When I teach Benjamin Franklin’s
Autobiography to Christian students at Messiah College I am always amazed at how much they have bought into Franklin’s ideal of the self-made man. While there is much about Franklin’s commitment to hard work, civic virtue, and personal morality that is compatible with the Christian faith, it seems that his overall philosophy of life does not always stand up to the teachings of Jesus.
If Franklin and Jesus ever met, I wonder what they would talk about? I have wondered this so much that I have contemplated writing a book on the subject.
I was reminded of the way Christians think about Benjamin Franklin, the idea of the self-made man, and the so-called “American Dream” after reading Jay Case’s “Are You a Self-Made Man or Woman?” Writing from a Christian perspective, Case argues that there is no such thing as a “self made man or woman.” Speaking theologically, I would have to agree. Here is a taste:
We Americans sure like the idea. We have embraced it ever since Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography that explained how he accomplished everything through his own wits, hard work and moral character. And the idea is still alive and well today. A few years ago I noticed the following inspirational poster on the wall of a middle school: “Everything a person achieves and everything they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts.” There it is.
This idea is flawed because it is based on bad theology and bad theology does not reflect how the world really works. It is flawed because the “self-made man” completely discounts the idea that God might be at work amidst human activity.
What do you think? Is there such a thing as a self-made man or woman? Could you answer “no” to this question without appealing to theology?
Gabriel Loiacono says
I also just finished teaching Franklin's Autobiography in one class, while teaching Scott Sandage's Born Losers in another class. My Wisconsin students are not necessarily thinking in Christian terms, but they love Franklin's bootstraps persona and love the “go-ahead” spirit described in Born Losers, despite how much Sandage criticizes it. I think these are the ideas of how you make it in the world that we are taught from an early age.
Robert Gorinski says
Not long ago I read the book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers. He details how some of the biggest names that redefined the course of history happened to have the right interests and the right parents at the right location at the right time…