Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Book Review: Revolutionary Work by William Taylor

William Taylor. Revolutionary Work – What’s the Point of the 9 to 5?
Leyland: 10Publishing, 2016.

‘We do not need to be enslaved by our work or totally depressed by it. As we put our work in its rightful, God-given place, we will find real joy and lasting purpose as we work for God.’[1]

So writes British clergyman William Taylor in his recent book Revolutionary Work – What’s the Point of the 9 to 5? Developed from four sermons preached at St Helen’s Bishopsgate, London in January 2016, Taylor promises that a biblical account of work is liberating, exhilarating, and refreshingly realistic. At 119 pages, including three appendices and a FAQ section, Revolutionary Work is a relatively brisk overview of the Bible’s teaching regarding work. This may be the books greatest strength and weakness; amidst the sudden growth in books produced on faith and work, Revolutionary Work is accessible and quick to read. Anyone who has the time and compulsion would able to read this book in an afternoon (and also download the original talks). However, in not being an exhaustive piece of writing, there are many theological and biblical concepts and ideas which are neither explored nor considered, or either assumed or dismissed out of hand. For instance, the lack of a definition of work is a striking omission from the book. Whilst Revolutionary Work helpfully interrogates several trends at play in work today, and offers sage advice for church ministers on how to care for their parishioners who work far outside their parish bounds, the problem with Revolutionary Work lies in what it doesn’t say.

Taylor begins by asking ‘What is the Point of Work?’ Chapter one offers three answers to this question. Firstly, as originally given in creation, work was good and dignified, for God himself is a worker. There is thus no place for a type of snobbery which regards some types of work as more dignified than others. Secondly, this original goodness of work is matched by a responsibility to work in the world in a manner which is accountable, caring for what God has entrusted to us. This responsibility is both a vertical responsibility between us and God, and a horizontal responsibility between us and others. This latter point remains largely undeveloped in Revolutionary Work beyond an encouragement towards generosity. Taylor also flags that this responsibility has been fundamentally altered by sins entry into the world. Thirdly, work is necessary to provide for ourselves and others – to ‘feed our faces’. In making these three points, Taylor also pushes back:

  1. on the view that there is a specific, personal, vocation for each person to find; and
  2. on the view that work exists to help us find personal fulfillment in life. Such a view is, in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, ‘completely garbage advice’.
Chapter two sets the scene for why we will never fulfil our potential in work by asking ‘What is the matter with work?’ Following Genesis 3–4, although given to us a good, work is now grim, and will always be grim. Work is ‘frustrating, painful, and ultimately futile’[2]; our place of work has been cursed by God, and the work of our hands will not last. Alongside the goodness of work is much damage wrecked through our cultural and technological advancements. Accordingly, Taylor rejects the existence of a cultural mandate; sin has radically altered our place in the world. Taylor points to God’s commissioning of Noah in Genesis 9 and the conclusion reached by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert to argue that the commission of Genesis 1.27–30 is now beyond us, and humans exercise a frightful dominion over the creatures of the world. Therefore, we must be prepared to work, but approach work without any sentimental notion of finding satisfaction or fulfilment in what we do.

Given that the picture painted by Taylor is quite grim, chapter three asks ‘Is there any hope for work?’ Taylor’s answer is that whilst work may look very much the same, the Christian will be governed by the gospel in their work. The gospel offers us a new boss, a new goal, and a new reward. We ultimately work for Jesus in our work, which enables us to work hard, and adorn the gospel in the way that we work (being kind, considerate, etc.), because we are seeking to serve Jesus. When we grasp this, Taylor argues that this will enable us to fix our eyes on Jesus, even when we are manipulated or bullied in the workplace, and therefore seek to please God in our work.

Taylor then asks ‘What now matters at work?’, and answers by pointing to our identity and attitude we hold as we go about our work. Taylor follows this up with a second question ‘What will last at work?’, and warns against firstly throwing ourselves into careerism, and secondly investing too much into the creation and the works of our hands in the hope that our work will last into eternity. Taylor argues that a tangible and specific connection between creation and new creation cannot be drawn; all that will last into the new creation are redeemed people and their godly characters. This section contains a brief interaction with Tim Keller’s use of Tolkien’s story Leaf by Niggle in Every Good Endeavour, including the reproduction of email correspondence with Keller on this issue. The reproduced section of Keller’s answer indicates that Keller does not draw the specific and tangible connection between creation and new creation that Taylor warns against. Taylor concludes this section with some brief reference to passages such as Revelation 21, 2 Peter 3, and Matthew 24 to warn against investing in work which is ultimately futile and frustrated.[3]

The fourth and final chapter looks at John 4 to ask ‘What is the work of God’. In the original sermons from January 2016, Taylor considered this section as a continuation to ‘What now matters at work?’ question, a 3.b if you will. Taylor’s intention is ‘I do not want any of us to spend our whole lives labouring at something that ultimately is pure vanity.’[4] God’s work is to gather his harvest, and his will is that we are involved in the harvesting, using Jesus’ words to advance the gospel and establish new believers. For Taylor pursing this line of work is evidently possible in the banks and law firms of the City of London. This is what we are to do in our workplaces – to advance the work of God through reaping the harvest whilst also living godly lives in our occupations. Yet for some of us, our specific gifting in Bible teaching will lead us to leave aside the work of ‘selling sugared water’, and engage in God’s life transforming work. God’s harvesting is the priority of our lives in work, for this is the only type of work which will last.

The reader of Revolutionary Work will find a call to action for Christians to grow up in their work; to neither underestimate the impact of sin on their work nor to lose sight of the opportunity work provides to live for and speak of Christ. Taylor helpfully seeks to uphold the original dignity and goodness of work, and resist the sentimentality ascribed to work’s potential to fulfil our dreams and desires. There is no room for Christians to hold bourgeois attitudes which elevate more creative or conceptual types of work above manual labour or service orientated work. Nor can Christians fool themselves with the message that their work will change the world. As James Hunter Davidson has argued elsewhere, whilst possible, cultural change is exceedingly hard, and exquisitely rare. The persuasiveness of that message is evident to me every day on campus where I walk past large posters proclaiming to university students their potential to shape and change the world. Taylor’s call for an attitude to work orientated by the gospel provides a realism to our work and the world which may well guard our hearts and minds from this pervasive cultural stream.

Perhaps the thing I appreciated most about Revolutionary Work was the third appendix: ‘How Can Churches be Revolutionary About Work?’I have no doubt that this appendix flows from the distilled wisdom of Taylor's many years at St Helen’s and the unique opportunity that church finds itself in by being located in the centre of the City of London. This appendix is a must read for people in ministry to consider how they can support and minister to their congregants who work in a place different to where they live. The possibility that churches would seek to encourage and effectively send people to work and minister in their own workplaces might be truly revolutionary, and potentially reap a great dividend for the cause of Christ.

There are a few small things throughout the book that grated against me. In a few places in the book and the original talks Taylor compares working in a law firm or a bank to slavery. Undoubtedly working in a City of London bank or law firm is rigorous and entails great expectations. However, such comments seem to be unduly naive; not only are there an increasing number of people enthralled around the world, but making such statement is either exceedingly foolish or grossly unaware of history. The prosperity of the London’s financial centre can be traced to Britain’s colonialism and involvement in the slave trade.

In addition, Revolutionary Work can’t help but come across as being written for urban professionals. Taylor admirably tries to resist this at several points, not least of all through his rejection of vocational snobbery. But the focus is largely on paid work, and a definition of work within the book would have increased its usefulness for people whose work is unpaid.

However, Revolutionary Work is far too brief a treatment of work, which lacks theological rigour. Because of these weaknesses, Revolutionary Work is regrettably a flawed book. This comes through typically not so much in what it says, but in what it fails to say. Often this comes from a surprising lack of theological reflection, coupled with an exegesis of passages that is sometimes sloppy, and other times inattention to where they fit into overall scheme of Scripture. The brief mention of 2 Peter 3.10 in chapter 3 is a case in point of the former, where Taylor follows the relatively novel but ultimately exegetically unsatisfactory interpretation that Peter has in view the dissolution of the cosmos. Taylor’s handling of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1 and 9 is a case in point of the latter. Yes, the Noahic mandate appears to be different to the Adamic mandate. Yes, for all of our cultural and technological sophistication, humanity has a great propensity to find more sophisticated ways to harm and kill each other. But just as Taylor complains that we need to read beyond Genesis 1–2 to understand work, so do we need to read beyond Genesis 9 to understand the place of the cultural mandate in Scripture. Whereas Revolutionary Work argues that the cultural mandate was so fundamentally altered by sin to essentially no longer exist, one cannot help but be struck by the echoes of Genesis 1.28 in God’s commission to Israel, such as in Numbers 32.22 and Joshua 18.1. Likewise the technological development pioneered by the line of Cain is taken up by God in the Spirit-endowed craftsmanship of the Tabernacle by Bezalel in Exodus 31–38.

Ultimately this is an under-developed conception of the nature of redemption.  Taylor is undoubtedly right to highlight the ongoing affect of sin on our work and agency. The mandate given to Adam is no longer achievable by him. However, the depiction of redemption in the New and Old Testaments (i.e. Isaiah 65–66, Colossians 1, etc.), and reflected upon by the Fathers and Reformers, considers redemption to be not only the undoing of the curse, but the enabling of God’s creation projection to be put back on track and ultimately reach the purpose for which it had been originally made. In Adam, this is no longer possible. But now in Christ, and through the power of the Spirit, God will perfect his creation. Unsurprisingly, this was prefigured in the early depictions of Solomon’s reign in 1 Kings 4, who appears as a second Adam enjoying the garden and naming the animals. The cultural mandate will be achieved in and through great King David’s greater Son.

Noticeable absent from Revolutionary Work is a definition of work. Whilst such a definition is notoriously difficult, the absence of such a definition skewers the trajectory of the book. This again reflects a lack of theological development. Firstly, Revolutionary Work exposes itself to the charge of reducing the doctrine of creation to merely Genesis 1–2. However, marriage, society, and government are all parts of the created order which gain further elucidation throughout the Scriptures. As to does the doctrine of providence, God’s sustaining of the world, which is rightly belongs to a consideration of creation. That God not only made but continues to sustain his creation, and in fact holds it together in Christ, is an indication that participating in the creation order is not antithetical to God’s will. Moreover, it suggests that there is such a thing as common grace, and that therefore there are good reasons to work in God’s world besides evangelistic opportunities. The Christian who works for the government may do so both for the opportunities it provides to reach out to people, but also with an awareness of passages such as 1 Timothy 2 and Romans 13 that God uses governments to order his world and provide for peaceful society’s to exist. In fact, the functioning of good government which maintains justice seems, at least in Paul’s mind, to facilitate the flourishing of Christian ministry and mission.

Secondly, there is a coherence between creation and new creation which Revolutionary Work pays scant attention to. Whereas Taylor resists drawing a connection between this creation and the world to come, classical theologians have held to a nexus between protology and eschatology. Where this would have aided Revolutionary Work would have been in the articulation not only of the generic usefulness of work such as ‘feeding your face’, but the telic purposes of work. I take it (following Andrew Cameron) that there are three purposes to work: to exercise dominion over the natural work, to contribute to the flourishing and good ordering of society, and to participate in the ‘work of God’. These three ends are present, sometimes in embryonic form, in the creation account. Throughout Israel’s history, and within the New Testament, the three purposes of work are evident and good. Reformed theology resisted a sacred/secular divide of vocations by insisting that all people are called to participate in all three ends of work. By holding the three ends together, the reformers were able to resist a facile prioritization of work based upon what will last or not. I take it that marriage, which is under the Genesis 3 curse much like work, and won’t last beyond death, is still a good thing to engage in. I doubt that we would characterize marriage (or, for that matter, child-rearing) in itself as futile and grim.

The inclusion of the teleology of work would have significantly altered the tone of Revolutionary Work. Taylor argues in the opening chapter that work, as originally given, was good and dignified, entailing responsibilities towards our fellow image bearers. However, one is left with the overwhelming sense that work is more futile than good, and will only ever be grim. Our work in a world groaning for its redemption will always be frustrated by the ravages of time, sin, and death. However, there are good reasons to do work in and of itself, not least of all for the opportunities it provides to love others. The teacher is able to invest in her work, seeking professional development and a high level of care for her students because she serves Jesus and out of a love for her students to grow in their knowledge of the world. The sewage worker or garbage collector’s work is an act of love for the society who is only able to flourish and stay healthy because of their work. Work is a means for loving a lot of people in a few specific ways. Work as an opportunity to love offers an approach to work which goes beyond ‘work is grim, so just grin and bear it’.

Taylor’s discussion of the Christological impact on our work in chapter 3 might therefore be considerably expanded. Beyond a brief discussion at the beginning of the third chapter concerning the nature of the gospel via Ephesians 1.9–10, Revolutionary Work largely assumes the gospel. The inclusion of the gospel in Revolutionary Work would have provided a context for the consideration of how Jesus changes our work. Whereas in Isaiah 2 the work of our hands is directed towards idolatry, in 1 Thessalonians 4.9–11 the work of our hands are directed towards love of our neighbour. Indeed, according to Ephesians 2 and Titus 3, we have been saved by Jesus in order to do good work. Not only do we have a new master in our work, and a new opportunity to display the virtues of the age to come, but a new reason to work well in our work, contributing to a world which is lost and without hope. This was Augustine of Hippo’s conclusion in City of God, that the citizens of the heavenly city are able in Christ to appropriate and superimpose a new meaning on their work, participating in God’s providential sustaining of the world. Such participation is only ever partial – there is no sense in which we send the rain and the sun on the world. But in God’s kindness, participate we do, embodying in our speech, behaviour, and very lives the virtues and characteristics of the life of the world to come when God makes all things new.

Finally, Revolutionary Work’s refusal to endorse the ‘reach your full potential in your work’ narrative is a much welcomed corrective to a prevailing cultural norm. The responsibility of those who would enter into the realm of faith and work is not only resist this narrative, but supply our churches with an alternative narrative. The fact remains that the work place is a significant area of people’s discipleship and formation. We need to expect and encourage people that their work is a place for bearing fruit for Jesus. That will absolutely include our gracious witness. But bearing fruit in the New Testament is so much more for that, as the gospel of faith leads to love as we submit every aspect of our lives under the all encompassing Lordship of Jesus Christ.[5]

I appreciate much of what Taylor has attempted to do in Revolutionary Work. This is a book which argues that being a Christian makes a difference to how you work. But it doesn't quite manage to fully spell out what that means. It turns out that 119 pages (81 not counting the appendices, FAQ, and references) is far too brief to fulfil the job required. Instead of revolutionary, the result is the same old quietist approach to work which leaves the nine-to-five largely disengaged from the scope of the Christian life. 

[1] p.3.
[2] p.39.
[3] This section will pay careful for those interested in wider faith and work conversations taking place in the evangelical world at the moment. Two words of warning though from myself. Firstly, it would be a mistake to think that Keller makes a point solely based upon Tolkien’s work. In Every Good Endeavour, as Taylor acknowledges, Keller exegetes passages such as 1 Corinthians 15.58. While this is not uncontroversial, Keller’s use of that passage is one supported by the work of New Testament scholars such as Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa in their 1 Corinthians commentary. Secondly, Taylor makes reference to Tolkien’s original intention to explain purgatory through Leaf by Niggle. This may well be the case, but, that is contested somewhat in Tolkien scholarship. 
[4] p.63.
[5] The inclusion of fruitfulness in the conversation opens up the consideration of whether or not our work is actually ood. Taylor briefly acknowledges that not all work is permissible on pp.52–53. The frustration of work means  work can go bad. This extends to beyond particular types of work such as being a pimp, but also how we do our work, such as the farmer who over uses their water resources and thereby damages their neighbours and the land; the university administrators who take advantage of international students and extort money from them, the church minister who abuses their position of power to intimidate and bully people. Adolf Eichmann was a diligent worker in his office day after day, but through his diligence millions met their deaths. We need to think about the essence of work to be able to assess the goodness of work.

1 comment:

Caleb Woodbridge said...

Thanks, that's a really well-balanced engagement with the strengths and weaknesses of Taylor's book. I'm much more "transformationist" by theological bent, and so agree with what you say about his weak view of the creation mandate and teleology of work. But you also highlight many positive aspects of his approach too. Very helpful!