In the second part of this interview, Janel Kragt Bakker spoke with John Lewis about how his identity as a Pauline scholar and former attorney informs his work on vocation. Read Part I of the interview.
How does your role at the WorkShop connect to your history as an attorney?
I spent seventeen years as a member of a profession—law. And then I’ve spent 20 years as a minister in the church. I find ways that these two roles not only integrate, but overlap. In the world of the professions, one professes a particular expertise, but his/her principal role is as a servant. Serving the interests of other people is Christ’s model as well.
I was a trial lawyer, so my role was always to take the legal principles and structures into a situation in daily business life, interpreting that situation through a legal lens. In some ways, that’s exactly what I still do, substituting Texas law with Scripture. Secondly, my background in law helps me be a more effective interpreter of the Apostle Paul. Paul was a Pharisee, a lawyer, helping people live a holy life. That’s essentially what I did as a lawyer and still do in my current role. Unlike the law, however, the New Testament is not a code of rules. We don’t reduce the Bible or our lives to principles. Instead, we invite people to dwell imaginatively in the full depth and breadth of the biblical stories.
What my various vocations have called forth in me is to help people interpret their lives—not just to find meaning but to know where the spirit is moving and to be accountable for that knowledge. I work hard with people, to build them up, to encourage them, to console them. And they end up holding me accountable as well.
You are a Pauline scholar. How do the letters of Paul inform the method of discernment you developed for the WorkShop?
I use my historical imagination and a close reading of the letters of Paul to try to construct a method of discernment that resembles how Paul taught people in his churches. People we work with learn both scriptural texts and a very manageable process of moral reasoning. I read Paul as a pastoral theologian who is always trying to identify how God is at work in churches and in people’s lives. Whereas many scholars read Paul as a systematic theologian, I read him as a first-century Jewish moral teacher.
Our method of discernment also bring Paul’s practices of engaging Christian communities to bear. We know from Paul’s writings that in early Christianity in the Greco-Roman context, dinner parties had two elements. First was the meal (which early Christians called the Lord’s Supper). Then, the formal practice was to pass around a cup of wine. That was a social signifier that the meal portion of the evening was over, and the evening was transitioning into what was called the symposium. At most Greco-Roman dinner parties, the symposium was just ruckus entertainment—drinking, dancing, and beyond. But the synagogues and moral philosophers appropriated the symposium practice and turned it into a time for moral conversation. And that’s what you see happening in 1 Corinthians 11, 12, 13, and 14, in which Paul engages the symposium part of gatherings. So what we’ve done at the Workshop is to re-appropriate that part of the dinner party. It’s a time when people come together to have a moral conversation.
How do you envision Paul’s sense of vocation, and how does this picture inform your work?
Paul had several vocations, and he talks about vocation in the plural. His vocation was turning from being a persecutor of the church and becoming a supporter of the church. His vocation was Christ revealed in him—not to him, but in him. He tells the Galatians, “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.” From that moment forward, one of his vocations was to embody the person of Christ—Christ crucified.
Along with this was his vocation to teach people how to live Christ in their own context. He told people to play the part of Christ on the stage of the theatre of their lives. Another vocation was to teach Christ by example. “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” he wrote. Paul’s vocations were also to care for people and to build up the body of Christ as a community. Each of these vocations are related to each other: Paul was a teacher, prophet, and apostle.
What Paul was doing, and what we try to do in our work as well, is to help people live into their vocations in Jesus—to live into the incarnation of Christ. Christ was alive in Paul, Christ is alive in me. Christ is alive in all sorts of people in all sorts of contexts.
You emphasize that your work is focused on Christian practice rather than principles or beliefs. Why do you make this distinction?
So many of the current Christian debates are about political or theological positions. When people in our community declare their beliefs on a given topic, what I like to say to them is, “I don’t care what you believe. We are only focusing on how you live out Christ in you.” The way you act tells me what you believe. If you believe something so stridently that you are creating discord and chaos in your relationships with people, you are absolutely not practicing Christ. I don’t care what you think about that belief that you are so strident about—when you are creating chaos and destruction, that’s not Christ. Practice is the heart of Christianity.
The goal of Christian practice is to encounter the abundant life that God promises. And that only comes about when we practice being Christ relationally with one another. Salvation itself is a social reality. Many Christians are focused on life after death, but I think we need to focus more on life this side of death. For Paul, life is a sacrament—life is worship. And I think life is a sacrament for Jesus, too.
I teach a seminary course called “Spirituality in the Workplace.” When I first started teaching that course twelve years ago, I came to realize that a lot of people think about being faithful in the workplace as taking a few minutes out to pray, doing a Bible study at lunch, or having a Bible on your bookshelf. I’m not against prayer at work, but that understanding of workplace spirituality just doesn’t cut it. Spirituality is about being in touch with the transcendent dimension that breaks into the present, and that only happens when Christ is being lived out incarnationally. Faith and work intersect as we live every moment at work as Christ.