As a university chaplain, I was pretty excited to learn about For the Life of the World, a seven-part video series that answers the question “What is our salvation actually for?” in a way that makes Kuyperian theology accessible for the average person.
For the Life of the World is produced by the Acton Institute, an American think tank, and features a variety of theologians and Christian artists as it explores the breadth of ways that we live out our salvation. The scenes are largely set in the eclectic home of “writer, artist, everyday scholar” Evan Koon, whose lovely country house is crammed with vintage paraphernalia from posters to nicknacks to electronics. With literary references from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to a re-telling of Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, this series is equal parts nostalgia and contemplative musings.
However, while it seems the series was targeted at 30-something Christians like me and the undergraduates I work with, several of the videos left us surprised about what the producers at the Acton Institute decided to include in these lessons and what was left off the agenda.
Each episode is beautifully constructed with an artistically articulated message. The first episode “Gift” wrestles with the complexity of what it means to be in the world and not of it. Theologian Stephen Grabill accompanies Evan as they explore the Greek word Oikonomia. Roughly translated as “economy” and “household,” we are told that Oikonomia refers to God’s economy, or purpose, for the world. Within this economy are various human economies or areas of life which, when brought together with God’s will, act as distinct instruments played together to create a harmonious sound.
“Gift” ends, as each subsequent episode does, with a beautifully penned letter narrated by Evan and addressed to “Dear Everybody.” “All of our work,” he concludes, “is designed to bring flourishing the the world. . . . So go, live in your true nature, with the work of your hands, your everyday work, in the words of your mouth, the very breath that you breathe, bless and sanctify the world. Make it a gift and offering it back to God, for his glory, and for the life of the world.”
A powerful start to the series. And yet the three subsequent episodes seem a bit limited in their scope. For instance, the episode “Love” is refreshing in its candid acknowledgment of the lack of healthy family models in scripture. However, as it goes on to emphasize the importance of marriage and how “saying yes to family is saying yes to God,” it explores family in a strictly nuclear sense, with no attention to the ways in which Christ extends the definition of family.
The episode “Creative Service” depicts anemone-esque diagrams with tentacles indicating the names and contributions of all the different workers who have participated in the making of a single object, celebrating the interconnectedness of our world. Grabill repeatedly emphasizes the importance of “free and open exchange.” But, my students wanted to know, what about the reality of unjust work conditions contributing to this free exchange? What about the wear and tear on the environment that results from shipping things all over the world?
The “Wisdom” episode introduces a thoughtful critique of the factory model that the education system has embraced – it is unfortunate that the series fails to critique other prevalent systems, such as the market, in the same way. Suggestions of a free market agenda were seldom lost on our students as Stephen Grabill mentions a few times the importance of limiting the role of government in order to let economies flow in “organic” and unrestrained ways. Further, Grabill offers little in regards to systematic sins perpetrated by our economic systems: the problems of greed and consumerism, of unjust labour practices and unbalanced distribution of wealth. Granted, a 140 minute series can’t cover every issue, but given the fact money, economy and labour feature prominently in several episodes, these examinations feel noticeably absent. It might be telling that the word the series uses to categorize the different spheres or domains of life is “economies.”
For the Life of the World is an exquisitely produced primer on the amazingly diverse and complex ways in which we act out our salvation in day-to-day life. While not without its shortcomings, it proves a provocative and moving teaching tool, if used with a critical eye to prompt thoughtful discussion.
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