences make each vocation personal and unique. No two people have the same callings because no two people have the same neighbors, the same gifts, or the same tasks and opportunities.

You suggest that the proper and unique work of marriage is sexual intercourse. Can you explain?

Veith: Every vocation has its unique work, its defining work. Sex inside of marriage is sex according to God’s design, and thus sex becomes a good work within marriage.

Many of us are Victorian and prudish. It’s very uncomfortable to write about sex, but it’s so important. What the Bible says about sex inside of marriage is quite remarkable. It says we’re one flesh. There’s a mutuality: The husband doesn’t have control over his own body, but his wife does. And the wife doesn’t have control over her own body, but her husband does. Just the fact that the wife has control over the husband’s body was very radical in the ancient world. There is mutuality.

Indeed, the Bible says that sex is what creates marriage. The reason you’re not supposed to have sex with someone you’re not married to is because you’re not called to. You don’t have an authorization—it’s not part of your vocation—to have sex with someone you’re not married to, so it’s sinful.

Moerbe: Sex also reminds us that marriage is a vocation unlike other vocations. In marriage, you serve one neighbor. In parenthood, you might have more than one kid. If you work outside the home, there will be plenty of customers and plenty of co-workers. But marriage is unique in that it is one-on-one.

What do readers need to grasp about how the doctrine of vocation applies to family?

Moerbe: The message is simple: Love and serve your neighbor. Love and serve your family, not because of who is in your family, but because God is in your family. Christ is hidden behind our neighbors, and Christ is present with us in our neighbors.

UPDATE:  This was an hour-long conversation from which the reporter excerpted a few lines, often leaving out the context.  We do a lot with the concept of “one flesh,” which is intrinsic to marriage and parenthood in the family,and which Scripture discusses in term of sex.  We’re not saying that if someone has a sex with a prostitute then he is married to her, and we go on to say that one flesh unions can be broken.  One of the contributions of our book is to show why sex outside of marriage is wrong, beyond just breaking arbitrary rules.  We do consider the orders of creation, the fall, and the distinction between law and gospel.  And we do indeed say that marriage and family and everything we say about these callings are for non-Christians as well!

via Family as Calling: Finding Vocation In and Near the Home | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.