The Privilege of Thinking About Work: Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor

I come from a relatively small, sheltered, largely Christian community thick in the suburbs of southwest Ohio. It was a great place to grow up. It was safe and mostly friendly. Because of my community’s size and its religiosity, I was more or less peer pressured into faith. A solid majority of my school’s best students (the peer group with whom I most identified) were all Christian and it seemed a natural progression.

I practiced my faith rather dutifully (or so I thought) in high school, and when I got to college I decided I would fix all of the things that had kept me from truly experiencing God in high school so I immediately sought out and plugged into a community of believers. Things quickly turned sour. My campus was filled with new experiences, new people, new beliefs. And that was amazing.

On the other hand was my Christian community. While there were many upperclassmen whom I respected and loved, there also wasn’t anyone who was graduating and doing the things I wanted to do with my life. The community seemed to be set up to encourage those students who were interested in ministry-related careers, and I felt very little support for figuring out how to engage with my passions that weren’t so obviously related to the Church.

So I stepped away.

I didn’t think this community, and, by extension, Christianity could give me the kind of support I needed for the work I wanted to do.

A year and a half later, I started to tentatively reexamine my faith, this time without peer pressure. And I found this community where almost no one was considering ministry after graduation. And it was the best thing. (Although, it should be mentioned that there is nothing categorically wrong with communities that encourage ministry. They just aren’t for me!)

I tell this story because I just got done reading Timothy Keller’s most recent book Every Good Endeavor. The thesis of the book is that any profession and any type of work will be affected by following Christ. I wish I had this book three years ago.

The book is on point. It lays out a logical argument in which work is central to God’s creation (Adam and Eve worked in the Garden before the Fall, wouldn’t you know), in which all work is a form of worship to God, in which sin creates the many problems and pitfalls we experience in work, and in which God redeems our work even when it’s not perfect and even when we feel like we have fallen short.

Keller’s prose, as always, is suitably simplistic when in anecdote but approaches dullness when in abstraction. It’s okay, though, because his anecdotes are so good and so representative of his points that his abstractions often read as afterthoughts. The strongest moments in the book come when he can marry anecdote and abstraction.

For instance, he talks about the importance of the story of Esther–how she has the privilege of being “in the Palace” and that being in the Palace itself is no sin, but failing to use that position to help others is. This helped me conceptualize, in a Christian perspective, how I should be thinking about my own privilege, how I should confront it, and what I can do maximize its usefulness.

Keller talks a lot about the importance of serving others through work. Sometimes, however, I got the feeling that this talk was undermined by catering to a specific middle to upper class ethos. Sure, Keller mentions jobs like doorman or janitor but only to say that if you are employed in these jobs you should give them everything you have, just like in any other job. He largely misses realities of poverty in several important places.

He mentions Hurricane Katrina at one point, and says that the need to lay blame–on the builders of the sea wall or the federal government–is not a gospel need. But placing the blame on the sea wall is more important than trying to explain away an unexplainable thing. A lot of the tragedy of Katrina could have been avoided. It wasn’t avoided because large portions of the levee were incomplete, specifically those in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest sections of the city. That is a systemic problem. It’s not a “oh Bobby made a mistake, we’ll fix it next time” mistake. It is important to talk about blame in this instance because it is related to justice and to ensuring everyone in the city has the same sense of security. That seems gospel related to me.

Later on in the book, Keller gives a brief history of philosophy, arguing that Christianity was responsible for the philosophical shift in personhood in which all people are important and equal. While that may be true in some very abstract and esoteric sense, it is historically misleading. Most of the Christian philosophers we read as part of modernism were extremely bigoted individuals. And these Christian philosophers were often (and are still often) used to justify inequality like slavery, the Holocaust, and other horrible atrocities. To gloss over this history and claim all of the good parts of human rights development over the past several centuries is dishonest.

There’s also this problematic passage near the end of the book:

Christians, you see, have been set free to enjoy working. If we begin to work as if we were serving the Lord, we will be freed from both overwork and underwork. Neither the prospect of money and acclaim, nor the lack of it, will be our controlling consideration. Work will be primarily a way to please God by doing his work in the world, for his name’s sake. (215)

This is a great sentiment, but it seems to make light of poverty, suggesting that people living in poverty are committing the same sin that people who live in opulence do–that is, approaching work for money. Which is a shame because there is an obvious difference between a single parent working three jobs to provide shelter and food for three kids and a CEO who wants a new yacht.

I got a lot out of this book. I learned a lot and it gave me a much broader idea of what it means to work for the kingdom of God, but I worry it hits maximum relevancy for people from the suburbs of southwest Ohio or the sky-rises of New York City.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “The Privilege of Thinking About Work: Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor

  1. Thanks for this review! I’ve been wanting to read more Keller, and I’ll probably pick this one up this summer. The only thing I’ll note is that since Keller pastors in the Upper East Side NYC, his ministry is most definitely geared to upper middle and upper class folk, and I think his books typically reflect this. That may be problematic, depending on your perspective, but I think he has an intentionally limited audience in mind. I noticed that in Counterfeit Gods as well– a lot of emphasis on money as an idol and anecdotes about Wall Street execs and CEO’s. Glad the book was encouraging. I do think many Christian communities could do a better job creating a culture with right theology of work and equal respect for those going into the workplace as well as those going into vocational ministry!

    • I don’t mind books having limited audiences. I think I just wish Keller would be more explicit about mentioning the limits of his teaching. I have mad respect for him, though, and think he’s an incredibly smart dude.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s