Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective
Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1987, 255 pp., $15.50
Today's so-called yuppies have a philosophy of work and leisure. One author characterized it as "producing and consuming at white heat." And then there are those who act as if work were a curse, something to be endured on one's way to the ballpark or golf green.
In Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective, Leland Ryken, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, provides an understanding of leisure and work that contrasts sharply with the views just described. He builds his case by first examining what he calls the "crisis" in contemporary attitudes toward work and leisure. Ryken highlights the problem of too much unsatisfying work, and attributes this development in part to the spread of simplifying technology that robs work of the need for skill. (Technology, in fairness, also can require more skills, making work considerably more satisfying.)
Leisure isn't much better. There is often too much of it, and the quality is often poor. Ryken criticizes the utilitarian attitude that values leisure activities only to the extent that they contribute to a person's ability to work longer and harder. This makes leisure more like work and destroys its meaning, which is essentially rest and celebration.
If these are the problems, what are the solutions? Ryken reviews a number of approaches to work, both secular and Christian They range from the classical Greek and Roman view, which emphasized the unworthiness of physical labour, through the medieval concept, which divided work into sacred and secular spheres (the former being the higher), to the modern attitude, which is heavily influenced by the Reformation but ha s been secularized and perverted into a creed for personal success.
Ryken surveys attitudes toward leisure as well. For ancient Greek thinkers whose society depended upon slavery, leisure was "a state of being in which an activity was performed for its own sake" (p.77). The sacred-secular dualism of the Catholic Middle Ages, combined with its pleasure-denying asceticism, produced a low regard for leisure. In the twentieth century there is a wide-open, experience-everything attitude toward leisure. In such an environment, Ryken points out, "the constraints on most people's leisure are constraints of time and money, not of religious or moral conscience" (p. 83).
After directing some helpfully critical remarks at the "Protestant work ethic" as it is currently understood and misunderstood, Ryken launches into what I found to be the most satisfying section of this book.
The foundation or a Christian understanding of work, writes Ryken, is the concept of "calling." Since God calls us to work (the so-called cultural mandate), to do work is to obey God. "Work becomes calling only if we recognize God's hand in it and view it as art of our relationship with God" (p.l44). Such a view provides us with a spiritual context for work. It frees us from human value systems, which want to rank as higher or lower different kinds of work according to changing criteria. We are also freed from the drive always to find personal development and satisfaction in what we do. Although important, these are secondary considerations to a life of faith, obedience, and holiness.
Leisure too is a creation ordinance. It is rest, and as the Sabbath commandment makes clear, it includes the element of worship. God has drawn a boundary around work. He commands us to rest and enjoy what we have done; life is not to be completely utilitarian. Nor is it to be consumed with leisure activities. Life is a rhythm of work and leisure.
If a single idea summarizes Leland Ryken's excellent book it is: Let work be work, and leisure be leisure, each true to its nature, no more and no less. "If we value work and leisure properly, we will avoid overvaluing or undervaluing either one" (p.243). This surely is the goal of the Christian life: balance and discipline, faith and righteousness, to the glory of God.