Competent Christianity

By Lindsey Scholl, Trinity Classical School

One day, author Dorothy L. Sayers received a letter from an admirer of her play, The Zeal of Thy House. Like almost all of her plays, this production had depicted supernatural creatures on stage: four archangels, each eleven-feet high and draped in gorgeous gold robes. The admirer asked if Sayers had selected the angel-actors “for the excellence of their moral character.”

Actually, Sayers responded, she didn’t select the angels at all – the producer did that. Then she listed his requirements. First, he needed young men who were six feet tall. Second, those young men must be in good shape, because they would have to stand stiffly on stage for over two hours. Third, they had to be able to speak in verse, with a good and pleasing voice. Fourth,  they had to be decent actors. When all of these criteria had been met, the actor’s moral qualities might be considered, such as the quality of arriving to work on time and sober.[1]

In short, the height and skill of the actor was more important than his morals. Sayers felt strongly about this because she felt strongly about good workmanship. In her essay, “Why Work?” she argued that art should be “judged by its own, and not by ecclesiastical standards […] The right kind of actor with no morals would give a far more reverent and seemly performance than a saintly actor with the wrong technical qualifications. The worst religious films I ever saw were produced by a company which chose its staff exclusively for their piety.”[2]

The danger is greater than a poor production. Sayers imagines a woodworker presenting his work to Christ but admitting that “the wood was green and the joints unsure and the glue bad, but it was all church furniture.”[3] God forbid that we should present such work to Him. God forbid that we should use Him as an excuse for bad craftsmanship.

We can be quite easy on ourselves when it comes to the work of our hands. Is this an ugly building? Sure, but it was affordable. Is this a poorly written paper? Sure, but l just need a passing grade. God doesn’t want us to be perfectionists, does he? In fact, God is our ally here. He gave us grace, and doesn’t grace liberate us from standards?

Several years ago, the school where I teach adopted a firm no-late-work policy. This meant that, barring an emergency, a student received a zero for any work turned in after the class period. One day, a boy forgot to bring his work to school. He found his completed assignments later on and sent them to the teacher.  The teacher thanked him for the follow-up, but did not give him credit, because the assignment was turned in late. The following is a brief email exchange between the administrator and the student’s parent.

Parent: “This is definitely an area where Grace would be needed. Innocent mistake, he caught it, realized it, communicated quickly, showed the photo, and there’s no grace.”

Administrator: “Teacher X is adhering to the late-work policy that [our school] has adopted….At this point, she needs to treat Student Y like the other students, which would be to thank him for showing his accountability, but to not give credit turned in past the due date.”

Parent: “Yes we can agree to disagree on this one we understand the law but in this particular instance there should be holiday Grace a completely innocent mistake [sic].”

The parent is correct: the boy’s mistake was innocent. He simply forgot his work and hoped for a chance to receive credit. No harm, no foul. So why couldn’t the teacher give it to him?

Grace vs. Standards

What is grace? Thomas Aquinas says that grace appears in at least three ways: someone’s love, a gift freely bestowed, and gratitude for that gift. Grace itself is not a virtue. It is the root of all virtues. It is the Divine Nature participating in us.[4] The Greek Orthodox say that grace gives us affinity with God; it strengthens us, even to the point that saints can perform the   same sort of miracles as Christ.[5] Martin Luther and many Protestants argue that grace is that through which God saves us and enables us to live righteously.[6] Not one of these explanations is an excuse for missing a deadline. Rather, we might say that grace is the power by which we make all our deadlines.

Where did we get the idea that grace exempts us from standards? Possibly from Paul. He’s the one who said that there is no condemnation for those in Christ.[7] You get condemned by falling short of a standard. After all, sin is hamartia, or missing the mark. We have missed the mark, the standard of righteousness, yet we are not condemned. So we’re free! But not free to live debauched lives, turning in papers three weeks late. We are free to live how we were created to live: righteously and pleasing to the Lord.[8]

Dorothy Sayers did not talk a great deal about grace. But she did offer an entire essay on forgiveness. And what she said about forgiveness could well be said about grace. It is the re-establishment of a right relationship. A child sins. His mom may decide not to punish him. Or she may decide that he needs a punishment. Either way, she forgives him, because forgiveness means maintaining a right relationship, which the child can enjoy after he is punished.[9]

To return to the student who forgot his assignment. The “grace” the parent requested is that he still receive credit. The teacher did not give grace, according to that definition. But here’s what the teacher did do. She did allow the student back into class, did continue to give him the benefit of her wisdom, and did treat him with dignity for the remainder of the school year. She actually gave him grace in abundance.

Hard Work

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book several years ago entitled Outliers: The Story of Success. One of Gladwell’s arguments is that it takes more than talent to enter the stratosphere of success inhabited by the Beatles and Bill Joy (a programmer on the level of Bill Gates). It takes opportunity and practice – a lot of practice. Referencing recent studies, Gladwell says it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. Billy Joy got appx. 10,000 hours of practice of programming at the University of Michigan’s then-fledgling Computer Center. In the Beatles’ early career, they played eight hours a day, seven days a week, for clubs. Bill Gates took advantage of his high school’s computer lab (a rare item, in his day) and also chose to write code at three a.m. at a nearby university. These successes indicate more than great opportunity; they require great perseverance.[10]

Christians do not need to be superstars. It may be better for us if we’re not. But we do need to be hard workers – in fact, our measure of success is whether we’ve worked with all our hearts. Paul said that he “labored” for the Colossian church. His friend Epaphras also “worked hard” for those in Colossae and in two other cities. Each of these men probably exceeded 10,000 hours of service. Perhaps Paul was a spiritual genius because he worked so hard at it. And there’s no indication that they found the work to be drudgery. Nor does Paul ever say that because he’s under grace, he doesn’t have to work. Actually, grace drives him to work harder. He rejoices in his suffering. He toils, struggling with all the might of Christ. 10,000 hours of blood, sweat, and tears – all because of the grace of God.

But what if I’m not Paul? What if I’m a manager at a “fast-food place, and I supervise minimum-wage employees? Let’s return to Sayers’s essay on work. The Church would help herself, she argues, if she would broaden her view of work. All work is sacred. This statement is easy to affirm but harder to keep in mind. Consider the carpenter, a classic example of a secular worker.  Sayers says that in her day, the Church’s way of encouraging an intelligent carpenter amounted to little more than  “exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays.” This has nothing to do with his skills as a worker. What the Church should tell him is “that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”[11]

Likewise, the spiritual requirements of the manager are to communicate with the store’s owner and its employees, keep an accurate inventory of supplies, and treat the customers well. That is his sacred duty, and it glorifies God. This idea of work can be quite liberating. If all work is sacred, then we don’t have to wait until church to worship. We praise God when our team of fry-cooks show up on time. We bless the customer when we deliver his food correctly and promptly. All good work glorifies God.

Consider the advantages of a Christian work ethic. The agnostic hopes that there’s meaning in her waking up at four a.m. to battle traffic, but she can’t be sure. The atomist knows that his great American novel has no everlasting value. The materialist finishes her geometry assignment because she needs to get grades for a college scholarship, so she can get jobs that will support her until she dies or retires. Paul, on the other hand, commands us to do what we do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ—an eternal name.[12]

The Christian is under a burden and a promise. The burden is that everything counts. The promise is that everything counts. And if everything counts, we should work well and hard. We should surpass standards, not avoid them. But if everything counts, we can let our imaginations run wild. Perhaps that freshman essay will ring loudly through the halls of heaven as the honorable duty of a lover of God.

There’s another, less-inspiring, reality to consider: menial, pointless jobs. Sayers answers that society (and the Church) needs to reconsider the nature of work itself. What’s the one place, she asks, where a man finds god-like satisfaction in a work well done? His hobby. If everyone could serve the work like a young man serves his model airplanes, satisfaction at the job-site would be no problem. The young man doesn’t work for money; he only hopes he has enough money to do what he loves. Sayers envisions a society that labors for the work’s own sake, not for the sake of pay. War, she says, shows us that such a society is possible: “A war consumer does not buy shoddy. He does not buy to sell again. He buys the thing that is good for its purpose, asking nothing of it but that it shall do the job it has to do.”[13]

I would add that we still have a responsibility towards menial, apparently meaningless, jobs. In a school, these might be assignments given by a new teacher who buries students in her zeal for the subject. Paul advised the slaves of Colossae to obey their masters (who surely didn’t care about edifying the staff). Students under a heavy workload should consequently remember that this injustice may yet accomplish something worthy.[14]

To return to Sayers’ angels, the job of the play’s producer was to hire skilled actors, and requiring these skills for a Christian play does not devalue morality. Rather, it reminds Christians of the privilege of working hard for our Maker; if there are no competent Christian actors, then some other guy will play Gabriel on stage. It will surely be for his benefit, but we will have missed out.

 

[1] Sayers includes this anecdote in “Why Work?” first published by Metheun in 1942. Page citations are from “Why Work?” in Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group), 140-141.

[2] Ibid., 141-142.

[3] Letter to C.S. Lewis, 31 July 1946, The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: 1944-1950, ed. Barbara Reynolds (Cambridge: The Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 1998), 3:131-132.

[4]  See question 110 in the prima secunda of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. See also “Thomas Aquinas and the Essence of Grace: Summa Theological,” TheoPhilogue, https://theophilogue.com/2010/05/22/thomas-aquinas-on-the-essence-of-grace-summa-theologica/ (May 22, 2010, Accessed November 2018).

[5] Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013), pp. 88.

[6] For an example of Luther’s view, see his Christmas Eve sermon of 1522, “The Appearing of the Grace of God” sec. 9, https://www.blueletterbible.org/comm/luther_martin/incarnation/the_appearing_of_the_grace_of_god.cfm (Accessed November 2018).

[7] Romans 8:1.

[8] Colossians 1:10.

[9] “Forgiveness,” Unpopular Opinions (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd, 1946), 14.

[10]  Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2008), 35-68.

[11] “Why Work?”, 139.

[12] Colossians 3:17.

[13] “Why Work?”, 133.

[14] Colossians 4:22-25.

 

Lindsey Scholl teaches Medieval Humanities and serves as the Latin Chair at Trinity Classical School in Houston, Texas. She has written various articles on classical education and tries to promote the various works of Dorothy L. Sayers whenever she can. Lindsey holds a doctorate from Roman History, specializing in Late Antique intellectual history, and an M.A. in Medieval History. She is married to Dr. John Scholl, also an educator, and they enjoy walking their dog, Amadeus, and having students over whenever possible.

 

 

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