The biblical account of creation says that God gave Adam and Eve the work of subduing the Earth before the Fall. This is strongly in contrast to the Greek version, where the gods and humans lived in a golden age without work, and in contrast with the ideal of many today, where we work hard so that ideally we can retire early and recreate longer. The Greeks viewed work as a curse; the Bible views work as fundamental to who we are. In fact, work is one of the few things we can do for significant amount of time without hurting ourselves—God instructs us to work six days and rest one, not the other way around.
In the Greek view, work is a curse; the gods, being pure minds, need not work. We must work, and are like the animals, who must also work to find their food. Greeks even articulated that the working class was lesser beings, as they were by nature unable to think, which is what higher beings do. In the Mesopotamian and Egyptian view, the ruler at the apex of society was created in the image of the gods; work is what the lower classes and slaves do. In the biblical view, we are all made in God’s image and we are all designed for royalty. True royalty works: God worked to create the world, and gave the work of finishing it to us, and when he came to us as Jesus, he came as a working man, a carpenter.
Over the years, the church has absorbed Greek and pagan thinking in two important areas. First, the Catholic church saw itself as the limit of the kingdom of God. Second, it absorbed the sacred / secular divide. Thus, church work is “sacred,” “spiritual,” and doing the work of building God’s kingdom, and therefore better; obviously, non-church work is what the less “spiritual” or the people who have not been “called” do, so it is lesser. In the modern American church, work is often seen as means to spiritual ends: we work so that we have opportunities to share the gospel, or to provide for ourselves so that we can volunteer at church, or our work is serving the community in some fashion.
The biblical role of work is to subdue the Earth, fill it, and to rule over it. Subduing the Earth is to exert will over it, just as God did at creation. We are to be like God and create, to form something amazing out of the chaos. This takes work. Filling the earth is not just procreating, but creating culture. Lester DeKoster observes that “the difference between [a wilderness] and culture is simply, work.” Without the work of others, we would need to do everything ourselves, leading to mostly a subsistence-type living. Finally, ruling over the earth is not like the non-Christian ruler, who imposes his will on the ruled. Instead, biblical ruling as more like cultivating: our rule should bring out the potential of that which we rule over.
Our calling to work is a calling to create culture from wilderness, order from chaos, to fill what is empty, to cultivate what exists. Our work is essentially outward focused. Our work is for the common good. Martin Luther says that the work of others is how God intends to meet most of our needs. Keller goes so far to say that a lot of God’s Common Grace is the work of others, including non-Christians. Non-Christians are still made in the image of God, and often do excellent work according to God’s design, which Christians should appreciate and celebrate.
Although work itself is not a curse, Keller observers that Genesis does say that work has been cursed by sin. As a result, our work of culture-building and service to each other becomes difficult and unproductive. Thorns and weeds infest our agricultural fields, and malevalent politics (“social weeds”) infest our social structures in culture and organizations, and forces beyond our control seem to conspire to prevent our vision from being realized. We have tended to respond to the difficulty of work in two ways. The WW II generation saw work simply as simply a job. The Millenial generation tends to see work something that ought to fulfill us and change the world. The former undervalues work, the latter under-estimates the effects of sin.
Keller observes that in New York City your work is your identity. If you have the resources to do so, you choose work that enhances your image. There are several problems with this. One is, obviously, that not everyone’s talents and interests align with a high-status career. A more deeper problem is that identity comes from who God made us to be, not what we try to make ourselves into. Not only will seeking to make a name, reputation, or “legacy” for ourselves fail, but it is the very thing that the builders of the Tower of Babel were doing (making a name [= identity] for themselves). This making our own identity may even be responsible for the depressing depersonalization of many jobs, which is part of what makes work feel meaningless. Instead, Keller recommends that we find work that fits our gifts and abilities, creates something useful to others, and increases the capacity of people to build culture.
Work is also influenced by our personal and cultural idols. If we value comfort too highly, we may not work hard enough to have a meaningful career. If we value money or success too highly, we may work too hard and neglect other areas of our life, or we may be try to control others to get what we want. We can tell what our idol is: it is the thing we absolutely must have. If we do not get it, we may get angry or despairing.
Our cultural narrative, also known as worldview, affects how we see work. This narrative describes what life should be like, why it is not that way, and what the solution is. Keller lists a number of such narratives. Plato saw the ideal life as pure mind; the problem is that the physical body messes things up. (Keller does not list Plato’s solution) Marx saw the problem as greedy capitalists and the solution as a totalitarian state. Modernity saw the problem as the old authorities (tradition, elders, and religion) and the solution Reason, Science, and Personal Freedom. One effect of this was that corporations tried to make machines out of people because they are guided by Science and Analysis. Another effect was that personal freedom became paramount. Postmodernism has rejected this narrative. As Neitzsche said, if we are the results of unreasoning evolution, there is no grounds for any particular morality. Thus, anything that is legal is fine. It should lead to pushing the limits. If the only goal of corporations is to make money, then dehumanization, corruption, pollution, etc. is to be expected.
The Christian perspective of work is that work is given to us by God. Work is how we fill the earth with culture, and the work of others is one way God provides for our needs. Thus work is not self-fulfilment, but others-focused. The essence of righteousness in the Bible is that you are willing to seek the community’s welfare, even if it comes at the expense of yourself. This is most completely illustated in Jesus, who, despite being God, was punished for our sins so that we can be reconciled to him. Wickedness is the opposite: benefiting yourself at the expense of the community. This gives a foundation for morality in work. It also gives a foundation for what work looks like. Jesus’ work was sacrificial, but also creative and restorative, as he restored the relationship with him that we gave up at the Fall.
This book has probably been the hardest to summarize and review. The book is so tighty packed, and full of such great thoughts that even taking notes took at least as much time as reading the book in the first place. Even summarizing the notes is difficult for the same reason. On the one hand, Keller is very thorough. He gives many historical perspectives on work, worldviews, idolatry, current trends, and cultural critiques. He makes and quotes many incisive observations about human nature and modern American culture. He gives a very detailed description of what is wrong with work today and what it should look like, sprinkled with real-life illustrations of how people are living out the Christian worldview in their work.
However, I feel like one of the reasons this book is hard to summarize is that the ideas are organized well. Keller does not seem to stick to one set of ideas per chapter. He is constantly introducing the Christian perspective of work, but then has three chapters on the Christian perspective of work, and then talks about the problem is some of them, despite three chapters dedicated to that discussion.
I think Keller is also hampered by his Neo-Reformed ideology, which calls for preaching the gospel every day. Hence, his book must preach the gospel. In fact, I get the feeling that perhaps each chapter is supposed to preach the gospel. Fortunately, “the gospel” for Keller is much larger than “Jesus died for our sins, believe in him and accept his sacrifice and you will be saved.” His gospel seems to be that Jesus died so that we are reconciled to God (saved) and through the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to participate in the orginal design that God has for people (and, specifically, work). The down side is that sometimes he chooses an organization that does not fit the material very well.
Nonetheless, this is a seminal book on the Christian perspective of work, very well researched, and very thoroughly presented. Keller puts the various perspectives on modern thought in perspective with historical thought, presents a concrete and exciting vision of what work is designed to be, and a number of illustrations from people he knows who are living out this vision. I definitely recommend this book for anyone working, particularly who are frustrated with their work.