At Work & Theology 101

The Christian Way to Land An Airplane

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There might be a Christian way to write a play, but is there a Christian way to land a plane?

In other words, is there a “Christian way” to carry out all work?

In Wednesday’s and Thursday’s posts, we’ve discussed the subject of useless work raised by Christianity Today’s interview with Tim Keller. In the same interview, Keller discusses whether or not some vocations can really be “Christian.” He explains the Lutheran stream of work theology that teaches all work is God’s work:

The Lutheran stream says that everyone on the earth is being fed by God. The simplest farm girl milking the cow, the truck driver bringing the milk, the grocer selling it are doing God’s work – which means there’s no such thing as menial labor, as long as the job is actually helping somebody, as long as you’re not selling internet porn or something like that. Luther gives amazing amounts of dignity to all kinds of work. 

But then he diverges:

Actually, I would go as far to say I don’t know that there’s a Christian way to land a plane, but I do think there’s probably a Christian way to write plays. I think my faith automatically is going to affect how I write a play. I don’t think it automatically affects how I land a plane. 

Even though Keller isn’t implying the vocation of the pilot is less significant to God than the playwright, his statement is certainly not encouraging to Christian pilots.

It’s important not to look at someone’s job only from the outside to determine whether or not it can be carried out in a uniquely Christian manner. C.S. Lewis echoes this idea in Learning In Wartime:

I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious – as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. […] Let us clear it forever from our minds. The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord.” 

In How Then Should We Work, Hugh Whelchel tells the story of a young American aviator, John Gillespie Magee, who passed up a scholarship at Yale to follow his call to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force before the United States officially entered World War II. He became famous for his poem High Flight:

 Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;/Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth/Of sun-spit clouds and done a hundred things/You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung/High in the sunlight silence. Hov’ring there,/I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung/My eager craft through footless halls of air./Up, up the long, delirious burning blue,/I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace/Where never lark or even eagle flew,/And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod/The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,/Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Though Magee’s faith might be more apparent in his poem than in the way he flew planes, he gives important insight into his vocation here. He draws on symbolism that no secular pilot would see. Dancing the skies and climbing sunward up the burning blue, his vocation as a fighter pilot is literally and spiritually drawing him into the heavens and closer to God.

Caring for human life is a valiant call. An old pilot joke goes, “What’s the different between God and a pilot? God doesn’t think he’s a pilot.” A vocation that grants a human a temporary super-human ability like flying requires an incredible amount of humility to keep safety a number one priority.

God entrusts us to perform our work with excellence (Colossians 3:23-24). Martin Luther echoes this saying:

The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.

In offering work humbly to the Lord, there is a Christian way to land an airplane: to land it well.

Even though Keller would agree that a pilot’s work is eternally significant, he implies there might not be a Christian way to carry out certain vocations based on how the work appears on the outside. But even though an atheist pilot may land a plane just as well as a Christian pilot, the Christian pilot has still performed his Christian duty by landing the plane well.

Yet it is also important to remember our work goes far beyond merely performing our jobs well. The full impact of our vocation will not be fully realized in our lifetime. Magee was killed in a mid-air collision in World War II at the age of 19 and could not have possibly known how God would use his work to influence others and further his Kingdom. Whelchel says,

God used the work of this young man’s hands every time he climbed into the cockpit of his airplane not only for the common good but also in some small, although significant, way to further God’s Kingdom here on earth.

The faith of the Christian airplane pilot certainly affects the way he lands planes—as does the faith of the Christian writer on the way he writes plays—in both what is seen and what is not seen. Let us acknowledge the limitations of our own human understanding and not doubt the ways in which ordinary work can “touch the face of God.”

Do you think there is a Christian way to land a plane, or perform any job? Leave your comments here.

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  • Rachel Elizabeth

    This blog is such a delightful read!! I must say –Keller does offer a truly comforting and encouraging approach to work but I find myself reluctant to be satisfied with merely doing a job well. It seems too simplistic to me. I would love to speculate on the philosophy of work, but I will instead simply say — work is multi-faceted in its purpose. An employee’s job impacts them daily but the work they do also impacts our larger society and economy. Perhaps it is easy for me to do my job well and
    be paid well for doing so. But, I may dislike my job because I know am capable of more, making it impossible to be satisfied with merely performing my job well. It
    is delightful when someone hungers to perform well and creates value in their
    society. This ought to be celebrated. I will also note, a person who hates their job may do so because there is identity confusion or a struggle with worth being determined by their work – which I believe pose a different problem. However, perhaps there is a Christian way to think through how we use our unique gifts/ abilities. Perhaps, an employee feels convicted at their inability to wisely steward these things given the constraints they face. I think our heart may always long for a more perfect job as our longings are an indicator we are made for something much
    more eternally satisfying. However, the truth is – to have such a strong reaction – as hating one’s job or feeling useless – is becoming a far too common reality for people in today’s economy. Perhaps we are called to select jobs strategically and more intentionally to provide value and serve well. Which leads me to ask – are we asking the right question?

    • Elise Amyx

      Great thoughts Rachel! I agree completely. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Elise – Tim Keller has done more for the faith & work movement than perhaps any other pastor, but I fully agree with your contention. I’m not sure exactly what he meant with this comment, but regardless our vocation, our Christian faith should have implications upon it. Luther’s quote summarizes this well, I think. Good stuff.

    • Thanks Chris! I was surprised to see Tim Keller say something like this since generally he’s really good with the integration of faith and work. I’d be interested to hear a response from him. I keep mentioning him in my tweets, but no response yet 🙂

  • Malcolm

    Great blog – so glad to see this conversation occurring.

    Observation – would we have found as much meaning in the patriotism of Magee if he had not written so beautiful a poem about flight?

    I think Keller would agree that the work of every individual has the inherent, inward value of teaching obedience to a flawed human soul – work, after all, was a part of God’s good creation from the beginning.

    With work was also a command to increase and subdue the earth, which Keller sees as a duty to build civilization and culture. Is there something to the work of cultural expression which is meant to give work in any form a contextual human value that is divinely intended? A duty of cultural witness in our work, certainly in its quality, but also in the overall narrative of work and purpose.

    • Elise Amyx

      Malcolm – Good observation. I do not think we would have found as much meaning in the patriotism of Magee if he has not written a poem, but only because we would have never known about it, not because it wouldn’t have existed. The poem allows his story to be known and serve as a helpful illustration, but he is only one of many young heroic, patriotic men whose work is just as valuable and eternally significant, with or without a poem to accompany.

      And yes I like your point about cultural expression! Culture creation and cultural influence is one of the major ways we can use our work to be salt and light in the work. Great thoughts, thanks for sharing.

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