Work Without Meaning–A Response to Gene Veith’s “The Purpose of Work”

Work and life in a cubicleOver at the Gospel Coalition, Gene Veith responds to an article in the New York Times, “What Work Is Really For.” Veith’s “The Purpose of Work” lays out a supposedly Christian response that reads like standard boilerplate: We love our neighbor and love God through our vocational work.

The problem with such standardized answers is that they are cheap and fail to take into account deeper problems. Talk to typical workers today and many of them will state they find little meaning in their work beyond receiving a paycheck. While Veith and company may hold up an ideal of the purpose of work, few people are in a position that reinforces the idea that we love our neighbor and our God through our work.

The reasons for this are many:

1. Our jobs remove us from the transactional. In an agrarian society, the producer of goods interacts directly with buyers. The cattleman sells his cattle to his neighbors. In an economy driven by craftsmen, the artisan sells her goods to a neighbor, who then displays them for other neighbors to see and appreciate. Clothing, jewelry, furniture, art, even homes go from the hand of the craftsman into the hands of the buyer and become readily apparent.The idea Veith champions that an individual loves his neighbor by providing him goods and services is easy to witness in such an economy.

But most workers today don’t witness the fruit of their work. Global conglomerates layer work in such a way that the average worker never interacts with the client. The question of “Who is my neighbor?” is never stronger than in a contemporary work environment. The purpose of work that Veith champions has no reference for most people as a result because the transaction of one individual’s work bettering the life of his neighbor goes unseen.

2. Our economies are now global rather than local. The destruction of cottage industry at the start of the industrial revolution forever changed the breadth of the market. In an expansion of the problem in #1 above, what a worker produces may not even be consumed locally, only by some distant someone. The factory worker in China makes cheap nativity scenes for a large Christian bookstore chain HQed in Dallas, and that thing she produces has no meaning for her because she never sees it displayed locally or even in its proper context.

Because globalism has destroyed the idea of local economies, what a worker makes or provides delivers less meaning than ever into the lives of his or her neighbors. We rarely see the impact of our work on members of our local community. We no longer make the shoes our neighbors wear. We do not sell the chickens our neighbors eat. These items come from some worker far away, someone we have no connection with, no history, no shared experience. And this frustrates Veith’s reasoning enormously.

3. Much of our work has become work for work’s sake. I’ve known people who have worked on projects for a year or more—only to have those projects never see the light of day. Much of work today seems like one worker pushing a rock a mile, only to have her coworker push it back. Government work seems to breed and consume itself, existing solely to sustain bureaucracy. In such environments, all meaning vanishes. We don’t so much work to help our neighbor but work to ensure more work (or to help the faceless conglomerate that has no concept of loyalty to its “neighbor” or even to the people it employs).

4. Many Christians are unwilling to support the professions of neighbors, especially those who make goods by hand. Those in the creative community are all too aware that while we Christians talk a good one about loving our neighbors as ourselves, that love does not extend to commerce. Suggest that the furniture you make by hand is worth its higher cost and righteous scoffers will erupt from the chintzy particleboard of yet more disposable, Chinese-made “woodworks.” I know this is a real issue because I’ve regularly confronted fellow Christians who argue for buying the cheap junk made in a Chinese factory over quality goods made by a fellow believer, even one in their own church. I wonder how much of Gene Veith’s home is decorated with items made—and sold to him—by fellow Christians.

5. Our neighbor is also the one who puts the pink slip on our desk or who takes our job. The way capitalism has degraded in our culture has reduced us to a dog-eat-dog mentality. We love our neighbor when our neighbor loves us. But what of our neighbor downsizing us? What happens when we are let go and replaced with a neighbor who will work for less than we can afford to? That neighbor in Malaysia we were forced to train and who later is given our job—how are we to love him? Yet these are issues many people must face regularly. What is the point of loving one’s neighbor through our work, getting rave performance reviews, then losing our jobs in a massive corporate downsizing? What meaning does unemployment have? And why is it the loneliest people in any church are the unemployed?

I could go on and on. The disconnection of modern work from purpose has never been more stark. In this environment, it should be no surprise that we suffer from so many psychological illnesses. People struggle to find any meaning for their work other than bringing home a paycheck. Who is my neighbor? And how is he benefiting from my work? You and I are struggling to find meaning to the answers our leaders give us.

This is why I find Veith’s response so bland and disconnected from reality. Christians have got to offer better answers than this. While what Veith says may be true in the kind of economy depicted in the Bible, we are no longer that economy. To many people, his answer might as well be how best to appreciate a good buggy whip.

The better question may be how we restore purpose to work by undoing what we can of globalism, returning to more of a local economy, where what you and I make and do for our neighbors can be seen as making a difference in their lives.

To the naysayers, some of this return can be found already in the locavore movement. People choose to eat food produced within a few miles of their homes. This connects neighbors and strengthens communities. Finding better ways to connect neighbor to neighbor through local commerce IS possible, but doing so will require meeting the greatest challenge of all: redoing all aspects of how we think about life and then live it.

The answers to this dilemma are far more difficult to enact than a toss away “your work is a way of loving your neighbor.” Are we Christians up to the challenge of going beyond the surface and into the deeper life?

by Dan Edelen

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14 Comments

  1. Posted October 15, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Update: Added #5, because it is an issue faced by many.

  2. Posted October 15, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    When one lives our lives cocooned in the world of theology and academia and “church” these sorts of answers make sense, distinct from the mind numbing monotony of cubicle life. This fits in with some of your other blogs about leaders being segregated from our regular lives.

  3. connie
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t Ecclesiastes address this in a way?

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Connie,

      Ecclesiastes repeatedly states that we should find value in our work and be happy with what we do. I agree. What is left unsaid is HOW we do that and under what conditions we need to improve the way work happens. I think the entire work world in the U.S. is broken and that Christians are saying NOTHING about this problem. I am firmly convinced that a more godly way of working exists, and if we Christians were to employ it, much of what passes for work in this country would change for the better—and our overall lifestyles too.

  4. Posted October 15, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Dire Dan: “I’ve regularly confronted fellow Christians who argue for buying the cheap junk made in a Chinese factory over quality goods made by a fellow believer, even one in their own church.

    And these people wonder where all the jobs when? I am too thunderstruck to say anything.

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      Oengus,

      These conversations have amazed me. The hypocrisy in them is just staggering, yet people can’t see that. I remember a discussion among Christian brothers and sisters regarding supporting each other by buying from each other, and I asked if one of us were an artist and made beautiful art if the group would support that person if the handmade art cost $100 versus the $25 it might cost to buy something mass-produced from China. Only one person out of a group of about two dozen stated she would buy that person’s work over that of the mass-produced artwork. And this fictional artist was supposedly someone from within the church itself! I was floored. That proved to me that this entire issue of economies is lost because too many Christians see no value in artisans and craftsmanship. That should be entirely the other way around, but there you go.

  5. Matthew from Alaska
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    Dan,
    It has been a while since I’ve read CS regularly, but I am glad I came back. I admire Gene Veith, but I think your posts really nailed it. I have a good job, doing what I do think is important work (public health-food safety microbiology). But I work in State Government and feel much more disconnected from my community that I did when I was a small business owner selling admittedly trivial things such as comic books.

    I am an avid reader of other localists such as Rod Dreher and Front Porch Republic, but have to admit I often despair of there being any change to the current system apart from a huge economic collapse. Which I don’t want or idealize because in that I see my children not just having a lower standard of living than my grandparents did but possibly even worse.

    I am also part of the problem. I sympathize with not buying the more expensive hand-crafted local stuff. When you are the single provider for a family of five, trying to stretch your budget, it is hard to not shop at Wal-Mart, as an example.

    As for a local economy I have limited skills. I worked in cmic books and lab science my whole working life. I’d love to hear suggestions.

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      Matthew,

      Boy, does your comment resonate. You are not alone. I think many people feel what you are feeling.

      I think that for local economies, the best thing anyone can do is to seek out options for buying that are more local. Start there. Find out a little more about your neighbors and see if you can throw them business, even if it’s only now and then.

      I’m into board games and the geek community too. I just went to the Cincinnati Comic Con with my son. I have a game store about a half hour away that is owned by someone who lives in my little town. I try as best I can to support that store and him. I had to cancel an order a couple weeks ago because the distributor let him down and could not come through, and I felt terrible about it.

      I think it starts that small. I could buy everything online for less, but this man lives in my community and provides a service. I will try my best to help him by giving him my business when I can.

      If we start there, I think we can make a difference. If it costs a bit more to buy local, well, here’s your opportunity to buy local AND also simplify by spending your dollars on better quality items (usually) that you will replace less often (usually). It will also have you questioning why you don’t buy better items and simply buy fewer of them overall.

  6. Swithun
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the issue is one of local vs a global economy. It is more that each individual worker has little control in his job. Many jobs these days are purely cogs in the machine. This is mainly due to the whole host of regulations and licensing which reduce the viability of self employment since the start up costs are vastly inflated meaning the trader needs a much larger initial scale of production than is viable.

    Consequently this reduces the competition for hiring labour so the price (this includes wage and conditions) at which labour is purchased falls. This clearly aids established firms particularly the large corporate ones who benefit from massive indirect subsidy from the state, such as ;the government controlled road network which reduces the cost of transportation over large distances contra the cost if the roads were private (e.g. exacting a price for use); the underwriting insurers of commercial shipping; and third party limited liability laws. All this essentially means that individuals (and corporations) do not bear the full costs of their actions.

    In a freed market the bargaining power of lowest class would rise and the economy would be more localised than today since transportation costs would rise.

  7. Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Matthew from Alaska and Swithun have some great points. It is almost as if this economic model is intentionally designed to keep people disengaged. Many of us have little to no practical skills and fewer people know how to make things each year. Lots to think about here and the big question is what does the church do about it?

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Arthur,

      I think that church leaders MUST start driving home the fact that we need each other. I think it is a crime that most church directories have zero information about the skills that each person in the church possesses. I don’t call on my neighbor or on my fellow believers as much as I could because I simply do not know all they can do. If we can start with that, I think it can spread to other, more critical functions.

      Even as I write, my porch is being fixed by a local man and his sons I know are a godly household. That matters, and I take that hiring seriously. I am a craftsman also, and I have had fellow Christians send business my way. I can never thank those people enough, but there can always be more of them. We have got to understand this need, because it is a real one, especially as our economy weakens, which it will. If Christians are not sending work to each other when we can, how can we really talk about loving our brother or sister?

  8. Posted October 16, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Dan,
    We have a small, family farm, and we find the work extremely fulfilling because we see the fruit of our labors (actually, the meat and eggs, not so much the fruit). We’ve managed to stay profitable in our work, but the farm is not able to support the family fully.

    We used to go to the local farmers’ market where we’d have a lot of support, but also we’d have people come and announce how they could get a dozen eggs at Wal-Mart for 99 cents. I’d politely tell them that while they could find a version of an egg there, they could not find a farm-fresh egg in the store. I can’t tell you how often those folks would have a Starbucks cup in hand.

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      Rose,

      I am always jealous of folks who made their farm work. Our fruit farm has been crazy hard to the point that we sort of let everything go this year. Maybe next year. We’ve gotten hit with 17-year cicadas, a new apple pest that seems to have been first recorded in Ohio by hitting our place, bark damage on our cherries through cold, fireblight on our pears, some kind of odd mold on our cherry tree branches, cedar apple rust, cherry yellow spot, blue jay damage, fruit robbed by an unknown beast, and a disease the Ohio State Ag department could not identify. Even though we have tons of pollinators, they’ve been knocked down almost every spring by a cold snap that hits during bloom. And one spring that was beautiful saw low bloom production on every tree, no matter the type. I backed into one tree with my tractor and killed it. In other words, it’s always something. The Ohio State Ag rep in our area said to me, “This is why people become doctors and lawyers.” :-(

  9. Matthew from Alaska
    Posted October 21, 2012 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    Dan,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response and those of the other readers. You are correct. It is not a hopeless situation and we do follow that exact model for items such as meat. As a household we are not big meat eaters and would rather eat meat less but have a better quality of meat raised locally. Some Alaskan produce is quite good, but for most fruit we don’t have much of a local choice. One of the things I miss from our time in Missouri.

    It is also true that it is makes sense to spend a little more for quality. This isn’t exactly fitting the discussion but 19 years ago I bought my wife a Kitchen Aid mixer. I could have purchased one much, much cheaper but I doubt we’d still be using it to this day.

    I am curious what board games you like? It goes without saying that I agree you should support you Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS). :)

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