Let’s read Keller (6): Digging deeper into Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’

Let's read Keller

In Every Good Endeavor Tim Keller draws on the wonderful Tolkien short story ‘Leaf by Niggle’ to make the point that our work, to be worthwhile, does not have to accomplish all we might hope for it in this life.

There is a tree

Niggle is an artist who works meticulously on a grand painting of a tree, only one leaf of which he completes in his lifetime. Towards the end of the story, Niggle is taken on a train to a heavenly unnamed place where, to his surprise, the tree he never had time to finish during his lifetime stands complete:

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. “It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally. He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.

The painting Niggle began on earth was not only unfinished but also imperfect, and yet here he sees the complete vision that he had only dimly apprehended before. Keller titles this section of his introduction ‘There really is a tree’, and glosses the Niggle story thus:

Once or twice in your life you may feel like you have finally “gotten a leaf out.” Whatever your work, you need to know this: There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work—the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing—it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others. Your work will be only partially successful, on your best days, in bringing that world about. But inevitably the whole tree that you seek—the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy, and community—will come to fruition. If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get only a leaf or two out in this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy. You will not be puffed up by success or devastated by setbacks.

The Parish principle: “distracting” acts of service are part of your masterpiece, not its enemy

What Keller doesn’t dwell on is that the story continues after Niggle’s encounter with his completed tree. Approaching a forest, the artist reflects that some of his most beautiful leaves “were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it.” I find this sentence almost more beautiful and inspiring than the encounter with the finished tree. Mr Parish is a neighbour of Niggle’s who seems to have been distracting and thwarting attempts to work on the painting through the good deeds that Niggle perpetually seems to be performing for him. Indeed, it is through Parish that Niggle catches a cold and dies leaving his painting barely begun. And yet here the finished tree bears the collaborative marks of Parish in “the most perfect examples of the Niggle style”.

The lesson of the Parish-Niggle collaboration for Christian academics is a powerful one. Our work requires long hours of (usually) solitary or socially restricted effort to produce its miserable little “leaf”. We might see family and church commitments, helping friends and loving enemies, as so many inconveniences thwarting our real mission: to bring forth the leaf. And, indeed, in this life it might seem at times very much as if these things are inconveniences and hindrances, thwarting our “true potential” and causing us to lose our productivity, our health or even our life. But as Tolkien brilliantly grasps, that is not the full picture. The fully realised vision of our dimly imagined work bears will have borne the marks of these relationships, these acts of kindness to others, right at the heart of our signature style. So who, or what, is your Parish? Thank God for them. It is a myopic perspective on work that sees them as a hindrance to the realisation of your leaf.

Tolkien has Parish join Niggle in the unnamed heavenly place. During their neighbourly life on earth Parish had dismissed the value of Niggle’s painting, but now in a beautiful reversal of roles it is Parish, not Niggle, who cannot tear his eyes away from the Tree:

As they worked together, it became plain that Niggle was now the better of the two at ordering his time and getting things done. Oddly enough, it was Niggle who became most absorbed in building and gardening, while Parish often wandered about looking at trees, and especially at the Tree.

Helping people to see your tree when all you have to show is virgin canvas and pots of paint

A little later on, Parish is confronted by one who “looked like a shepherd” and who explains that the land they are enjoying so much is Niggle’s Country. Niggle’s companion is dumbfounded:

“Niggle’s Picture!” said Parish in astonishment. “Did you think of all this, Niggle? I never knew you were so clever. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He tried to tell you long ago,” said the man; “but you would not look. He had only got canvas and paint in those days, and you wanted to mend your roof with them. This is what you and your wife used to call Niggle’s Nonsense, or That Daubing.”

It would be easy (all too easy) to paint Parish as the Philistine who meets his comeuppance as Niggle is straightforwardly vindicated by the Shepherd’s intervention. But Tolkien is cannier than that, and Niggle acknowledges his part in Parish’s ignorance: ‘“I did not give you much chance,” said Niggle. “I never tried to explain. I used to call you Old Earth-grubber. But what does it matter?”‘. It matters a great deal. Niggle’s dismissive attitude toward Parish seems partly to blame for Parish’s philistinism.

So the question is posed to us: what are we doing, as Christian academics, to help the Parishes around us to glimpse our tree when all we have is the beginnings of a leaf, presuming, of course, that we ourselves have at least glimpsed the big picture of which our work is part? Tolkien writes ‘Leaf by Niggle’, I think, not only to inspire Niggles, but to help Parishes glimpse the wonder of what they may hitherto only have scorned. What stories are we telling about our work to show its place in a big picture as yet unpainted? What is your elevator pitch when someone outside academia asks you what you are working on? That thorniest of questions can be answered at any number of levels; why not choose the level that Tolkien privileges in ‘Leaf by Niggle’, the big picture level of the Tree, not the detailed intricacy of the single leaf? With all due humility and without lapsing into self-promotional claptrap, we academics have a role in helping those around us to see the big picture of what we are doing, so that they might not think our canvas and paint would be put to better use mending a leaking roof.

Councillor Tomkins

There is a little epilogue to ‘Leaf by Niggle’. The scene cuts to a conversation between Councillor Tomkins and Atkins. The Councillor, somewhat in the mould of the earthly Parish but with a larger dose of supercilious arrogance, is a sceptic about Niggle’s art and about the man himself:

“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in the communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly…”

A couple of paragraphs later on we learn that Atkins the schoolmaster takes Niggle’s one completed leaf and has it hung in the Town Museum, which burns down expunging all trace of Niggle’s work from this earth. Meanwhile, Parish and Niggle laugh until the mountains ring at the news that a corner of their new land is to be called “Niggle’s Parish”.

We cannot help contrasting the incinerated earthly leaf with the heavenly vision in which “the blossom on the Great Tree was shining like a flame”. Councillor Tomkins only has eyes for one flame: the fire that destroys, that brings to nothing Niggle’s painting. However, if he could bear to look into it intently enough he would see that it also burns away his own cherished notion of “practical or economic use”. The destroying flame brings all to naught, not just paintings. What Tomkins cannot see is the heavenly fire, the flame that shines, that dazzles and adorns. Tolkien shows us both, and as creatures of eternity in a fallen and largely unjust world we would do well to take account of both flames as we labour on yet another almost invisible detail of our laboriously constructed leaf.


What story is your work part of? Here are Tim Keller’s diagnostic questions to help you find out

Every so often in the academic life you have a thought or–even worse–publish a paper, only to find that someone else has had a very similar thought and published before you. This is both an encouragement (because it’s an indication you might be on to something) and a let-down (because your idea is not as original as you thought it might be). This experience visited me a few days ago when, a couple of weeks after publishing the post on “the map and the mirror”, I read a post by RJS over at the Jesus Creed blog about the final section of Tim Keller’s book on work: Every Good Endeavor. It turns out that Keller’s exploration of how the gospel should shape and focus our work corresponds to some of the moves made in the map and mirror post. I’m a bit embarrassed by this (I should have read Every Good Endeavor by now, and I don’t want it to look like I’m copying Keller without acknowledging him), but also greatly encouraged that the thoughts presented on this blog might not be utterly dissimilar, mirabile dictu, to those in a book by someone as wise and culturally aware as Tim Keller. There are two main similarities between Keller’s approach, as related by RJS, and our own map and mirror exercise.

1) What story is my work part of?

The first similarity is the importance of the greater narrative we see our work as part of . There are, however, two differences between Keller’s approach and our own (which, happily, makes them complementary). First, whereas we used Two Ways to Live as a narrative outline, Keller focuses on the idea of story more generally, and secondly, while the map and mirror post focused on writing the narrative of “the world according to my discipline”, Keller very helpfully insists on seeing our work as part of God’s story. Here is RJS’s summary:

One of the most significant ways that Christian faith impacts work, for better or worse, is in the story we find ourselves in. Everyone sees themselves as part of a story, a worldview, that makes sense of life, death, and the universe. There is a problem, a plot, and a mission. We see ourselves as actors within this story.

…if you get the story of the world wrong – if, for example, you see life here as mainly about self-actualization and self-fulfillment rather than the love of God – you will get your life responses wrong, including the way you go about your work. (p. 156)

Keller turns this then to the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration,  summarized briefly. God made the world and everything in it good. There are no intrinsically evil parts of the world. The whole world is fallen and affected by sin. The whole world is going to be redeemed. The way we see this story and see God’s mission in the world will have a profound impact on the way we go about life.  The gospel, Keller points out, “teaches that the meaning of life is to love God and love our neighbor, and that the operating principle is servanthood.” This will affect every aspect of work, from purpose to performance.

To be a Christian in business, then, means much more than just being honest or not sleeping with your coworkers. It even means more than personal evangelism or holding a Bible study at the office. Rather, it means thinking out the implications of the gospel worldview and God’s purpose for your whole work life – and for the whole of the organization under your influence. (p. 168-169).

These thoughts echo the spirit of Geroge Herbert’s The Elixir, and also the following sermon illustration, which I heard a long time ago and can’t remember precisely (disclaimer: I haven’t read Every Good Endeavor yet, so apologies if Tim Keller uses this illustration too!) . It went something like this:

On the set of a great Hollywood blockbuster film, a boy was hired to sweep the set floor after each take. He threw himself into this repetitive and poorly-paid task with such enthusiasm and dedication day after day that, eventually, he drew the attention of the film’s lead actor, who himself was losing enthusiasm for the project. Approaching the boy, the star asked:

“I’ve noticed you around, and I have a question for you. Why do you race around the place like someone who has just won the lottery, when you only have this crummy job that no-one else wants? You come here every day in exchange for some loose change that most of us here wouldn’t pick up if we saw it on the sidewalk; nobody here is interested in you; you are ordered around like a slave, and all you are doing is sweeping the floor again and again. Why are you so enthusiastic?”

Undaunted by the actor’s attentions or by the strange question, the boy looked up at him and replied:

“It might look like I’m merely sweeping the floor, sir, but that’s just an appearance. In fact I’m helping make the best and the biggest film in the history of cinema.”

(If anyone knows the origin of the illustration, do post a link in the comments section). The boy knew what story his work was part of. His sweeping was not, ultimately, about sweeping. It was about playing his part in making the best movie in the history of film. Similarly, the story we see our work as part of makes all the difference in the world. If our sweeping, or data entry, or research, or teaching, or presence at meetings, is just about those things themselves, then we are likely to become either cynical and disengaged from our jobs or self-seeking and determined to build our own empires at work. But if we realise that our work is part of the greatest true story in the history of the world (because it is the story OF the world!), the story in which all things in heaven and on earth are being brought under Christ to the glory of God, then our drudgery is indeed rendered divine (though not in a way that results in Christians wearing a painted-on sickly sweet smile all the time).

Diagnostic questions

The second similarity is that Keller has a list of questions to ask concerning the areas in which we work, some of which are close to the questions we asked in the map and mirror post. Here is Keller’s list:

  • What’s the story line of the culture in which I live and the field where I work? Who are the protagonists and antagonists?
  • What are the underlying assumptions about meaning, morality, origin, and destiny?
  • What are the idols? The hopes? The fears?
  • How does my particular profession retell this story line, and what part does the profession itself play in the story?
  • What parts of the dominant worldview are basically in line with the gospel, so that I can agree with and align with them?
  • What parts of the dominant worldview are irresolvable without Christ? Where, in other words, must I challenge my culture? How can Christ complete the story in a different way?
  • How do these stories affect both the form and content of my work personally? How can I work not just with excellence but also with Christian distinctiveness in my work?
  • What opportunities are there in my profession for (a) serving individual people, (b) serving society at large, (c) serving my field of work, (d) modeling competence and excellence, and (e) witnessing to Christ?

RJS’s summary is well worth reading in its entirety, not least for the reflections he provides towards the end of the post on relating Keller’s principles to working in higher education. P.S.: After a bit of digging, I’ve found a talk given by Tim Keller in which he covers the idea of work in general, and the question of “what story our work is part of?” in particular. If you were ever curious to know the Latin name for the common duck, this is the clip for you:

Do you know what is most shaping your desires and beliefs? This quick exercise can help you find out… and change it

In a recent post we briefly discussed the way in which the media we consume shapes to a significant extent what we desire, what we think, and how we feel about ourselves and our society. The issue merits further reflection for Christians studying or working in an academic setting. Christian academics are, so to speak, professional consumers and interpreters of ideas and theories, and so a proportion of our working life is taken up, quite rightly, with reading and assimilating our disciplinary “media”.

Now, if our beliefs are formed in large part by habit and custom, then those ideas to which we are most frequently exposed will, mutatis mutandis, assimilate themselves into our own thinking about all of life, not just our academic discipline. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that per se, but it does pay to be aware of what influences are most actively shaping our view of the world, whether we may be aware of it or not.

So here’s a brief exercise to raise our awareness of how our minds, feelings and dispositions are being shaped…

Pie person - you are what you readThink back to everything you have watched, everything you have listened to, and everything you have read over the past fortnight (if we make the timeframe any longer it becomes hard to remember). Include everything: radio in the car, the daily newspaper, music on public transport, books you have read, websites you’ve looked at, films and TV shows: everything. Now imagine that all the media you have consumed during the past fourteen days is represented in a pie chart which comprises the following four categories[1]:

  1.  Non-Christian entertainment. Media not explicitly offering a Christian view of the world, which you have consumed in order to relax or be entertained.
  2. Non-Christian uni-related. Media not explicitly offering a Christian view of the world, which you have consumed as part of your courses at university or as part of your research.
  3. Christian uni-related. Media produced with an explicitly Christian view of the world, which you have consumed as part of your courses at university or as part of your research (perhaps one of the books on the reading list on this blog that is relevant to your studies, or a book exploring through a Christian approach to your discipline).
  4. Christian non-uni-related. In this category, put all you “devotional” reading and any additional Christian books, music or other media you have consumed in the past two weeks.

It can help to make a list of titles (films, books, albums…) for each category. When you have the list, estimate the time you spent on each title, and then draw your own pie chart, either in your head or on paper. Look at the chart, and reflect on the relative proportions of the four categories. Here are some questions to help you analyse the data:

  • According to the pie chart what, in terms of brute hours, is the greatest influence on your view of the world, your desires and your thinking?
  • To what extent are you actively seeking to develop a Christian understanding of your discipline?
  • If the great majority of your Christian reading is related to your academic discipline, are there any conclusions to draw about the general health of your walk with the Lord?
  • If the “Christian uni-related” category is blank, what are likely to be the long-term effects on your general spiritual well-being?
  • What would be the ideal proportion of non-Christian entertainment for someone in your position? Are you not relaxing enough or—which is more likely—is this category greedily consuming time that could be much better invested in one of the other areas?

Now you have thought a little about your current habits, draw another pie chart to represent the “ideal” proportions you would like to have for each of the four categories. Be ambitious, but also be realistic.

Now ask yourself: where is the single greatest difference is between the “actual” and the “ideal” charts?

Shrinking that single greatest difference is where you can profitably focus your efforts over the next fortnight. Decide what you will (or will not) read, watch or listen to over the next two weeks, to bring the “actual” chart closer to the “ideal”. The reason for choosing only one area to work on is that trying to change everything at once can quickly lead to discouragement and a sense of failure. Changing one thing at once feels much more achievable, and gives an encouraging and motivating sense of accomplishment much more quickly.

After two weeks, repeat the exercise, once more working on reducing the greatest difference between the two charts.

Exercises like this can be more effective when undertaken in pairs or in groups. Why not get together with another Christian at your institution and share your two-week plans with each other? If you don’t know of anyone at your institution, drop us an email at thechristianscholar [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this post and we will do our best to encourage you along the way 🙂


[1] The four categories suggested in this post are necessarily somewhat arbitrarily divided, but although the divisions between them may not always be hermetic they nevertheless provide a helpful schema for the purposes of the present exercise.

Developing a Christian Approach to Your Academic Discipline: The Map and the Mirror

In this post I want to explore one way that Christian academics can get to grips with the secular disciplines in which we work. I will begin by discussing two different ways in which we can understand the Christian faith and the way it shapes our work, before moving on to discuss a tool to help us think about academic disciplines in a way that opens a dialogue with the Christian faith.

The mirror approach

There are two important ways we can go about engaging with our academic disciplines as Christians. Let’s call them the map approach and the mirror approach. Most Christians are already familiar with the mirror approach: we take a verse or a short passage of scripture and we reflect the image of our studies in it. Here are some passages to which we might typically turn:

Genesis 1:26-28  Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  27  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  28  And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

 Jeremiah 29:7  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

1 Corinthians 1:25  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

2 Corinthians 10:4-6  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  5  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,  6  being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.

Philippians 4:8  Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Colossians 3:23-24  Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,  24  knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

Each of these  portions of the bible can serve as a mirror in which to see reflected our academic studies. There is nothing wrong with this mirror approach in itself; certain verses and passages do provide us with a privileged site for meditating on what it means to work as a Christian.

However, this approach cannot by itself provide us with an adequate framework for approaching our disciplines because, by its nature, it is inherently partial and incomplete. Indeed, there is a danger that, if we privilege certain verses or certain truths in our studies, those verses will turn out to be a fairground mirror, distorting a biblical approach rather than facilitating it. Let me show what I mean with two examples:

  • Say I am a Christian in the creative arts. I structure my approach to my work around the biblical truth that God is a creator and that I, in his image, have been made with the ability to create and therefore should express that ability.
  • Now imagine I am that same Christian in the creative arts, but now I reflect my work in a different biblical mirror. I know from the bible that this world is ‘fallen’ and under God’s judgment, and so I determine to have nothing to do with the culture in the world around me as I conceive and produce my art, separating myself as much as I can from all influences that would contaminate my work.

The truths expressed in these two pictures (namely that part of what it means to be in the image of God is to be creative, and human culture is, at least in one important sense, fundamentally opposed to God and under his judgment) are not incorrect, but they are partial. They are truths, but they are not the whole truth, and if I give them undue weight in my approach to my discipline I should not expect that approach to be biblical at all. Creativity does not adequately summarise what the bible has to say about working as a Christian, and neither does the truth that all that human beings do is tainted by sin. Both of these truths need to find their place as part of a bigger, balanced picture. As the history of heresy has shown us, it can be just as dangerous to hold the right truths in the wrong proportions as it is to hold the wrong truths altogether.

Mapping the Christian faith

To have a fully rounded biblical approach to our academic work we need to find a way of taking into account the whole of God’s truth. In a quotation I have used on this blog before, Don Carson sums up this imperative:

that stance is most likely to be deeply Christian which attempts to integrate all the major biblically determinate turning points in the history of redemption: creation, fall, the call of Abraham, the exodus and the giving of the law, the rise of the monarchy and the rise of the prophets, the exile, the incarnation, the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the onset of the kingdom of god, the coming of the spirit and the consequent ongoing eschatological tension between the “already” and the “not yet,” the return of Christ and the prospect of a new heaven and a new earth.

D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 81.

At first blush this might seem like an impossibly daunting task for the Christian academic. The bible contains 66 rich and varied books that each repay years and even decades of study by theologians who have more time than we do to devote to the task. How can we possibly bring the weight of all that wisdom to bear on our studies?

That is where the map approach comes in. A map does not give exhaustive information about any single elements of the landscape it represents. In fact it tells us very little about any of the features it depicts. What it does show brilliantly is how some important features within a the landscape are situated in relation to each other, giving a big picture that allows the map-reader to appreciate the landscapes’ features relative to each other, and if need be to navigate her way to them one by one.

The map approach to the bible similarly distils a great deal of biblical information into a single big picture that we can take in all at once, helping us to understand the relative size and position of each of the bible’s main truths. It is an approach that the bible itself takes on a number of occasions. Here are two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New:

  • In Psalm 78 David sketches important high-points story of Israel to help make sure that the nation’s history remains known down the generations
  • In Acts 7 Stephen explains his behaviour to the High Priest by summarising the story of the Israelite Nation from Abraham to his own day

A number of good resources are available to help Christians gain a map view of the whole bible; Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom and Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture to name but two. However, for the purposes of mapping not just the Christian faith but our academic disciplines I want to use a more visual way of distilling the bible’s core message: the “Two Ways to Live” framework.

For those not familiar with “Two Ways to Live”

For those not familiar with Two Ways To Live, let me give a brief explanation. It seeks to express the bible’s core storyline in six key truths, represented in six pictures. Like a map, it is not exhaustive; like a map, it begins to provide a good sense of the important features.

Here are the six pictures (images Copyright © Matthias Media 1995):

11. God is the loving ruler of the world.

He made the world.

He made us rulers of the world under him.

Revelation 4:11


22. We all reject the ruler – God – by trying to run life our own way without him.

But we fail to rule ourselves or society or the world.

Romans 3:10-12



33. God won’t let us rebel forever.

God’s punishment for rebellion is death and judgment.

Hebrews 9:27



44. Because of his love, God sent his Son into the world: the man Jesus Christ.

Jesus always lived under God’s rule.

Yet by dying in our place he took our punishment and brought forgiveness.

1 Peter 3:18


55. God raised Jesus to life again as ruler of the world.

Jesus has conquered death, now gives new life, and will return to judge.

1 Peter 1:3



66. The Two Ways to Live:

A. Our way: Reject the ruler—God;  Try to run life our own way

Result: Condemned by God; Facing death and judgment

B. God’s new way: Submit to Jesus as our ruler; Rely on Jesus’ death and resurrection

Result: Forgiven by God; Given eternal life

John 3:36


Let me sound a note of caution at this point. Two Ways To Live is a helpful framework to use but, as I stressed in the post about the Christian academic’s full body workout, the level of sophistication with which we understand the Christian faith should keep pace with the level of sophistication with which we engage with our academic disciplines. Our need is not to move on from the truths sketched in Two Ways to Live, but to deepen our knowledge of them, teasing out their implications for all aspects of the Christian worldview.
Two Pratt, Every Thought Captiveresources I can recommend for going deeper in this way are Richard Pratt’s Every Thought Captive: A Study Manual for the Defense of the Christian Faith, and John Frame’s lecture course on “Christian Apologetics”, available on iTunesU. Both of these resources contribute to showing how the map of biblical truths richly shapes a Christian understanding of the whole of life. To take just one example, in relation to box 1 of Two Ways to Live Frame shows how the Christian understanding of God as being both personal (not an impersonal force or ‘first mover’) and absolute (not part of the universe he created) has far-reaching consequences for an understanding of ethics, the world and human life.

As we familiarise ourselves with an ever more detailed “map” of the Christian faith we will be better equipped to understand how the bible might inform our approach to our academic disciplines. But this is not the only map we need to be drawing. It is also profitable to map our disciplines themselves, and it is to this less familiar task that I now turn.

Mapping an academic discipline

Most academic disciplines do not tell a historical story in the way that the bible does, but they can still usefully be mapped.  The disciplines we work in are not just piles of facts or ideas, any more than the bible is just a pile of verses; they have their own narratives, assumptions and goals. Mapping a discipline can help us better understand the major structural themes that undergird it. It is a useful exercise for any academic, Christian or not.

I suggest that it is useful to begin mapping a discipline by taking six boxes, like the Two Ways to Live outline. Six is not a magic number  but it is a manageable number, and we need to keep in mind that the aim of the exercise is to gain an overview, not to give an exhaustive account.

The following six boxes do not map directly onto the six truths of Two Ways to Live, but they do provide a tool to distill an academic discipline into categories similar to those used by Two Ways To Live.

I invite you to complete the following exercise: In each box, summarise the way in which your discipline tends to think about the issue raised in the box’s title. Below the six boxes I have suggested some questions you might want to ask yourself in order to help you think what to write.

Six boxes for mapping a discipline

Ontology: what exists?

  • What is the first principle or beginning point in the discipline?
  • What is assumed rather than argued for?
  • What assumptions does everybody (or nearly everybody) in your discipline make, but nobody question?
  • What are the historical origins of this discipline? What is it reacting against or trying to renew?

Anthropology: what is a human being?

  • What is the implicit or explicit view of what a human being is and how we function? Possible responses might be ‘we are most fundamentally intelligent animals’; ‘we are understood as data processing machines’; ‘we are understood primarily as consumers’

Ethics: what is right and wrong?

  • What is or are the major problem(s) that my discipline is trying to fix or address?
  • According to my discipline, what is wrong with the world? What is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’?
  • What is a virtuous thing to do in my discipline?
  • What is the worst thing you could possibly say or do, academically, in the eyes of your colleagues?
  • What is the one thing that, if you said it at an academic conference in your discipline, you would get heckled and people would walk out?
  • For your discipline, who are the “baddies”?

Soteriology: what is the solution to our problems?

  • What is the solution to the problem identified in box 3? How are the consequences of the problem to be addressed?
  • What are we fixing? How and why are we fixing it?

Epistemology: How do we know?

  • How will we know whether the solution from box 4 has worked?
  • What is the measure of victory/success?
  • More broadly: what gets measured in my discipline? And what doesn’t get measured? (For many disciplines it is true that what doesn’t get measured doesn’t exist)

Eschatology: what is the endgame?

  • What meaning(s) does all of the above give to human history and human life?
  • What is life all about, according to my discipline?
  • If the leaders of your discipline became the leaders of the world, what would the world look like?
  • For individual methodologies or positions: what bigger story is this part of? What story is being told and what are its values and assumptions? What other stories are not being told?
  • If everything in the world went just as the leaders of my discipline want it to go, what would the world look like (what is your disciplinary ‘heaven’?)
  • If everything that my discipline fears, warns about and tries to fix came true all at once, what would the world look like (what is your disciplinary ‘hell’?)

In order to answer some of the questions, you might find it helpful to start by thinking of an explicit goal of your discipline and drawing an “assumptions pyramid” (I’ll explain what that means in a future post) to find what that goal takes for granted. However, even with assumptions pyramids and a strong cup of coffee you might well find this exercise unusually taxing. It can be difficult to unearth guiding principles and assumptions that lie below the surface, but Christians should be well placed to do that spade work. After all, Christians are used to living in a culture that does not share many of their assumptions and truths; how many people in the institutions for which you work would respond to the truths of Two Ways To Live with the reply “but of course; that’s just how I see the world too”? We are used to our Christian view being in a minority, and having to think it through and defend it from first principles, and the current exercise is merely asking us to extend the same sort of self-awareness and thoughtfulness to an academic discipline.

Take some time to work through the six boxes for your own discipline, your sub-discipline, or even one particular thinker or theoretician in your area.

So you’ve mapped your discipline. Now what?

  • First of all, well done! You’ve taken an important step towards better understanding and serving the academic community of which you are part, and towards coming to terms with that community’s deep structures.
  • As you continue reading and constructively serving in your discipline, be aware of the moves it is making, the bigger picture that makes sense of those moves, and the set of assumptions into which they fit. Understand why certain things are written about often, others seldom and some never. Understand not only what your discipline says, but why it says it (in the two senses of “based on what assumptions?” and “to what end?”). Make sure that you understand your discipline well, so that you can ‘walk in its shoes’.
  • Now that you have a map of the Christian faith and a map of your discipline, you can begin the slow and careful process of understanding the latter in terms of the former. Which features of the map do your faith and your discipline share? Where are they most at variance, and why? At what points might the map of the discipline helpfully show the way to neglected features on the Christian map, and vice versa?
  • Don’t feel you now need to go away and reinvent your discipline overnight, or start shouting about its assumptions right away. Take Nicholas Wolterstorff’s advice and let your understanding of your discipline develop slowly.

Tim Keller shows how overwork and underwork are symptoms of the same disease, and Francis Schaeffer helps us find the right balance between optimism and pessimism

Every Good Endeavor

In this brief interview between Tim Keller and Matt Smethurst about Keller’s book Every Good Endeavour: Connecting your Work to God’s Work, the point that I found particularly helpful was Keller’s diagnosis of how “the counternarrative of the gospel addresses our propensity to idolize or demonize, to overwork or underwork”. This repeats a characteristic move of Keller’s, showing how the gospel saves us from both horns of a dilemma by cutting across it with a third option that resolves to neither of its dichotomous alternatives. He does the same in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, splitting the horns of self-importance and self-loathing by arguing that the bible encourages us to look away from ourselves towards God and others.

In Every Good Endeavor, it seems that Keller similarly groups together overwork and underwork, naïve utopianism and cynical disillusionment, as symptoms of the same disease of failing to have a gospel understanding of our work. Keller’s explanation of how the gospel helps us avoid both pitfalls takes the same form as his argument for why Christians should make the best cultural critics:

The gospel includes the news that the problem with the world is sin—sin in all of us, sin marring everything—and the only hope is God’s grace. That prevents us from locating the real problem in any created thing (demonizing something that is God-created and good) or locating the real solution in any created thing (idolizing something limited and fallen). Also, the Bible lets us know that while Christ’s kingdom is already here, it is not yet fully here. We are saved, but still very imperfect, yet we live in the certainty that love and goodness will triumph in the world and in us.

In short, we have no reason to become too angry or too sanguine about any trend or object or influence. We have no reason to become too optimistic or too pessimistic. In the book we argue that this balanced gospel-view of life has an enormous effect on how we work. Christian journalists should not be too cynical, nor should they write puff pieces or propaganda. Christian artists should be neither nihilistic and unremittingly dark (as so much contemporary art is), nor sentimental, saccharine, or strictly commercial (doing whatever sells). Christians in business should avoid both the “this company will change the world” hype or cynically “working for the weekend.”

Does this mean we need to be cynical and propagandistic in equal measure? I don’t think it does. What it means is that there is always hope in our critique, and always caution in our praise, when we are addressing earthly ideas or events. It also seems right and biblical to me that there should be a general predisposition in the Christian academic’s outlook to seek the positive. Francis Schaeffer characterised the negative as the “minor key” of Christian art, with hope and the positive as the “major key”. Now of course the proportion of the major and minor keys depends in each case on the context in which a particular work of art is being made or in which argument is being formed, but taken as a general principle we Christians should be striking the major chords more often than the minor. As Keller says in the interview above, “We are saved, but still very imperfect, yet we live in the certainty that love and goodness will triumph in the world and in us.”

The balance is nicely summed up by Paul’s conditional clauses in Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

In the academic world I witness both naïve utopianism and cynical disillusionment around me all the time, and struggle to avoid both those pitfalls myself. Every Good Endeavor is a book I have yet to read, but I am grateful to Keller for expressing the danger, and its solution, so clearly, and I look forward to picking up a copy.

Online Lectures–Christianity and the Life of the Mind: An Introduction (Developing a Christian Mind at Oxford)

DCM at Oxford

In February 2014 the Oxford Christian Mind group held a day conference entitled Christianity and the Life of the Mind: An Introduction. The sessions were recorded and are available on the DCMOxford site, and there is also a short bibliography at the bottom of the page.

Here is the purpose statement of the conference:

What does our calling to be disciples of Christ mean for our academic vocation (whether temporary as students or longer term as a career)? What are some of the promises and pitfalls of the scholarly life? How can academics and postgraduate students serve and relate to the wider body of Christ (the Church)?

We believe that considering these questions is a matter of Christian discipleship for graduate students and postdocs of faith. Through lectures and discussion, the ‘Christianity and the Life of the Mind’ conference creates space for an academic and personal introduction to the aim of ‘Developing a Christian Mind at Oxford’.

All Christian academics need to see this: The Illustrated Guide to a PhD, by Matt Might

If you are a grad student or university professor and you haven’t seen Matt Might’s “The Illustrated Guide to a PhD” yet, do it now.

In twelve pictures Matt nails both the greatness and the insignificance of pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge. Perhaps most helpfully for Christian academics, he gives a vivid visual demonstration of how we have a tendency to over-emphasise the importance of our own small patch of knowledge. There is a tendency for all of us, I think, to think of our own area of study as secretly the most important, and we choose a scale of importance that will–conveniently–place us at the top. Shelley proclaimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Even if you are not an English lit major, I bet you can have a good guess at what Shelley did.

Let us be wary of choosing scales of value that place us and what we do on the top rung of the ladder of importance. All the departments and schools of the modern university are important. Our own research has its importance but it is limited and circumscribed, as Matt Might’s diagrams brilliantly show.

Let’s read Pascal (15): Is your professional seniority making you a knowledgeable fool?

Let's Read Pascal

We take it for a granted that, as a general rule, gaining increased seniority in our chosen profession betokens a deeper knowledge. Postdocs know more than doctoral students; lecturers know more than postdocs; professors know most of all. Though in most cases this is undoubtedly true, there is also a concomitant danger that accompanies seniority. I will let Pascal explain it in his own words:


Hence it happens that if any have some interest in being loved by us, they are averse to render us a service which they know to be disagreeable. They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us.

So each degree of good fortune which raises us in the world removes us farther from truth, because we are most afraid of wounding those whose affection is most useful and whose dislike is most dangerous. A prince may be the byword of all Europe, and he alone will know nothing of it. I am not astonished. To tell the truth is useful to those to whom it is spoken, but disadvantageous to those who tell it, because it makes them disliked. Now those who live with princes love their own interests more than that of the prince whom they serve; and so they take care not to confer on him a benefit so as to injure themselves.

The higher we climb in academia, the less likely it is that, in our own group or department, people will speak to us the hard truth that helps us at the expense of injuring them. I don’t just mean the truth about the ideas for which we argue in our papers: anyone can critique those, and to challenge someone’s ideas can often be a way of affirming their competence and dignity, not questioning it. I mean the way we treat our “inferiors” in the pecking order, the way we run our labs, the time we take to complete those tasks that do not directly benefit us but help others in the field. It becomes less likely that we are challenged about those aspects of our behaviour. In other words, I am talking not about knowledge but about wisdom. As we rise in the academic hierarchy we will be more knowledgeable, but it will also be easier for us to survive unchallenged as knowledgeable fools.

Christian Academics: Is your understanding of your faith three thousand miles wide and half an inch deep?

In a previous post I talked about the difference between intensive and extensive reading, and the importance of finding a balance between the two. The same terms can be applied to our faith. It is easy to live an exclusively extensive Christianity today: our coverage may be wide, but we don’t let God’s word sink in and we don’t allow ourselves enough time in reading or in meditation to develop deep or acute reflections on it. We know what the latest books are, and we know what we think about them, but we haven’t read them. We know what the latest controversies in our denomination are, but we (I very much include myself) haven’t set aside serious amounts of time to pray about them. We read the bible and move on; we go to church and move on; we pray and move on; we do our academic work and move on…

In an article entitled “What is the Future of Evangelicalism?: Evangelicalism Now” in an edition of Modern Reformation called Evangelicalism’s Winter, J. I. Packer laments that:

It has often been said that Christianity in North America is 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep. Something similar is true, by all accounts, in Africa and Asia, and (I can testify to this) in Britain also.

I think a good case can be made that as Christian academics we bear a particular responsibility in this respect. Not to deny that all Christians should be encouraged to be readers and deep thinkers, each to the measure of our ability, time and resources–of course not–but we academics spend much of our lives honing skills of close reading, analysis and interpretation: a luxury to which most do not have access. And “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).

So, fellow Christian academic, how deep is your understanding of your faith? As deep as your understanding of your academic discipline? Is your grasp of your faith three thousand miles wide but half an inch deep? If so, you are skating on thin ice, and you might want to head over to the Christian academic’s full body workout, or become a paleolibricist.

Calling all Christian academic buffalo herders

Buffalo herder

In a very thought-provoking conversation with Nicholas Wolterstorff on the nature of Christian scholarship, Alvin Plantinga voices a concern that Christians in disciplines other than philosophy are “too buffaloed by the whole academic establishment of the discipline in question”, and there is a “premium on fitting in and conformity with the way things are done”. He could be giving an illustration of Pascal’s account of custom: we humans have a tendency to fit in with the culture around us to the point where it becomes a “second nature” that we stop questioning.

While we Christian academics have no interest in being the weird uncle, neither do we want to be “buffaloed” by our disciplines and completely lose control over our own research trajectories as we chase after the latest disciplinary faddish stampede. We need the instinct, the courage and the hard graft of the buffalo herder, willing to sidestep and, if need be, marshal and direct the beasts of academic fashion in the midst of which we move.

In the video below the relevant segment begins at around 34:50…