Mike Church, RJ Snell and David Simpson Discuss Modern Escapism
Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – “You have in this book a definition of work. It’s not the definition of work that most people use. Most people think work and they think Macbeth: Double, double toil and trouble. They think sweating and tote that bale, haul that barge. That’s what they think. That’s not the work that you’re writing about, is it?” Check out today’s transcript for the rest….
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: You have in this book a definition of work. It’s not the definition of work that most people use. Most people think work and they think Macbeth: Double, double toil and trouble. They think sweating and tote that bale, haul that barge. That’s what they think. That’s not the work that you’re writing about, is it?
R.J. Snell: There’s a bit of theology in the book. The theology is drawn both from the Book of Genesis and from some of the work of John Paul II on work. In Genesis, work is given to Adam and Eve as a blessing. We often think of work as a curse. It’s not. It’s given to them in the story before the curse happens. The curse is that they will have bad work. Haul that bale with much sweat and toil, plow that field with thistles. The story doesn’t say that prior to the curse there was no work. In fact, they’re told prior to sin that they are to fill, tend, keep, and govern the garden. There’s a real sense, particularly in John Paul II’s understanding of that that when we do work, good work, we not only contribute to our own wellbeing, in the sense of developing our own virtue – anyone who has children knows that work is good for them. Not having your children work is a recipe for their unhappiness. Having them work is a recipe to the contribution of their virtue. Not only does it lead to our own development but to the development of the world.
I give this conversation about how it is that work can be understood as God’s gift to us for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the world. Sloth or acedia is often thought of as being lazy. It may very well be. In the Christian literature on sloth, sloth oftentimes is understood even as a frenetic busyness, just busy, busy, work, work. It’s the kind of work, slothful work, which refuses to accept that work is done within the limits of God’s gift to us for our own wellbeing and virtue and for the development of the world. What the Book of Genesis says, the filling, tending, and keeping of the world. Work done well keeps the world. It develops it in keeping with its own integrity. It develops us in keeping with our own wellbeing. Sloth is a rejection, among other things, of good work, sometimes just through a kind of frenzied, harried busyness. Sabbath, for instance, or rest, is an aspect of good work, oddly.
Mike: So we observe the Sabbath and we don’t work.
Snell: Isn’t that something? We observe the Sabbath when we don’t work. It’s more than not working. It’s actually entering into rest. Even in Genesis, it’s interesting. God is said to do things on the Sabbath. It’s on the seventh day that God completes his work. It’s not that he doesn’t do anything on the Sabbath, it’s that he brings about rest, or is able to bring about union and friendship with others.
When we have Sabbath, we stop working, not so that we just rest, but so that we enter into fullness, we enter into the good things of life. It’s for family and worship and prayer, leisure, beauty.
Mike: I thought of a couple pop culture things we can use to relate to. When you’re talking about work, work, work, the first thing that popped into my head was the Honorable William J. Lepetomane. Of course, that’s from the movie Blazing Saddles. Is there anything else I do but work, work, work, work? Hello, boys. I thought of Mel Brooks. When you said Sabbath equals rest, I thought of The Big Lebowski and I’m thinking of John Goodman’s character, Walter Sobchak, going: Dude, I’m Shabbos. I don’t work on Shabbos. I don’t work. I don’t drive a car. I don’t turn a light switch on. We still have a concept of this. The concept is not lost, right?
Snell: It’s still there flurrying around. It’s a vestige of our older religious past. Although even now, it’s a hard thing to keep. In my own family life, my kids, many of their sports games are planned on Sundays where we would generally keep Sabbath. The stores are all open. It’s expected that you work. The idea that we work hard and well and that we rest and contribute to the beautiful things of life with as much seriousness, both of those things are in short supply. We hate our work and we don’t rest well. It’s a strange phenomenon in our society. We work too much but hate it. We don’t think of it as something good. Our own rest is nonetheless in short supply.
Mike: I can’t wait to read this. John is sending me a copy and I can’t wait to get it and read it. I’ll tell you, in my own life, in my reversion over the last two years of returning back to Holy Mother Church and finding the Tridentine Mass, which is reversion on steroids, I’ve learned – I read. I’m a weirdo. I read encyclicals and stuff. I read about the Sabbath and not working. I actually look forward to Sundays. Before I might have looked forward to them because of a football game or something to that effect. I actually look forward to the peacefulness of a Sunday, of sleeping in a little bit and resting and getting up and dressing up and looking nice, going to mass, seeing all my friends and fellow parishioners, then going home and doing a family dinner, just hanging out. I actually try to refrain from going to any electronic device, because if I do, I know I’m going to be tempted to work.
Snell: You’re hooked.
Mike: How ironic is this, R.J.? It’s actual work on Sunday to not work.
Snell: It takes quite the discipline to limit it.
Mike: It’s R.J. Snell and the book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire. Get it at Amazon or go to MikeChurch.com. In today’s Pile of Prep it links to the book. R.J., a very special friend of mine would like to speak with you if you’re up for a phone call.
Mike: Here is the host of the True Money Show and a co-founder of this endeavor here, David Simpson. Mr. Simpson, how may I serve you today, sir?
David Simpson: I am calling to tender my resignation.
Mike: I knew that was coming. Is Rachel standing there with a gun to your head?
Simpson: I’m the co-host of Wisdom Wednesday and you found my replacement. You’re talking to him right now.
Mike: If we ever need a stand-in for Wisdom Wednesday, maybe we can call R.J. Snell and he can fill in. R.J., what do you think?
Snell: I do have a face for radio as the old joke goes.
Simpson: When you hear somebody like Mr. Snell talking, you feel like a blooming idiot. Thank you for making me despair at my own lack of understanding of things today.
Snell: That’s my intention but you’re welcome, I guess, David.
Simpson: I did have a question. You kind of answered it with the second part of your talking about sloth, but I’m going to ask the question anyway. When you were talking about the Egyptian saint and you said he got bored with his work that God had placed before him, my question is: Do you think that sloth is brought on by an initial rejection of God’s work for us, or is it rather something that we’re so busy and we have so many choices and we have so much “freedom” that we become slothful because we reject trying to make all those decisions?
Snell: I think they go together. It seems to me that for your average person living in our own society now, even if they have a kind of faith, there’s a deep, abiding sense that the universe is unstructured and that God is not involved with the world, that we are all alone in the universe. Everything becomes pretty trivial pretty fast when you’re all alone in the universe. I think that’s why we see the desperate need for entertainment and distraction, the desperate love for money beyond its proper order. It’s a good thing in its proper order. Why we have such a fear of death, why our entertainment and literature is so trite, it’s the sense that here we are alone in the universe and nothing matters. If nothing matters other than my own pleasure and the avoidance of my own death, you could see pretty quickly how the universe is resistant. All of those things which are hard about virtue, they become very boring very fast. We don’t want to do them. We’d rather take the easy way out. As a result, we distract ourselves and avoid our real responsibilities whenever we can.
Simpson: It’s amazing that the easy way out becomes more tedious and more tiresome than the hard way, doesn’t it?
Snell: You see it in our society’s rejection of marriage. Marriage has real difficulties in it. There is this other person. There’s family difficulties, in-law difficulties. Oftentimes there are financial pressures. It’s very easy to avoid all of those things and live an untethered life. On the other hand, it’s in the hard way of marriage that we become real people capable of love and generosity, real virtue, where the joys of family life emerge because it’s difficult. The easy way out becomes untethered and awfully boring.
Mike: That’s right.
Simpson: My follow-up question, this kind of goes into our weak and very meaningless entertainment. It’s more of a practical question. Do you think the abuse of television, where we sit there and do something by not doing something, is this part of this slothfulness?
Snell: I think it is. Television is a fine thing; it has its place. Film is a fine thing; it has its place. Using entertainment as a kind of mode of desperation or escape is a real problem. It shows a disengagement from the beauty of the universe and from the real tasks facing us. There’s so much good to do in the world and so much that’s delightful in it, yet we are oftentimes shut off to the flickering screen.
Simpson: I’ve really enjoyed your conversation. It’s enlightening and I think we need to have a Wisdom Thursday now. Thank you for those answers. I’m going to check your book out. It’s a wonderful insight.
Snell: Thank you so much. Good to talk to you.
Mike: David, appreciate the phone call. In the second part of the book, just one more topic here. We don’t want to give it all away. Scratch that. I had underlined this. This is where I want to conclude with our special guest, R.J. Snell. His book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire. “Small Is Beautiful,” your reviewer says, “a title that echoes the classic work by E.F. Schumacher, Snell begins by considering Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of magnanimity or great-souledness. Aristotle defines magnanimity as the virtue that concerns great honors. Snell argues that in the biblical worldview ordinary work is a matter of great honor, and so ordinary work is extraordinary.” Are we talking about here the smallness of work and tasks, or in the smallness of, if we had a microscope or a magnifying glass and could see a tiny flea scampering across a piece of paper and marvel at: Look at those little, tiny legs and how they work. Where are his tiny eyes? How is he seeing where he’s going? Which smallness are we talking about?
Snell: I do think everything is extraordinary because everything is created by God, in God’s own likeness, and some of us in God’s image, by which I mean persons are created in God’s image. What I mean in the chapter is the notion that most of us are going to have utterly ordinary, mundane lives. Very few of us will have the sort of lives that we daydream about when we’re 14 and 15. I won the World Series pitching the ninth inning so many times in my dreams growing up. I became the president so many times in my feverish 15-year-old imagination. That’s not my life. My life is an ordinary one. I have a mortgage. I have a car payment. I have children. I have a lovely wife. I have work. I have the ordinary concerns and cares that most of us do.
Yet, what we’re told in the Christian account of the world is that God himself, in the person of his son, comes to Earth, is born in a stable, and spends 30 years of his life working, ordinary work. There’s a wonderful passage in the gospels where Jesus is beginning to announce his ministry. The people of his hometown say: What, isn’t this this carpenter? They just recognize him as the carpenter. They don’t say: Oh, that guy who does all of those strange, miraculous things. They think of him as an ordinary worker, just like everybody, probably just like most of the listeners to your show and most of our friends and neighbors. It’s in that ordinary work where the great drama of our souls, our salvation, our image of the divine person is worked out. When I sit down at my desk, when I sit down to my work, whatever it is, when I sit down to dinner with my children, what’s being played out in those terribly ordinary things is the meaning of the universe. Those are the things that God has given to us as great goods and as blessings from him.
Mike: Boy, isn’t that the truth? What is truth? Truth is conformity of the mind to reality. The reality is that we spend most of our time either at a place of employment or at home. Unfortunately today in the modern world, we also spend a lot of time in automobiles or trucks or whatever getting to and from the place of work and home. The commute has placed the person or has placed men and women into a vehicle hurtling at a high rate of speed, placed them in danger – what era before ours –
if you want something to meditate on, what era before ours was there a workplace hazard in actually getting to work? If you worked on a farm in Little House on the Prairie and you had to get up in the Ingalls house and make your way out to the barn 200 yards away, the workplace hazard would have been, if it was raining, being struck by lightning, or bitten by a snake.
Snell: There’s that bear episode in one of the Little House books.
Mike: We have totally accepted the hazard of driving. You’re driving, you’re hurtling down the highway 70, 80 miles an hour. You don’t know what the other person is doing. We place ourselves into a position where we actually are at loss of life. The contemplation of that is nil. There is no contemplation of it. I think that goes a long way towards explaining some of the boredom that you’re talking about. In other words, this part of our life has become perfunctory. We just do it.
Snell: It trains us, interestingly, to think of the world and its limits as immediately overcomeable. Think about people who have these monster commutes, 75, 80, 90 miles to commute to work. The sense of how things relate, that work and family, where you live and worship are somehow related, that can’t be lost. You sleep somewhere else than you work. Your family is somewhere else where you contribute. That leads to the strange disintegration and alienation of our time. It’s not the only thing but it’s there for sure.
Mike: There’s so much more we could talk about. We’ll save it for another day. The book is Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire. What do you do when you’re not writing books? There’s no bio attached to the review.
Snell: I’m a father of five just outside of Philadelphia. I teach philosophy at Eastern University, a small liberal arts college outside of Philly.
Mike: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Nobody teaches philosophy anymore. That’s not something that is acceptable in American universities. Do you teach Thomistic or scholastic philosophy?
Snell: I was trained in Thomism, yes. I sneak in as much Thomas Aquinas as I can, that’s for sure.
End Mike Church Show Transcript