My father is one of three boys in his family, the middle son. His older brother is my Uncle Bruce. He and my father are approximately three years apart in age. They had formed a fast bond by the time their third brother came along, and the stories of Bruce and my dad’s childhood antics are legendary in the family.
For example: One of my grandfathers worked as the manager of a small storefront JCPenney in western Kansas during my father’s childhood, back when JCPenney still maintained storefronts in small towns. This was the early 1960s. He put in long hours at the store, and if there was one thing he valued at home above all, it was rest. Sleep. Unfortunately for him, Bruce and my dad shared a room directly above their parents’ room. The house, which they rented, was very modest, and the boys’ room was too small for two beds, so Bruce and my father also shared a bed (until they outgrew that arrangement and one of them moved to a mattress in the basement). Now as any parent of small boys knows, put two of them together in a room and what you do not get much of is quiet. My dad and uncle were no different. Their nighttime laughter and horseplay frequently woke my grandfather in the room below.
On those occasions, Grandpa would reach for a yardstick he kept by his night table and bang the ceiling with it, warning the boys to quiet down. If that did not produce the desired silence, Grandpa took the yardstick up the stairs and converted it to a switch, swatting the boys’ backsides. But without much light, and in his general state of nocturnal confusion, Grandpa often had difficulty seeing just whose backside he was swatting. Bruce took advantage of these circumstances by pulling my father on top of him, or so the story goes, and crying out as if he were being spanked, all while Grandpa was, in fact, spanking my father. Similar stories of pranks and tomfoolery are legion.
Bruce was a smart boy and grew, as an adult, to be one of the most interesting people I know. I remember watching him sit down to the piano and play entire pieces of music that I recognized from the radio or from church by ear, no sheet music in sight. He can still do it. He has what musicians call perfect pitch. If you play a note for him or hum it, he can tell you what note it is, just from listening. He took up the fiddle later in life and the violin and has played the saxophone some as well. There is no instrument I believe he could not play if he wanted to.
He went to college, played football (and shared an apartment with my dad—like old times), and after graduation moved to Arkansas, where my grandparents had gone from western Kansas after JCPenney closed the little store my grandpa managed. There, in Arkansas, Bruce started his own business pouring concrete.
It’s called Hawley Concrete, first incorporated in 1978 and in continuous operation since. He typically has a handful of employees at a given time. Today his oldest son, my cousin, works the business with him. They pour driveways and patios and foundations; they do stamping and staining and concrete repair. You can see some of Bruce’s artistry in what he does: there’s an elegance to it, and precision. It’s hard work, tough work—hot in the humid Arkansas summers and wet in the winter, and they work all year long. But it’s good work too—the kind of work that allowed Bruce to get married and raise a family of six kids, and that has allowed him to live a full life, enjoying his children, pursuing his passions. Contributing. Building.
The truth is that manual work of the kind Bruce does has become less and less valued in our society, not least because the elites who set the cultural tone largely disdain those who work with their hands. The media regularly admonish schoolchildren to go to college precisely to avoid the kind of labor Bruce has been doing for 40 years. The tech start-up wizard and the Wall Street maven are liberal culture’s beau ideals. (Don’t believe me? Just look at the main characters on television sitcoms. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many blue-collar workers.) The “masters of the universe” have advanced degrees and sit in air-conditioned offices and make, in pop culture mythology anyway, massive sums of money. That is what today’s elites tell our children to aspire to.
Those who don’t want that life or don’t have those degrees have watched their work prospects steadily dim over the last five decades, as more and more blue-collar jobs have disappeared overseas or been simply eliminated. In their stead, our political leaders offer government benefits—welfare, dependency.
Dependence is in fact a temptation to every man, in every age. It is the temptation to let someone else do it for you. Let someone else plan your future, let someone else provide, let someone else take the risk. Let someone else take responsibility. It’s a temptation that came to Adam in the garden, to let Eve deal with the serpent rather than to protect her and guard Eden.
The antidote to dependence is building. The antidote to passivity is work. And work is, according to the Bible and the Western tradition it defines, an invitation that speaks to every man. It is an invitation to do what every man wants to do: matter, in the most lasting way possible.
The Bible celebrates the value of work and the character of the men who do it in the story of David, whose life followed some centuries after Joshua and the battle for Canaan. What we learn from David as a builder is this: that a man is born to work and to acquire the character that working brings. This is no small thing. If done humbly and well, work can help make the world what it was meant to be. The man who becomes a builder can help cultivate a little Eden.
Give More Than You Take
Besides being a focal point of the Bible, David’s story is one of the grand dramatic sagas of all ancient literature. You may remember some of it. He was born to an obscure family, the youngest boy and least looked for to succeed. Nevertheless, God sent a prophet to anoint him, when he was still a boy, to be Israel’s future king. Like Abraham, David was called from obscurity to purpose. Like Joshua, David would become a great warrior. And as we meet him, he is about to build and to display for us the promise and power of work. Here is a key part of his story, from the second book of Samuel, once David has become Israel’s king.
The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there. The Jebusites said to David, ‘You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.’ They thought, ‘David cannot get in here.’ Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion. . . . On that day, David said, ‘Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.’ That is why they say, ‘The ‘blind and lame’ will not enter the palace.’ David then took up residence in the fortress and called it the City of David. He built up the area around it, from the supporting terraces inward. And he became more and more powerful, because the Lord God Almighty was with him.
The story begins with David clearing the land of evil in the manner of Joshua. The Jebusites, interestingly, were some of the ancient peoples that Joshua and his army had failed to expel. The story suggests that even now, centuries later by the Bible’s reckoning, some sort of evil omen hangs over their stronghold, Jerusalem: it was the home of the “blind and the lame”—symbolism for a dark power that guarded the fortress. David concludes Joshua’s work by confronting and defeating the Jebusites.
And what does he do next? He builds. In particular, he builds a city.
Cities held great significance in the ancient Near East, where they were regarded as the creation of the gods. In both ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the earliest writers portrayed cities as primordial, existing even before humanity, their foundations laid by the gods as a pattern for the universe as a whole. In fact, ancient peoples believed that the gods maintained order in the cosmos through the cities they made: they ruled from there, their temples were there; the cities were cosmic control centers. The order of the city at once exhibited and helped sustain the order of the universe, an idea one can hear even in Plato.
This was, I say, the prevailing view in the ancient Near East. But not in the Bible. Not in David’s story. David does not come to an ancient city that he reveres to pay homage to its god. He comes to a stronghold of corruption and conquers it, and begins to build something new. And here is perhaps the most interesting element of the story: Jerusalem does indeed become, in the end, a city of the divine. David’s God, Abraham’s God, does indeed take up residence there, famously so.
Zion, the city of David, becomes the city of God—and still is, for millions of worshipers worldwide. But notice, David’s God chooses to take up residence in a city that David has built. The city is not primordial, built by the gods, but by human hands—by David’s hands. That is the point. God honors David by blessing and ultimately dwelling where he builds. God honors David’s work. Indeed, David’s work makes him a partner with God.
The Bible places a premium on work, and on men with the character to work faithfully. From the beginning of the Adam story all the way back in Genesis, the Bible emphasizes that God has called man to be his partner in the divine labor, the making of the world into a temple. Genesis tells of five days in which God subdued the chaos of the universe, then filled it with stars, then with planets and living things. On the sixth day, he created man and charged him to do the same, to “subdue” and “fill” the earth—that is, to continue the work of creation after the pattern of God. Adam’s mission as a man called him to labor and to provide. A man is meant to build, to work.
From his studies across cultures, of Micronesia, Melanesia, Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Americas, the anthropologist David Gilmore concluded that the “critical threshold” marking the passage from boyhood to manhood was “the point at which the boy produces more than he consumes and gives more than he takes.” In short, manhood begins when a boy ceases to be dependent and becomes someone who can provide and build.
There is something in the character of a man that responds to the character of work. While he labors to shape and manage the world, the labor itself shapes his soul. Studies show that men who work are more confident, more emotionally stable, and, of course, more prosperous. Perhaps this is why the Bible, from Genesis to David, portrays work as godlike—activity after the character of God.
No Work Is Beneath You
What we can take from this is straightforward. Men are meant to work, and they should. Men who work are more likely to be happy, more likely to be married, and more likely to have children. In America, three-fifths of working men considered “prime aged,” that is, between 25 and 54, are married. By contrast, a considerable proportion of those men who are out of the workforce are not only unmarried now, but they have never been married at all.
My advice to young men looking for work is to do whatever honorable work is available. It is the same advice I received as a young man. I grew up hearing many a legend from my dad’s father, whose name was Norm, the one who banged for quiet on the ceiling with the ruler, about his first job. He was born and raised in Smith Center, Kansas, which he always remarked to me was the precise geographic center of the continental United States. His family was poor. His father, my great-grandfather, worked the railroad. My great-grandmother worked at a local five-and-dime. They lived in a small house with a detached garage. When my grandfather Norm was a boy, in the 1940s, the garage caught fire by some mishap. Firefighters saved the house, but not the car. The family couldn’t afford one again until he was well into high school.
As you might imagine given those circumstances, work was highly valued in that family, and every family member was expected to contribute. My grandfather Norm’s first job was as a dishwasher at the Bon Ton Café, a local establishment (long since shuttered). In time, he was promoted to short-order cook. The Bon Ton was a diner, with booths in front, I am told, and an open grill toward the back with a deep fryer on one side. Grandpa took up his station there, grilling burgers and ham n’cheese, chicken sandwiches, and of course French fries—you name it. He would entertain me as a child by rattling through his menu and boasting of his speed on the grill. Once, while standing in the kitchen carrying on in this fashion, he seized a metal spatula, tossed it end over end in the air, and caught it with the other hand. “This is how I used to do it at the Bon Ton,” he said. “I tell you boy, I can still smell the grease on the grill.”
His stories made a point. Work is a good thing. No work is beneath you. “I never had a job I didn’t learn something from,” he would say to me. He urged me to work as young as I could, doing whatever constructive work anyone would pay me to do. (When I asked him why he didn’t make grilled cheese anymore and Grandma did all the cooking, he would demur. “I got all wore out at the Bon Ton,” he would say.)
Contrast that attitude with the line that emerged among the chattering classes in the 1960s, repeated ad nauseam since, that some jobs are simply “dead-end,” not sufficiently stimulating or rewarding to be compelling as work. That notion makes the value of work depend on the job’s social status, which means, in practice, it depends on what the culture’s opinion-makers think of it. And the opinion-makers don’t work blue-collar jobs. This is how we end up with the increasingly widespread idea that manual labor is somehow degrading.
That is not the view from the Bible. God assigned Adam to perform manual labor, as my grandfather did and my uncle Bruce does still, day in, day out. The Bible’s view is that all work is worthwhile if it is performed in service to God and others. As long as it is honest labor, every job has a purpose. Every job provides a service. Every job hones a skill.
The Puritans of old, those fervent Christians who would eventually brave a dark ocean to found a new “city on a hill”—America—had a powerfully robust view of work. They regarded everyday work as a “calling,” and their test for whether work was worth doing was simple: ask whether it is useful to others and offered to God. If it is, it’s meaningful and worthwhile. The social status of the work means nothing. What others think of it is irrelevant. Honest work honestly done dignifies the worker. The 16th-century Puritan Joseph Hall said it like this: “The homeliest service that we doe in an honest calling, though it be but to plow, or digge, if done in obedience, and conscious of God’s Commandment, is crowned with an ample reward. . . .” That’s a view that should be heard in America today.
There is a practical element to all this, too. The sooner you get employed, the more skills you gain. And the more skills you gain, the sooner you advance in the workforce. Studies show the best job training program is, not surprisingly, a job. The best place to learn new skills and cultivate productive habits is in the workforce.
If it is man’s mission to be God’s representative, doing God’s work, restoring and expanding God’s temple, man must be a builder. You could say it like this: To become a man, you must work. You must contribute. You must give more than you take.
The problem in America today is that too many men are not working, and our respect for those who are is waning. Look at the trends of just the last 50 years. It used to be that almost 90 percent of men over 20 worked—or, at a minimum, were looking for work. That was true from the turn of the last century until about the late 1950s. Then began a long, abysmal decline.
By 2015, only 68 percent of men over 20 were in the workforce, or trying to be—meaning that the proportion of men without paid work doubled, from 14 percent to 32 percent. The COVID-19 pandemic made matters even worse. In early 2022, the percentage of prime-age men neither working nor looking for work was three times larger than in 1965. Today, a smaller percentage of prime-age men are working in the labor force than in March 1940, at the tail end of the Great Depression. These numbers are the lowest seen since the military demobilization following the end of World War II.
The sheer magnitude of the decline of work is often masked by the official unemployment statistics, which fluctuate higher or lower each month. But those reports are misleading in one key sense: they include only those who are out of work and actively trying to find a job. In the last 50 years, millions of men have decided not to try for work at all. These are the men the unemployment statistics do not record, the millions of missing men who have disappeared from labor. Here’s another way to get at the size of the problem: if the same percentage of men worked today who did a century ago, there would be 10 million more workers on the job in America right now.
In case you have doubts, life without work is not a good life. It is, for one thing, often an existence bereft of close family or companionship. Men without work are more likely to live alone, less likely to be married, and less likely to have children. When they do have kids, they are less likely to see them: an unemployed father is considerably less likely to live with his children than a father who goes to work every day. That’s only the beginning. Unemployed men are more frequently divorced. Approximately half of men without work are on painkillers. And these same men suffer higher rates of depression and suicide than men in the labor force.
And it’s not as if declining to go to work frees up all sorts of time for productive activities. In fact, men who aren’t working seem to do very little at all. They don’t, on the whole, volunteer or pursue education or take care of children or others in need. They don’t go out much. Most of what they do is sit and watch screens—television, the internet, video games—to the tune of 2,000 hours a year. Those are numbers equivalent to a full-time job. There is also crime. Among unemployed men between 30 and 38 years of age, for example, the majority have been arrested at least once, 40 percent have been convicted once, and fully 20 percent have been to prison.
Why are so many men in this country not working? Economists have fumbled for explanations. Surely one reason is the policy choices made by elected officials in Washington over the span of the last five decades. Both parties have embraced a program of globalization, to include liberalized trade, liberalized immigration laws, and lavishly favorable treatment for multinational corporations. This has exacted a heavy toll on American workers, especially American men.
There was a time in this country when a man could support his family on the wages of blue-collar work, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Most of those jobs have gone overseas now. Some celebrate this development as good for consumers—more cheap stuff to be had—or as a form of “gender justice”: men can no longer rely on their physical strength to get a leg up in the job market, the logic goes.
Many left-wing policymakers argue that blue-collar jobs in manufacturing, farming, and energy are too dirty, too noxious for the climate. They prefer an economy built on white-collar service jobs that produce nothing tangible and require the expensive degrees favored by the leftist intelligentsia. Don’t have one of those degrees? You’ll just have to make do in a lower-end hospitality or administrative job, which, not incidentally, pay considerably below the hourly average a man could earn in manufacturing. The median manufacturing job pays approximately $22.50 an hour. For hospitality, the median is $13.70 an hour; for administrative services, it is $17.50.
Other liberals cluck their tongues and say of course men could improve their station, if they would just change careers—and interests. These liberal “experts” cast the loss of blue-collar work as a necessary evil, a painful stage on the path to a more efficient economy. They tell men to adjust their attitudes, to give up their outdated attachment to physical labor and production and to embrace gentler roles.
One liberal researcher recently argued for pushing men into what he calls “HEAL” professions—Healthcare, Education, Administration, and Literacy. He wants more men to work as home health aides, for example, and as teachers and social workers. There is nothing wrong with those careers, of course. To take just one example, many boys benefit from having male teachers as positive role models. But the fact is, men are historically less interested in these fields and less educationally prepared to take them on. Some liberals find men’s hesitancy on this score vexing. Naturally, they blame traditional “gender role” stereotypes and call for more government spending to get men into so-called HEAL careers.
Change the men, in other words. No surprise, the institutional culture of many of these fields—such as education—is shot through with the notion that men and masculinity are problems that need to be fixed.
To the experts safely ensconced in their think tanks, I would just say this: Is it really too much to ask that our economy work for men as they are, rather than as the Left wants them to be? Is it too much to ask that men be able to find decent work on which they can support a family without having to pay six figures in college tuition to acquire a dubious academic credential, or leave their family home for some distant locale, or take up a career path in which they have no interest? Men who have an aptitude for blue-collar work and enjoy it shouldn’t be pushed by policymakers onto career tracks for which they’re ill-suited. And they shouldn’t have to apologize to anyone. There is more to life, and to a successful economy, than learning to code. And an economy with far more private-sector manufacturers and far fewer public-sector paper-shufflers should be welcomed, not scoffed at.
Let’s tell the truth. The loss of high-paying, blue-collar work for men has been a catastrophe for this nation and for men, robbing them of employment, family, dignity, and hope. We should be doing everything we can to reverse it.
Our work crisis is not only economic, however, but also cultural. It reveals a growing culture of dependency. Researchers report that the number of men who don’t work because they can’t find a job is staggeringly small, a mere 6 percent in one survey. Fully three quarters of men out of the labor force say they do not want a job. That is, they would prefer not to work. Consider this: in 2014, only 12 percent of nonworking but able-bodied men between the ages of 25 and 54 said they were even open to the prospect of working. And indeed, statistics show that men who can’t find jobs account for relatively little of the decline in the labor force over time.
Many men are content, apparently, to be dependent. And our political leaders have encouraged it. The response of the modern Left to the crisis of work is particularly telling in this regard. Leftists have advocated expanding welfare payments and “disability” insurance, to the point one need not actually be disabled to claim government support. More recently, they have championed universal basic income. This latter idea would have the federal government guarantee every adult in America an income stream generous enough to live on, whether he works or not. One liberal candidate for president recently ran an entire campaign on it.
The message is that work is optional, replaceable, that a check is just as good as a job. And what that means in practice is a check is just as good as a man. Because if government can supply everything a father or husband once did by working, what is the point of manhood? The culture of dependence destroys men’s agency and their sense of self-worth.
Work and Liberty
Dependence also makes men less free. It makes them servile. There is a long tradition of political thought, running back to ancient Rome and Greece but really originating with the Bible, that sees personal independence as a precondition for personal liberty. You can’t be free if someone else pays your bills. You can’t be free if someone else controls your livelihood, especially if that someone else is the government. You can’t be free if you don’t work. Why not? Because if someone else controls your livelihood, he controls you. That is the ancients’ insight, and they were right.
The Bible elucidates this in the story of the Exodus, when God delivered the Israelites from Pharaoh. Egypt was, for the Israelites, a place of bondage, the “house of slavery,” the Bible says. The Israelites worked, indeed—but not for themselves. They worked at the command of another, and the fruits of their labor were taken by others. They subsisted, but not by their labor, only by what they were given. This made them slaves, in a political sense and in a personal one, too. They had no meaningful control over their lives, no real ability to shape their futures or influence their fate. Above all, dependence denied them the ability to follow God, to shoulder the mission he had appointed for them. They could not do what he had created them to do. The only person whom they could obey was Pharaoh, the one who gave them bread.
Depending on others for your needs brings you under their influence. If you look to others for your bread, you serve them. They have power over you. That is servility, not freedom. The Bible makes this point by saying that in the promised land, the new Eden, the Israelites were to serve no human master—but, and this is an important addition, that did not mean they could do whatever they pleased: that would be to trade one form of bondage for another, dependence on Pharaoh for slavery to their flesh and passions. Rather, the Israelites were to serve the purpose God had written into their natures, that is, to be his representatives. For men, that meant—and means—“cultivating” and “guarding,” making gardens in the wilderness. This is true freedom: to realize and live the fullness of one’s humanity, to become God’s servant on earth. If you are going to shoulder that mission, if you are going to realize that freedom, you cannot refuse to work. You cannot depend on someone else. You must have independence of character.
Dependence can take forms other than failing to work, of course. It can mean sitting back at work when you know you could do more. Passivity and mediocrity are, in this sense, forms of dependence. It can mean relying on others financially when you could support yourself. It can mean failing to make plans for your future.
When I was a law professor, I knew a student, let’s call him Brian, who steadfastly refused to make any settled plans beyond graduation. After he got his diploma, he arranged a trip overseas, backpacking and generally goofing around for several months, then drifted back to the university area looking for some sort of employment. But not anything, mind you, that would tie him down for more than a few months. And nothing that would require more than strictly eight hours of his day, five days a week—at most. He was forever talking about “quality of life” and the importance of maintaining work-life balance. I pointed out that one must first work to have a problem with work-life balance, but he was undeterred. I pressed him on what he wanted to do—not just in the next two months or three, but in the next two or three years. Or 10. Or 15. He couldn’t answer. And while he had a poor relationship with his parents and was not, technically, dependent on them, his refusal to take responsibility for his own future was in fact a form of dependence. He depended on chance, if nothing else. He pursued a life of deferred maturity. In his mind, career, marriage, and fatherhood could wait, maybe forever.
Against the temptation to dependence comes the call to work and build. And the Bible invests that call with the most powerful significance possible. It says that God waits upon our work and cooperates with it. There are things he chooses to accomplish only by our working. There is a future he creates only by our building. He uses our work to renew the world.
That message sharply contradicts another group of leftists who claim men’s work ruins rather than improves the earth. These are the climate-change fanatics. They equate human production with despoliation, the use of the earth’s resources with environmental rape. For them, environmental fear now stands in for religious commitment. As one observer put it, on the Left “apocalyptic environmentalism is a kind of new Judeo-Christian religion, one that has replaced God with nature.” In the Bible, “human problems stem from our failure to adjust ourselves to God. In the apocalyptic environmental tradition, human problems stem from our failure to adjust ourselves to nature.”
Recall how, in the Genesis story, Adam and Eve are told to exercise dominion and expand the garden—to cultivate the wild world and order it to the glory of their Creator. The religion of environmentalism preaches a very different message: leave the world well enough alone, in all its unformed chaos, or suffer terrible consequences. Human efforts to order creation will only do harm, because humans are the villains.
The Left routinely blames men for our planet’s supposedly imminent climate doom. The climate crisis, leftists say, is born from Western society’s thirst for power, for dominion over the earth. And men run Western culture: it’s “the patriarchy.” So they say. On this telling, men’s assertiveness and desire to build are symptoms of Western imperialism; the idea of taming the wilderness to build a civilization is merely a self-serving argument for pushing aside indigenous peoples. The climate radicals teach that men must accept that their work upon the world nearly always makes things worse, not better; destroys, not builds up; robs and deforms. Merely by being male, men do damage. Truly, men are the problem.
Patricia MacCormack’s recent book, The Ahuman Manifesto, provides the starkest imaginable statement of this bizarre creed. MacCormack, professor of continental philosophy at Anglia Ruskin University and a self-described “occultist magician,” argues that human beings, and men in particular, have so damaged the nonhuman world that their only ethical responsibility is voluntary self-extinction.
For MacCormack, “the death of the human species is the most life-affirming event that could liberate the natural world from oppression. . . .” To bring about that goal, she calls for “death activism” intended “to end the human and open the world” to the nonhuman. Notice the exact inversion of the Genesis teaching on men and work. Men do not order the creation and help make it all it could be; men only destroy. Rather than the Bible, MacCormack calls for enlisting the support of “Luciferianism”—that is, Satanism—and “modern witchcraft” as intellectual resources. The biblical tradition is far too focused on those noxious humans, she writes, far too oriented to “the self-serving/God-serving subject that oppresses.” Whatever that means.
Credit where it’s due, though: MacCormack, more than most, is perfectly clear about the implications of her claims and how sharply they diverge from the Genesis story. She, at least, understands that the logical end point for much contemporary environmental activism is the abolition of men.
This nihilistic theology is having an effect. A 2020 poll found that fully a quarter of childless American adults said climate-change fears deterred them from having children. That number is likely to keep going up: according to one recent analysis, the choice “to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.”
There’s now an entire genre of “climate fiction” focused on the anxieties of those who foresee total destruction in the near future. “What will be the safest place?” worries the heroine of Jenny Offill’s critically acclaimed novel Weather. “I can’t seem to escape that question.” Not to be outdone, Lydia Millet’s novel A Children’s Bible offers an allegorical retelling of the Old Testament against the backdrop of climate-driven civilizational collapse: “New kinds of animals evolve. Some other creatures come and live here, like we did. And all the old beautiful things will still be in the air. Invisible but there. Like, I don’t know, an expectation that sort of hovers. Even when we’re all gone.”
Some on the left are going beyond mere brooding and acting out their fears. As I write this, environmentalist activists around the world have been conducting a campaign of vandalism against famous works of Western art, such as Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
In an effort to raise awareness about the stakes of the climate crisis, they’ve been variously gluing their hands to famous paintings or hurling food at them.
What is the message to men in all this? That their work is not only insignificant, but deeply destructive. And if that is true, why bother to work at all? For that matter, why not forgo family and child-rearing and any other act of consequence that expresses some shred of hope for the future, and instead collect a government check? Why not just do nothing? This is where the Left’s anti-human, anti-work climate theology ultimately leads: to nihilism, to nothingness.
But the Bible has something better to offer. A man can be an agent of renewal. His work can matter. He can build.
Working with God
The city of David, Jerusalem, became, in the Bible’s description, a place where heaven touched earth, where God himself took up residence, as in Eden of old, where “silver [was] as common . . . as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills.” The city was a foreshadowing, a foretaste, of what all the world might be if men would carry the light into all the world. And David became an emblem of what a man might do, what he might amount to, if he lived the mission God gave him. David became an agent of life and renewal.
In the Bible, God charges man to help him build creation into a temple, to make it fully what God intends it to be. There is an illuminating contrast on this score with other creation stories from the ancient world. In most of these, the creating gods—be it Marduk or Baal or others—delegate manual labor to humans because it is beneath a god’s status.
The Bible, however, says nearly the opposite. God appoints Adam to work not so God can be done with working, but to make Adam a partner in temple-building. Adam’s labor, his common, do-it-with-your hands work, is God’s way of bringing his creation into order and fullness. According to the Bible, God designed the earth to respond to man’s labor. When Adam abandoned that task, God did not abandon the world. He delegated the task to other men—to Abraham, to Joshua, to David. To us.
This is the Bible’s answer, by the way, to the myth of the dead-end job. This is the reason work—all kinds of work—is worth doing. No job that is performed with diligence and intention is a dead end, because all diligent, honorable work brings forth something new in the world. Something better. The world is great with potential. But it needs labor to draw it out.
And everywhere we look, man’s labor makes the world come alive. Every discovery, every innovation, every invention and improvement, from the electricity we enjoy to the machines that transport us on the roads or by air, is the product of labor.
The results need not be spectacular for the principle to hold true. My wife, Erin, is a great lover of horses, growing up as she did on a ranch. In that spare, stark country, one needs a horse to move cattle from one place to another. Erin learned to ride almost before she could walk. She has told me many times that a highlight of her youth was a summer she spent working with a horse trainer who lived nearby. He was, she said, a master of his craft. The summer days in the desert are grueling, so the trainer and Erin would ride the horses in the early morning and again in the twilight after sundown, when the creatures could better take the work. In this way, over hours and days, they broke the horses to the saddle and reins. By their work, they made the horses productive beyond their natural instincts, to be of use to the rancher.
Whether it’s horse training, or pouring concrete like my uncle, or working a short-order grill, the labor of man helps sustain creation and make it what it could be. The Bible says this is sacred work because when a man produces something that’s useful to himself and others, he demonstrates the goodness of creation—that it can bring forth good things. And that in turn demonstrates the good character of the God who made it. That is temple-building.
We can see this effect in our own lives, in our own characters. If you work at it, you can bring a measure of order to your life. Maybe not perfect order, maybe not paradise, but improvement. You can get to work on time, you can work diligently while there, you can do something that benefits someone else, even in a small way. Part of the meaning of the Adam stories is that the world responds to this kind of effort. Not perfectly, often not immediately. Genesis says a curse lies on the ground, after all, and much of the time a man’s work brings forth only “thorns and thistles.” And yet. The world still answers a man’s labor, and what that labor can bring forth is remarkable.
When I was 19 and a sophomore in college, I thought I might grow up to be an economist. (That phase quickly passed.) In order to major in economics, I had first to take a particular course in calculus. I found I wasn’t very good at it. I remember waking up in the middle of the night after one of my midterm exams in a disoriented sweat, convinced I had failed. I paced the halls of my dorm in the small hours of the morning, working back through the test in my head, trying to guess my score—and agonizing over what it might mean for my future. Oh, for the travails of a college sophomore! Still, it set me asking a set of questions every man does at one point or another: What will I do with my life that will matter? What will I do that will last?
I have come to see the David story as an answer to those questions. David built a city where God himself came to dwell—and not because it was so grandly done, but because God honored the work that David did. The Bible makes much of the fact that both the idea to build Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city and the idea to construct a temple there belonged to David. The city was his city, the temple was his work. But because David worked for God, God made them his own. And so Jerusalem became great.
A man finds his agency in working. There are many forces in the world, most of them well beyond our control. From the weather to our genetics, we are powerless. Still, the Bible says that when a man works, he moves the world—and this is true whatever the work, whoever the man. When a man works, God comes to aid him. The work he does, his ability to bring forth something good, something beautiful, something new, is an expression of his freedom and his significance. It reflects his likeness to God. The Bible does not teach the rule of fate, that man is the pawn of the gods. It teaches instead that man truly becomes God’s delegate, his representative, his servant, as he works. He becomes more free, not less. More independent. More himself. Maybe that is why the long political tradition our founders inherited, the one that has its roots in the teaching of the Bible, has long insisted that to be free a man must be able to provide for himself. He must give more than he takes. He must be a builder.
Hawley Concrete is not a famous company. It will never be traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Most people have never heard of it, and never will, I suppose. But my uncle’s work has sustained three generations of family—himself, his children, and now his grandchildren. By his honest labor, day in and day out, he has shaped generations of lives and worked upon the fabric of the world. To put it another way, he has built his own Jerusalem, his own Eden, a place where God dwells. That is the legacy of a builder.