One of my favorite pass-times is watching TV shows on DVD. The series can be so engaging that sometimes I see myself enmeshed in the storyline to such an extent that the boundary between real life and the show becomes blurred, even dreaming about the characters as if they were real people. (I once had a friend accidentally pray for CJ on The West Wing only to realize mid-prayer that she was bringing a fictional character’s problems to the attention of the divine.) Over the past few years, my husband and I have given hours and hours to shows like The West Wing, 24, CSI, and now MI-5 (Spooks). While the shows are engaging simply because of the action and generally good writing, I find that I am particularly drawn to stories like these where the characters are deeply passionate about the work that they do. In my two favorites―The West Wing and MI-5―the characters could easily be classed as workaholics and the episodes often explore the toll that their highly involved occupations take on any attempt at a personal life. As problematic as such concerns may be, I find the idea of doing meaningful work―especially if it is something one loves to do―deeply appealing.
Some people find themselves in jobs that they love, jobs that are stimulating and that demand that they perform at their fullest capacity. Many people, however, never find work that is quite this engaging or, upon finding it, discover that it isn’t financially viable. Such work looks much more like The Office than The West Wing: we go to work and do our jobs, but the company, the product and the work itself matters little to us. It is easy to fall into thinking, with Marx’ help, that the Christian faith (or any religion for that matter) simply enlarges our tolerance of meaningless work, numbing us to other possibilities and encouraging us to endure our boredom, as we await the next life. We may even sing a line that may tempt us in this direction, as when on Sunday morning comes, “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” But I would like to suggest that my favorite TV shows have a better underlying theology than Marx or some hymns.
The heart of the Christian faith narrates people were designed to work creatively. The Bible opens with the narrative of God creating the universe and, in that narrative, people are formed in God’s image and given work to do. The work is not mindless or insignificant―humans are not the proverbial cogs in the machine. Instead the work is creative and generative, as suggested by God’s instructions to name the animals and to multiply. Moreover, this paradigm is expanded at the conclusion of the biblical narrative, as the Garden of Eden is transformed into the Heavenly City, assuming urban features like the culture, commerce, and community organization that constitute a city. So, the work of building a city is given the divine stamp of approval in this conclusion―building, painting, planting, harvesting, governing, educating, cooking, dancing, composing, performing, inventing, making, buying, selling, and so on. And, while the city is divine in origin, the wealth of the nations―or the glory and honor of the nations―is brought into the city, thereby reaffirming what the city itself already suggests: human work is of ultimate value. While this vision excludes the violence, abuse and disorder that characterizes our cities – nothing “impure” is permitted into the city – I would like to suggest that it also includes alienated and alienating work, which takes us back to Genesis and MI-5.
We aren’t created to twiddle our thumbs at a desk or sew hem upon hem into skirts for women half way around the world. We are created for meaningful, creative, significant work. We are created for work of ultimate value.