Not long ago I reread The Pilgrim's Progress in order to write commentary on it for my book blog. Reading slowly for notes and questions made me wonder if John Bunyan might have eavesdropped on the 21st century somehow, particularly in his description of Vanity Fair.
The thing that struck me most on this reading is that everything at Vanity Fair is for sale: not just property and goods, but intangibles such as honor, pleasure, delight, even religion. People too: husbands, wives, and children. Respectable items are on the market as well as disreputable, but the prices are set by men, not God. And there's little correlation between price and value.
At the beginning of the "women's liberation" movement, women claimed that the work of homemaking and child rearing should be paid in order to be considered valuable. But the reason there's no salary for homemaking is because it's invaluable-as we see now from decades of trying to get by with broken homes and outsourced child care. When a young woman at our church walked out on her family a few years ago, it took at least 10 of us, pitching in as we could, to make up (inadequately) for one wife and mother whose worth was far above rubies.
But the world sets prices-like 30 pieces of silver for the Son of God-that inflate the value of some items far above their worth and make priceless commodities look cheap. Business courses seldom teach that an entrepreneur's greatest asset is a loyal, tight-knit family. Family doesn't ask for a raise or walk out over a labor dispute or demand overtime for late-night bookkeeping sessions. A brother, daughter, or parent can delay gratification for the promise of future gain, and the gain is counted not only in dollars but also in satisfaction.
But where dollars are the chief measure of value, costs become prohibitive. British author Melanie Phillips is dismayed about what's happened to the nursing profession in her country, especially after first-hand experience with the care of her aged mother. "Not only was she addressed discourteously, there was also precious little attempt to ease her acute discomfort [due to Parkinson's and MS] or attend to her basic needs. Despite the fact that she could barely move at all in her bed, she was not helped into more comfortable positions. Much worse, her food was left inaccessibly out of her reach." Only family intervention kept the woman from going hungry.
Phillips traces this shabby state of affairs to feminists of the 1980s, who claimed that some of the distinctive functions of nursing, such as keeping patients clean and fed, were demeaning to a profession dominated by women. Nursing became an academic rather than a practical subject, and nurses trained as administrators rather than caretakers. Though many British nurses still hold to the Florence Nightingale ideal that attracted them to the profession in the first place, the problem is worrisome enough that Dame Joan Bakewell, advocate for the elderly, has suggested "empathy training" as part of the curriculum.
But empathy and caring can't be factored into a pay scale. Michael J. Sandel, in an Atlantic article called "What Isn't For Sale?" worries that a market economy has morphed into a market society, in which people rent their foreheads for advertising and children are paid to study. He calls for a public discussion about the overreach of markets, but "public discussion" usually means government action. And that means even more money-a clunky, Rube Goldberg apparatus for robbing Peter to pay Paul.
John Bunyan beat him to the punch 350 years ago. Vanity Fair is not defeated by public policy-in fact, markets and politics are so entwined even Appolyon couldn't pry them apart. Men and women who rate themselves according to tax brackets and pay scales have missed the good news. The best thing in life really is free: "Come everyone who thirsts ... and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!" (Isaiah 55:1). And they themselves are priceless.