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.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

Last week, controversial Christian thinker Rob Bell released his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Remarkably tame compared to his best-selling Love Wins, the book is perhaps less interesting than Bell himself. Bell has been in headlines recently more for his affirmative support for same-sex marriage than the release of his book. Nevertheless, the book represents an important idea. It is an articulation of the emergent church to both the wider Christian community and the general public. In Christian circles, the emergent church has been struggling against more fundamentalist and evangelical communities for popularity, but this struggle has been one mostly limited to theologians and church leaders. WWTAWWTAG will probably be the first book many people read with emergent church ideas.

Like most of Bell’s writing, WWTAWWTAG is more question-asking than question-answering. The content is never dense, which is generally good, but sometimes Bell fails to make the connections that would link his ideas together. He relies on a structure throughout the book where he tells a story and then jumps into the idea he wants to articulate. Often, though, it is not entirely clear how the story is related to the idea. And sometimes, it feels like we could learn more from his stories and personal experiences than we can from his existential graspings. For instance, he tells about an Easter Sunday when he was doubting the existence of God but had to deliver an Easter service to thousands of people, and he ends talking about that experience by saying:

That Easter was fairly traumatic, to say the least, because I realized that without some serious reflection and study and wise counsel I couldn’t keep going without losing something vital to my sanity. The only way forward was to plunge headfirst into my doubts and swim all the way to the bottom and find out just how deep that pool went. And if I had to, in the end, walk away in good conscience, then so be it. At least I’d have my integrity.

The metaphor is beautiful, but I want to know what he did. How does a pastor who hardly believes in God deliver an Easter sermon? That’s interesting.

Despite these sorts of shortcomings, the book manages to land on some really important ideas. For instance, Bell is convinced that God is constantly drawing people forward. He confronts the idea that Christianity is backwards-looking, trying to achieve a forgotten Golden Age. Troubling passages from Exodus or Deuteronomy, he says, should not be read as a tribal, ruthless God speaking to ruthless tribes. Instead, the immeasurably awesome God is providing these tribes things they can actually do that are just a little bit more just and more orderly than what other tribes do. So Bell makes us consider historical context, but then he also challenges us to consider that we are not as different from the tribe of Israel as we might think. It is here where Bell is at his finest–when he is applying concepts like context and historical criticism and subjectivity to transcend and actually make our view of God bigger rather than smaller.

The first major argument in the book is that God meets us where we are and then pulls us into the next stage of godliness. God is always a little bit ahead of us, reaching out his hands to carry us to the next place. 

Bell, then, makes faith scary again. Because if God is always a little ahead of us, it’s a little hard to think about how we should think about modern issues–like same-sex marriage, for instance. Same-sex marriage is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, of course. Same-sex sexual relationships are condemned, even in the New Testament. But same-sex marriage is generally seen as a progressive, forward-thinking issue. And if it’s forward-thinking and God is always ahead of us, then He must be there also. But then is faith contingent on popular opinion? Are we supposed to believe Bell just because he says he is forward-thinking? Can we imagine a Christian leader who seems genuinely committed to progressivism but is against same-sex marriage or other progressive issues that are generally seen as in conflict with Christianity?

The second major argument in the book is that there is no distinction between the holy and the unholy or the sacred and the base.

And that the story of Christianity is about drawing us into understanding how everything is sacred. When Bell talks about this idea, it’s beautiful. And convincing. But it raises many questions. Like, is sin sacred? But there is this sense that if we were able to recognize everything that God has a hand in as sacred–our bodies, other people’s bodies, our minds, other people’s minds, the earth, resources, children, the elderly, married people, single people, Christians, non-Christians, priests, laymen, animals, and outer space–it would be next to impossible to sin.

I don’t think Bell is done with the world. I expect he will continue to be an important leader and will continue to turn people towards Christ. But I also think things are going to get worse in the Church before they get better. The more we hurl the insult of heretic on Bell, the more divisive things become and the more the Church backs itself into a corner.

Postmodernism tells us that everyone, in a certain sense, constructs God in his/her image. So Bell might be creating an overly-liberal God. But then what does that say about conservative Christianity?

Why Not?

I.
“Why?” she asks.

Her name is Emily. I met her five minutes ago. Her first question was “Do you like to dance or do you love to dance?” That turned into “Do you love to dance or are you in love with dance?” That turned into “If you are in love with dance, would you marry it?”

Now we are talking about my future. I tell her I’m going to be a teacher. And now we are here.

“Why?” she asks.

I mumble something about TFA offering me a placement. She seems content with this. Our conversation continues. When it threatens to die:

“Why?” she asks.

I appreciate what she’s doing. It makes a more interesting conversation than the typical party fare.

II.
In three months, I will graduate from college (Lord willing that I finish my thesis first). I enter the shortest commitment I’ve ever made with my time. Two years teaching. Many of my peers will have shorter commitments than that if at all. It’s weird.

I want to plan the rest of my life right now. I want to lay down a plan. I want to have an end goal and I want to plot the path that will lead me there. I want to figure out exactly who I am. Who is the “real” Spencer? What does he like? What does he do?

III.
In high school, I had a girlfriend, I played golf, and I was a practicing Christian. These things took up most parts of my identity. But I also did stupid stuff. I spent too much time on the computer, too much time watching television, too much time playing video games, too much time thinking life was hard.

When I went to Bible studies, though, we would talk about giving our lives over to God. But we hardly ever talked about television, video games, or the computer. Instead, the leader would turn to me and say “Spencer, what if God made you give up your girlfriend or golf?”

The conversation has evolved since then. No one puts it into quite those terms. We still talk primarily about the same thing, though. When we talk about wisdom, for instance, we correctly note the difference between wisdom and academic knowledge, but then we draw the wrong-headed conclusion that some academic knowledge, because it is not wisdom, is useless.

IV.
I want my life to have meaning. I try to achieve that through faith. If there are bigger ideas tugging at my soul like justice and peace and love, then it is easier to forget about the things that don’t matter. The problem is that, as a human, I must slog through the “thing that don’t matter.” I cannot instantly achieve justice, peace, or love. I must work at these things. I must chip away at the stones in my eyes that keep me from seeing them.

But what I hate about my faith is that it falls prey to the same things that the world falls prey to–namely, prescribed narratives. There are things in the Church that we assign importance to with no real explanation–mission trips, having a family, leading a ministry. We put up with the minutiae of our day-jobs and educations in order to be a part of these things. But these things, in and of themselves are not meaningful. Mission trips can sometimes do more harm than good. Families fail when members think their purpose on this earth is that family. The Westboro Baptist Church is a ministry. We lose justice, peace, and love for the American Dream. Or for the Christian sell-everything-you-have-and-walk-barefoot-around-the-world Dream.

V.
I believe that God has an intimate relationship with me. I believe He is talking to me even when I’m not listening. And it is for this belief, that sometimes, I gain enough courage to trust.

VI.
Emily walks away. I’m glad. She is fun, but the question “why” is beginning to become annoying.

I begin to walk around the party more freely, not afraid to talk to groups of people I only marginally know. When the iPod stops playing, I know that I want to turn on music that I want to listen to. Informed by both my own tastes and those of the people at the party, I turn on Aaron’s Party.

Emily, who has left the room by now, comes back to dance. This time she does not ask why.

Reflection on a Pack of Gum

If you steal a pack of gum from a supermarket, who are you stealing that gum from?

Is it the supermarket? Is it the gum company? Is it the packaging company? Is it the farmers who harvested the sugar for the gum?

I don’t know. I don’t know that it matters.

A lot of people point to the Ten Commandments as if they are easy to understand, but even the easy ones are difficult to understand.

Do not steal.

That seems pretty easy, but when the Israelites received that commandment, there wasn’t a real monetary system. When an Israelite stole something from his neighbor, he was stealing something that his neighbor needed to survive – food, cattle, tools. In America, that very rarely holds true.

When a gang member peddles stolen cars, who is he hurting? He is the victim. His community is the victim. The person he sells the car to is the victim, not Ford or Hyundai or Honda.

Stealing now is not a sign of criminality, a sign of immorality, a sign of godlessness. It is a sign of a broken system. It’s a symptom. We need more curative treatments and less band-aids.

Selfishness is Boring

From time to time, I get tired of writing.

I think I stopped writing in February because I got it in my mind that I was going to write a book, but I never found time to write a book and so for a month I just haven’t written.

I was going to write a book about all of the horrible things I do because I thought that if someone wrote a book like that, it could change the world. (I was on an honesty kick. It was inspired by some of my friends’ kicks which include but are not limited to: sincerity, innocence, desire, rationality. All of my friends have kicks.)

I have a friend who believes that we are all selfish. For a long time, I resisted that. I thought that was a tragic idea.

I’m pretty sure she is right, though. And I don’t know that it’s all that tragic anymore. Most of the time, being selfish helps me make decisions. When deciding what I want to have for dinner, for instance, it is easier to simply consider my own desires rather than how my business going to a certain establishment is going to affect their monthly profits. But when I interact with other people on a personal level, that’s when selfishness starts to be a problem. Unfortunately for me, interacting with people is approximately 99% of life.

I hate it when people play favorites. But I play favorites, too. I hate when I can see how funding is affecting an organization, but if I ran an organization and another organization gave me money, I have to say that I would act favorably towards my funders.

Selfishness is not really that big of a deal. People wanting power is not something that is worth talking about. The real issue is when we let the conversations about selfishness and power and greed consume us – when we spend all day pointing fingers at other people.

Jesus once said:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Luke 6:42)

A lot of people think this means that after we judge ourselves, that we can judge other people. Some people think this means that there is such a thing as moral high ground.

There isn’t. We all always have the plank in our eye. That’s the issue.

I think real change comes when people stop talking about selfishness and power and greed and start talking about how we can love people where they are. I know that sounds hokey, but I don’t know how else to say it.

In Response to “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”

A couple of weeks ago, this guy named Jefferson Bethke posted a video to his Youtube channel called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” It opened a firestorm. Bethke had previously gone viral with a spoken word piece called “Sexual Healing” advocating abstinence. A good looking 20-something guy pushing abstinence? The social media world swooned.

But then his follow-up came in the “Why I Hate…” video. Initially, it was just as popular, but then people began to challenge it. There was backlash. Why was Bethke so mad at the church? The church did wonderful things. Atheists got in on the madness. If Christ came to abolish religion, then what exactly do you call Christianity? It was a very complicated thing.

Typically, I don’t like writing about controversial things unless I feel like I can be very honest and open about it. But a friend of mine asked for a post about it, and I thought it might be good to do so. So, before we go any further, let’s take a moment to watch the video.

I only have two things to say about this video.

This video is poetry, not philosophic theology. Poetry and prose serve different purposes. Poetry is about emotion. Its words are meant to incite, to make the audience happy or sad or in love. And in doing so, poetry takes all of these seemingly non-truths and illuminates a truth that is normally difficult to articulate. In this case, the truth is that sometimes people forget that Jesus and His love are at the center of Christian spirituality, not religiosity or the church. That’s true. And people need to be aware of that truth. Sometimes Catholics and Baptists and Methodists and the Orthodox fight over who is right and who is doing the best job of showing God’s love. And the answer, when they are arguing, is none of them. God’s love is about peace and grace and about people working together and loving each other. That’s what this video is (mostly) about.

It was not meant to be a philosophic treatise. It was not meant to be an argument to be picked apart by theologians and atheists. Typically, things that rhyme or have rhythm aren’t supposed to be full arguments. Rhyme and rhythm limit the number of words you have to work with. Why would anyone trying to make a full-proof argument use these techniques?

It’s easy to criticize something. It’s much harder to support something. Yeah, the Church is imperfect and God is perfect, but that’s not really an original thought. The Church is made up of people. And people need God. But that doesn’t mean we should destroy the Church. The Church is important. God loves it. He talks about it a lot.

There are a lot of people who are fed up with the Church who call for the dissolution of it, and quite honestly, that’s annoying. Because what then? Who would organize community service on a large scale? Who would raise large sums of money for third-world countries to get clean water? Who would provide stable after-school groups for a large portion of our nation’s youth? People come together and organize because sometimes it is easier for them to do so. I think sometimes we forget that. We wrongly think that if everyone just left us alone, we would be happier. I don’t think that’s true, and the Church is one of those organizations that keeps us as part of a community.

I would love to start listening to people and reading writers who worked on making the Church better. How can we work within systems to make them better? I think that’s where the most radical change comes. How would the Civil Rights Movement have been different if African Americans had all emigrated to Libya?

Both sides are right. The critics and the supporters are both correct. This video is both true and mistakenly inflammatory.

Friday Favorite: Writing to God

Every Friday, I post a Friday Favorite. These are my most popular past posts. I share them because I like them, you like them, and perhaps you haven’t had the time to read all my past posts. Enjoy and feel free to comment!

I think I started to get semi-serious about writing right around the time that I started to get semi-serious about girls. If you’ve ever gotten semi-serious about girls, you know it’s a complicated matter. It motivates you to do things like dress better, play sports, and pretend that you have to shave. The problem with getting semi-serious about girls, though, is that you very rarely finish anything. You write a little bit, then cry a little bit, write a little bit more, talk to a girl, cry some more, write, sleep, dream about girls, pretend to shave…. and nothing ever gets done. And it’s just a hassle.

I tell you all of this because what I really want to say is that I started to get semi-serious about writing because I wanted people to like me. I thought if I wrote my moody pre-teenage feelings poetically enough on my Xanga people would say “Ooh, he’s moody and poetic” and then they would immediately associate me with other moody and poetic people like Johnny Depp and John Mayer.

Moody and Poetic Teenage Writing

Some moody and poetic teenage writing.

Over the years, writing and I have had a bit of a rocky relationship. He helped me get a girlfriend in high school. And then I didn’t talk to him for a while. But then he selflessly got me into college, and I started hanging out with him again. Then he made me into a hipster, and I couldn’t forgive him for a while. The thing is, though, that I’ve never really been fair to writing. I’ve been using him for ulterior motives even before I knew what that word meant.

One night, when writing and I were on the outs, I went on a run because I was feeling kind of alone, and when you are feeling alone and you and writing are on the outs, there isn’t much else to do but to run. And while I was running, I was kind of talking to God because God is easy to talk to when there aren’t people around and the night is dark and you are in a golf course. While I was running and being with God, I realized that writing should be a little bit like talking to God. When you talk to God, it’s kind of hard to be selfish. Being selfish with God is a bit like meeting the president and asking him why they served cold food at your school that morning. It’s just not something you do. Instead, when you are talking to God, you start to realize all of the things you care about and all the people you care about. That’s a really beautiful thing, and it dawned on me that night while running and talking to God, that writing should be beautiful in that way.

So I’m making a commitment. Writing should be like talking to God.

The title of this site is “Spencer Writes,” but it’s only that because it’s cute and catchy. What I really want it to say is “Spencer Writes About People He Loves” because there really isn’t anything else worth writing about.