Alasdair MacIntyre writes in his book, After Virtue:
“[Vice] injures the community…[and] makes the shared project less likely to be successful; [vice] destroys those relationships which make common [sic] pursuit of the good possible” (p. 178).
These are rather bold statements. However, are they true statements? Does vice destroy relationships? Does vice injure communities?
I believe MacIntyre is right; I think these statements are true. However, let’s consider the 2022 film Elvis as our case study. Vice wreaked havoc on Elvis and his family.
“The Showman” himself, Colonel Tom Parker, met Elvis following his first live performance, and the rest, they say, is history. As Elvis’s manager, Parker manipulated Elvis’s naivety as a newcomer to the entertainment business. Parker manipulated Elvis emotionally, psychologically, and bodily for his financial gain. Parker’s vice of greed ruined and exploited Elvis.
One scene was so difficult to watch because, of course, “the show must go on.” Elvis had collapsed on the floor due to exhaustion, and Colonel Parker peered at Elvis’s spineless and sheepish dad for him to urge his son to perform this night. After Elvis’s dad gave his pep talk to Elvis, encouraging him to perform, a doctor, presumably hired by Parker, injected Elvis with something, and the result—Elvis performed that night. Parker’s idolatry for money required working Elvis like a dog. Over the years, the barrage of psychological, emotional, and bodily manipulation eventually led to Elvis’s death at a young 42 years of age. Parker’s lust for greed eventually destroyed Elvis.
Marital Relationship Destroyed
During his stint in the army (another decision imposed on Elvis by Parker), Elvis met, dated, and eventually married Priscilla, the daughter of a US Navy pilot. Priscilla would later give birth to Lisa Marie Presley, their only child. Yet, Elvis’s vice of unfaithfulness and Parker’s control of Elvis’s every move destroyed his marriage. Vice killed a community—Elvis’s three-person family.
Familial Relationship Destroyed
Elvis’s mother, Gladys, lost one son, Jesse Aaron Presley, Elvis’s twin brother, at birth. This created an unhealthy attachment and dependence between Elvis and his mother. By all accounts, she was afraid of losing Elvis to his music career and to Parker’s manipulation and sinister control. Eventually, Elvis’s mother resorted to alcoholism, which later killed her. Again, the vice of excess destroyed Elvis’s mother.
So, a resounding yes—McIntyre’s statements are sadly true; vice destroyed Elvis, his mother, and his marriage.
What is the Alternative?
Elvis’s workplace, the entertainment industry, was riddled with vice. His manager succumbed to the idol of greed. What is the alternative? Instead of vice that leads to destruction, what might lead to flourishing? The answer is virtue. God calls Christians to be virtuous workers. Christians must cultivate virtue—good moral habits—as virtue leads to mutual flourishing.
How do we cultivate good moral habits so that they are like muscle memory? Here are five ways to cultivate virtue:
- Read good literature. Literary pieces have primary and incidental characters. Literary pieces often feature an antagonist and protagonist. These “Literary characters,” writes Karen Swallow Prior in her book, On Reading Well, “have a lot to teach us about character.” Literature offers us “images of virtue [and vice] in action” explains Prior. “The plot [of a literary work],” writes Prior, “reveals character. And the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader’s own character. Through our moral imagination, we, as readers, identify with the character (or characters), learning about human nature and our own nature through our reactions to the vicarious experience.”
- View films (and don’t check your mind at the door). I wrote this article, “Good Films Are Like Good Literature,” for the final issue of Ransom Fellowship’s magazine, Critique. Using Prior’s work as a framing, I wrote this, “Just as literary pieces often feature an antagonist and protagonist, in the same way, characters projected on the big screen or on the screens in our living rooms have a lot to teach us about character. Motion pictures or films offer us “images of virtue [and vice] in action. Films have a plot as literature has a plot. “The plot reveals character [and] our act of judging the character of a character shapes our own character.” As we view stories on the ‘big screen’, we are unconsciously judging the characters through our moral imagination as we experience vicariously, the film’s introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and finally, the resolution. As we gaze at a projected animated film, we are engaged in a wrestling match with our own morality or character. In this way, film watching is a not benign affair; film watching is shaping and/or mis-shaping our character. Many, after watching the ‘Elvis’ film, might try to imitate Parker or many might shun his vice of greed.
- Collect, what Aristotle called, ‘friends of virtue’. Pray for/look for friends of virtue at your local church or workplace. When I taught undergrads, I especially urged the men to form covenant groups or accountability groups – these were their “friends of virtue” — friends who were also relentless in cultivating virtue; and friends who could challenge and offer encouragement. Ask your ‘friends of virtue’ to hold you accountable as you, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to cultivate virtue and to identify and mortify vices in your life.
- Put being over doing (or put ontology over function). James K. A. Smith, in his book, You Are What You Love, says our first question in the morning should not be, “What am I doing today?” Our first question in the morning should not be “What’s on my to-do list?” Rather, the first question in the morning should be, “Who am I becoming today?”
This is a being question. Martha, sister to Mary, understood this. Martha gets a ‘bad rap’ but she did the wisest thing: She spent time at Jesus’s feet absorbing his teaching. Mary was busy doing; Martha was busy being. Who we become will impact or inform our doing. Are you spending time with the Lord daily?
- Practice the virtues to habituate the virtues — your participation in the economy — a social system — will provide many opportunities, again and again! Why? Because you will engage with people who are knuckleheads (and remember you’re a knucklehead too). The economy will provide many opportunities because we will be constantly tempted to give in to vices like pride, envy, sloth, anger, and Parker’s vice of choice, greed. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we must counter these vices with virtues such as love, humility, temperance, etc. One way to be a bit more disciplined about practicing the virtues is to develop a Rule of Life. Of course, pray for the enablement of the Holy Spirit, and ask a few friends of virtue to hold me accountable to your Rule of Life.
Perhaps, if the workplace was populated with more virtuous Christian workers, we will hear fewer and fewer stories like that of Elvis. Perhaps, we will hear more and more stories about how virtue aided the flourishing of our co-workers and their families and their neighborhoods and their cities.
Luke Bobo is a visiting instructor of contemporary culture at Covenant Seminary, and is the author of several books including, Race, Economics, and Apologetics: Is There a Connection?, A Layperson’s Guide to Biblical Interpretation, and Living Salty and Light Filled Lives in the Workplace. He co-authored or serve as editor of Worked Up: Navigating Calling After College, Fertile Ground: Faith and Work Field Guide for Youth Pastors, and Discipleship With Monday In Mind: 16 Churches Connecting Faith and Work.