A BOOK REPORT on WORK: A KINGDOM PERSPECTIVE ON LABOR
Ben Witherington III, Eerdmans, 2011
There’s a couple incidentals that stand out about Witherington’s book that I want to mention at the outset and then move on to the meat of the matter. The first is that the reader should read the final section of the book (aptly named “Overtime”) both first and last. That chapter is a very apt summary of the book and it would serve the reader as an overview before reading and a reminder after reading of what the central issues are.
The second is that Witherington states more than once that we need to form a theology of work. I want to ask, “Shouldn’t that be your job? Why are you asking us to spend 166 pages with you if not to set forth a theology of work?” It seems that Witherington is more concerned about identifying the issues and surveying some of the answers others have given than creating a theology of work. This is not to say that a theology of work does not present itself within the pages. Perhaps the author means to call us to the table, to do the work of deciding what God wants us to know about this essential but by no means all-important aspect of our lives.
Personally, I found Witherington’s theology of play to be the most edifying part of the book. He sets forth good reasoning for a call to balance between work, rest and play. Of the three of these, play is the most neglected aspect of life in Christian theology and it is both instructive and refreshing to see Witherington ably support the need for play. Balanced living knows that life consists of work, rest and play – not necessarily in that order. Pathological lives are those that are imbalanced in any one direction.
On a related note, Witherington ventures – in not so many words – that laughter may be part of the Image of God. I believe the “Image” is everything that distinguishes human life from the rest of creation – the aspects of humanity that are not found anywhere else in creation. While animals play, none of them – even hyenas – can really be said to laugh. It is a fascinating thought and certainly deserves more attention.
A reviewer can and typically dose, insert themselves into the book to reflect on its comments. I have already done some of that. But it’s also important to let the author speak for himself. To that end, I offer what I’ve identified as “key thoughts,” expressions of the core of the author’s teaching.
“One of the major problems with the extant exercises in biblical theology on the subject of work is that they work forward through the Bible, rather than backward, and the end result is that in most cases they never get to an eschatological or Kingdom perspective on work, that is, work in light of the in-breaking Kingdom, which is the contribution of this particular study.” (p. xvi)
“On closer inspection, it is perfectly clear that God’s good plan always included human beings working, or, more specifically, living in the constant cycle of work and rest.” (p. 2)
“And since the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit enables persons to imitate the behavior of Christ in what they do, including their work. This automatically eliminates certain jobs for Christians.” (p. 37)
“In terms of vocation, every Christian has a primary obligation to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. This is ‘job one.'” (P. 46, emphasis his.)
“The making that we do, whether we call it work or not, is culture making, as it remakes our world – both the world out there, usually called ‘nature,’ and the world within my mind.” (p. 104)
“Christianity, in order to be truly Christian, has to go public, has to become a shared public good, not merely a private self-help program for the already convinced.”
(THAT’S a zinger on p. 106.)
“Ideas and worldviews alone don’t change the world; behavior and hard work do. Cultural change happens when a new way of doing things displace the old way of doing things.” (p. 110)
“This is why it is good to have personal discipline about how much one works, how much one rests, and also how much one plays.” (p. 143)
“The question we should be asking ourselves honestly is this: Is my sense of identity so bound up in what I do that I have become a compulsive workaholic just to validate my existence and give myself a sense of importance, worth, and value? If we can plead guilty in this charge, then it is clear that what we need in our lives is not merely a more biblical sense and understanding of work, but a biblical understanding of self as well.” (pp. 155-156)
“…an adequate amount of rest, play, and worship provides the boundaries for work and the reminders that work is not the be-all and end-all of our existence.” (p. 158)
It is an aspect of the Fall, not Creation that we have goofy ideas about work. Generally speaking, God has loftier ideas about work than we do. Witherington surveys the literature on the subject but also introduces his own conclusions. At times the book seems like a stream of consciousness, with Witherington switching subjects and not doing us the courtesy of showing the reader how the parts sum up to the whole.
While the chapter on callings versus vocations might be a tad esoteric for the average reader, I found Witherington’s book to be accessible and potentially useful in a classroom setting; if your aim is to produce a theology of labor. It would be helpful in a church setting as a needed defense of the virtue of balance of rest, play, and work, but that’s just chapter seven. The chapter on work as culture-making (chapter six) was also potentially useful as a lesson on the role of the believer in our culture.
THE BOTTOM LINE – the strength of this book is in its last three sections. I recommend it all as a study of the topic of labor, but the last of it is the most serviceable for a general audience.