Similarly, Christianity defines the profit motive as a matter of vocation. In keeping with their basic sociologies, capitalists emphasize enlightened selfishness and socialists a revolutionary selflessness but neither accurately expresses the true state of human nature nor do they provide sufficient motivation for working hard to earn wages, support one’s family and make sacrifices for others. Again, this is something that can flow only from the belief in a Supreme Creator.
Since God created each of us we have inherent value (Psa 139:13) and work toward a goal that will stand firm when this finite, physical world is remade in the restoration of all things (Mat 19:28; Acts 3:21). Because of this, Christians neither work to please themselves, nor those around them but rather “work heartily,” “with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord . . . knowing that from the Lord you shall receive the inheritance as your reward” (Col 3:22-25 ESV; see Eph 6:5-8). Only a reward such as this can turn a thief into a worker (Eph 4:28), a freeloader into a contributor (2Th 3:10) and a father into a provider (1Ti 6:10). After all, if there is no God, one might as well “relax, eat, drink” and “be merry” (Luke 12:19).
Furthermore, contentment is the goal of Christian economics, not wealth. To make this point quite clear, Paul wrote to Timothy that as soon as wealth becomes the goal one can no longer glorify God in what he does, saying that “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1Ti 6:9). Instead, our goal should be “godliness with contentment” (1Ti 6:6) knowing both “how to be brought low” and “how to abound” that in “any and every circumstance” we might reflect the character of Christ, who strengthens us (Php 4:12-13). Contentment is impossible, however, if we refuse to take the time to properly plan financially for the future (Luke 14:28-30), if we spend well outside of our means (Pro 22:7) and if we save nothing for the rainy days that are sure to come (Pro 21:20).
Finally, then, as Christians we should take the initiative to ensure a brighter future for those around us through the outworking of charity. We do this by not unduly increasing the debts of others or ourselves (Pro 6:1-5), but by forgiving the debts of those who are debtors to us (Mat 6:12) and giving freely to those who have need. The early church did this often in times of great need:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. . . .
This is not socialism (after all, there were still private homes in which to meet); this is Christians seizing the opportunity to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).
Christian economics, then, is neither capitalism nor socialism. Instead, it transcends manmade theories through its reliance on Yahweh as our Creator and God. Upon this sure foundation he builds the walls of stewardship, vocation, contentment and charity, in which works we remain active so that on that Day we might find ourselves in his good favor. For, “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions” (Luke 12:43-44).
In our slow march to the midterm elections, we began with a recognition of certain biblical and traditional principles that govern our interaction with the world around us. But this sort of conservatism is more than a contemporary political philosophy, with roots that run much deeper and spread broader than our current place in time and space. Instead, it is a fundamentally ethical view of man shared by Lewis, Austen and Aristotle, and deplored by Nietzsche. We turn now, then, to the world of economics, beginning once again with the centrality of the Word and the primacy of the teachings of Christ.
While we often envision ourselves living in an unimaginably vast and incredible universe, we can’t help but recognize the finiteness of our own existence. As our desire for satisfaction and pleasure presses on, we find ourselves at every turn limited by time, space and a sundry of other seeming “inconveniences” in our material world. It seems that no matter what is done, each of these resources remains limited and in fact, scarce. While the language of economics enables us to discuss how this “world of scarcity” (Welch & Welch 2) operates, only our Creator can explain why it operates in this way, why we desire the timeless and infinite and how we reconcile what is with what should be.
Recognizing this point, many economists over the years have attempted to produce a uniquely Christian economic outlook by overlaying the teachings of Christ with whatever economic theory is respectable at the time. Christian economics, however, is not merely a discussion of the alleged morality of socialism or the superior reality of capitalism, it is a study that is itself rooted in another morality and another reality that is wholly different from anything that man could have invented for himself.
First, then, Christians base their economics on the fact that God is the Creator and Owner of all things. Property is one of the most important subjects within the field of economics. A person’s view toward property often serves as the cornerstone of their entire economic outlook. Two quite different views of property exist among economists. The first, viewed as sacrosanct by capitalists, is the theory of private property, in which businesses and other nongovernmental organizations maintain “the right to own resources, goods, and services [the so-called factors of production], and to use them as they choose” (Welch & Welch 38). Socialism on the other hand maintains that “the factors of production are collectively owned” by “governments and [other] groups of citizens” in order to “equalize the distribution of income” (Welch & Welch 45).
Faith demands, however, that Christians view the world as having been “created by the word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things that are visible” (Heb 11:3 ESV). God’s creation forever declares his perpetual supremacy over the material world. Speaking to this very point the Psalmist records that, “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof, the world, and those who dwell therein” (Psa 24:1). For this reason, no man or men are in the position to do “as they choose” with what they have been given from above; instead it is God’s providence that works as the “invisible hand” (to borrow a term from Adam Smith) that regulates all things to the end which he intends. After all, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Pro 16:9).
Secondly, Christian economics views labor as a matter of stewardship. While capitalists and socialists are often either strict individualists or collectivists, respectively, Christians should recognize that it is individuals, various groups and God working together that fully accomplishes his will. From the very beginning man has been granted a trust for which he alone was responsible (Gen 2:15). Though this trust has adapted over time, we continue to serve one another individually as “good stewards of God’s varied grace” with “the strength that God supplies” (1Pe 4:7-11). This responsibility is carried over to the church as well, in which an overseer is called “God’s steward” (Tit 1:7) and minsters speak as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1Co 4:1-2). The biblical home is regarded as a place of industry, honor and charity (Pro 31).
Government, too, is charged with maintaining an economic system that praises “good conduct” and strikes fear in those who do evil (the true biblical meaning of justice), a principle that should be considered when developing a tax system (Rom 13:1-7). The same is true in business. Owners and managers should treat their employees “justly and fairly,” knowing that they too are in the employment of Another (Col 4:1; see too Eph 6:9). And customers should expect and enjoy a fair deal in market, “A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is his delight” (Pro 11:1; see 16:11; 20:10, 23).
The word authority is not often associated with literature because it is often expressed in terms of canonicity: what makes a writer worth reading. In an age that inundates our minds with the diverting effects of our multifaceted media, the question naturally arises of whom Americans living in the twenty-first century should read and why. The concept of a uniquely American canon is not new, but neither is it a matter of accepted wisdom. Instead, the discussion of literature in America is one that is as varied and political as much of our society has become. Harold Bloom and Lawrence Levine have contributed to this conversation for much of the last half-century. In his book The Western Canon, Bloom employs his own lifelong love of reading to survey several writers whom he believes represent both the epitome of aesthetic value and their respective period and nation. Levine, on the other hand, seeks to place our discussion in its historical context by tracing the development of the American university and its curriculum in his work, The Opening of the American Mind. Together, they present two distinct yet occasionally converging streams of thought concerning our national canon.
Though the debate over canonicity has taken various forms over time, the basic criterion has always remained the same. Bloom states in his “Elegiac Conclusion” that the “only pragmatic test for the canonical” is what “I have read and think worthy of rereading” (484). Though simple, Bloom’s definition captures perfectly the nature of the canon from the perspective of readers. A truly “great” book cannot be fully grasped in a single encounter; it only grows deeper the more we dig. The true work of canonization, however, is accomplished by, “Writers, artists, composers themselves . . . by bridging between strong precursors and strong successors” (487). Canonization, then, is always an essentially elite activity undertaken by those with canonical qualities and potential themselves. To Bloom, then, the canon is about reading and remembering, precursors and successors, emulation and competition. Our primary concern, then, is not the content of the canon as much as the process of canonization, as Levine states in his chapter, “Canons and Culture,” “What we . . . need to do is worry less about what any specific canon contains and more about the nature of canons themselves: how they are constituted, what they represent, and how and why they change” (101).
So what does the American canon look like or does it even exist? One answer is this: “There has never been an official American literary canon, and there never can be, for the aesthetic in America always exists as a lonely, idiosyncratic, isolated stance” (Bloom 484). On this point, Bloom seems to have the history of the American academy on his side, whose curricula has changed with each generation. “The rise of industrial America finally led to the demise of the classical curriculum and the adoption of the elective system; World War I promoted a sense of Western civilization; World War II and the Cold War heightened the sense of Americanness and a concern with things American” (Levine 99-100). In other words, though it may be true that certain works have typically been viewed as canonical throughout our history, “The canon changes constantly because historical circumstances and stimuli change and people therefore approach it in myriad ways, bringing different perspectives and needs to it, reading it in ways distinctive to the times in which they live, and emerging with different satisfactions and revelations” (Levine 93).
Though it would at first seem that both Bloom and Levine are in agreement, it must be realized that such agreement is limited to the specific question of the fluctuating content of the American canon. The assumptions on which these views have been expressed, however, are in reality quite opposed. Whereas Bloom views canonization as the product of a literary elite (and perhaps therefore non-American, though not un-American), Levine presents it as an essentially public affair more commensurate with his own view on American identity (a theme that he deals with later in his work).
The logical conclusions of each author’s approach to the canon then become clear. While Levine could not fathom a canon that ignored the contemporary works of our multicultural society, Bloom recommends withholding judgment on a writer until “about two generations” after his death, to verify the extent of his influence (487). While Bloom would agree with Levine’s claim that, “The debate over the canon is now, and has always been, a debate over the culture and over the course that culture should take” (Levine 100), he denies that literature ever had the power to change the world. He also agrees that “the debate over multiculturalism is an old one that has occupied us from early in our existence as a people” (Levine 101), but does believe this implies a march toward multiculturalism. This is not to say Bloom does not see the full potential of other national literatures, since he and “the social changers . . . seem to agree on the canonical status of Pynchon, Merrill, and Ashbery as three American presences of our moment” (Bloom 492). He simply does not believe that we “benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare,” especially if they are poor writers (Bloom 487).
On the question of our national canon, then, Bloom and Levine present fundamentally distinct views that agree substantially on American literary and academic history – both understand the historical development of the curriculum in our universities but provide starkly different interpretations of the facts. Bloom views the canon as the creation of writers as they chose their influences; Levine sees it as an extension of popular culture. Bloom denies the social import of literature; Levine sees possibilities because of his identification of “Americanness.” Bloom looks for greatness in a diversity of places, but Levine sees greatness only in diversity. In the end, however, both can agree on one thing: since the inception of our nation as a republic, we have never had an authoritative body of writings for which all Americans were expected to read. Whether that situation is to be lauded or lamented is another question entirely.
Reading is a dying art. In previous generations, it could be assumed that there were a few great works you read as a student. Early on this experience may have consisted of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and other “imaginative literature.” By the middle years, one may have been introduced to Twain, Cooper and Emerson. Those lucky few whose family situation allowed them to continue on to a secondary education may remember the words of Dickens, Hawthorne, Homer or Shakespeare. Greater awareness of “literacy education” and “reading skills,” however has done little to improve the situation in which we find ourselves. At first, this may seem strange. After all, isn’t this the “Information Age;” the age in which technology continues to make our access to knowledge freer and faster? We begin to remember that like leading the proverbial horse to the water of life, we cannot make the reader drink.
It is into this literary void that Harold Bloom steps with his work, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. In his first chapter, “An Elegy for the Canon,” Bloom laments the assault upon the Western Canon of great literature: “Unfortunately, nothing ever will be the same because the art and passion of reading well and deeply, which was the foundation of our enterprise, depended upon people who were fanatical readers when they were still small children. Even devoted and solitary readers are now necessarily beleaguered, because they cannot be certain that fresh generations will rise up to prefer Shakespeare and Dante to all other writers” (16).
But why bother with a canon in the first place? The first reason is, simply, because we are short on time. “We possess the Canon because we are mortal and also rather belated. There is only so much time, and time must have a stop, while there is more to read than ever was before” (29). The second reason for the canon is the increasing number of literary works. As implied in the above statement, thinking in terms of literary canonicity is a fairly recent conception introduced out of sheer necessity. Greater access to education and the technological progress of publishing led to increases in both writers and works, therefore, “The secular canon . . . does not actually begin until the middle of the eighteenth century” (19).
In Bloom’s view, however, such lamentation is not a social concern. In his mind we cannot “read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values” because the canon is not built upon such a foundation (28). Instead, “aesthetic choice has always guided every secular aspect of canon formation” (21). This dichotomy between aesthetics and ethics depends primarily on the author’s view of the former as an entirely subjective enterprise. “I myself insist that the individual self is the only method and the whole standard for apprehending aesthetic value” (22). Since literary excellence is a matter of personal preference, no text can be seen as beautiful in and of itself. Instead, literary beauty is only manifested in comparison to other works. In other words, “aesthetic value emanates from the struggle between texts” (36). Since the majority of avid readers will read only a certain number of works, the primary concern of the author becomes “the mortality or immortality” of his labors (36).
This literary phenomenon is what Bloom calls the “anxiety of influence.” According to this view, every author recognizes that there are certain predecessors who are worthy of emulation. Soon, however, this emulation produces an anxiety on the part of the more recent author when he realizes that he is in fact in competition with his forbearers for a place in the canon. The canon is ratified then, not by critics but by “late-coming authors who feel themselves chosen by particular ancestral figures” (19). It is this “interaction between artists,” this tension between interpretation and competition, that “engender[s]” “aesthetic value” (23). The “strongest test for canonicity,” then, is when a work has “simply overwhelmed the tradition and subsumed it” (27).
Memory and originality then become essential prerequisites to canonical status. Indeed, rather than the traditional religious connotation, a literary canon “will be seen as identical with the literary Art of Memory” (17). To Bloom, then, a work is immortal not because of any innate moral superiority, but its ability to sink into our ears and stick in our minds throughout a lifetime of reading. What we are looking for is originality – something that sets a work apart from all others, including those that inspired it in the first place. Rather than viewing the canon as a list of required reading, the canon becomes “a memory system” (37). Providing himself as his example, Bloom continues, that “the principle pragmatic function of the Canon” becomes “the remembering and ordering of a lifetime’s reading” (37). The canon as our collective memory then begins to take a more important place in our way of thinking about the world. For, “Cognition cannot proceed without memory, and the Canon is the true art of memory, the authentic foundation for cultural thinking” (34).
There is a great deal of truth in Bloom’s approach to literature, especially his emphasis on memory and its literary and cultural significance. One wonders, however, why Bloom’s affection for the canon and its cultural effects does not lead him to see literature as an inherently social phenomenon. He states that, “movement from within the tradition cannot be ideological or place itself in the service of any social aims, however morally admirable” (27). Though we could perhaps commend Bloom in his desire for a neutral canon, Bloom’s own works and words seem to imply another, more enduring standard. First, if the literary critic has no responsibilities to society, why write a national bestseller explaining the importance of aesthetics to our inherited literary tradition? Secondly, while explicitly denying the moral foundation of the canon, Bloom notes certain psychological effects of great literature on the reader that sound more moral than he perhaps intended. Note Bloom’s description of the effect of great writers in general and then the specific effect Shakespeare has had on later generations of readers:
The reception of aesthetic power enables us to learn how to talk to ourselves and how to endure ourselves. The true use of Shakespeare or of Cervantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is to augment one’s own growing inner self. Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen. The mind’s dialogue with itself is not primarily a social reality. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality. . . . Without Shakespeare, no canon, because without Shakespeare, no recognizable selves in us, whoever we are. We owe to Shakespeare not only our representation of cognition but much of our capacity for cognition. (38, 39)
Self-discovery. Introspection. Mortality. These are indeed great reasons for reading each of these authors, but such reasons are far from the merely aesthetic.
It is hard to imagine a world with more books, and yet if the Lord allows technology and education to push us through another millennium of human history, undoubtedly more books will be written, more authors will struggle for eternal fame and more readers will come face to face with our same situation: too much to read and too little time to read it. Harold Bloom presents one way of viewing the choices every reader will have to make, namely, what he will read and for what purpose. On the first question, Bloom’s answer is clear: we ought to read what we find to reflect our own desires and visions of beauty. On the second, however, Bloom himself is unsure. While viewing aesthetics as the “all in all” of literature, he himself seems to struggle with what the inherently ethical side of literary excellence. The Western Canon will aid us through our own experiences in Western literature, but in the end Bloom’s theory asks a question that it is unable to answer.