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.