Christians Need to Get Their Hands Dirty, Theologian Jordan Ballor Says

While Christians may view themselves as simply travelers in this world, on a path to a greater destination, they should not be passive travelers, theologian Jordan Ballor says. To avoid the "twin errors of materialism and spiritualism" Christians need to mix it up with the "dirtiness" of this world, he argues in Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (And Action).

The book is a collection of essays, along with some new material, that Ballor has worked on as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. The chapters are divided into the themes of the person and family, work and economy, the Church, and politics.

The Christian Post recently spoke with Ballor. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

CP: What is "dirt" a metaphor for in the book?

Ballor: It's a multi-layered metaphor. On one level, it's just about grit, the things that attend to hard work - sweat, toil and mud - all the things that have to do with what happens when we work hard in this life. On another level, and informed by Christian understandings of sin, it has to do with the fallenness of our natures. The spiritual dirt that comes with original sin and adds up as we actually sin in this world. I use it on at least those two levels in the book to talk about how we can seek to be clean, whether that's always a good thing, whether we should seek to be dirty in some cases or not.

Obvious from the title, I'm encouraging us to get dirty and that is in the first sense, although understanding that avoiding sin is not always possible. So that is how those two layers of the image of dirt come together.

CP: Who is the primary audience?

Ballor: It's written for lay people. It's not an academic book. Anyone interested in the way the Christian faith ought to influence the way we think and work would hopefully be an audience for this book.

CP: It would be something Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals can all pick up and relate to?

Ballor: I hope so. There's a kind of, what is sometimes called, a "reformed accent" in some of the themes. But it is definitely a work rising out of the [c]atholic tradition with a small "c," informed by the great history of the Christian Church.

CP: How does work fit with God's purpose for us?

Ballor: One of the main ways work fits with God's purposes is by providing us with the "dignity of causality." That's a phrase that appears in Pascal and C.S. Lewis. What God has done through the order of work is provide us the opportunity to image Him in a way, to express our likeness to Him, by creating, in a derivative sense of course, but creating in a way that images what He has done in a primary way in the work of creation.

Work is one of the primary means that we have been given to exercise responsibility and stewardship and dominion over the world and material order. It is the way God has provided - the regular means for providing for our material sustenance.

In the Lord's Prayer we pray, "give us this day our daily bread," and if you think about it, how do we normally get our daily bread? There are certainly biblical examples of miraculous provision, but that is not normally the way our bread is provided. God provides us daily bread through the work of other people.

One of the figures I've drawn from a lot in this book is Martin Luther. He has this idea that human beings acting responsibly, through their vocations, in the realm of work, are masks of God. In other places we get this sense that the hands of neighbors are the hands of God, working to provide us with gifts.

CP: You hit upon my next question. You cite a number of different theologians in the book. The index tells me you cited Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer the most. Is there a reason, given the theme of the book, those would be cited the most?

Ballor: I said that there's a "reformed accent," then you point out that the two people who are cited the most are Lutherans - well, Luther, a Protestant and Bonhoeffer, a 20th century Lutheran pastor. [laughs]

Speaking as a theologian who is reformed, I don't draw a sharp distinction. I tend to think of the Lutherans as co-laborers in a sense. I have a great deal of respect for the Lutheran tradition.

More specifically, though, this idea of getting your hands dirty, that does derive out of Luther. He talks about "sin boldly," which you may have heard associated with Luther. That's exactly what this book is inspired by. Luther goes on to say, sin boldly, but trust in Christ more boldly still than you would sin. He goes on to say, as long as we're here in this life, everything we do is going to be, in some ways, incomplete. It's finite. It's tainted by sin. Nothing we do is perfect. Do the best you can and realize it's not going to be good enough in some ultimate sense. So, trust in Christ for your comfort and your salvation, and not in the perfection of your own works. It's that dynamic between trusting in Christ and yet being inspired to work for the good of your neighbor that informs the work I'm trying to do in this book.

CP: Bonhoeffer?

Ballor: I have a personal interest in Bonhoeffer, academically. I think he is under-appreciated as a theologian. He is usually thought of as a moral exemplar, or someone who was willing to get his hands dirty. His legacy is both positive and negative in that regard. Some people think in a negative way in terms of his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

I appreciate Bonhoeffer on a number of levels. I find him inspiring, both as an example and as someone with insight into Christian life. When people ask me, "I want to learn more about Bonhoeffer, what should I read," I recommend Life Together. I think that captures, in a unique way, the animating themes of Bonhoeffer's life and work.

In a similar sense, in some ways directly inspired by Luther, it's about this tenuousness of human life and our efforts. On the one hand, he talks about work as an order of God's grace, and then on the other hand, he has a very Lutheran sensibility about what all that work merits us in the end.

I think you're right to look at those as two of the main figures that inspired my reflections in this book.

CP: You also cite Mike Rowe. He hosts a show called "Dirty Jobs." Did the show inspire the theme for the book?

Ballor: Yeah, at that first level of dirt that I'm talking about. Absolutely. That show is a great example of the kinds of things I want to talk about.

After I wrote the book, I wrote another essay talking about Mike Rowe. You may recall there was a fair amount of attention to Ashton Kutcher after a speech he gave at the Video Music Awards about hard work. So I wrote a piece about what Ashton Kutcher and Mike Rowe had to teach us.

Mike Rowe, in that show, "Dirty Jobs," it's not like it is a theologically explicit show or anything like that, but if you come to it with a theological lens and understanding of vocation, you can see the dignity that attends to work - any work done by a human being created in the image of God, even the kind of work that we might think of, in worldly terms, as undignified. So, that's a great example of this idea of vocation as a place of responsibility before God and of humble service in pop culture.

Another one is this show called "Undercover Boss." In one episode, there's a guy who works for a waste management service. His job, basically, is to clean out porta-potties. This guy approaches it with a great positive attitude. It's really inspiring to see how somebody realizes how their work is serving other people, and willing to get your hands dirty, in a literal way, and serve other people I think really does provide a rich image of what the Christian life is supposed to be all about.

Free Religious Freedom Updates

Join thousands of others to get the FREEDOM POST newsletter for free, sent twice a week from The Christian Post.

Most Popular

Free Religious Freedom Updates

A religious liberty newsletter that is a must-read for people of faith.

More In Church & Ministries