In her outstanding theology of Old Testament agriculture and agrarian living, Ellen Davis celebrates a theology of work that is both insightful and deeply helpful to the work that we are called to do as educators, whilst at the same time erecting a helpful division between the kind of work that is good to do and good to benefit from, and work that is done from pride or bad habit or simply because it is there.

She cites Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth in stressing the difference between work that is fundamentally work of wisdom and work that is deemed slothful. Sloth, in Davis’ (and Aquinas’) world, is NOT laziness or idleness, but work done to poor purpose. So here, I want to try and tease out some of these differences so that those who are Christians working in schools or elsewhere, might have a better view of the work they do and the godly purpose to which it may be put. The best way to do this is briefly to expound some of the paired opposites that govern work, explored by Davis in her chapter on the nature of work, ending back at her’ excellent exposition of wisdom vs sloth.

The painting above is Grant Wood’s Fall Plowing (1931) and is as good an artistic summary of good work as I know. I commented on this further here.

1. Pride, despair and good work

There is the bad work of pride. There is also the bad work of despair – done poorly out of the failure of hope and vision. Good work finds the way between pride and despair. (Wendell Berry, Healing, from “What are people for?” 1990)

This first contrast is less a contrast than steerage. In our work, especially work that lives in a heavy-duty accountability atmosphere such as running primary schools or the NHS, the only alternative to the creeping despair that your work will never be good enough is often just pride, talking up your work, showing it off so you can (for a moment) feel better. Neither of these are much use in producing work that is genuinely good. In fact, even trying to trade off work motivated by despair and work motivated by pride does not work – both are equally poor taskmasters, and their success criteria are notably rubbish. Berry points the way in saying that good work must be done where there is hope and vision, looking beyond current accountability and work for the sake of it, and seeing what the end could be in a task. More of that anon.

2. Industrial efficiency or sabbath rest

Work that is good is full of rest. Elsewhere in her book (pp 69-79) Davis uses the work of Norman Wirzba to demonstrate what the wilderness manna economy was like. Part of that economy was a militancy against hoarding, except when making appropriate provision for the sabbath, but chiefly it was about dependence on God.

Davis’ main point is that Egypt was an industrial economy without sabbath, without rest. All the fields and products along the Nile were accounted for by state officials, and massive irrigation was put in place to ensure maximum efficiency from the land. The first social change that God made in Sinai was to institute the sabbath, as a reflection of God’s creative care and for the health of workers. This sabbath rest remains for us, though, as David Prior used to say in St Aldates in the early 1980s, that sabbath rest is not just a day, but an attitude of mind to our labour. This is particularly important in a sphere such as education, when it is possible to see the job as never ending. In that case, the siren song of industrial efficiency calls to us, and sabbath rest becomes an act of rebellion against the expectations of those who want ever more efficient outcomes from their industrially-conceived approach to schools. I can hear one or two people telling me to read my own post at this point….

3. Life or a wasting disease

Quoting from Donald Hall’s wonderful String too short to be saved, Davis points to poor agricultural work as something akin to an illness. In Hall’s words “if work was life, working badly was a wasting disease.” Here we are getting close to the idea of sloth as work that is destructive of its surrounds because it is not done from and with love. People who go to work because that is all that will get them out of the house and get a bit of money – such may be meeting their own demands, or even achieving small things, but their influence and impact on their workplaces can be devastating. The difference between those who turn up and “do work” and those whose heart is full of intentional purpose and goodness but then fail, is enormous. The latter remain open to correction and encouragement and support, drawing on and reinforcing the goodness of colleagues. The former spread negativity and a wasting disease among their fellow workers and their organisations or companies. Work done as a wasting disease is a reality for many.

4. Generosity and thrift or affluence

We now live in a western culture where generosity is generally low, thrift is held in poor regard and affluence is seen as a mark of success. Affluence as a motivator for work leads to waste, and waste is a disease of poor work. Give me neither poverty nor riches, says the wise writer of Proverbs, and affluence (and its sister, convenient luxury) militate against work. In his book about the impact of slavery in the US, The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry talks about those wealthy industrialists who “make cars” – no, they don’t, thunders Berry. They manage companies who employ people who make cars. They make money from those who make and then sell their cars, not by actually creating anything of value. There is a difference. The slaveowner who says “I produce cotton” is simply resting his idea of “work” on the back of those slaves who work on his plantation. Those who work, who could, if they were free to do so, take delight in their work, are not those who end up with the money. Our economy, until it recognises the roles of generosity and thrift and a willingness to put everything to use and not to waste, will only encourage bad work. Into this pair of opposites we can start to think about convenience, too. Is convenience something that frees us to do good work elsewhere? Or is it replacing for us good work that we could have done and enjoyed doing? We have recently bought a breadmaker, something which slightly worries me, along with my coffee maker and dish-washer. They are all good for us – freeing us (particularly the dish-washer, which I have somehow lived 95% of my life without) from tiredness and giving us time in the evenings for talk. But it nags me that I am more electrically dependent, and that I am one more remove from work (“chores”) that actually I used to delight in.

5. For the Lord or for man.

This is less a contrast than a shift in attitude. Whatever you do, Paul admonishes us in Colossians 3, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Work done as for the Lord has an eternal significance, and the agrarian writers such as Hall and Berry understand this. They see work as an investment, as a gift to future generations, and therefore as something that needs to be done well. The Victorian divines understood this too, and often promulgated a view that work was transformed by the attitude you had towards it. This unfortunately had more impact on the worker than it did to make the work worthy of him, and one can’t help but wonder to what nefarious use this theological perspective was put.

6. Wisdom or sloth.

This contrast is at the heart of Ellen Davis’ argument, and to me it opened up an understanding of work very far removed from what I had been taught. She begins with detaching the contemporary understanding of sloth as idleness from its historic roots, which refer rather to poor work, or work not done from love. Thomas Aquinas taught that the opposite of sloth (acedia) was in fact joy (gaudium) and loving care (caritas), and this brings us face to face with work as a humble, joyous, act of work. Sitting with headteachers yesterday we reflected on the fact that we had downplayed the language of love: that when teaching children we do so because we love them and want their best. This insight maybe what it is that keeps us in our posts when the pressure is telling us to quit.

This amazing tapestry is from the work of the astonishing Peruvian artist Maximo Laura and it reminds me of the ornate work that Oholiab and Bezalel in Exodus 35 were called upon to carry out for the clothwork for the tabernacle of worship. Their work is taken as one of two “types” by Davis in her exposition of work (the other is the valorous woman of Proverbs 31). Davis points out that where most translations of Exodus attribute skill to the two principal craftsmen, the word is closer to being wisdom. She writes (p144-5):

It is appropriate to speak of the artisans as being possessed of wisdom (and not just skill), because the biblical writers share the understanding common to most traditional societies that the active form of wisdom is good work. Wisdom does not only consist in sound intellectual work; any activity that stands in a consistently productive relationship to the material world and nurtures the creative imagination qualifies as wise. The modern failure to honor physical work that is skilled but nonetheless “ordinary” has resulted in the devaluation and humiliation of countless workers…by contrast, the biblical writers recognize that careful practical work is the best expression of our freedom and safeguard of our sanity. In a healthy society, such work is the means most consistently available for people to practise holiness of life, to imitate God’s enabling and sustaining care for the world: “YHWH by wisdom founded the earth” (Prov. 3:19)

Behind this wisdom is a generosity toward the material world, our own possessions and the uses it can be put to, all dependent on the heart of the giver. Davis again:

Because the character of the worker affects the quality of the work, Moses instructions emphasize the personal dispositions of those who offer their contributions: “Take up from among yourselves a contribution for YHWH, everyone whose heart is willing, and let them bring it….gold and silver and copper, and blue and purple and crimson….And every person wise of heart among you let them come and make all that YHWH has commanded.” (Ex 35:5-6, 10)

Sloth, on the other hand, is work done without this generosity and wisdom, leading to poor practice. Karl Barth, in his study of sloth in Church Dogmatics, sees the failure to do good work as a sin of commission that gets in the way of our becoming more Christ-like. He identifies the principal dimension of sloth as stupidity, defined as the belief that we can authoritatively tell ourselves what is true and good, masquerading as the wisdom of the world, and leading to decay and waste of all that is really given – “the undoing of God’s good work in creation and preservation of the world” (Davis, p141). Besides stupidity, other dimensions of this poor, loveless work, include, according to Barth:

  • inhumanity: the failure to act as a neighbour to others
  • dissipation: remaining inactive when action is needed
  • anxious care: replacing the actual good quality of the work with the drive for success and conscientious labour – a form of working for man, not God.

I recognise myself in all of these! And I have often noticed that when I am prey to anxiety, as often over the last few weeks, so the quality of my work decreases, and the inward-looking tendency to do work well for the sake of feeling better about it (rather than for its intrinsic value to others) increases, to my cost and deepening anxiety!

So, all praise to Ellen Davis for this wonderful exposition, which I have hardly done justice. There is tons in the book, and not just on work, but on our treatment of creation and the land, and some astonishing insights that only a top-rate Hebrew scholar can give us.

I am off to work – in wisdom and joy, making small steps to avoid the work of sloth!


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

3 responses »

  1. […] because we cannot see the value of a completed piece of work. As Ellen Davis has argued (and which I touched on here), hard work, quota-driven, without thoughtful completion or rest was a function of the […]

  2. […] also by schools where needed, for the purpose of being skilled in what they as a family produced. Recently I commented on the amazing tapestries of Maximo Laura, Peru’s foremost weaver. He is the 5th generation […]

  3. […] of democracy. Recently I have commented on Ellen Davis’ excellent expository theology on the nature of work and agriculture. We may not always agree in our theological perspectives, but the fact that we create and work at […]

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