I was fortunate to be given a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
It’s been a number of years since, somewhat ironically, I gave a seminar on a Christian/biblical view of work at a Christian Union Houseparty. Ironic, because at the time I was unemployed, but only somewhat, as I was also ‘doing’ things. I wish I’d had this book available then! Work: Its Purpose, Dignity and Transformation is a thorough, biblical and appropriately theological book about work from a Christian perspective. Rooted in the Reformed tradition, but certainly applicable to any thoughtful Christian, Work is by Daniel M. Doriani, a Professor at Covenant Theological Seminary, who’s also been a pastor. This blend of academic and pastoral reflection make this a valuable book – deeply rooted, but also practical.
Doriani roots his study in 12 principles, outlined in the first chapter. The first of these – and this is where it resonates with me deeply, setting this book up as a very helpful resource, is the idea that work is good because God has made us in his image, and God is a God who works. This chapter grows into the first part of the book – ‘Foundations’, which sets the scene and tone for the rest of this work. A particularly helpful chapter is ‘Work through the Ages’, where Doriani notes that “It is human nature to endorse our culture, especially if it works well for us. In general, whatever is common seems normal and whatever is normal seems right.” Whilst this observation could be pertinent for a number of conversations Christians are involved in, it is perhaps particularly important for discussion of work and the meaning of life. Doriani observes that “The New Testament contradicts the dominant Greek view of manual labor“, with reference to Jesus, Paul, and the apostles – all of whom, except for Matthew (The tax collector) did manual labour of some kind. It is here, though, that Doriani teases out a key aspect of his biblical view of work with reference to his own story: “Jobs may even help us find our calling. While in school, I washed dishes, painted homes, unloaded trucks, and served as a teaching assistant. The first three were jobs; the last gave me a positive taste of my calling.” Key conversation partners, seeding ideas and nuance for the rest of the book, include Luther, Calvin, Smith, Marx and others.
The second part of this book, and Doriani’s argument, deals with Faithfulness, and it is in this section that we engage, thoughtfully, with some of the difficult questions that Christians may ask about work as part of discipleship. A key question is of course around ‘Calling’, a nebulous idea. Doriani writes “The experience of calling is gratifying, and we can recognize a calling in clear cases, but the concept has been long fraught with confusion and debate“, and I found his unpacking of this to be helpful. A key aspect of this is his challenge to ‘egocentric’ individualism. On faithfulness itself, I think Work does a good job of living in the tension, “In truth, work is the chief place where we love our neighbors as ourselves“. A key aspect of this tension is the Image of God, wherein our finitude, or limited-ness, is vital. The chapter on ‘Work in Difficult Places’, as well as that on ‘Work, Rest, and the Rhythms of Life’, are both deeply practical yet richly theological engagements with difficult questions of real, whole-life discipleship. The former chapter will be particularly helpful to Christians seeking to interrogate their professional life – with some particularly helpful and biblical principles, rooted in Romans 12:1-2 (note – p. 124).
The third and closing part of this book is the shortest, but perhaps theologically the most exciting. Doriani offers a theological base and a plan for cultural and social reform through work. Inspired by the parable of the Talents, and Isaiah’s prophecy in 32:1-8, chapter 9 considers ‘The Roots of Reformations at Work’, and I read this chapter excitedly, caught up in Doriani’s vision, which builds convincingly on the previous two parts of this book. As he notes in his conclusion to this penultimate chapter, “when God pours his love into our hearts, it fosters compassion for neighbors,
whom we love through our work. When circumstances are right, an insight, an invention, or a new system can lead to sizable improvements.” This is a not a ‘charismatic’ book, but it doesn’t take much theological imagination to see the role of the Holy Spirit being key here! In the final chapter, Doriani wades into the one/two kingdoms debate, with particular emphasis on the ‘sphere sovereignty’ suggested by Abraham Kuyper, and suggests a biblical call to reformation in work, culture and society:
“The goal is reform that is radical, not revolutionary. Biblical reform is not violent; it goes to the root cause (Latin: radix =
radical), believing that steady effort may eventually bring lasting change. That is how Paul overthrew slavery. He never says, “Death to slavery.” But when he sends a runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his owner, Philemon, his cover letter (the Epistle to Philemon) undermines the basis for slavery.”
The chapter, and thus the book, close with a stirring call: “We dare to think Christians can do more than make a living or avoid sin. We show that Christ, the King, has come and that his kingdom has arrived, even in our work, in every realm of life.” Amen!
Overall, then, this is an immensely helpful book. Doriani impressively draws together a biblical theology of work, brings it into conversation with history and theology, and suggests . Practically speaking, it is helpful to have his own experience of not just one career path, as well as probing discussion questions at the end of the chapter, which make this book useful for both personal and group reflection. My one criticism (though it is an American author, and publisher!) would be around the USA-centric nature of examples, though a discerning reader should be able to look past these with ease. Of particular practical benefit is the appendix, which offers ‘Principles for Representative Professions’. Doriani’s suggestions for communications, the field I predominantly work in, were and will be helpful. I recommend Work warmly, particularly for students thinking through what life after university looks like, and thoughtful people pondering the meaning of life, or just a job/career change!