The Gospel Coalition

 

Work Matters

Tom Nelson | Review by: Michael J. Thate



Tom Nelson. Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday WorkWheaton: Crossway, 2011. 224 pp. $15.99.

Ever since Cornel West’s influential study Race Matters almost 20 years ago, a litany of titled imitations have appeared across a range of subjects as diverse as sports, culture, hip hop, health, narrative, taste, and now work. The eloquent playfulness of the double entendre is in its communication of, as West says, “what race matters have meant to the American past and how much race matters in the American present.” In West’s view, neglecting to keep both of these matters together results in a truncation of responsible discourse on the thorny issue of race. Race matters together with race matters, therefore, proves a useful bilateral framework and language to understand the “multilayered crisis” of race.

Though pastor Tom Nelson never refers to the discussion of Cornel West, the allusion to the book’s title is revealing both at the level of his constructive project and in valuations of the volume. Work is a complex phenomenon, and, as West suggested with issues of race, if we neglect to keep both of these matters in view we are left with a truncated understanding of work. In what follows, then, we will proceed by first summarizing Nelson’s volume and then proceed to offer a critique of this insightful book through West’s bilateral framework. 

Work Matters

This is where the stress of Nelson’s emphasis rests: viz., that work matters. Nelson believes that “how we view our work and how we do our work matters a great deal more than we might imagine” (p.14). The work we do “shapes us and the world around us,” and our work should contribute positively “to the common good” (p.14). Notions of the common good are a recurrent theme as Nelson, deeply influenced by James Davison Hunter, sets vocation within a wider set of questions coordinated by what it means to be “a faithful presence in our workplace?” (p.17). More importantly, for Nelson, understanding the whole-world implications and effects of the gospel demonstrates the Christian life to be marked by a “seamless faith” that faithfully integrates faith and work (p.15). These two complementary themes—that of a seamless faith faithfully present at work—are traced through ten chapters.

Chapter one, “Created to Work,” heads Nelson’s reflections on work by arguing, predictably, that “we have been designed not only to rest and play but also to work” (p.20). Nelson, however, is convinced that we “need to rethink how we think about our work” (p.29), as work must be viewed “within a theological framework” (p.24). Nelson anchors this line of thought via a reading of Genesis, seeing a dual focus of the creational account. First, “humans are designed by God to exercise proper dominion over creation, which is a divinely delegated stewardship role”; and, second, “humans are designed by God to be his image-bearers, to uniquely reflect who God is to his good world” (p.21). As such, a “slothful Christian is a contradiction in terms” (p. 23) as the call of Christ compels us to “contribute to God’s good world” (p.24). Intriguingly, Nelson sees an “incompleteness” to God’s creation and hence a need for “our specific human contribution to God’s ongoing creation and to the common good” (p.24). There is thus a vertical and horizontal dimension to work that encompasses a “seamless way of living”: an “integral fabric of Christian vocation” (p.27). 

Because the workplace and work itself within our current inhabitation “are not as God designed them to be” (p.30) there are vocational stresses and strife. Work, however, “is not a result of the fall”—though it “was profoundly impacted” by it (p.37). This is the aim of chapter two, “Is Work a Four-Letter Word?”: viz., to highlight the “new dimension” of work introduced by the curse where as a result “the very nature and context of human work has fundamentally changed” (p.38). I thought this was one of the more salient observations in the book. The challenge to any strong theology of vocation is the ugly realities of systemic and structural corruption (p.40). Nelson thus warns against the delusions of the so-called “perfect job” as such a scenario “is not only unrealistic, it is theologically untenable” (p.47). Though we will return to these observations in the next section, the realities of our vocational participation within an environment of corruption proves an added complexity to what it means to think theologically about work. 

Chapter three, “The Good News of Work,” returns to the opening chapter’s themes of seeing work as co-participation within the ongoing creative activity of God. “Creation is not just something God did long ago in bringing the world into existence; God is still at work creating through the transforming power of the gospel” (p.54). Nelson quotes the line from Woody Allen that 90 percent of life is “simply showing up” in suggesting that faithful engagement with the world “means we must be fully present within it” (p.59). The good news (gospel!) of work is itself an ambiguity that reflects the missional clarity brought by faithful presence: work itself is a grace while at the same time it caries the potential to communicate grace. Chapter four, “Work Now and Later,” places the complexities of the goodness of work and its frustrations within an already/not-yet eschatological matrix. As such, there is a “future work” that is “radically healed” (p.73) and in turn informs and guides our “present work.” Our work is therefore not a waste (p.77), but a redemptive act amidst a wasteland of briars and thorns.

Chapter five, “Extraordinary Ordinary Work,” introduces a (very) general sketch of a theology of vocation within church history (pp.86–87). Rightly there is focus on Luther’s developed theology of vocation, which serves to stress how “ordinary day-to-day work life is designed by God to be extraordinary” (p.91). Though the endless hours and days of “ordinary” can tempt us toward feeling our work to be merely perfunctory and meaningless, it is in the ordinary where we both find and enact the extraordinary. As Paul Tillich said, "every work day is a day of the Lord.” Tied in again to Nelson’s reflections here is the concept of faithful presence. We are created for good works (Eph 2:8–10). Luther said that it is not God but our neighbor who needs our work. “One of the primary ways we tangibly love our neighbors is to do excellent, God-honoring work in our various vocations” (p.92). The main goal of work, for Nelson, “is worship through a lifestyle of God-honoring vocational faithfulness” (p.93). The Spirit empowers us to influence workplace culture positively while promoting “human flourishing, synergistic teamwork, and the common good” (p.94).

Chapter six, “The Transforming Power of Work,” insists that “work is not an obstacle to [. . .] spiritual growth, but rather a conduit for it” (p.122). And chapter seven, “Work and the Common Good,” furthers Nelson’s reading of Luther’s understanding of vocation as “deeply embedded in our calling as workers to promote the well-being of others and our world” (p.125). Luther’s theology of vocation is largely centered around his understanding of faith and works, with works being that with which we demonstrate our love for neighbor (cf. 1 Thess 5:15). Nelson is shrewd enough to realize that the workplace can be an environment of ill treatment and abuse of power (e.g., p.134), and rightly stresses that “turning the other cheek” in such environments does not prohibit seeking “appropriate grievance processes and legal procedures when we have been unfairly taken advantage of” (p.135). The legal system appears to be a key cog in Nelson’s understanding of the work-machine as he even suggests, somewhat surprisingly, that part of what it means to work for the common good is to respect and enforce immigration laws (see, e.g., pp.137 and 167). Surely Nelson has in the back of his mind a reading of Romans 13:1–7, but a comment like this warrants a bit more elaboration than a simple sentence on such a complicated and contested subject. 

Chapter eight, “Gifted to Work,” offers an intriguing reading of the Spirit’s gifts. Nelson widens the purview of the Spirit’s “filling” to include “the supernatural empowerment mediated in and through our vocational callings” (p.148). Nelson backs off idealistic scenarios, however, in stating plainly that at times “broader economic realities and our own personal financial situation dictate the work we do” (p.157). Nelson also helpfully reflects upon the realities of unemployment in chapter nine, “Facing Challenges in Our Work,” (see pp. 177–78). Nevertheless, he is anxious to stress “a life of internal coherence and wholeness” (p.165). Chapter ten, “The Church at Work,” concludes by urging a refocusing of “our gospel mission through a vocational lens” (p.193).

Work Matters

So far we have attempted to summarize the overarching emphasis of Tom Nelson’s Work Matters, which is that work and our view of it matters! In what follows I would like to offer some critical reflections by way of thinking through work matters; that is, the complicated set of issues that relate to any discussion of vocation. Before offering these critical reflections, however, I should say a word or two about Nelson’s context. He is the senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Leawood, Kansas. He is an excellent pastor and developer of young leaders in a rather affluent community. In this sense, the book reflects his regional concerns. The very fact that he (and most of us as well) can pause and reflect on matters of vocation reveals a position of tremendous privilege. Ministering in an affluent community, therefore, brings with it a different set of ministerial emphases—or, better, differing applications of the same gospel-centered ministry. Nelson’s walking his congregation through matters of vocation and thinking about work and mission is therefore not only laudable and exemplary but also potentially highly effective as the people in his parish tend to be responsible for significant workforce numbers. Despite these glowing commendations, however, I do think there are some significant challenges we should pose to Nelson's volume—if for nothing else than to foster productive thinking and talking about this complex issue. The following critical reflections are therefore voiced in the manner of respectful dialogue, which I hope will further Nelson's discussion of this important topic.

First, though the notion of a “faithful presence” at work is certainly a worthwhile idea, it does carry the potential of overly simplistic valuations of environmental realities within the workplace and a capitalistic system. For (a random) example, in 2003, John Piper wrote an interesting article, “Don’t Play the Lottery for Me,” where he criticized West Virginia pastors who accepted Jack Whittaker’s $170 million Powerball tithe. Though the article is not necessarily “wrong,” it strikes me as a bit simplistic. Economies are complex phenomena, and gained profits are not readily sorted into neat categories of “good” or “bad,” “licit” or “illicit.” Asking what it means to be “faithfully present” in the workplace, then, becomes a bit more complicated. The exciting potential of Nelson’s proposal, however, is that though it might be a bit simplistic in its initial formulation, it allows for complexity to be discovered and stewarded within the community of those who are holy and trying to figure out what it means to be holy within the current corrupted system (cf. 1 Cor 1:2). Perhaps, then, we should add another modifier before “presence”: viz., “critical”; a critical, faithful presence. 

Second, any theology of vocation assumes a host of other co-implicated issues: work ethical directives, theories of the meaning of work, social ethical commitments, theories of human nature, the ethical belief system of Christians, and so on. Nelson is surely correct to stress for us that work matters. But there are a host of work matters that remain to be considered in any discussion of vocation. There is a growing trend in businesses that takes stock of religion and spirituality in the workplace and how they can be nurtured and properly relegated to enhance productivity as well as employee morale. Moreover, the marketplace, as viewed as “a region of the human spirit,” has proved an interesting sphere to “think with” along theological lines. It would be churlish to criticize Work Matters for neglecting to discuss all of the co-implicated issues relating to a robust theology of vocation. Nelson realizes many of them, I am sure. Nevertheless, in thinking critically about what it means to be a “person of vocation” (Max Weber’s Berufsmensch), such issues should be considered as part of a theology of vocation otherwise we are implicating ourselves in a host of discriminatory and marginalizing silences. 

Third, and related to the previous two points, is what we might call the subversive quality of a healthy theology of vocation. This is actually near the core of Luther’s theology of work. For Luther, grace is not relegated to the priest and his conferring. Grace is evident in all of creation. It is this democratization of grace in its refusal to be brokered by any other agent but the Spirit that gives it a political and subversive edge. Here, I fear, I must take issue with Nelson's statements regarding immigration issues. It seems to be the case that Nelson sees that simply because the state considers this or that resident “legal” or “illegal” that we should as well (again, see pp. 137, 167). But this neglects the legacy of a righteous view of vocation that takes into consideration the busted and corrupted systems that overstep their bounds when weighing in on valuations of human dignity and worth ranging from matters of child labor laws, minimum wage, work day caps, equality of races and sexes, and retirement age. The history of labor law is marked by the courage of those who demand righteousness by acts and expectations then considered “illegal.” There are a host of complications wrapped up in this line of thought, but part of what it means to be a critical, faithful presence within the workplace should have an element of the subversive and an awareness of power dynamics. This is not to say that a blind eye should be given to “illegal” immigrants; but it surely stresses that we should treat the fictive modifier with the suspicion it deserves. In the case of Colossians 4:1, for example, in order for masters to treat their “slaves” justly and fairly they are no longer to treat or consider them as slaves! Though there are a set of dynamics in any relationship that introduce at least functional hierarchies, the transformative potential inherent in Colossians 4:1 is in the transformation of the metaphor from our “Master in heaven” to “our Father in heaven.” The fictive constructions of societal dynamics are all relativized by the new set and logic of relationships created in Christ’s new creation. 

Finally, a word should be said about Nelson's repeated resorting to “common good” theory. There has resulted from varying forms of globalization a radical enclosure of the shared commons as everyone from everywhere are always already in contact. In a sense, then, issues of “common good” are simply with us. Though sympathetic to Nelson’s desire to see a wider prosperity and mutual benefitting from labor, we should always be suspicious of who gets named among the “common” as well as settling for current configurations of the “good.” An unfortunate example of this is often played out in the NGO sector where good intentions perpetuate systemic failures. In this sense, charity “degrades and demoralizes” as it (re)marginalizes the marginalized by (literally) paying them off by our excesses for our excesses. Though surely “the poor will always be with you,” as one armchair economist once said (Matt 26:11; Mk 14:7; Jn 12:8), the “proper aim” should be to try to revision “and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible” (Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, 118). Idealistic for sure, but missing this mark will lead us into greater care for one another than constructing charities that mask our excesses. In other words, bowing our heads in service to the “common good” can be perverted into idolatrous feasting at the altar of Eunomia as opposed to true love for one’s neighbor. 

Read This Book!

The truth is we know too much while ignorant as to what to do next. We live in a world of conflicting “expert” opinions about some of the most basic and fundamental aspects of our personhood. Work is among the most fundamental. As Alain de Botton has said in his brilliant book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, work makes the “extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.” Work Matters is well worth reading on what it means to be a Berufsmensch and properly revisioning a theology of vocation.

Ever the good pastor, Nelson leads us into thinking and rethinking the deep nexus between gospel and work. Despite my challenges, there are some issues so important that we cannot afford to wait around until we get them “right” to comment. Work is one of them. We therefore owe Nelson a great deal of gratitude for helping us think about a seamless faith that is [critically and] faithfully present at work.

Michael J. Thate is a visiting research fellow at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.



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