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A Labour of Love: Creativity, Work and Art

Monday, 2 November 2015  | Sean McDonough and Gordon Preece

A Labour of Love: Creativity, Work and Art: An Interview with Sean McDonough


Gordon Preece: Sean, you are part of the Theology of Work Project. Tell us about it.


Sean McDonough: Many concerned people globally wanted to think through how we relate work and faith more positively. We first examined the entire Bible on work with different biblical scholars focussing on what their part contributes to the theology of work. We wanted a holistic reading to sense the broader thrust of a given text, but then to tease out specifically what it says about human labour. Then it would go to our Committee of theologians, biblical scholars, and marketplace practitioners. Through a vigorous process of vetting, discussion and reorganisation, it would, though a final editor, become a coherent, succinct commentary on each book of the Bible on work.


At the Faith and Work Award, you talked about labour and love; two things people often think of in separate boxes. How are they connected?


That is a problem. Both in popular culture and Church, there’s often a radical distinction between faith and work, with work typically seen as bad. That’s an analogous distinction to the being and doing of humanity. But in Scripture, particularly John’s Gospel, Jesus’ experience of God’s love is interwoven with his labour in God’s love. In the whole Gospel, Jesus is bringing about a new creation; so in the end, he says, “It is finished”. The next verse notes that it was the Sabbath. So Jesus’ creation week begins with a positive work of renewal, water into wine, then continues with healing the sick, raising the dead, and paradoxically concluding with the finished work of the Cross. Yet it is his love for God and humanity which leads him to labour for God and then he, in turn, commissions his friends not only to soak in his love, but to labour for him. There is no problem juxtaposing those two.


So how has that link between love and labour been largely lost today?


In Church history there seems to be a stress on a particular class of holy people devoted to God in prayer, preaching or evangelizing that we deem to be non-labour. And ordinary people will just do ordinary labour and buy-off some spirituality by supporting those doing “God’s Work”. The medieval caricature of this sees ordinary people doing their business and hopefully learning the Lord’s Prayer and going to Mass once a year. And those with a religious vocation (priests, monks, nuns, etc.) pray for the rest of society. But many monks were hard-working; and they still make the best beer!


And Dom Perignon champagne! Also the Benedictine rule exhorts monks “to work is to pray”. So what modern forces have torn love and labour apart?


The biggest culprit is equating “love” with romantic love. When we think of love we often think of a romantic comedy and then transfer that to our relationship with God. So even in fine contemporary worship, love songs for God are often indistinguishable from love songs for your girlfriend or boyfriend. That’s not to be completely scoffed at because in Song of Songs pure erotic love models Christ’s love for the Church. But work is easily seen as the antithesis of romantic experience of God. Whereas biblical love skews toward practical concern for neighbour which invariably involves work.


One of the benefits of the Theology of Work Project was to remind us that the Bible is written into the real world. Again, one of the persistent perversions in Church history is reading scripture as only spiritual lessons for one’s interior life. But it’s equally true that the concrete realities of life—love, sex, work, and death—are caught up in the grand narrative of God’s purposes. So the Bible is a really grounded text. One of the best illustrations is reading Luke where Jesus encountered people regularly in their workplaces, e.g. Matthew in his little tax-collecting booth or office. Jesus intrudes right into his work. If he can do it then, why not now?


One of your books is on Christ and Creation. How does that link relate to the link between love and labour?


In every way. At a basic level, Christians love to sing that Jesus paid it all and they’re grateful for the work of the cross. But, if you celebrate Jesus as Redeemer, you’ve equally got to celebrate Jesus as Creator and therefore the work that is a necessary part of the Creation project. In John 5, Jesus says, “My Father is still working, and I also am working”. There’s a divine union in labour as their love becomes real in the labour. It’s the living expression of God’s triune love. And James 2 shows that body and soul and their mutual inter-penetration and absolute union is how faith and work relate; it’s inextricable.


In another book you talk about creation and new creation; but people often think eschatology (last things) is ‘escape-ology’, escaping earthly labour. How do you relate creation, new creation and work?


There’s at least two aspects: the here and now, which is also eschatological, and the ultimate end of all things. So Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ mighty works or signs are acts of new creation, the ultimate fulfilment of God’s creation purposes, foretastes of the coming Kingdom. It’s like getting a party invitation with a piece of the cake within it; it’s a sign, but also the beginning, the down-payment on the reality. So, we likewise are, through the Spirit, giving people a foretaste of God’s kingdom. And as that involved labour on Jesus’ part, it equally involves labour on our part; a labour of love. While Jesus does what I can’t do, Jesus also does what I must do—he is our model—and if Paul can use the cross as a model for his own ministry, what couldn’t Jesus serve as a model for? The rest of his life is surely a model as well. And Jesus’s labour on God’s behalf, his compassion, his powers (admittedly supreme and miraculous), and so on, enable what is in our power (skills, gifts, influence, resources, creativity) to be deployed as signs of new creation. In this regard, my favourite quote is from Jürgen Moltmann, who says Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world, they are the only truly natural thing in a world that is unnatural, demonized and wounding. I can’t say it any better than that. That’s a labour of love.


In the Middle Ages, the Church was strong in its patronage of the Arts and produced wonderful architecture. How does today compare as it seems that the Church is relatively weak in relationship to the Arts?


That is a real concern. Now the forbidding of images in the Old Testament is an important practical theological directive for the Church. Nonetheless, even in the Old Testament, even in the construction of the tabernacle, there is gifting and equipping for those with creative arts. Outside the Church, Islam is even more notorious for forbidding any images and yet you go into the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and it’s absolutely stunning in its wonderful artistry. So even when the culture may seem to be against the arts, there’s this natural human propensity to engage in artistic endeavour.


I think we’ve lost, particularly in Protestantism, that apocalyptic sense of staggering imaginative discourse that speaks to a different part of our brains. ‘Revelation’, which technically means the apocalypse’s unveiling, is simultaneously an unveiling and a veiling, partly because God is so immense and awesome that to reveal himself to finite creatures inevitably involves some diminution in his presentation to people. So an apocalyptic, creative mode of presentation actually suits that aspect of the Gospel wonderfully well: there are lots of things that we know clearly and discursively and that we assent to and believe, but there are other things that are just too much to capture.


Job is rich with imagery drawn from creation with a wonderfully, imaginatively rich tapestry of stars and seas and monsters and crocodiles and whatever else is going on. And it’s no coincidence that Job has, particularly in the last couple of decades, been a huge resource for film-makers; usually not of a confessional Christian nature, but they’re nonetheless drawn to Job. Isn’t it a shame and embarrassment that the creative resources of scripture itself have to be developed by those outside the church?


Who are some of those film-makers who have used Job as a source for various movies?


So we’ve got the Coen Brothers and their darkly humorous film A Serious Man. We have Terrence Malick, probably the most overtly spiritual or religious of the lot, in The Tree of Life. This features the stunning scene of the cosmos and creation with verses thrown in from Job and, of course, the narrative of that film is also about the loss of a child and the parents’ and siblings’ struggle to reckon with that: very much a Job-like theme.


You’ve also got the Russian film Leviathan which concerns a land grab by a local bureaucrat accompanied, sadly, by a powerful Orthodox Church figure. This involves a wonderful image of a whale skeleton washed up on the coast, presumably alluding both to the sea monster Leviathan of Job, but also to Hobbes’s view of Leviathan as the all-consuming state. And there may be many more.


Let’s return to when you were talking about the sense of romance and (particularly sexual) intimacy, that has commandeered the idea of love today. Have you thought about how that plays out gender-wise? It seems to be that in most Western Churches, with approximately 60% female/40% male on average, that it’s harder for many men to identify with the romantic view of love that they see often in churches which doesn’t seem to connect with their work. And also, increasingly, as women are more and more involved in the paid workforce, some of them seem to be getting alienated as well, or torn between those different worlds.


That could be reinforced by worship styles which have a preponderance of romantic themes which might, in theory, appeal more to certain types of women—I’m not sure how far to pursue that. The image I have in mind, though, is from a song by Rich Mullins’s ‘The Love of God’ where he talks about the reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God. That description of love has been exponentially more helpful to me than the admittedly, sometimes useful, soft, romantic strains of divine affection. This is partly because it just makes better sense of life in general, including work.


Take an example from sport. A coach could appear to be not acting out of affection for his players. Think of the film Chariots of Fire where the old Italian coach is drilling the Jewish Ben Cross character Abrahams into sprinting excellence—there’s a good deal of harassment and antagonism and challenge. Yet in the very touching scene where the coach is not allowed into the stadium but hears that his charge has won, he cries out, ‘My son, my son’. So they’ve developed this affection that they’re both aware of, but it’s hardly romanticised, yet it is genuine love and involves, of course, work—the work of sprinting. But if we don’t include those sorts of images of divine love, then, we will lose a substantial amount of people and the remainder will have trouble making sense of why they face difficulties if God’s love for them is reduced to romantic love.



Sean McDonough is Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, near Boston. Interviewer Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and a board member of the TOW Project (www.theologyofwork.org). Thanks to Ethos intern Rich Phan for editing assistance. This is an expanded version of an article first appearing in TMA.


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