Beauty · Genesis · Glenn Sunshine · Interview · Work


Several years ago I read a book From Rome to Home: Why You Think the Way You Do by Glenn Sunshine. It was one of the 10 most influential books I’ve read recently. Two pages of that book intrigued  me. I wanted to hear more, so I contacted Glenn and he was generous enough to let me interview him. Almost everything in this article is what Glenn said to me, in other words, this is mostly his material, not mine. I hope you this.

This is Part 2 of the interview.  Here is Part 1.

TIM: Glenn, I want to recap what we have talked about so far. You have defined secularism, for this discussion, as privatized religion that’s not for the public square. You have said that work is not evil, but good, and that its function may be beauty before practicality; and that work involves creating culture. Also, that the Christian ideology involves man understanding that He is made in God’s image, and therefore not only he, but his work has a greater purpose.

GLENN: Let’s also understand that not only is work not evil, but man was created to work. That work, if we believe it means creating culture, not just for practical purposes, involves not just production, but the sciences and the arts as well. They are all significant. This is all part of the image of God. In the ancient near east, when someone was said to be the image of a god, it meant that that god had designated that person as his or her official representative and regent on earth. It conveyed the idea of divine authority to rule. In Genesis, we see this same thing with the pairing of man being made in the image of God and being given dominion over the earth. Our dominion is exercised in building culture under God’s authority.

TIM: Glenn, can we marry all of these ideas together? If work is not evil, then why do we seem to hate work so much? For many, why does it seem so purposeless and monotonous?

GLENN: Once Adam sinned in Genesis 3 we all know about the curse upon work. But this goes deeper than just work being harder. Work was created to be fulfilling, creative and satisfying. The satisfaction comes because not just out of producing a product, but out of creating something and cultivating culture.

There are two parts to the mandate to build culture: reproduce and multiply, and subdue the earth. Both were affected by the judgment God pronounced in Genesis 3. Childbirth became painful, as did cultivating the earth—the same word is used in both places. Work, which was meant to be satisfying, was turned into toil and drudgery. Man rejected God’s way, and therefore, work has turned into what it is now. Genesis 2 and 3 show why we identify with work, because it is part of us. But it also shows us why it is so frustrating if we were not meeting the goals of its initial purpose.

TIM: In a sense, we all hate work for the same reason then.

GLENN: Yes, but around the 6th century, Saint Benedict begins to discover and write on how work should change because of Christian ideals. He said that if Jesus came to redeem us from the effects of the fall, this also includes that of work and toil. So faith in Jesus recovers the goodness and dignity of work.

In the ancient world, work was only for inferior people or slaves. When St. Benedict came along, his teaching led the monks to find a way to eliminate drudgery from work. If an animal or machine, non-humans, could do these tedious jobs, they should do it instead of man.

TIM: Are you saying that monks were some of the first industrial inventors?

GLENN: Yes, because monks understood the goodness of work; and since Christ came to end the effects of the fall, they believed they should get rid of the drudgery. They attempt to make work more meaningful and fulfilling and to eliminate mindless stuff. For example, grinding grain had always been a repetitive, mindless task, so the monks invented new ways to do this using water wheels. They mechanized the task because they believed that human labor should be spent on more creative tasks than grinding grain by hand.

TIM: So let’s go from 6th century monks to 19th and 20th century industrialization. You are saying that the machines and technology invented by them get rid of the menial tasks. I worked in a factory a decade ago. I pretty much did repetitive tasks all day long. How did we go from using technology to freeing us from the menial, to technology tying humans back to the menial?

GLENN: It occurs because of a secular mindset. The advent of the industrial revolution in the 19th and 20th century devalues human beings. We went from realizing that we were made in the image of God to believing that the highest good isn’t meaningful labor as the monks believed, but increased production. This is a materialist assumption. Materialists not meaning someone who loves things, but someone who believes that we are just material being, not created beings with souls.

Now there were some ways people benefited from the industrial revolution. We were creating better products for a cheaper cost, which raised most people’s standard of living. While this was a benefit, it was done at the expense of the worker. We are programmed to look for meaning and significance in what we do, but this is hard to do if you are tied to a machine. This gives people the feeling that they are machines, not humans.

TIM: In essence, this could be a variety of things right? It doesn’t just have to be someone who punches a button at a factory. In the modern era, it could be the same people who do menial and redundant tasks on computers.

GLENN: Exactly, As Karl Marx said, people have become alienated from their work. He actually diagnosed the problem well. But he had the wrong solution; he didn’t recognize that the problem went deeper than economics, that it was fundamentally about dehumanization and missing the image of God.

What happened is the cultural norm shifted. Dehumanizing workers wasn’t looked down upon, but it was actually rewarded. This made people miserable. They weren’t valued as human beings, but were only valued as a means to an end—making more money.

TIM: So we are at where we are at now. How do we understand work again and enjoy work again? What would you say to the person who feels stuck at work, who feels like they hate work. The person who doesn’t enjoy work anymore?

GLENN: We can enjoy work again if we first place it into the larger purpose of our lives. For the Christian, work has a larger goal and is sacred. As Scripture says in Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

This is easier than handling the secular idea of work. If all work is, is paying the bills as a necessary evil, you just gut it out and work. Now this doesn’t mean that the Christian won’t have bad days at work. But understanding work’s purpose in its proper place will change our attitudes towards it. Work then becomes an act of worship to God, not just work.

We understand that the brokenness in our lives is very real. At the same time, when that brokenness is placed in the Gospel, it can be turned into something beautiful.

While we see work as something menial at times, we should look at it from a different angle. If we understand work in its larger context, as part of the process of God’s governing of all of creation, as a part of His eternal plan, we can find purpose in it. If you are making or creating something, whether it is food, electricity, or whatever you make, you are making it for people and ultimately for God. We can place our broken story in a larger story.  If you believe in God, your story ends well. If we can understand work as worship, as part of a greater purpose, as helping other people, and as being part of a greater final story of truth and salvation that wins, we can appreciate our jobs and even enjoy them.

TIM: Glenn, thanks for your time. Thanks for your books you have written, and all your work that you do. I know it has impacted me, and helped me understand humanity, our world, and myself better. I hope that those reading this will be curious to read more of what you have written.

SOME BOOKS BY GLENN SUNSHINE: Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home; The Image of God; Portals: Entering Your Neighbors World

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