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Who Builds the Kingdom? And How?

Timothy Keller & Katherine Leary Alsdorf's Every Good Endeavor
Who Builds the Kingdom? And How?

This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor.
-Liner notes to A Love Supreme (John Coltrane, 1965)

In the last decade, a spate of good books, from both Christian and non-Christian authors, have appeared on the topic of work. Analyzing everything from calling to management to motivation, pastors, business people and theologians (and many of the authors more than one of these!) have given us theologies of work, practical insights, Biblical foundations, and business critiques that seem to have exhausted the topic, at least in general.

None of these books is better than Timothy Keller’s most recent book, Every Good Endeavor. Writing with his colleague at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Katherine Alsdorf, Keller brings his typically urbane and always fresh, clear style to a mass of material and masters it for the common reader. The book is, however, thoroughly researched (213 endnotes, many of them dialogical!), and admirably wears the mantle of a “readable, yet scholarly” attribution.

The authors leave unclear what the actual division of labor was between them on the book proper, giving us no insight into their process, but from comments throughout, it appears that Alsdorf was largely responsible for both the autobiographical forward, which is clearly attributed to her, and the epilogue, which is essentially about the core values and practices taught at Redeemer’s Center for Faith and Work of which she is the Executive Director. The rest of the book appears to originate with Keller.

After a superb introduction built around J.R.R. Tolkien’s story, “Leaf by Niggle”, Keller divides the book into three sections, each with four chapters. “God’s Plan for Work” lays out the essential thesis of the book: work, as originally designed by God, was to be a mysteriously co-operative venture between God and humankind, continuing the work God had done in creation and building toward a kingdom in which the entire creation can flourish. This first section stresses several basic ideas that form the bedrock of a Christian understanding of work: the dignity of all human endeavor, that our work should be seen in terms of the image of cultivating a garden, that service of God and fellow people is the most important motivation for work. Part One is a superb example of subtle Biblical theology made engaging and understandable for anyone.

Part Two, “Our Problems with Work”, goes over similarly well-known theological ground, depending (as does Part One) on the first chapters of Genesis for its exposition of the reasons work is hard. However, to say Keller depends on Genesis does not mean that he stays there. From a particularly impressive re-telling of the Esther story to a subtle analysis of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods (for which, he admits in a footnote, he is largely dependent on Luc Ferry’s Brief History of Thought), Keller beautifully balances the human concerns over meager productivity (continuing the garden metaphor, he calls this “fruitlessness”), difficulty, and selfishness, as they relate to work. In the final chapter of this Part, he frames the discussion by employing one of the most familiar themes from his other books—idol worship—to clarify how far we have come from the original intention God had for the world and for humanity’s place in it.

In Part Three, “The Gospel and Work”, the author gives us the most important insights of the book, not only because they describe where we are now and what we are to think and do in our contexts, but because his great gifts for generalization and comprehension are at their finest. This section is more than just an answer to the question, “OK, but what should we do?”; it is a brief but powerful cultural analysis of the whole of Christian living in the modern world. Touching on everything from the arts to social service to specific professions, Keller lays out a clear, Biblical path for seeing our work in the fallen world as continuous with work as God originally intended it because of Providence. God has never ceased being at work, and He has never changed His plan, regardless of the assault of sin upon it. (By the way, another important triumph of Part Two is the way Keller describes the centrality of sin to the problems we face without ever making the discussion seem “preachy” or overly narrow.) Because of the overarching presence of divine initiative, our work has hope, direction and power, and the book ends with a ringing note of optimism at what we can actually do in the world to participate in the building of the Kingdom of God.

One cannot praise this book too highly; I cannot think of a better book to give to anyone—scholar, pastor, layperson—to help them understand a Christian view of work. The work is not perfect, however, and I offer two criticisms, one minor and one a hope for later work. In the chapter “The Dignity of Work”, Keller intensely focuses on uniting our work to God’s in order to stress ideas like the goodness of the material world and the importance of humanity’s work in the universe—both needed emphases no doubt. Unfortunately, he never makes any distinction between our work of “creation” and God’s. The distinction between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom is clearly drawn in Genesis and in this book, but the distinction between God and us, perhaps even more important to a sound Biblical theology than the unity of God’s Providence and our work, is left unclarified. There is no mention, at least that I could find, of God’s creation ex nihilo or discussion of the question of human “creativity” versus “re-creativity” in our work. Clearly, Keller, as an orthodox Christian theologian, is no pantheist, but neither the close working of this chapter, nor the general statements in the rest of the book, makes that clear.

A second hope is that Keller, either in a revision of this work or in a future one, would elucidate more fully the problems of individuality and collectivity in viewing humankind and our work in the world. At points, he mentions the idea that we are all connected to one another, and that we are to think of ourselves not as separate individuals, but as part of a collective entity doing the work of the Kingdom. But the vast majority of advice, illustration and framework is done in individual terms in the book, and the relation of this material to “thinking corporately” is left undeveloped. This problem of the dual nature of humanity is one of the thorniest for Christians to unpack, especially in America where individuality reigns supreme. We need Keller’s wisdom and clarity to be devoted to this problem.

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