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Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Leisure: The Basis of Culture

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“Leisure: The Basis of Culture”, Josef Pieper. Original edition: Pantheon Books 1952. English translation: Random House, 1963. Forward by Ignatius Press, 2009.

I was initially attracted to this book by the author’s last name, as would any LCMS Lutheran pastor, I suppose. Francis Pieper is the author of the long standard dogmatic text used in Lutheran circles to this day—affectionately called “Pieper’s Dogmatics”. So, when I found this author at a Roman Catholic Retreat Center, I couldn’t keep myself from being curious of this “Roman Pieper”. My imagination ran wild with the thought of Josef and Francis being distant cousins whose mutual attendance at reunions would either be dreaded or delighted in by all the relatives on account of the inevitable and long rounds of theological sparring which would ensue. While I don’t know if the two men were related or ever met, the thought was a nerdish delight. And if my imaginative musing wasn’t enough to convince me I should purchase it, the thought-provoking title tipped the balance and I purchased the book.

This book is really a collection of two brief essays by Josef Pieper, written in the late 1940’s. The first, “Leisure the Basis of Culture” (pgs. 19-74), and the second, “The Philosophical Act” (pgs. 75-143), are both well worth the read. The second lays a defense and groundwork for the task of Christian philosophy and its proper relationship to theology. However, it is the first essay which is more broadly applicable to a range of topics and is the focus of this review.

We live in a society that loves work—often to a fault. We define people by what they “do” or “don’t do.” When we meet people, we ask them what they do for a living. We console children and adults with the comfort that, “at least you worked hard.” This is the issue which Josef Pieper addresses:

The inmost significance of this exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift. (pg. 36)

This is the problem that occupies the main body of the essay. According to Pieper, such an exaggerated value plagues education, work, economics, government, our everyday life, and culture. Our life is utterly dependent upon “doing”. People, tasks, and things only have value in what they can do or accomplish. Nothing can exist for the sake of itself. We live where everything, even leisure, must have a measurable outcome and product. Then, and only then, is it worthwhile.

One example of this is the emphasis placed by so many businesses on what is often called “worker health”. What seems to be a demonstration of care on the part of an employer or church is often a veiled attempt to ensure more work and better results, or a more effective ministry. Thus, leisure’s value is only in what it “works.” Pieper calls this out as being contrary to Christian thought.

He draws clear attention as to why this emphasis on work is contrary to Christian thought when he says:

We have only to think for a moment how much the Christian understanding of life depends upon the existence of 'Grace;' let us recall that the Holy Spirit of God is himself called a “gift”… that everything gained and everything claimed follows upon something given, and comes after something gratuitous and unearned; that in the beginning there is always a gift… (pg. 36)

While heady and clearly in the vein of Christian Philosophy, the arguments and conclusions are succinctly presented, upending many of our modern understandings of education, knowledge, work, life, theology, and worship. He argues that this leisurely basis of culture is truly Christian, for it is from a posture of leisure and rest that the gifts of God are clearly received and recognized as gifts and not as a result of our work.  This life comes primarily in the sacramental life of the church where we receive gifts from God. Having pulled the reader into this reality of the sacraments as unearned gift, Pieper then applies this concept to the rest of life. 

Nevertheless, thoughtful Lutheran theologians will realize that a vital piece is missing from Pieper's writing. Christ is the very source of our rest before God, and so also in life—an emphasis that is lacking in his argument. This lack of Christocentric contemplation is a glaring failure to attest to the revelation of Jesus as the one in whom all things hold together. Yet, to be charitable, the book does appear to be a first foray into the topic. Furthermore, it is not properly a theological work. It introduces an idea which challenges us to consider the Gospel in such a way that it fills every corner of our lives.

“Leisure: The Basis of Culture” is well suited for a broad audience, though if I must be specific, I would consider it particularly well suited for pastors, theologians (even of the armchair variety), educators, and lovers of wisdom. Written in an academic voice, it says much in few words, challenges unquestioned assumptions, and makes incredibly valuable distinctions that have been lost to the modern reader. For this reason, it is the sort of book which is best read, dare I say, leisurely. Its thought-provoking nature makes it the sort of book that should be read little by little, allowing pause to consider more deeply the concise and profound statements before returning for more. It beckons for its reader to discuss and consider its contents in conversation with others. After reading this essay you may come to believe, as I do, that this is how all books worth reading should be read and all conversations worth having should be had. In so doing, we live in the leisure and richness of the gifts of God.

Rev. Jordon Andreasen, Pastor of Our Savior and St. John Lutheran Churches in Aberdeen and Columbia, South Dakota.

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