This is a season for taking stock of who we are, how we live, and what we are building. It is the best season, perhaps, to ask ourselves the question of poet T. S. Eliot’s choruses from The Rock: “Have you built well?”
In 1934, Eliot penned The Rock to fundraise for 45 church buildings near London. Appropriately, his frequent theme was building—not only churches but also the church as a thick community, an institution, a people seeking knowledge of God, a sanctuary from alienation and futility.
“The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without,” Eliot said. So, how are we building?
When we think of the church community and institutions the church has founded, our workmanship is mixed at best. In society at large, distraction, alienation, and futility seem to have only escalated since Eliot’s day, while the church in the West shows many signs of decay. Religious disaffiliation is rising rapidly, and even we who remain in the faith often can’t escape the inattentive, disintegrating tendencies of modern life.
We too live amid the breakdown of the local relationships, businesses, and civil society analyzed by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America and eulogized by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. With us, as Eliot saw in his society, a sense of community can be too weak, with people “settled nowhere,”
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance.
In this state of communal disrepair, Eliot advised, “The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.” His words echo James 2’s contention that faith without works is dead (v. 26), that it’s possible to have right beliefs without acting in service to God and others. Eliot warns us against relying on the work of past generations and doing nothing to shore it up.
Eliot says we can learn to build well from “things that are now being done, / And some of the things that were long ago done,” and from “the work of the humble.”
For building ideas now being done, we might look to parts of the church both near and far. For example, I’m fascinated by the Bruderhof, a network of Anabaptist communities in which members live and work together, keeping a common purse.
As the Bruderhof website notes, this exact model of daily—and even financial—involvement in each other’s lives isn’t necessary to faithfully follow Jesus. But it’s a striking witness and a healthy challenge to my own faith and assumptions about what Christian community should look like, what it can ask of me, and how much of my life it should shape.
As for things “long ago done,” church history is a wealth of wisdom and warning. One hopeful evangelical trend is renewed interest in the liturgical calendar. None of the six evangelical churches I attended before college observed Lent—or anything beyond Christmas and Easter. Now it’s not unusual for evangelicals to use the calendar to break through the din of ordinary life with a reminder of the kingdom, a prompt to reorient ourselves toward God through a chapter of God’s story of salvation.
Other things built long ago that would aid our building: formalized catechism, memorization of Scripture, and habits of Sabbath. With so many other claims on our attention, we can’t expect to “be made new in the attitude of [our] minds” by social osmosis (Eph. 4:23). We need to dust off these tools of deliberate discipleship for new use.
The warnings in our history bring me to “the work of the humble.” We cannot “build what is good” if we build to increase our own power, wealth, or glory. Our task is to prefigure the coming kingdom in love and service of God and neighbor, to give ourselves “fully to the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). It is not to serve ourselves.
Without humility in building, we risk the sin of Babel. But with it, and with God’s grace, this year we may build what is good. And we must, for there is “much to build, much to restore,” as Eliot charged. “Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste.”
Bonnie Kristian is deputy editor at The Week and the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today.
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