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Self-Fashioning After Capitalism: Kathryn Tanner’s ‘Protestant Anti-Work Ethic’

This post is written in response to Kathryn Tanner’s third Gifford lecture for 2016, entitled ‘Total Commitment.’ It is part of her larger series, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, that is currently being delivered at the University of Edinburgh (May 2-12, 2016). I am working as the host for the Giffords blog, where I have posted summaries of the lectures as well as links to the lecture videos. The following combines my summary, which seeks to stay close to her own terms, with a critique I’ve since contributed to the discussion thread.

Kathryn Tanner begins by describing a corporation’s problem with securing ‘total commitment’ from its workers. A company’s controlling interest in maximising shareholder value means that each worker must provide constant, maximal intensity of effort in the pursuit of profit. It is so important to track, and motivate, such worker commitment that a company will even take on the costs of a surveillance system. Such monitoring can contribute to a worker’s motivation in that one fears for the security of one’s position or, alternately, hopes for an award of ‘recognition.’

These attempts fall short of engendering a worker’s entire commitment, however; ‘total’ compliance is required in order to maximise profit. Motivation through fear, or external reward, always leaves a space between the company’s demands and the worker’s commitment: one may prefer not to. The company could, then, try to ‘evacuate’ the will of the worker, creating machine-like responsiveness. Employees become a ‘blank interface,’ reacting only to the need of the moment (the call centre is a prime example of this). In such a scenario, the company pushes out ‘not just thought of anything else, but thought per se.’  …
 
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Mentoring Through a ‘Dark Night’

This essay is drawn from material presented during a mentors’ training event held at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh on January 25, 2016

In a series of letters to her spiritual director, Mother Teresa expresses the luminous certainty of her early sense of calling. For instance, an account from 1946 includes Jesus’ direct claim on her life during a train ride to Darjeeling: ‘You have come to India for me. The thirst you had for souls brought you so far. Are you afraid now to take one more step for your spouse, for me, for souls?’ Having vowed utter abandon to God four years earlier, Teresa answered by taking up work on the streets of Calcutta. From that point, such visions and direct words ceased, beginning a period of darkness that lasted to her death in 1997. …
 
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Against the Nations, For the Nations

A devotional study of Isaiah nineteen, one of the difficult ‘oracles against the nations’

The book of Isaiah has its devotional bright points, such as the well-known lines of consolation from chapter forty. There is also the expansive vision of chapter sixty in which the nations converge, bringing the best of their cultural goods. ‘Nations shall come to your light,’ the prophet promises a beleaguered people, ‘and kings to the brightness of your rising’ (60:3).

Meanwhile, large portions of Isaiah remain in the shadows, with chapters thirteen to twenty-three among those typically overlooked. This is likely because these texts have been collectively referred to as the ‘oracles against the nations’ or, as softened in some versions, ‘concerning’ the nations. When such scripture is ignored, however, or perhaps censored in the lectionary, the range of our devotional concern narrows as well. This would be unfortunate, because texts dealing with geopolitical relations are particularly relevant as the characterisation of ‘other’ nations affects decisions from how refugees are received to where aerial strikes are targeted, issues that require wisdom emerging from careful study and prayer.…
 
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© David Robinson, 2016