Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Whiskey Vocation

by Lake Lambert  

Among alcoholic beverages, Jack Daniel’s has enviable name recognition and market share, but the product name also reflects the founder’s name -- or at least one of the founders. Less familiar is the name of Jack Daniel’s original partner in the whiskey business, Daniel H. Call, a farmer, a small-time distiller, and a lay preacher in the Lutheran church. According to most historical accounts, he adopted the young Jack Daniel into his family, taught him how to make whiskey, and went on to co-found with Daniel what would become one of the best known distillers of all time.

But in a remarkable move, Call quit the whiskey-making business only seven years after the partnership was formed and sold his entire share to Daniel. The temperance movement within southern Lutheranism after the civil war was remarkably powerful. Available accounts report that Call was under pressure from his wife, his congregation, and his synod to get out of the liquor business. However, a revival at Call’s church may have been immediate motivator. Daniel’s biographer Ben Green tells of a temperance preaching female revivalist who visited the congregation just before Call sold. The results can be seen on liquor store shelves across the country and around the world: Call’s name is absent from that famous black label.

A calling not sinful in itself 

Of course, it was not a new idea in Daniel Call’s time that a particular role or type of work could be unfitting for a Christian. The re-discovery of vocation as a theological idea at the time of the Reformation sparked considerable discussion and debate on the issue. Arguing that God endowed all socially useful offices and roles with vocational meaning, Martin Luther the upset the sharp division between the spiritual and the material realms. No longer was a calling restricted to the “spiritual” offices of bishop, priest, monk, and nun. Several years later, John Calvin adopted Luther’s project on vocation with some alterations but also with continuity. Both saw a vocation as a means of service as well as a means to order and preserve creation.

The broad expansion of vocation outside the ecclesiastical realm raised several questions about how wide the expansion should go. Luther himself was asked specifically whether being a soldier could be a Christian vocation. He answered “yes.” Without prompting, he even encouraged able Christian men to consider service as executioners, if there was community need. Luther also commended the vocational roles of marriage, house servant, judge, farmer, ruler, and citizen. In each of these cases, he saw the roles as forms of community service. Luther explicitly forbid only a few place of vocations. For example, he said that no one should be a robber, usurer, prostitute, nun, monk, priest, cardinal, or pope. His overriding concern was service to neighbor, and that was possible, he wrote, as long as the Christian worked “in a calling that is not sinful in itself”(Luther, 1905, 248-49). Certainly, the production of alcoholic beverages was not included in this category because Luther’s own wife, Katie, was a brewer or beer and a maker of wine at their Wittenberg home. The mores of the time and place would not have suggested prohibition as a Christian position.


Lambert's article continues by describing the struggles that different theologians and denominations have run into while they search for where to "drawing the line" between what should and should not be considered a righteous vocation. It is an interesting read discussing vocational relativism, but the bottom line for me is whether or not the criteria for the vocation is inherently sinful. God calls us in many ways and works through us as many masks to care for the world, many of which we could never even dream or think of. But, although God can use sinful jobs to his good (like working through Joseph's brothers and Rahab) the sin in the job is not what depended on. Many times people are given the gifts they need for fulfilling a righteous vocation, but neglect in doing so. This would lead to the sin of omitance.

Here are some more tidbits of Lambert's essay:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained Christian vocation ..., stating that one experiences God’s call in the encounter with Jesus Christ. In turn, Bonhoeffer says, “vocation is the place at which one responds to the call of Christ and thus lives responsibly” (290-91). At the heart of this interpretation of vocation is the place of response, and this place has no ultimate meaning or eternal significance. Only the encounter with Jesus Christ is ultimately significant, Bonhoeffer says, just as only the general call is ultimately significant. From this perspective, we can look at the life of Daniel Call and conclude that neither his making whiskey nor his decision to stop making whiskey ultimately mattered. As Luther himself noted, work is not redemptive, and there are no particular callings in heaven; their existence is temporary and fleeting. With the writer of Ecclesiastes, we can truly say that the work of humans is nothing but vanity....

The paradox of a Lutheran theology of vocation is that these places of responsibility do really matter, even without ultimate significance. They matter so much that Christians should organize their lives around them; they require commitments that will consume time, energy, and maybe even ones life....

No comments:

Post a Comment