Man Turned in on Himself, Excerpt 15


Vocation, from the Latin vocatio, can mean several things: “the proclamation of the gospel, through which human beings are called to be children of God,” the call to the divine office of teaching and preaching, and the work each one of us is called to do in our daily lives. Luther emphasizes this third use, underscored by the passage from 1 Corinthians 7:20 that says, “each shall remain in the same vocation (klesis) in which he was called.” It is this understanding of vocation that will be the focus of this section.

Luther, and many others, view vocation as the way God “has chosen to work through human beings, who in their different capacities and according to their different talents, serve each other.” We serve each other as husband and wife, as mother and father, and neighbor and friend. We serve each other through our talents and professions, the fruits of our labors meeting the needs of others. Luther interprets Christ’s command against being anxious through the lens of vocation, expanding on the “trust” of the lilies and the birds:

‘He gives the wool, but not without our labor. If it is on the sheep, it makes no garment.’ God gives the wool, but it must be sheared, carded, spun, etc. In these vocations God’s creative work moves on, coming to its destination only with the neighbor who needs the clothing.”

And so we see that trust in God and trust in neighbor—as well as reliance on God and on neighbor to use their talents rightly—are essential to the great economy of vocation. “Whether we want to accept it or not, self-sufficiency is an illusion. We do depend on other people—the farmer, the plumber who puts in our water system, the doctor, our parents—for our very lives.” As we have turned away from God, we have turned away from the gift of vocation, which orients us in particular relations to others and their needs. We have thrown ourselves into work that was not intended for us in pursuit of greater wealth and power. We have grown bitter about daily tasks because we have forgotten that God is working through them. We have lost our trust in our fellow man, who is as self-absorbed as we are. This social trust—not just “trust in a particular neighbor who happens to be your friend, but a generalized expectation that the people around you will do the right thing” —is the raw material that makes community possible. In America’s Fishtowns, social trust has been so greatly diminished that it may well be irreparable. And although America’s upscale Belmonts do have a higher degree of trust, it is only within their own sphere: since interaction between the upper and lower classes is rapidly decreasing, so, too, is trust. This disrupts vocation’s ability to make good on the promise that “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48 NSRV). This may well be what the wealthy are afraid of—that the blessings of a mixed community all move in one direction. This fear ignores the fact that the well-off financially will, in their lifetime, be just as likely to suffer illness, brokenness, abandonment, helplessness, or loss of stature or purpose, and that wisdom in these areas are just as likely to come from a plumber as a fellow investment broker.

When we are in right relation to God and neighbor, and we have a proper understanding of vocation, we can see that our callings change throughout our lives: A young man working his way through college may get a job in a fast-food restaurant. For the time being, that’s his vocation, and he is to love and serve his customers and his shift manager by flipping hamburgers. If he is fortunate enough to be going to college, he also has the vocation of being a student, which has specific obligations of its own (study!). Eventually he may get that computer degree, and he may go into his lifework. That will be his vocation then. And if his company goes bankrupt, and he goes from vast wealth back to flipping burgers, he has a new vocation. At every stage his calling is not something that will wait until he graduates, or even until he gets that big promotion. Vocation is in the here and now. (Gene Veith, God at Work)

In contrast, a secular notion of “vocation” as some ultimate level of success and comfort that we aspire to earn and keep, and to which we are entitled—as well as the skewed view of manual labor as a lesser call—has exacerbated our disordered view of work in the scope of our daily lives. Reverend Timothy Keller, author of Every Good Endeavor, offers new insight into our current American predicament. Surveying the United States’ privileged “knowledge classes,” Dr. Keller describes

A population that is “work obsessed,” holding their jobs to be the fount of “self-fulfillment and self-realization,” seeing leisure as merely “work stoppage for bodily repair” and allowing office principles like “efficiency, value and speed” to infuse and overwhelm their personal lives. In this world, where work becomes the chief source of identity and meaning, families ache and—from Wall Street to elite sports to political office— dishonesty abounds, because professional loss can sink a person’s sense of being. . . . At the other end of the class spectrum [is an] equal and opposite pathology: a common perception of work as miserable toil, inherently ‘frustrating and exhausting,’ to be ‘avoided or simply endured … Keller argues for a centrist understanding of work as calling—work that lends life meaning but doesn’t monopolize it, work that is performed not for personal glory but in service of others. He challenges the idea . . . that ‘work is a curse and that something else (leisure, family, or even ‘spiritual’ pursuits) is the only way to find meaning in life’; and he criticizes ‘the opposite mistake, namely, that work is the only important human activity and that rest is a necessary evil—something we do strictly to ‘recharge our batteries’ in order to continue to work. (Keller, Every Good Endeavor)

Even those without religious faith or an informed view on vocation would recognize the truth in Dr. Keller’s words. But taking action on them is something else entirely. For this people need God. Without a worldview of life as blessing, in which “darkness and light are all the same” (Psalm 139:12) and one lives and breathes in full confidence that salvation has already been secured—and there is nothing left of value to earn—there is no way to understand that flipping burgers and running a successful are equal endeavors. Even with a Christian worldview, it is hard for Americans to shake their “return on investment” mentality. Our ever-anxious selves continue to assert that every ounce of effort must pay rich dividends in a determined ascent to the top—some fictional heaven where one’s social standing and financial security seem sufficient to cushion one from earthly suffering. They, too, it seems, forget that God’s notion of “return on investment” for each one of our lives was spelled out in Isaiah 55:10:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving see to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.


From “As I Walked Out One Evening” by W.H. Auden

Man Turned in on Himself, Excerpt 14

….Society is breaking at both the local and national level, precipitated, to a large extent, by the dramatic rise in single, white mothers. Correlating three national longitudinal studies, Murray reveals this statistic about children whose mothers turned forty between 1997 and 2004: In Belmont, 90% still lived with both biological parents; in Fishtown, it was less than 30%. “The absolute level is so low that it calls into question the viability of white working-class communities as a place for socializing the next generation.” Some might argue that many of these unmarried women are, in fact, living with the biological father, or perhaps, another caring man so the children are just fine. The research does not support this claim. The disadvantages of being born to cohabiting parents extend into childhood and adolescence, even when the cohabiting couple stills consists of the two biological parents . . . the outcomes were rarely better than those for children living with a single parent or in a ‘cohabiting stepparent’ family. (Charles Murray, Coming Apart)

The reasons for this are myriad: married couples tend to become more religiously involved after marriage while cohabitating couples become less so, extended families support and invest in married couples and their children far more than they do for unmarried couples, schools and courts take far more seriously the role of legal father and husband than they do the sway of “mom’s boyfriend.” But perhaps the greatest reason is that “married partners tend to enhance their productivity by developing specialized skills; cohabiting partners more often do everything for themselves (being less sure of the partner’s sticking around.) This helps account for the marriage premium— men’s greater earning if married.” (David G. Myers, The American Paradox)

Although many might not be aware of these specific statistics or the severity of them, America knows that there’s a problem. An overwhelming majority (69%) of Americans say that “the trend toward more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them is a bad thing for society,” and 61% that a child needs “both a mother and a father to grow up happily.” Those who insist that the disadvantages of being born into the lower class are just too great to overcome may not be aware that the odds of building a better future are—even now—very much on their side. They simply have to make good on three highly manageable goals: 1) graduate from high school, 2) get a job, and 3) get married and wait until they’re 21 before having a baby. If they manage that, according to Brookings economists Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, “they have an almost 75% chance of making it into the middle class.” Still, few are willing or able to reassert the obvious: that having kids outside of marriage is bad for the kids, bad for parents, and bad for the community. “Today, to suggest that a change might be in order, starting with a healthy drop in self-absorption, is anathema: it’s a free country, and don’t lay your values on my self-respect.”

So where are the men in all this? Their increasingly marginalized role may be the most dangerous thing to American society of all. Again, we must look at education, and the role it plays in both marriage and responsibility. We will also consider one of Murray’s founding virtues—industriousness—as it pertains to the men of Fishtown. One of the great virtues of America is that it did not have “different codes for socioeconomic classes.” Young men of all backgrounds were raised in the Judeo-Christian codes of conduct exemplified in the classic McGuffey Readers, which taught America’s children who and what they were and how they were expected to behave. Even when these civic training guides were phased out, their lessons endured, so that a man growing up in the 1940s, 50s, and even early 60s, could be expected to hold this view of the code for males:

To be a man means that you are brave, loyal, and true. When you are in the wrong, you own up and take your punishment. You don’t take advantage of women. As a husband, you support and protect your wife and children. You are gracious in victory and a good sport in defeat. Your word is you bond. Your handshake is as good as your word. It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. When the ship goes down, you put the women and children into the lifeboats and wave good-bye with a smile.

Up through the 1980s, changes in Fishtown’s “male dropout from the labor force moved roughly in tandem with the national unemployment rate.” But between 1985 and 2005, something changed:

Men who had not completed high school increased their leisure time by eight hours per week, while men who had completed college decreased their leisure time by six hours per week. . . . In 2003-5, men who were not employed spent less time on job search, education, and training, and doing useful things around the house than they had in 1985. They spent less time on civic and religious activities. They didn’t even spend their leisure time on active pastimes such as exercise, sports, hobbies, or reading … How did they spend that extra leisure time? Sleeping and watching television. (Murray)

This sleeping and TV watching is, no doubt, related to an increase in drug and alcohol use. “With the economy—the factories all gone—and the poverty, you can get sucked into drugs real easy.” Entertainment imitates life. In the past five years, movies such as Ted, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Pineapple Express depict the new prototypical American male: hanging out on the couch with his buddies well into his 30s, playing video games, dodging serious relationships, and getting stoned. This makes women—often the mothers of their children—less inclined to want them as spouses, which, in turn, may keep them from maturing. Homo incurvatus in se is a vicious cycle. “Married men become more productive after they are married because they are married.” Men who marry are also less likely to suffer from depression, and those who do suffer in their bachelorhood will find that marriage “mitigates against moroseness.” In his book Sexual Suicide, George Gilder claimed that “unmarried males arriving at adulthood are barbarians who are then civilized by women through marriage.” He predicted that because of this, the decline in marriage in America would be disastrous. Many derided his claim as “patriarchal sexism,” but Murray contends that its underlying assertions ring true: “The responsibilities of marriage induce young men to settle down, focus, and get to work.” In Murray’s 21st-century Fishtown, over 30% of white males ages 30-49 are considered economically ineffectual. In other words, even by the lowest measure—keeping themselves and one other adult above the poverty line—they are failing.

This failure is felt and shared by not only the people of Fishtown, but by all of America who will wrestle with how to keep the unemployed afloat, how to absorb the increase in mental illness, violence, drug abuse, and crime that is triggered by this new generation of ineffectual men and overburdened women, and how to sustain the promise of “equality” in America when circumstances have grown so far from equal. There had been a time when young men and women of all social classes would be overwhelmed with desire and yield. If a child were conceived, the next step was clear—or if it were not, society would make it clear. Once we realized how easy it could be to have pleasure without responsibility, our sinful natures had a field day, heaping lie upon lie (you don’t need a man to have a baby, a marriage license is just a piece of paper, marriage is old-fashioned, the kids are just fine), until we fall victim to what Luther noted five-hundred years ago: “Curvedness is now natural for us, a natural wickedness and a natural sinfulness. Thus man has no help from his natural powers, but he needs the aid of some power outside of himself. This is love.”

The love of which Luther speaks can only be found in God. So although we don’t need God to make a case for the importance of marriage to society, we cannot be saved from the sin that has led to its decline without Him. The one who created us, redeems us, and sanctifies us is our only hope against homo incurvatus in se and the resurrection of the institution of marriage.


Man Turned in on Himself, Excerpt 13


Despite our determination to separate pleasure from duty, it remains an inescapable fact of our anatomy: sex leads to babies and the responsibilities of child rearing. Just as sin has led us to make an end run around marriage, so, too, we have sought to avoid the responsibility intended to go hand in hand with sexual pleasure. Birth control—which is used by 62% of all U.S. woman of reproductive age —and abortion are common options. Although it is encouraging to note that abortion rates in the U.S. are now at an historically low 18% of all pregnancies, this still represents 227 aborted lives per every 1000 live births. But, for the purposes of this brief section, the complex social and theological issues of birth control and abortion will not be addressed. Rather, responsibility will be considered as it pertains to those who have children, the impact that unmarried mothers are having on society, and the very problematic statistic that, increasingly, they are uneducated and white. Much of this insight comes from the 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, in which Charles Murray analyzes demographic data based not on the whole of the nation, but on its majority race.

For decades now, trends in American life have been presented in terms of race and ethnicity, with non-Latino whites (hereafter, just whites) serving as the reference point—the black poverty rate compared to the white poverty rate, the percentage of Latinos who go to college compared to the percentage of whites who go to college. . . . This strategy has distracted our attention from the way that the reference point is changing. . . . And so this book uses evidence based overwhelmingly on whites in . . . the new upper class [and] the new lower class. . . . My message: don’t kid yourselves that we are looking at stresses that can be remedied by attacking the legacy of racism or by restricting immigration. The trends I describe exist independently of ethnic heritage. (Charles Murray, 12)

To synthesize and give narrative to the data, Murray comes us with two prototypical towns: Belmont, which represents the new upper-class—also know as “the cognitive elite”—in which 63% have BAs and the median family income in 2000 was $124,200, and Fishtown, which represents the growing lower class—a town in which some will finish high school, get GEDs, go to community college for a year or so, but most will work in both high and low-skill blue collar jobs, and only “8% of the adults” have college degrees. We will use Murray’s depictions of upscale Belmont and lower-class Fishtown to show how “over the last half century, marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes.” That fault line is leading with frightening speed to the “fracturing of human society” in America.

Trends in marriage are important not just with regard to the organization of communities, but because they are associated with large effects on the socialization of the next generation. No matter what the outcome being examined—the quality of mother-infant relationship, externalizing behavior in childhood (aggression, delinquency, and hyperactivity), delinquency in adolescence, criminality as adults, illness and injury in childhood, early mortality, sexual decision making in adolescence, school problems and dropping out, emotional health, or any other measure of how well or poorly children do in life—the family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married. Divorced parents produce the next-best outcomes. Whether the parents remarry or remain single while the children are growing up makes little difference. Never-married women produce the worst outcomes. (Murray, 158)

Tracing data as far back as the American Revolution, nonmarital births to white women held steady at well below 5% up through the 1960s. “White children were conceived outside marriage at varying rates in different social classes, but hardly ever born outside marriage in any class.” Up through the 1960s, American marital norms had followed what Bronislaw Malinowski has referred to as a “universal sociological law.”

Every culture, he concluded, had a norm that ‘no child should be brought into the world without a man—and one man at that—assuming the role of sociological father, that is, guardian and protector, the male link between the child and the rest of the community.’ Without that man, ‘the group consisting of a woman and her offspring is sociologically incomplete and illegitimate.’ (Murray, citing Malinowski, 160)

As cited earlier, “for the first time in human history,” American society no longer considers a single, unmarried mother’s children to be “illegitimate.” With the stigma removed, one might think that white women across all classes—including the celebrated Murphy Brown-style successful single career women— would take advantage of this new “alternative,” but they do not. The increases in nonmarital white births in America can be correlated almost entirely to education. With fewer than 16 years of education, it is more likely than not that a young woman will have a baby without a husband. “For women who did not finish high school, the percentage was closing in on levels in excess of 60 percent of the live births that previously have been associated with the black underclass.” This was not always the case. In 1963, “the marriage percentages for college grads and highs school dropouts were about the same.” Marriage, in America, was never just for the chosen few. It was, as the founders intended, the bedrock of society—all of society.


Man Turned in on Himself, Excerpt 12

We have said that the primary curbs that support and enforce marriage have historically been sexual consequences and social mores. It is not hard to imagine that as individuals became more inclined to reject sexual purity for themselves, they were less interested in condemning impurity in others. Shame, “the emotion that reveals a culture’s moral norms,” therefore, fell by the wayside in the final decades of the 20th century. Peer pressure—fueled by an overly sexual commercial and entertainment culture—was more inclined to promote than discourage sexual behavior. Sin, which now “fails to strike fear in the hearts of many religious believers,” left the Church in the West straining “to find its bearings in a sexually charged landscape.” Christians could no longer claim to be an example, with a divorce rate equal to that of the general population. And, as America entered the 21st century, the upper class—the group that is supposed to “set the standard for the society”— seemed to have lost its sense of moral obligation. “The upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values, and preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.” Although women with college degrees give birth out of wedlock less than 5% of the time, it is “impermissible” in the new upper class to use “a derogatory label for nonmarital births.” In fact, successful, well-educated people today only consider it socially acceptable to pass judgment on three groups: “people with differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites.” (Charles Murray, Coming Apart)

Without a culture that reinforces the virtues of marriage—and clearly articulates the relationship between marriage, education, and quality of life—the essential fabric of American democracy is eroded. How can there be trust, confidence, hope, justice, fellowship, independence, and love in a country in which only a minority are making good on the basic commitment to build a stable home. This seems the inevitable lesson of the gospel of Luke (16:10 NRSV): “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” To trust in one’s neighbors, to rely on a shared commitment to the greater good, to have faith that our children will be able to do the same, these great freedoms are founded on the presumption that every day, the vast majority of citizens are practicing being faithful to the small promises they made to their own families, such that they might have the skills of character needed to step up and assist with the larger needs of the community. Marriage, the essential tool of maturity and wisdom, has been sacrificed by our perpetual inward turn toward that one primal, disordered desire: freedom to be sexual without restraint.

The physical and spatial metaphor of curvature . . . betrays a person withdrawn into a fixed, intense, self-regard, oblivious to her surroundings. The narrowness of such a gaze caused by its attention to only one object, causes us to miss the world (not to mention God) for what it is. All else sits in the fuzziness of peripheral vision and is only seen in reference to the primary object, ourselves. The irony in the midst of our fixed focus on ourselves, however, is that our inattention to all that is not ourselves is part of the reason that we mis-read ourselves as well, not least in that we are ‘lumpishly insensitive to the intensity of our predicament before God.’ (Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin)

When America was a clean slate and our best and brightest were dedicated to creating a new nation that would support individual freedoms like no other before it, they understood full well that certain personal desires would need to be voluntarily renounced for the good of the whole. The price of those small denials was well worth the blessing of a nation that so wholeheartedly supported the rights of each man to reach his full potential. Somewhere along the line—most notably in the early 1960s—we allowed ourselves to forget the trade-off. Like kids at a birthday party who wanted nothing more than to lick the icing off the cupcakes, we began to value our sexual freedom above all else. Anyone who tried to point out the consequences of that trend was deemed “a square” and a “prig.” The heart wants what the heart wants we declared—and now we have it, wretched consequences and all. By denying the timeless truth that “the first bond of society is marriage,” (Cicero) and the corollary reality that, “as the bond goes, so goes society,” homo incurvatus in se has put America’s very future at risk.


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