Review: Garden City

Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human, John Mark Comer. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

Summary: An argument that our work is an important aspect of what it means for us to be human, setting our work in the context of the arc of God’s work taking humanity from the garden to the new garden city in the new creation.

I’ve often heard it emphasized that we are human beings rather than human doings. John Mark Comer challenges this truism in Garden City. He contends that what we do is a vital aspect of what it means for us to be human. What he proceeds to do is offer a theology of work within the arc of God’s redemptive purposes. And he does so in a conversational series of chapters that read like blog posts to millenials.

The first part of this book concerns our work. We were created kings and queens, partners with God in ruling over his world. He placed the first humans in a place called Delight–Eden. It’s an untamed wilderness and God bids them “make a world.” So how do we discern God’s calling in this “world-making” calling. He suggests a series of questions: what do you love? what are you good at? what does your world need? what does your world need? does it make the world a more garden-like place? Then he challenges the idea of the sacred/secular split. He observes that in Hebrew, there is no word for spiritual–it’s all spiritual and matters to God, and all may reflect the glory of God. And this leads to working with excellence. Yet work isn’t always what we would hope for it. Instead of ruling over the serpent, Adam and Eve allow the serpent to rule over them. And one of the consequences is the curse that falls on work, which becomes hard, sometimes futile, sometimes frustrating but also drives us to God.

The second part of the book is about rest. We were not made to work all the time. God rested. We rest. God is the anti-Pharaoh. The Exodus restores a day of rest to former slaves never permitted to rest and becomes a day celebrating God’s deliverance. Sabbath is made for us. And it points us toward the future.

The future is the focus of part three. It is not a return to the garden but an advance to the garden city of the new creation. Following N.T. Wright, Comer writes about life after heaven, life in the new creation in God’s new garden city as resurrected people. Comer discusses the hope that it will not all burn up, that the works done to God’s glory will endure into the new creation–a motivation to God honoring excellence. And greatness in this world is turned upside down. The giving of a cold glass of water may outshine seemingly heroic acts. The big thing is answering the call of the king.

I mentioned the conversational character of Comer’s writing style. But this is not theology-lite. Comer offers as substantive a theology of work, of rest, of calling, and of our destiny as I’ve read in far more abstruse works. He advances ideas and gives us space to ponder and absorb them. He is one who allows a few words to do the work of many. This is a “back list” book and I have noticed from his website that he has several he has published since. Because of this book, I’ll try to read them if I get the chance.

Review: God at Work

God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, Gene Edward Veith, Jr. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002.

Summary: A theology of vocation, rooted in the thought of Martin Luther, and covering God’s call over all of our lives.

It seems there are two extremes in the discussion. On one hand there is the notion of vocation as a religious calling that was the dominant idea prior to the Reformation, and there is the modern idea, which equates vocation with job–vocational training is job training. Gene Edward Veith, Jr. digs into the Reformers ideas of vocation, particularly those of Martin Luther, drawing extensively on Luther theologian Gustav Wingren’s Luther on Vocation. I found the book laden with insights giving meaning not only to our work but to all of life because Veith would insist that God’s calling extends to ever dimension of life, all the roles we fill as believer, congregant, spouse, parent, child, citizen, employee or employer.

One of the first was a subtle challenge to Weber’s Protestant work ethic. Veith proposes that the Reformed doctrine of vocation and its emphasis on encouraging the full expression of the individual’s unique gifts means we work not to prove our election but rather because we are elect, with a deep sense of the satisfaction and fulfillment that may come out of our work. Vocation is a place where we experience the love of God and act out of love and service in grateful response. He especially speaks of this in role relationships that the culture views as all about power. For the Christian, our vocation is lived out in prayer, in love, and service.

One of the basic grounds of vocation is that God sovereignly has chosen to work through human beings. He speaks to us, feeds us, heals us, and protects us through human beings faithfully living their vocations. When we speak of vocation, we speak of God’s “calling.” This is not singular. We have a number of callings. First of all, God calls us to himself through Christ. We all have callings to display God’s grace and mercy. We are called into families, into churches, into employment, into citizenship. Some have the calling for a period of being students. A significant aspect of calling, Veith insists, using the example of safety personnel who rushed into the Twin Towers on 9/11, consist simply in doing one’s job well. He devotes chapters to work, family, church, and society. In some of these he allows that one’s vocation as a peace officer or soldier, or judge or executioner, allows one to take lives lawfully that one could not do in one’s personal life. In others, like that of spouse, we violate our vocation if we join ourselves to any other than the person with whom we are covenanted in marriage, sinning against our vocation in the process. For pastors, he has challenging things to say about what does and does not fulfill pastoral calling, and how those with the ministry of the word, prayer, and spiritual care forfeit these to “run” the church.

He recurs to these ideas in the ethics of vocation. In many dimensions of life, sin is acting contrary to one’s calling. Often this means understanding our various callings–church work ought not draw us away from fulfilling our employment obligations and responsibilities well. In some seasons parenting takes precedence over some of the spiritual disciplines we might give ourselves to in other seasons. He speaks of the trials we face in our vocations and the practice of prayer and faith as we lean into these.

The concluding chapter focuses on resting in our vocations, accepting what we are rather than longing for what we are not, realizing we can please God in every good endeavor. And we look forward to our ultimate rest.

This book offers a whole of life perspective to calling, that recognizes that the same One calls in all of life. God is not just in church. He’s in the home, the kitchen, the bedroom, the shop floor, the laboratory, the crop-filled field, the city council chamber and the courtroom. God is at work through people in all of these places whether they recognize their calling or not. But for the Christian there is the great joy of knowing that as we “do our jobs” in each of these areas, often in ways little different from others, we know that we work alongside God. This is a wonderful book for enlarging our perspective on the significance of our lives. We are called.

Review: Make Work Matter

Make Work Matter, Michaela O’Donnell, PhD. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2021.

Summary: A book on finding meaningful work, focusing on the adaptive skills and sense of calling one needs, the character one develops, and a four-part entrepreneurial cycle for the journey.

This is a book for the person who wants to find meaningful work that has impact on our world. In the first part of the book, the author, an entrepreneur who has started businesses and directs a leadership center, talks about the places where we may feel stuck and the changing landscape of work, which she likens to white water rafting, requiring us to grab a paddle, prepare to be unprepared, navigate our own way, and even re-route the river! But it all begins with understanding calling: belonging to Christ, working toward redemption, creating, as well as our particular calling.

She then focuses on the kind of people we need to become in the new world of work. She contends we all need to embrace an entrepreneurial stance that seizes opportunity, creates value, and faces risk. The entrepreneur is rooted in relationship and O’Donnell encourages us to identify our brain trust, the people who will support us, speak truth, and share their expertise to help us along. Entrepreneurs trust their creativity, participating with God to make the world new, anticipating God’s redeemed world, and recognizing that creativity is often collaborative. And entrepreneurs are resilient, living between Good Friday and the Resurrection, which means being able to grieve our failures with hope.

Finally, O’Donnell discusses what she calls as the entrepreneurial way, really a cycle involving four actions: practicing empathy along the way, converting empathy into imagination, letting imagination fuel risk-taking, and after taking risks, reflecting. She uses the story of the Good Samaritan to show what practicing empathy along the way looks like and recounts the story of the co-founder of Kiva, Jessica Jackley, who empathized with entrepreneurial women doing amazing things with very little, and recognized the potential of small personal loans to help them do even more. The paralytic’s friends in Luke 5 practiced imagination in coming up with the idea of lowering him through to roof to get him to Jesus. Risk then says, “let’s try.” She concludes with discussing how important reflecting on where you’ve been to keep going.

O’Donnell illustrates throughout the book both from her own life (including failures, like having to re-write her dissertation) and the stories of other entrepreneurs. Each chapter concludes with an exercise. The book is designed to help those trying to discern what it means to find and pursue meaningful work in today’s marketplace. It explores both what it means to lean into our faith and calling, and the practical things we need to work on as workers, the mindset and habits that will sustain us on the rapids.

This strikes me as a valuable book at those junctures where one is taking stock, whether as a student entering the marketplace, or when one has lost a job and needs to figure out what is next, or is embarking on a career change or new venture. The book is less about job skills and more about working on who we are and the life God is inviting us into through our work. To me, this is where the real work is, where people truly flourish in work…or not.

Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Summary: A philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic explores the nature of satisfying work and the intellectual dignity of the manual trades.

Why would a Ph.D. give up a prestigious job in a Washington think tank to open up a motorcycle repair shop? Why does he find greater intellectual satisfaction tearing apart a motorcycle engine, working with solvents, grease, and oil, than producing articles on political philosophy? This work is Matthew B. Crawford’s personal answer to those questions.

He begins with some observations that caught my attention and helped explain the title of the book. When I attended middle school, all the boys (sexist as we were in those days) had to take classes in the mechanical arts–shop class. Even though I was on the geekier end of the spectrum, I had to buy the requisite safety glasses and learn mechanical drawing, basic wood and metal working including working around power equipment without losing a finger or other appendage. We learned what tools to use for different jobs. From about the 1990’s on, such classes were phased out because the emphasis increasingly was on preparing for college, and for becoming a knowledge worker. Which explains Crawford’s friend who has a surfeit of power equipment (as well as the dearth of people in the trades).

Crawford argues that our society’s focus on “knowledge work” has degraded the manual trades. Principally, it fails to recognize the kind of intelligence it takes to wire a house, build a building, plumb a bathroom properly, or diagnose a misfiring problem in a motorcycle when all the diagnostic procedures fail to yield an answer. Crawford observes that we no longer know how to care for and repair our stuff–indeed, some of it has been engineered by people who haven’t thought about making such repairs, or made those repairs a proprietary process. We’ve separated thinking and doing, denigrating the doers whose work takes skill, intuition, problem-solving ability, and imagination, while upholding knowledge workers often disconnected from the world of things.

Crawford narrates his own journey from electrician to working for an abstracting service whose productivity demands impaired his ability to do what the work really required. After completing a doctorate in political philosophy, he went to work for a Washington think tank but quit after five fatiguing months of struggling to do anything of tangible worth. He found he had more of a sense of individual agency and connectedness to his work and community as an electrician or mechanic.

He takes us into a deep dive into the work of motorcycle repair, describing challenging repair jobs on old machines he’d never encountered. We learn about the “guild” of mechanics, the wisdom acquired from years of experience that leads to a kind of intuitive knowledge when one encounters a particular problem. He traces the journey from apprenticeship to becoming a master mechanic. This work occurs in a community of other mechanics, parts dealers, enthusiasts, and novices in which one is alienated neither from the material one works on or the web of relationships within which the work occurs.

The subtitle of this book is “an inquiry into the value of work.” Crawford argues that many are disconnected from the value of their work, and sometimes find this in leisure activities. Meaningful work, he would argue, involves full engagement with the stuff of one’s work, allowing for “progress in excellence,” contributing to a life well-lived by those served by the work. He argues that a humane economy allows for and rewards such work. He also notes the built in accountability of good work–an improperly vented toilet stinks up the whole house! Such accountability needs to be built into knowledge work as well, and happens best in community. At one time, for example, mortgage lenders were in a community and knew their clients and were responsible for good lending practices. The loss of this connection to one’s work contributed to the disaster of 2008.

I found myself applauding much of this book. My father-in-law, a high school educated laborer, designed and built his own garage–a structure still standing fifty years after he passed. This kind of intelligence needs to be honored and those who work in these kinds of jobs held up to high regard if they do their work to the standard of excellence Crawford describes. I hope at the same time that this will not have the effect of denigrating all knowledge work. I think of researchers who build their own research apparatus, write their own computer code and combine mental and mechanical skill with the same skillful agency Crawford describes. I think of skillful managers who combine technical expertise and soft skills to develop products that serve others while creating flourishing environments for those on their teams. His larger discussion of what makes good work applies both to manual trades and “knowledge work.” All good work involves both thinking and doing, agency and engagement, the flourishing both of worker and the common good.

Both manual and knowledge work can be organized in ways that demean or dignify the worker. Good societies will not play one off against the other but recognize the dignity of meaningful work in all arenas. Crawford also raises good questions about the communities within which good work takes place. Increasingly, I find myself wondering if we can afford the global economy we have created, where we rely on workers and supply chains half way around the planet while living disconnected economic lives from our neighbors. This book is about a lot more than shop class!

Review: Having and Being Had

Having and Being Had, Eula Biss. New York: Riverhead Books, 2021.

Summary: A collection of essays on the occasion of the author and her husband buying their first house, considering the nature of capitalism, consumption, work, and class.

It was 1990. We had just moved to a new city, moving from an older, inner ring, blue collar suburb in one city to a three year old housing development on the very edge of our new city, with twice the square footage of house and lot. Shortly after moving, my wife and I were walking in the neighborhood, and she asked me, “did we sell out?”

It is questions like these that Eula Biss explores in this new collection of essays under similar circumstances. If you are familiar with her earlier writings, she lived something of a hand-to-mouth existence at one time. Now she and her husband hold a teaching positions, she at a major university where she earns $20,000 more than her husband at another school, for doing the same work. She has won various literary words and the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship–a grant affording her the support to write instead of teach. And they have moved out of their apartment and purchased their first house.

In the course of buying furniture, repairing a chimney, purchasing a gravy boat for their first Thanksgiving, and watching her son buy a valuable Pokemon card only to give it away to a lonely child, she asks questions about capitalism, consumption, work, class, and more. She wrestles with discussions she has with her institution’s investment counsellor who pushes her to invest in stocks that will create her a nice nest egg in years to come.

Many of the essays recur to one of these themes. For example, she asks a number of different economists and others about the meaning of capitalism. As you might expect, the answers are all over the map. She explores the questions of the place of art in a culture, even as she describes purchasing a membership at the Art Institute of Chicago. She wrestles with the fact that she now pays people to care for her children and to clean her house. She goes on literary excurses through the lives of Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and Karl Marx and the people around them who enabled their writing lives.

One of the recurring themes is work. What constitutes good work? What distinguishes work, labor, and toil? How ought she feel about the grant coming from capitalist successes that make it possible for her not to work to pursue the writing she loves, that she admits at one point is her play. She explores the phenomenon of people who reach a certain level of success who feel the need to keep up the appearance of working when they really don’t want to.

The challenge I had reading this work was whether this was commendable self-reflection on the ways we are implicated in the capitalist system, or was rather the condemnable self-indulgence of one privileged enough to have the time and means to ask these questions. Other reviewers of this book have reached both of these conclusions.

At first I was inclined to the latter conclusion, until I remembered the questions we asked back in 1990. It seems to me that the greater danger to our souls would have been not to ask the questions, to simply conclude that we had worked hard and deserved what we (and the bank) owned. But it was hardly that simple. The home represented the help of family in a variety of ways and the support of friends. It was a combination of both unearned privileges and our own efforts. The greater danger, it seems to me would have been unreflective self-satisfaction. To know oneself blessed carries with it the responsibility of using that well for the common good.

I think of the work that brought me to this city, work that, with some differences, I am still engaged in. I think it would have been interesting for Biss to explore the nature of vocation or calling. Under the rubric of work, what she describes is a calling as a writer. She touches on this when she describes the greater satisfaction of janitorial staff in a hospital when they see themselves as caring for patients. Callings go beyond what we earn money doing. How fortunate when we are compensated at whatever amount for pursuing them! Biss, herself, knows both sides–of having to work to pursue an unremunerative calling, and to have achieved success in that pursuit. I sense the struggle with this as a guilty pleasure. I wonder if gratitude is a better response, and avoiding any presumptions that it will last.

And now it is 32 years later in the same house. It’s funny how things change. For many, our neighborhood is “starter” homes as the suburbs have extended further out from the city. I wonder what some of the young couples pushing strollers are thinking? Eula Biss makes me reflect anew on what I ought think. Her honesty about money (she names amounts) invites me to a similar kind of honesty about an area we often don’t like to talk about and how all of us are implicated in the economic system of our country.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Our Parents Worked

Steelmaking in Youngstown

With Labor Day coming up, it occurred to me that perhaps it was a fitting time to remember how hard our parents worked. Many were trying to get a foothold on the economic ladder, to buy a house, and to see us kids have opportunities they would never have. Pretty soon, at least for my generation, they all will be gone. Last week marked eight years since my father passed. My father and mother both would have been 100 this year. It seems especially fitting this Labor Day to honor them.

They worked since they were children, collecting scrap metal during the Depression to contribute to family income. Many Youngstown men in my neighborhood worked in the mills, some within walking distance. It was hard, grimy, and dangerous. A lapse of attention could cost a finger, a foot, or even a life. Others worked in railyards, or in factories making rail cars, office furniture, or automobiles. Often, they retired as soon as they could, before the strength of their bodies was totally broken down.

Our mothers worked. During the war, many filled the factory jobs vacated by the men gone to war. My mother was a telephone operator. My wife’s mom was an aircraft inspector. Some returned to home making when husbands came back from the war. That did not mean they did not work. Diapers were not disposable. Washers had wringers that could wring an arm as easily as your clothes. Washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking–every day. There were few takeout options or labor saving conveniences. To supplement groceries and stretch budgets, especially during strikes there was gardening, and canning and cooking from scratch.

Men came home and worked on cars and remodeled or added onto homes and pitched in to help relatives and buddies who were doing the same. And they taught us how to do a job well and finish it.

Some worked at the same place for many years. But even before Black Monday, people had to re-tool and find new work. I watched my father go through that, trying a succession of jobs before landing a decent job as a department store buyer and department manager. He always worked hard while treating his people with decency and fairness. He paid all his bills, provided for us, and left no debts. That’s the way he wanted it.

Many of us do enjoy better lives than our parents. They sent us to college or trade school. We may even have inherited from them, adding to our resources. More than that, they likely imparted their work ethic to us, whether we learned the lessons or not.

Our parents worked. Youngstown worked. We enjoyed a richness of life in our neighborhoods and the city that we love to remember. Perhaps as we celebrate this weekend, it’s a good time to remember our parents, how they worked and made Youngstown a good place–and how that hard work shaped our lives. Thank you mom and dad!

Review: Discover Joy in Work

Discover Joy in Work

Discover Joy in WorkShundrawn A. Thomas. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: A response to the widespread lack of engagement in work, exploring the changes to our approach to our workplace, our work ethic, and our work life that foster joy in work that is more than a job, more than an occupation, but rather a calling.

Shundrawn Thomas is the president of a trillion dollar global investment firm, who has worked in many other settings before attaining his present position. He has found deep joy in his own work and is concerned about the statistics that show that the majority of workers are not engaged with their work.

Thomas contends that the discovery of joy in our work has little to do with the job we are in and everything to do with the person doing that work. He writes:

However, only one person determines your joy: you. If you want to truly experience joy in your work, you only have one person to deal with: yourself! You are the only person standing in the way of experiencing joy in your work.

He begins with our approach to our workplace. He starts with changing our attitudes, our perspective on our workplace that shapes our feelings and actions, that when content and positive, sustains us through our workday. He proposes that we need to alter our approach, including proactive preparation, prioritization of our time, and partnering well with others. He advocates for raising our aptitude, working with talented people, and involving discovery, development, and deployment. Finally, we can take steps to ensure achievement by avoiding distractions, and working together with resolution to achieve team goals.

He then turns to our work ethic, what motivates us to put in the effort for excellent work. He addresses the love of money and how money may both be a primary and yet inadequate motivator when we recognize the value of time, the satisfaction of work that aligns with our gifts and interests, the greater value of our health and sense of worth, and the sharing rather than amassing of wealth. We can work for the praise of people, but growth occurs not only through praise but also through criticism. The most satisfying work is not what is praised but is praiseworthy. We may work for respect but greater joy comes when we are motivated from within and concerned more about doing good work for the benefit of others and modest about our own self-importance.

Finally, he talks about the fruits of our work life. Work reveals purpose when we allow it to perfect us rather than looking for the perfect occupation, and give ourselves diligently to it. This means work requires effort, calling on all our physical, mental, and spiritual efforts, undeterred by setbacks. Work promotes growth through training, advanced degrees, certifications, workshops, and seminars as well as cultivation of professional relationships in which one regularly receives and welcomes feedback. Work develops our skills, particularly the four skills of listening, visualizing, collaborating, and leading that are critical for success. Work fosters relationships of trust, transparency across a network of personal connections. All this comes together in producing value as we set goals that answer the questions of which opportunities we will pursue, what problems we will solve, and who we will serve. Most of all, work may glorify God as we combine all these qualities in work offered to God in service of others. Work becomes calling in which our efforts answer to God’s bidding.

This is a book chock-full with principles that feels a bit like reading Proverbs. Each paragraph, sometimes each sentence is worth reflection. Thomas has written a book rich with “work wisdom.” It also reflects a conviction of the inherent goodness of work, that it is not a curse, but done rightly, with the right attitude, can afford deep satisfaction within the greater joy of glorifying God. He does offer many examples, and each chapter concludes with a summary of key insights, valuable because each chapter, though short, is so full of these insights. If one reads too rapidly, or feels one must implement at once all that Thomas advises, this could be daunting. Listening for the one insight that resonates right now and considering what changes this means for one’s work life may be more helpful. This book could be dynamite read together with colleagues sharing a commitment to live transformatively in their work place.

Most of all, this book rings true with over four decades of my own work experience. I’ve found that I can never depend on an organization or workplace to make work joyful. Joy has much more to do with the perspective, the work ethic, the investment I bring to my work, than what I find there. Surely, work places are never optimal, and sometimes far less than that. Sometimes this means changing employers or at least jobs. It is apparent from the book that Thomas himself did so. Years ago, an executive search consultant advised me not to relinquish responsibility for my career path to my employer or anyone else. Shundrawn Thomas would add that we not relinquish responsibility for our joy to others.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Ethics at Work

ethics at work

Ethics at WorkTheology of Work Project. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017.

Summary: A discussion guide outlining a Christian approach to ethical decision-making in the workplace based on three principles: commands, consequences, and character.

What does Sunday morning have to do with 8 to 5 Monday through Friday (or whatever our working hours may be)? For many Christians that lack of connection between our worship and our work eventually leads to questions either about the truth and reality of our faith, or the possibility of living Christianly in the workplace.

The Theology of Work Project, the developers of this discussion guide and numerous other related resources, are thoroughly committed to the idea that our faith and our work life may be seamlessly connected. On their “about” page, they describe the vision of the Project in these terms:

“The vision of the Theology of Work Project is that every Christian be equipped and committed for work as God intends. A Christian approach makes work more meaningful and productive, benefits society and the people we work with and for, gets us through the challenges we face on the job, draws people to Jesus, and brings glory to God.”

This guide is designed for Christians in the workplace interested in developing a Christian framework of ethical decision-making. It consists of 21 half-hour lessons grouped into seven sections. Each lesson provides short readings (one page or less) with a few biblical texts, interspersed with “Food for Thought” sections, and a concluding prayer. One thing I like is the “less is more” approach that seems to me realistic to accomplish in a half hour discussion over a lunch break or before work.

After exploring some different popular proposals on ethical decision-making, the guide develops a “three-legged” stool approach around the following:

  1. Commands: is there a relevant biblical command to obey or something to avoid.
  2. Consequences: how will the various parties involved be affected by the possible choices?
  3. Character: What kind of person do I want to be or become?

Under this last “leg”, the writers adopt three key aspects of the character of God which scripture calls us to live by, first proposed in Alexander Hill’s Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace (Hill was the former president of InterVarsity/USA). These are holiness, justice, and love, and need to balance each other.

The guide also introduces a case study developed through the different lessons. A Christian auto dealer (“Wayne”) sells a used car that is in good operating condition with no know defects. Just over a year and over 13,000 miles later, the owner contacts him about transmission problems and asks what he will do to fix it. Subsequent lessons apply the different principles and trace out “Wayne’s” process in reaching a decision about how he will deal with this customer.

While written specifically for use with workplace groups (there is even a section on “Wisdom for Using this Study in the Workplace”), I also think this could be highly useful in adult education courses in churches and with Christian groups in business schools, particularly for those who have already had work experience. I would also highly recommend supplementing the material in this book with resources from the Theology of Work Project website, which includes commentaries related to a theology of work from every book of scripture and a number of other articles on related topics.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Reflections on “The Future of Work”


Derek Thompson (far right) and panelists at “Future of Work” Photo (c) 2017, Robert C Trube

The other day, I ordered food at my favorite Panera without talking to a person. A kiosk allowed my to swipe “My Panera” card, greeted me by name on screen, displayed the menu by categories, allowed me to select items, check out and make a payment with my credit card. A receipt was emailed to me. It took people to prepare my food, but only one person was working checkout. Most people were using kiosks.

A few years ago, three or four people would have been doing what the kiosks did. My experience illustrated what several speakers at an event I helped host Tuesday evening were exploring. Work is changing, and automation in various forms is either changing our work, or requiring that we change jobs, if we can.

The event was called “The Future of Work.” Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic moderated a discussion with three academics, a development economist, a labor economist, and a marketing and information technology professor. It was a rich conversation that opened my eyes to some vitally important issues.

Thompson came to my attention a year ago when he wrote an article titled “A World Without Work.” It explored what happens when technology change and market forces put people out of work. And significantly for me, the article centered around time he spent in my home town of Youngstown, Ohio, a city that knows all too well the dislocations of the loss of jobs, shrinking from a high of 170,000 people when I was young to just over 60,000 at present. Talking personally with Derek, we talked about the “Youngstown diaspora” in my own city of Columbus, Ohio, which has a growing rather than shrinking population. We noted how so many who could leave Youngstown, because of education and other factors, did so, and how this changed the fabric of the city, and so many others like it.

Thompson, both in his talk, and in the article made the observation that “many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.” One of our panelists, reflecting his Christian beliefs (it was a religiously diverse group) noted that work came before the fall in Genesis. It reflects something of what humans made in the image of God are like. God worked, and it seems work, as well as rest, is important to being human. It was after the fall that work got laborious and frustrating, hence the tension we live in between not always liking our work, but hating not working more.

The panel explored the implications this raises in a world where technology might both put people out of work, and possibly mean others will work less. What will we do with the disparities of income between those who profit tremendously from either making the technology or using it to entertain–and the others who don’t? They explored the idea of the “universal basic income”– a guaranteed level of income for all whether they have employment or not. Most were pretty ambivalent or even opposed to this idea–kind of like society rather than parents supporting us while we live in our basement playing video games.

Another question that was discussed was what will we do should we need to work less to earn sufficient income on which to live? Will we just consume? Or will we find other ways to work, perhaps to create things, or to serve others? Or will we work and earn more than we need, simply because work is what we do? There is a question of what a life well-lived looks like should remunerative work be less of a necessity.

One of the clearest things to come out of the night is that many jobs face automation. Thompson had us consider clerical workers, for example the grocery clerk who grabs an item, scans an item, bags an item, and repeats. There might be some good that comes out of eliminating hard, repetitive, and tedious work. But automation is spreading far beyond this. We are talking about computers driving cars and trucks on one hand, and computers doing radiological diagnostics on the other. It is either people in the service economy doing very relational things with other humans, or people in the knowledge industry, those who create, maintain, or utilize the technology, who will be the last to be automated. Computers do not compose great music or write great books–or invent iPads!

Even if new technology creates as many jobs as it eliminates (about which I am uncertain), the people who lose a livelihood are in great pain. Such things raise questions about what kinds of inner resources do we cultivate against such possibilities, and also what kind of society will we be when change causes such dislocation and pain. Will we be a zero sum society with winners and losers, or will we find ways to stand with those who suffer–to make our neighbor’s pain our own and get through it together?

It seems to me that we cannot afford either a mentality of entitlement for ourselves or indifference to our neighbors. Our families, our schools and our religious institutions alike need to form people to embrace change rather than to hate it or cling to the familiar past. Perhaps it is the bedrock of belief that enables us to cope with the changes in our environment. It is a danger that some of our panelists discussed, that we make work, especially in a particular career, that bedrock. Yet, in a time of great change, this is shaky ground at best. Do we not need something else that gives us the wherewithal to grow and change, grieve and embrace, and discover an abiding joy that sustains us through the changes of life, including changes in how we work? The truth is, none of us knows what the future holds. For some, the answer is in the cliche’ of “knowing Who holds the future.” Whether you buy that or not, the changing world of work poses the question of “what grounds my life?”

[Derek Thompson, in addition to his editorial post at The Atlantic, is the author of the recently published Hit Makers, reviewed here.]

Review: Acedia and Its Discontents

AcediaAcedia and Its Discontents, R. J. Snell. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015.

Summary: This is an exploration of the vice usually known as sloth, often thought of as laziness. The author argues that acedia is a contempt of all relationships and a destructive embrace of autonomous unchecked freedom rather than the love of God and the good work to which God calls us.

R. J. Snell has given us a both literate and theologically acute exposition of the nature of acedia, the vice commonly known as sloth but in fact is anything but what we would consider laziness. He argues that what was once considered a vice to be overcome has been transformed into an obsession with a kind of radical freedom jettisoning relationship with God, others, and creation in pursuit of an “empire of desire.” In the extreme, acedia takes the form of Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian who detests all except the exercise of his own will.

Snell begins his argument about subverting this “empire” by dealing with our nature, as creatures “from the dirt” and “for the dirt.” We are made by God from the earth and made for it, as gifts to that creation. We are called to work that respects the integrity things, to respect the integrity of the emergent properties of the earth’s systems (or building soil), and works in the proper direction, filling the temple of God.

Instead of living in these ways, the choice of acedia is a choice of boredom where nothing is esteemed of beauty and goodness and wonder. We hate our God-given tasks and the place and the people we are set in the midst of, except where these fulfill our desires. Instead of seeing the beauty of all things, the world becomes “bleached out” objects. In an excursus on contraception, Snell explores the bleached out character of sex without fertility. As one considers the growing incidence of sexual assault and sexual objectification, one begins to see the point of acedia as an empire of desire.

Resistance to this empire comes through the embrace of sabbath, a rhythm of work and rest and feasting that is the acceptance of the gift of God. And it comes in the embrace of smallness, the ordinary, everyday acts of faithfulness. Monks struggling with acedia dealt with it through the work of the cell–prayer, and the rhythms of monastic life. It is in living out our particular tasks in our particular place that we are shaped in a life of virtue. So it was with Jesus, learning under a carpenter and practicing that work until the final years of his mission.

As I read Snell’s account of acedia it seems the case he makes seems extreme except for the fact that what I think he unearths is a fundamental orientation that we may often mask by social conventions where we might consider ourselves more virtuous than we are. And the resistance he proposes seems at once so ordinary, and yet so contrary to our modern life. Keep sabbath, embrace the ordinary, accept God-given limits as real freedom. Not what we often want to hear, and yet the doorway to truth, goodness, beauty, and the bracing love of life for which we most deeply long.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”