Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Magical World of Miyazaki

Miyazaki

I recently watched the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness about famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I was both inspired and saddened by the mesmerizing, yet cynical Miyazaki in the throes of his last film The Wind Rises. But one scene in particular that stood out to me took place in a seemingly small hotel room as Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki awaited a press conference following the release of the film. Looking out the hotel window, Miyazaki beckons the camera over. Peering over the rooftops, Miyazaki's imagination begins to take hold. Pointing to a building, he says,

From that rooftop, what if you leapt onto the next rooftop, dashed over to that blue and green wall, jumped up and climbed up the pipe and ran across the roof and jumped to the next? You can, in animation. If you can walk the cable, you could see the other side. When you look from above, so many things reveal themselves to you. Maybe race along the concrete wall. Suddenly, there in your humdrum town is a magical movie. Isn't it fun to see things that way? Feels like you could go somewhere far beyond. Maybe you can.

The conversation was spliced with various clips from Miyazaki's films, often matching the very actions he was describing. It was thrilling to see Miyazaki take the mundane and make it magical. Enchanting the ordinary strikes me as very close to--if not the same as--sacralizing the mundane. Perhaps we are our moral and creative best when we do so.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Finding Meaning Within Chinese Factories


We, the beneficiaries of globalization, seem to exploit these victims with every purchase we make, and the injustice feels embedded in the products themselves. After all, what's wrong with a world in which a worker on an iPhone assembly line can't even afford to buy one? It's taken for granted that Chinese factories are oppressive, and that it's our desire for cheap goods that makes them so.


So, this simple narrative equating Western demand and Chinese suffering is appealing, especially at a time when many of us already feel guilty about our impact on the world, but it's also inaccurate and disrespectful. We must be peculiarly self-obsessed to imagine that we have the power to drive tens of millions of people on the other side of the world to migrate and suffer in such terrible ways. In fact, China makes goods for markets all over the world, including its own, thanks to a combination of factors: its low costs, its large and educated workforce, and a flexible manufacturing system that responds quickly to market demands. By focusing so much on ourselves and our gadgets, we have rendered the individuals on the other end into invisibility, as tiny and interchangeable as the parts of a mobile phone.

Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods. They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money, to learn new skills, and to see the world. In the ongoing debate about globalization, what's been missing is the voices of the workers themselves.

This is how journalist Leslie T. Chang begins her enlightening TED talk (based on her book Factory Girls) on Chinese factory workers. The talk as a whole looks at how these workers construct meaning in their employment. See the whole talk below.



Sunday, March 8, 2015

Being Co-Creators With God

During my flight to the University of Virginia for the Faith & Knowledge Conference this past weekend, I finished a small AEI-published book entitled Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing.[1] Human flourishing is one of the major lenses through which I make sense of my religion. One of the most well-known scriptural passages in the LDS canon is God's declaration to Moses: "For behold, this is my work and my glory -- to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). To me, "the immortality and eternal life of man" is the ultimate example of human flourishing. According to authors Chris Horst and Peter Greer, entrepreneurship can play an important role in bringing about this flourishing:

Made in the image of God, the imago dei, humankind still bears the Creator's fingerprints. When a mother gives birth or we create something with our hands, we mirror the wonder of creation. In some small but significant way, we have the privilege of being cocreators with God. If we look closely enough, we see this ability to cocreate all around us as: an artist transforms a blank canvas into a masterpiece; a builder assembles planks and raw materials into the structure of a home; a pharmacist synthesizes substances that heal; or a farmer reaches down into the dirt, plants seeds, and watches life spring forth.[2]

This is because "entrepreneurs are in the business of solving problems, not creating them. Their initiatives and inventions--and the businesses that sustain them---meet human needs...When entrepreneurs fulfill their mandate to serve others and solve problems, humans flourish. And to solve these problems, entrepreneurs recruit workers, who can also then experience the dignity of work. At its best, entrepreneurship aims to encourage human flourishing."[3]

This is why I'm interested in the theology of work. When we recognize that economies and organizations are networks of relationships, their place in the larger picture becomes a bit more clear.



2. Chris Horst, Peter Greer, Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2014), 78.

3. Ibid., 8-9.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Blessed Are The Laborers?


...And in this moment I am happy.

- Incubus, "Wish You Were Here," Morning View (Epic Records, 2001).



In his book Gross National Happiness,[1] economist Arthur Brooks reports--based on data from the General Social Survey--that one of the key elements for achieving happiness and self-fulfillment is work. This is due to its connection to what Brooks calls earned success: the ability to create value in our lives and in the lives of others. Perhaps there is a reason that the beating of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is part of the prophetic eschatological hope (Isa. 2:4; Joel 3:10; Micah 4:3). "The point of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks," writes New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, "is so that the weapons of war may be turned into tools of work. When Isaiah [and other OT prophets] envisages the final or eschatological state of affairs, his vision of shalom, well-being, peace, is not of a workless paradise, but of a world at peace worshiping the one true God and working together rather than warring with each other."[2] Jesus taught, "Blessed (Gk makarios) are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt. 5:9). As I've explained elsewhere, the Jewish understanding of peace (Heb shalom) is not limited to a lack of war or strife, but instead points toward wholeness and a state of overall well-being. Furthermore, the Greek makarios was a word ascribed to the gods, who were free from the frailties and misfortunes of human life.[3] In essence, makarios was the divine life. The Septuagint often used this to translate the Hebrew asre, meaning "Oh the happiness of the one" and describing those with divine approval due to proper religious behaviors or attitudes. Unfortunately, this experiential understanding of the word is lost in the English "blessed." As one pair of biblical scholars explains, "Consequently, we often interpret [Matt. 5:9] to mean, "If you are a peacemaker, then God will bless you." But this isn't what Jesus meant. Jesus meant, "if you are a peacemaker, then you are in your happy place." It just doesn't work well in English."[4] This is because "happy sounds trite..."[5]

Perhaps work is integral to the divine life (makarios) and eschatological peace (shalom).





NOTES  

1. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--and How We Can Get More of It (New York: Basic Books, 2008), Ch. 7 "Happiness is a Full-Time Job."  

2. Ben Witherington III, Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), xiii-xiv (italics mine).

3. It was also used to the describe the dead, the rich, and the wise. See D.E. Garland, "Blessings and Woes," in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 78-79.

4. E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 75.

5. Ibid.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Wellbeing: The Dignity of Work



Every day I've tried to salvage some of my pride,
To find some work so's I might pay my way
But everywhere I go, the answer is always no,
There's no work for anyone here today,
No work today.
...For as long as I live, I never will forgive,
You've stripped me of my dignity and pride
You've stripped me bare.

- Christy Moore, "Ordinary Man," Ordinary Man (Walker Music UK Ltd, 1985).*



In the Gallup-published Wellbeing, I came across an interesting and important piece of information regarding work and well-being. The authors Tom Rath and Jim Harter explore five essential elements to overall well-being:
  • Career Wellbeing - how one's time is occupied.
  • Social Wellbeing - the strength of one's relationships.
  • Financial Wellbeing - effectively managing one's economic life.
  • Physical Wellbeing - having good health and enough energy on a daily basis.
  • Community Wellbeing - engagement with the area in which one lives.


In regards to Career Wellbeing, Rath and Harter reveal this significant point about the need to work:

The Impact on WellbeingOne of the more encouraging findings [of one study] was that, even in the face of some of life's most tragic events like the death of a spouse, after a few years, people do recover to the same level of wellbeing they had before their spouse passed away. But this was not the case for those who were unemployed for a prolonged period of time -- particularly not for men. Our wellbeing actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemploymentThis doesn't mean that getting fired will harm your wellbeing forever. The same study also found that being laid off from a job in the last year did not result in any significant long-term changes. The key is to avoid sustained periods of unemployment (more than a year) when you are actively looking for a job but unable to find one. In addition to the obvious loss of income from prolonged unemployment, the lack of regular social contact and the daily boredom might be even more detrimental to your wellbeing.[1]

The authors connect our career--what we do day in and day out--to our identity, making one's work "arguably the most essential of the five elements."[2] Human flourishing and dignity are connected to one's work in this life. I imagine it will continue in the next.

This information will certainly find its way into my upcoming paper at the Faith & Knowledge Conference.



*Thanks to Allen Hansen for showing me this song.

NOTES

1. Tom Rath, Jim Harter, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements (New York: Gallup Press, 2010), 17-18.

2. Ibid., 16.

Jonathan Haidt on Dynamism With Decency

Over at EthicalSystems.org, social psychologist and the current Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU-Stern Jonathan Haidt has an great post discussing capitalism and the role business plays and can play in creating an ethical environment. He writes,

Credit: Economic Growth: Unleashing the Potential of Human FlourishingWhen I tell people I teach business ethics, they often ask: “isn’t that an oxymoron?” Their response is not unwarranted. Much of my course is about the clever ways businesses have found to exploit their workers, sidestep regulations, and foist external costs onto others. Businesspeople are brilliant at finding opportunities and some of those opportunities are exploitative. Yet the great majority of businesses (in developed nations with low corruption) run quite ethically and survive only because they provide a good or service that makes other people’s lives better. When you take the big picture and see those hockey-stick graphs of rising prosperity in the West since 1800, and in Asia since 1980, I think you’ve got to start with the proposition that business is fundamentally good. Creating value for other people (and keeping some for yourself) is virtuous. When people are free to create value, it unleashes the tidal wave of human dynamism. Poverty plummets. When people are not free, you get torpor, North Korea, and Cuba.

In the cultural struggle between the exploitation and liberation view of capitalism, Haidt sides more so with the liberation outlook (as do I). However, he recognizes that the innovations brought about by capitalism also unleashes innovative ways to exploit. He hopes to encourage "non-governmental actors [to] find ways to raise the cost of bad behavior" and "help businesses maximize both dynamism and decency." 



Though I have some major reservations about it,[1] many of the concepts in liberation theology resonate with me.[2] Haidt's talk of liberation and ethics is an excellent example of the kind of framework I'm attempting with a Mormon theology of work.

NOTES

1. For example, take the liberation interpretation of the Exodus: "One particularly important contemporary misapplication of the Exodus story is liberation theology...The basic thrust behind liberation theology is to see in the Exodus an essentially sociopolitical event that can then be transposed to any situation where one people is oppressed by another...This is not an atypical sentiment in liberation circles, but it is...a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of Israel's deliverance from Egypt. Israel's liberation from Egypt was a religious statement. God was claiming his right over Israel, to take his people out from under Pharaoh's rule and put them under his own rule. Exodus is not the story of Israel's release from Egypt, as if they now can go their merry way and build a Marxist-like utopia. Rather, they have left one form of slavery in order that they may be free to enter another form of slavery to Yahweh. It is a journey that does not merely take them out of Egypt, but to Mount Sinai and the law. Liberation theologians' use of the Exodus to support a wholly unshackled political freedom runs contrary to the story they are attempting to appropriate. The Exodus is not a story of liberation in the sense in which many use it today, but a story of salvation...It is...the foundational event in Israel's existence as a people before God" (Peter Enns, Exodus: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 291-292).

2. My main exposure is The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, ed. Christopher Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"...Working With, For, and Through Other People."

Wharton professor Adam Grant has written on the importance of having a "giver" culture in companies.[1] "In giver cultures," he writes, "employees operate as the high-performing intelligence units do: helping others, sharing knowledge, offering mentoring, and making connections without expecting anything in return. Meanwhile, in taker cultures, the norm is to get as much as possible from others while contributing less in return. Employees help only when they expect the personal benefits to exceed the costs, as opposed to when the organizational benefits outweigh the personal costs. Most organizations fall somewhere in the middle. These are “matcher cultures,” where the norm is for employees to help those who help them, maintaining an equal balance of give and take. Although matcher cultures benefit from collaboration more than taker cultures do, they are inefficient vehicles for exchange, as employees trade favors in closed loops.




"The essence of the law of consecration is charity," explained Hugh Nibley, "without which, as Paul and Moroni tell us, all the other laws and observances become null and void. Love is not selective, and charity knows no bounds...How do you keep the most important commandments? the apostles asked, and in reply the Lord told them of a man who was neither a priest, nor a Levite nor even of Israel—a mere Samaritan, who did not wait for clearance before yielding to a generous impulse to help one in distress who was completely unknown to him: "Go, and do thou likewise!" (Luke 10:37) was the advice—you are on your own."

 

NOTES

1. See Adam M. Grant, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (New York: Viking, 2013).