Biblical Employment

The other day I read something where the author casually suggested some biblical personage was doing their job.  That idea seemed to stick in my throat on the way down, like improperly masticated toast.  Jobs are something we do in a surplus economy, but in biblical times could what anyone did properly be called a “job”?  Sure, there were kings (aka bullies), and priests.  They were exempted from too much physical labor.  Even the plaintive bleating of sheep followed by a thud and sudden, eerie silence, was carried out by lesser temple functionaries.  But did these people think of what they did as jobs?  Did someone write them a check at the end of two weeks so they could pay their rent and utilities, and spend their weekends wishing they were doing something else?  Jobs are a modern phenomenon.

How easy it is to forget that ancient people were by and large country folk.  Even until late in the nineteenth century (CE, for those who are counting) in the United States most people were farmers living in the country.  Their job?  Simple survival.  Trading on the surplus—of course money had been invented by this point—they grew or tended what their land allowed but what they did wasn’t so much a job as it was a way to keep alive.  In the earlier biblical times, back beyond the New Testament, money wasn’t always an assured way of trade.  Many people could go their entire lives without seeing silver or gold.  Those in cities specialized their trades somewhat, but if they grew weary of say, weaving luxury textiles, did they have to carefully consider healthcare options before “quitting their jobs”?  Rolling over their 401Ks?  Writing new killer cover letters?

We need another word for ancient occupations.  And we also need an awareness of how our modern lenses distort our vision of ancient lives.  People lived for short periods of time.  Most men died by forty and most women by their twenties.  Sure, you could survive longer than that—much longer—but healthcare perks weren’t then what they are today for those who can afford them.  Your perspective would certainly shift if your life expectancy were so short.  I can’t help think, though, that there were people like me out there in the field, perhaps watching over a flock of mangy sheep, thinking about the larger issues consciousness affords.  They couldn’t get a job as an editor, I don’t suppose, since literacy was rare.  If they’d been trained to write their future would’ve been secure.  But times change, even as does the very concept of a job.

Balthasar-Paul Ommeganck, Landscape with shepherds, via Wikimedia Commons

Honest to God

“A lot of traditional beliefs are outside people and have grown into rigid things that you can’t touch any more”–these words come from a minister of the Protestant Church of the Netherlands, according to a report yesterday on the BBC. The title of the article, “Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world,” touches on a theme mentioned earlier on this blog about the church in Sweden: clergy often live with their own doubts about God. Showing similar results to the Swedish study, the Protestant Church of the Netherlands hosts one in six clergy who are agnostic or atheist. I would suggest that the specialization of labor–as well as the persuasiveness of science–stand behind this phenomenon. In modern societies far removed from human roots, we really don’t pay much attention to the training others receive to take on their professions. We assume that higher education is doing its task and that professional bodies like the American Bar Association put up tests to deter those who make false claims. Seldom do we reflect that our off-the-farm lifestyle is a very recent human development and that we haven’t really had time to sort out whether all this complicated training ever really works.

Don't rock the boat...

When I was a seminary professor, I saw the dilemma this way: seminaries crave, indeed require academic respectability. Accrediting bodies insist that a substantial portion of faculty hold terminal degrees. Seminaries, however, are run by confessional groups that insist on certain unscientific worldviews and premises. Doctoral students, unless indoctrinated at faux institutions that block scientific evidence, are educated in a worldview that contradicts their religious training on several levels. Seminaries require educated faculty, but education itself undermines traditional beliefs. Some conservative groups have been aware of this dynamic for years and have begun establishing “universities” that intentionally bar subjects that challenge their worldview. In other words, they want clergy with false credentials who are willing to fight for the cause, while still receiving academic accreditation. Few insiders will blow the whistle since the modern church is built on this shaky foundation.

What is being discovered in northern Europe likely pulses beneath the surface of many developed nations (again, with their specialization of labor). After a person spends three years of training beyond college to receive a “Master of Divinity” degree there is high financial motivation to see the process through to the end. The faithful in the pews, far removed from the realities of theological education, expect the same old show. With employment options nearly nil outside the church, smart clergy know the score. It is better to live a life of quiet desperation, mouthing the party line, than to be thrown into that swirling maelstrom of survival called the job market. Organized religions began when people lived on the land, very few people were educated, and priests were left alone to do their job. Education is costly in far more than college tuition bills. As they are learning in the Netherlands, growing up is never easy.