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.

Let’s read Keller (5): Are you known as a Christian at work through guilt, or through grace?

Let's read Keller


If doing the right thing can be hard, doing it for the right reason is often even harder. In this passage from Every Good Endeavor, Keller challenges not just our willingness to be known as a Christian in the workplace, but also the different possible motivations behind that willingness:

If you are merely inspired by an example—you want to be like Esther, or you want to be more like the people the Hispanic pastor said we needed—then your basic motivation is probably guilt. It could be guilt over selfishness, guilt over elitism, even guilt over ungratefulness. And those may be the right place to start! But if guilt is the extent of your motivation, you can be sure it will wear off before long because living in a new way will be hard.

Or, you might get inspired, but overreact. So often I have seen people who have previously kept secret about their faith and who overcompensate and become obnoxious. They decide to be an outspoken, principled person; they will not be like “those closeted Christians.” Yet they haven’t really left the palace because they are still getting their identity from their performance of a “better” kind of Christianity. They have not really changed; they are very self-righteously being more overt.


Esther was able to do what she did merely on the basis of a vague revelation that God is a god of grace. But now we know so much more! She didn’t know God was actually going to come to earth himself and do what she was doing on an infinitely greater scale, at an infinitely greater cost, with infinitely greater benefits to humanity. We now know so much more about his grace, our value to him, and our future. If you see what Jesus Christ has done for you, losing the ultimate palace for you, then you will be able to start to serve God and your neighbor from your place in the palace.

Let’s read Keller (2): the meanings behind ‘job’, ‘vocation’, ‘career’, ‘profession’

Let's read Keller

Tim Keller frames Every Good Endeavor in terms of the goal of recapturing the idea of vocation, entitling the introduction ‘The importance of recovering vocation’. He understands the notion in contradistinction to the “expressive individualism” that Robert Bellah identifies at the heart of American life in his classic Habits of the Heart (see here for a lecture by Bellah condensing some of the book’s main themes). Here is Keller’s summary of the term:

The Latin word vocare—to call—is at the root of our common word “vocation.” Today the word often means simply a job, but that was not the original sense. A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests.

This summary made me curious to search out the etymology of other words we use to describe the work we do: ‘job’, ‘occupation’, ‘career’, ‘employment’, ‘profession’, ‘position’, ‘trade’, ‘livelihood’ and ‘work’ itself. What do these words say about the way we conceptualise work and the meaning with which we invest it? Armed with the trusty OED (surely one of my desert island books!), here are my findings. For each word below I begin with my summary of where I think the focus of the term lies, and then I paste selected fruits of my OED research (I found the etymology of ‘career’ particularly interesting).


JOB, n. Focus: the discrete task or ‘thing to be done’

1. a. A piece of work; esp. a small and discrete piece of work done as part of one’s regular occupation or profession.

2. a. An isolated or casual piece of work, undertaken for a one-off payment or on a hire basis. Hence also (depreciative): a task or transaction performed perfunctorily or opportunistically for profit.

4.  a. A task, a thing to be done; an operation, a procedure; a function to be fulfilled.

Etymology:  Origin uncertain. The fact that the word is earliest attested in the phrase job of work at Phrases 1 (see quot.1557-8 at sense 1a) suggests that ‘work’ may not originally have been part of the core meaning of the word. If the sense was originally ‘piece’, then the word may be a spec. use of JOB n.3 (A cartload; the amount that a horse and cart can bring at one time)


OCCUPATION, n. Focus: that which takes up our time.

II. 4.  b. A particular action or course of action in which a person is engaged, esp. habitually; a particular job or profession; a particular pursuit or activity.

c1390   CHAUCER Melibeus 2781   He that..casteth hym to no bisynesse ne occupacion.

?1577   G. BUCHANAN Let. in Vernac. Writings (1892) 58   As to my occupation at thys present tyme, I am besy with our story of Scotland.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Othello (1622) III. iii. 362   Farewell, Othello’s Occupation’s gone.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman occupacion, occupacioun, occupaciun, ocupacioun and Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French occupation activity, employment (c1175)


EMPLOYMENT, n. Focus: takes the worker as the object, framing him/her as the passive recipient of work granted by an employer. The person who is ‘employed’ is ‘applied’ or ‘put to work’. It could almost stand as a secular equivalent of ‘vocation’.

2. An activity in which a person engages; a pursuit. Also as a mass noun: activity, occupation. Now rare (somewhat arch.).

4.  a. The action or fact of using or employing a person to perform a task, carry out a service, etc. In later use chiefly: the hiring of a person to undertake paid work, esp. in return for wages or a salary under an employment contract. Also: an instance of this.

b. The state or condition of being so employed; the state of working for an employer, esp. in return for wages. Chiefly in in (also into, out of) employment.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman imploier, Anglo-Norman and Middle French emploier, Middle Frenchemployer (French employer ) to use or apply (for a purpose), to put to work (c1100 in Old French), to engage (someone) in an occupation (12th cent.), to occupy (time) with an activity (c1220), to allocate, assign (14th cent.), to bestow (a gift, etc.)


CAREER, n. Focus: The focus here is on intensity, competitiveness and advancement. A term originally applied to animals.

Etymology:  < French carrière racecourse; also career, in various senses; = Italian carriera, Provençal carriera, Spanish carrera road, carrer < late Latin carrāria (via) carriage-road, road, <carrus wagon.

1. a. The ground on which a race is run, a racecourse; (also) the space within the barrier at a tournament.

2. a. Of a horse: A short gallop at full speed (often in phr. to pass a career ). Also a charge, encounter (at a tournament or in battle).Obs.

3. a. By extension: A running, course (usually implying swift motion); formerly [like French carrière] applied spec. to the course of the sun or a star through the heavens. Also abstr. Full speed, impetus: chiefly in phrases like in full career, †to take, give (oneself or some thing) career , etc., which were originally terms of horsemanship (see 2).

5.  b. In modern language (after French carrière) freq. used for: A course of professional life or employment, which affords opportunity for progress or advancement in the world. Freq. attrib. (orig. U.S.), esp.  (a) designating one who works permanently in the diplomatic service or other profession, opp. one who enters it at a high level from elsewhere;  (b) career girl, career woman, etc., one who works permanently in a profession, opp. one who ceases full-time work on marrying. Also,   careers master n. a schoolteacher who advises and helps pupils in choosing careers.,  career mistress n. = careers master n.

1927   Lit. Digest 25 June 14/2   The foundation of any sound Foreign Service must consist of ‘career men’ who have become expert.

1931   F. J. STIMSON My United States xviii. 190   The career professors look somewhat askance at one who comes in from the outside world—just as career secretaries in diplomacy do upon a chief who has not gone through all the grades.


PROFESSION, n. Focus: work in which some body of knowledge or field is mastered and then declared or expressed.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman professioun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French profession (French profession ) declaration of faith (1155 as professiun ), vows taken when entering a religious order (c1174), condition, occupation (1362 as prophecie ; 1404 as prophecion ; a1417 asprofession ; 1495 as profection ), action of teaching publicly, professorship (1596) and its etymon classical Latin professiōn-, professiō open declaration, avowal, public declaration of one’s person and property, public register of people and property, vocation or occupation that one publicly avows

1.  b. Any solemn declaration, promise, or vow.

4. a. The declaration of belief in and obedience to religion, or of acceptance of and conformity to the faith and principles of any religious community; (hence) the faith or religion which a person professes.

II. Senses relating to professional occupation. 7.  a. An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. Also occas. as mass noun: occupations of this kind. In early use applied spec. to the professions of law, the Church, and medicine, and sometimes extended also to the military profession.

1605   BACON Of Aduancem. Learning II. sig. Aa3,   Amongst so many great Foundations of Colledges in Europe, I finde strange that they are all dedicated to Professions, and none left free to Artes and Sciences at large.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 21. ¶1   The three great Professions of Divinity, Law, and Physick.

4. b. More widely: any occupation by which a person regularly earns a living.N.E.D. (1908) notes: ‘Now usually applied to an occupation considered to be socially superior to a trade or handicraft; but formerly, and still in vulgar (or humorous) use, including these.’


POSITION, n. Focus: place within a predetermined constellation; connotation of comparison to others.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman posicion, posicioun and Middle French posicion, position, Frenchposition situation, site (late 13th cent. in Old French), thesis, assertion, statement (late 13th cent., earliest in a legal context; now spec. ‘tenet, point of doctrine’ (late 14th cent. or earlier in this sense; rare before 1690)), act of laying down (early 14th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman in a legal context)

3. d. The particular location allocated to an employee, esp. the place occupied by each cashier along a service counter.

1937   Times 25 Oct. 21/1   Our operators on the great 24-position switchboard deal with an average of 45,000 calls per day.

8.  a. fig. A relation in which a person stands with respect to another or others; a person’s circumstances, condition, or situation, esp. as affecting his or her influence, role, or power to act; spec. (freq. insocial position) status, rank, standing.

8. b. In a contest or competitive event: the place or standing of a contestant or competitor in relation to the others. In a specified category, field, etc.: the status or rank of any of those included in relation to the others.

c. A post as an employee; a paid office, a job.

1846   DICKENS Dombey & Son (1848) i. 4   Mr. Pilkins here, who from his position of medical adviser in this family—no one better qualified to fill that position, I am sure.


TRADE, n. Focus: habitual work. The track, course or way of work taken by an individual.

Etymology:  < Middle Low German trade (trâ ) feminine, track (Schiller & Lubben), Low German trade (traan < traden ) track (Bremisch. Wbch.); also West Flemish tra ( < trade ) walk, march, course (De Bo), < Old Saxon trada strong feminine, footstep, track = Old High German trata , Middle High German trate , trat strong feminine, footstep, trace, track, way, passage, < West Germanic ablaut-series tred- , trad- to TREAD v. Apparently introduced into English in 14th cent. from Hanseatic Middle Low German, perhaps originally in nautical language for the ‘course or track’ of a ship; afterwards used in other senses of Middle English trede TREAD n.

1. a. A course, way, path; (with possessive or of) the course trodden by a person, followed by a ship, etc.; = TREAD n. 3 common trade, a public thoroughfare. Obs.

5.  a. The practice of some occupation, business, or profession habitually carried on, esp. when practised as a means of livelihood or gain; a calling; formerly used very widely, including professions; now usually applied to a mercantile occupation and to a skilled handicraft, as distinct from a profession (PROFESSION n. 7a), and spec. restricted to a skilled handicraft, as distinguished from a professional or mercantile occupation on the one hand, and from unskilled labour on the other.in trade, following a mercantile occupation, spec. that of a shop-keeper. In earliest use not clearly distinguishable from 3; the sense is developed by contextual additions, as trade (i.e. practice) of husbandry , trade of merchandise, trade of fishing, etc.

1601   Act 43 Eliz. c. 2 §1   For settinge to worke all such persons..[who] use no ordinarie or dailie trade of lief to get their livinge by.

a1616   SHAKESPEARE Julius Caesar (1623) I. i. 12   Mur. But what Trade art thou? Answer me directly… Fla. Thou art a Cobler, art thou?


LIVELIHOOD, n. Focus: Means to the end of living.

Etymology:  < LIFE n. + Old English lād course, journey, way, maintenance, support (see LOAD n., LODEn.). Compare Old High German lībleita food, provisions, means of living. The β. forms show remodelling of the ending by association with nouns in -HOOD suffix, and probably also subsequent remodelling by association with LIVELY adj

1. The course of a person’s life, lifetime; kind or manner of life; conduct. Obs.

2. a. A (person’s) means of living. Also as a mass noun: means of living; maintenance, sustenance. Esp. in to earn (also gain, get, make,or seek) a livelihood .

c1300   St. Mary of Egypt (Laud) l. 18 in C. Horstmann Early S.-Eng. Legendary (1887) 261 (MED),   With spinningue and with seuwingue, hire liflode heo wan.

1711   J. ADDISON Spectator No. 94. ¶8   He set himself to think on proper Methods for getting a Livelihood in this strange Country.

b. (A person’s) physical sustenance; an instance of this. Also: food, provisions.

a1382   Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Bodl. 959) (1961) Deut. ii. 28   Liflodys by prise sul to vs þat we etyn.


WORK, n. Focus: The most general of all the terms considered here. Implies effort, and can be used of human or nonhuman actors.

Etymology:  Old English weorc = Old Frisian, Old Saxon, (Middle) Low German, (Middle) Dutch werk, Old High German werah , werc (Middle High German werch , werc , German werk ), Old Norse verk(Swedish, Danish verk ) < Old Germanic *werkom (see WORK v.); cognate are Greek ἔργον , Armeniangorc , Avestan varəza- activity.

I. 1.  a. Something that is or was done; what a person does or did; an act, deed, proceeding, business; in pl. actions, doings (often collectively =3). arch. or literary in gen. sense.

1.  c. Qualified by phr. with of expressing the moral quality of the action, as a work or works of charity, of darkness, of mercy , etc.

2.  a. Something to be done, or something to do; what a person (or thing) has or had to do; occupation, employment, business, task, function.

1598   SHAKESPEARE Henry IV, Pt. 1 II. iv. 105   Fie vpon this quiet life, I want worke.

1604   SHAKESPEARE Hamlet V. ii. 274   The point inuenom’d to, then venome to thy worke.

4. a. Action involving effort or exertion directed to a definite end, esp. as a means of gaining one’s livelihood; labour, toil; (one’s) regular occupation or employment.

8. Physics and Mech. The operation of a force in producing movement or other physical change, esp. as a definitely measurable quantity: see quots.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 52   The work done does not depend on the pressure alone.

1832   W. WHEWELL First Princ. Mech. iv. 53   The work done by a machine may be represented as certain pressures exerted through certain spaces.


My aim in offering these etymological reflections is not to draw any trite conclusions about which of these terms Christians should and should not use. I see the aim of this post more as a consciousness-raising exercise, both for myself and for readers of this blog: there are many different ways of considering our work (in terms of our position in a hierarchy, the effort involved, the body of knowledge we deploy, the fact of being given work by someone else, work as a means to the end of living…) and no doubt each term is appropriate in particular contexts. Nevertheless, I am struck by how all the terms apart from ‘vocation’ situate work on a predominantly horizontal level, focusing on our relation to other people and to the product of our labour, but not to God. For this reason, I am minded to echo Keller’s call to recover the concept of ‘vocation’ today. It reminds us of the origin, the goal, the standard and the authority of our work.

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:

You probably know what you are doing in your job, but do you know who you are doing it for?

As Christians in academia we probably have a pretty good idea of what we want to do: what experiments we want to conduct, what papers or books we want to write, and what ideas we want to critique. We spend quite a lot of time thinking about and planning these things. But how much time do we spend thinking about who we are doing it all for? If your experience is anything like mine, the answer is probably “very little”.

We have mentioned before on this blog the academic temptation working for ourselves and not for God. Here is a passage from D. A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation that makes the same point in relation to Christian service more broadly:

The Christian’s whole desire, at its best and highest, is that Jesus Christ be praised. It is always a wretched bastardization of our goals when we want to win glory for ourselves instead of for him. When we arrange flowers in the church, or serve as an usher, or preach a sermon; when we visit the sick, or run a youth group, or attend prayer meeting—when we do any of these things, and more, with the secret desire that we might be praised for our godliness and service, we have corrupted the salvation we enjoy. Its purpose is to reconcile us to God, for God must be the center of our lives, the ground and the goal of our existence. Indeed, Christ himself, the agent of God in creation, is the one of whom Paul elsewhere declares that all things were made by him and for him (Col. 1:16). Lying at the heart of all sin is the desire to be the center, to be like God. So if we take on Christian service, and think of such service as the vehicle that will make us central, we have paganized Christian service; we have domesticated Christian living and set it to servitude in a pagan cause.

Who are you working for?

A beautiful poem about the meaningfulness of work undertaken for God: Eventide by John McCrae

This beautiful poem will well repay the moments you spend meditating on it. It shows how as Christians we can “see through” our work to the horizon of God’s rest to which it points, and how this, in Geroge Herbert’s words, makes drudgery divine.
The day is past and the toilers cease;
The land grows dim ‘mid the shadows grey,
And hearts are glad, for the dark brings peace
At the close of day.

Each weary toiler, with lingering pace,
As he homeward turns, with the long day done,
Looks out to the west, with the light on his face
Of the setting sun.

Yet some see not (with their sin-dimmed eyes)
The promise of rest in the fading light;
But the clouds loom dark in the angry skies
At the fall of night.

And some see only a golden sky
Where the elms their welcoming arms stretch wide
To the calling rooks, as they homeward fly
At the eventide.

It speaks of peace that comes after strife,
Of the rest He sends to the hearts He tried,
Of the calm that follows the stormiest life —
God’s eventide.

John McCrae

Let’s read Pascal (11): Pascal, Cicero, and the role of the Christian academic as gold smelter

Let's Read Pascal

In a one-sentence pensée, Pascal casually refers to Cicero:


All the false beauties which we blame in Cicero have their admirers, and in great number.

Pascal is not name-dropping here; Cicero forms part of his intellectual landscape, and he sees fit to make reference to him in this thought. Just like Paul at the Areopagus, Pascal makes use of proverbs and maxims of pagan origin in his arguments. In the Pensées he displays at least an acquaintance with Cicero, Pliny, Seneca, Tacitus, Virgil and Horace, in addition to Augustine, Thomas, Josephus and the Qur’an. In addition, he demonstrates a familiarity with the work of antagonists closer to his own day: Montaigne, Pico della Mirandola and Descartes.

This is far from uncommon in great Christian thinkers. Calvin’s first published work (hardly juvenilia and certainly formative) was an edition of Seneca’s De Clementia in 1532, and he is not averse to quoting and referring to Cicero and Seneca in the Institutes. More often than not he disagrees with them (though not always), but what strikes me is that he has read them and can wield their writings in argument. Even the bibline-blooded Luther sees fit to make over fifty references each to Cicero, Virgil and, yes, even Aristotle in Table Talk. Augustine peppers his work with references to and quotations from Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Homer and Pliny (among others), and indeed reminds his readers in On Christian Doctrine that

if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.

The rest of this section (II,40,60) is worth quoting in full:

For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,–that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,–we must take and turn to a Christian use.

Augustine, Calvin, Luther and Pascal had no qualms about walking away from a good secular book with their pockets stuffed with gold, and then smelting down this gold—so laboriously dug up from God’s rich seams by the secular author—in order to return it to its rightful use in the service of God. As an aside, as I write I am trying to think of a widely read Christian book written in the last twenty years that makes similar use of secular learning. I dare say there are some, but none come readily to mind.

Here’s where I think all this hits the road for us Christian academics (and I don’t just mean professors: postgrads and postdocs count yourselves in). Perhaps for all of us, and certainly for some of us, one of our roles is as the church’s gold smelters. As we chew through reams of secular learning there will be, if we believe in common grace, “also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God”. We need to gather up that laboriously extracted gold and smelt it down so that it is usable by our local churches and by God’s Church more broadly. This might consist in anything from a quick email to the pastor giving a head’s up on an interesting book or offering a paragraph-length review of it, to writing articles for Christian journals or websites about current trends in scholarship, to giving seminars to Christian audiences… The mode which the smelting takes is not the important thing; what is important is to take the very best of secular learning in all fields and carefully, discriminatingly, consider how it might be put to the service of the church. As Nicholas Wolterstorff reminds us, the answer may not come overnight, but if we never ask the question it will surely never come at all. We may or may not have the theological chops to work through all the ideas from a Christian point of view, but we can at least be that important link between what the best secular thinkers are saying and what is nourishing God’s church.

Just as Augustine, Calvin and Pascal fed their understanding of God’s word and God’s world with the best of secular learning (while of course also dismissing the worst of it), and just as they sharpened their understanding of God and his word by contrasting it with acute secular thinking, who is better placed than we who work in academia to mediate the best of contemporary secular learning to today’s church? If not we, then who?

Christian academia and the peace (שׁלום, shalom) of Jeremiah (1 of 2)

In a previous post I commented on the importance Sir Donald Hay gives to the biblical notion of shalom in his understanding of what it means to be a Christian academic. In the present post I want to think a little more carefully about what shalom is and how it is an important idea of the Christian academic.

Shalom embraces and gathers together a number of related ideas. For the most part translated ‘peace’, it can also mean to be well with somebody (i.e. ‘Is it well with him?’), or to denote being in good health; it can be used as a greeting (and still is today); it can denote prosperity, safety, peace as opposed to war, and rest, as well as favour and wholeness.

We have no English equivalent, but in the round it means something like peace, prosperity, rest, wholeness and flourishing, all rolled into one: a holistic view of economic, social and spiritual flourishing. Cornelius Plantinga explains it as “the webbing together of God, humans and all creation in equity, fulfillment and delight”, and Tim Keller has the following gloss:

When the prophets (like Isaiah) describe shalom, they assume it means spiritual conversion and true worship but also social justice for the poor and cultural products that glorify God, not ‘man.’ So God is calling believers to seek the full range of human renewal in the city—individual, spiritual, communal, social, cultural.

It is the word the ESV uses to translate ‘welfare’ in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles from Jerusalem now living in Babylon:

 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  5  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  6  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  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. 8  For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream,  9  for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.  10  “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  11  For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for shalom and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.  (Jeremiah 29:4-7)


Shalom and academia: not what we can get, but what we can give

First of all, in verses 5 and 6, God’s injunction through Jeremiah is a recapitulation of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28:

  • “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce” is expressing the same idea as “subdue [the earth] and have dominion”)
  • “Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” is reiterating the command in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.

Then, in verse 7, the exiles from Jerusalem are to seek the shalom of the pagan, godless, violent, city of Babylon, and they are to pray for the city. They are to have no compunctions about serving this godless and, quite frankly, somewhat vile culture, and working for its prosperity, though of course the basis of shalom in all its fullness is that the LORD is worshipped and obeyed as King.

Before we go any further it would be wise to establish that the biblical historical context in which Jeremiah is writing the letter, namely exile, can be read and appropriated by us as New Testament believers in more or less the terms in which it is given, though of course we will read the passage through the lens of serving Christ. Indeed, exile language is applied directly to New Testament, post-resurrection believer by Peter at the opening of his first letter:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1Peter 1:1)

The ESV is correct to translate the word, parepidēmos, as ‘exiles’, but its meaning is more nuanced than that. It means ‘alien alongside’ or ‘resident foreigner’: neither someone who is just passing through, nor someone who feels completely and utterly at home where they are. As Christian academics, our relation to the culture—including the academic culture—in which we find ourselves is complex: we are not transient or hostile, spies or terrorists, and neither are we completely assimilated: we are “aliens alongside” our culture, standing shoulder to shoulder, but different and not, so to speak, at our final resting place.

And I want to suggest that this paradigm of exiled “aliens alongside”, working for the shalom of our university and national cultures, provides a further two building blocks for understanding our work in biblical categories.

First, it transforms the paradigm of our engagement with our disciplines, because we are not here for what we can get out of the academy, whether it be money or reputation or career; we are here to seek the all-round flourishing of the part of the culture with which we are engaged. We’re not here as spectators or as cynics; we’re here as servants.

And that is the only way to flourish as Christians in the academy, because if we’re here on the make, not just on the financial make but on the reputational make or on the research make, then we have assimilated; we are here to plunder the academy, and it has converted us. But likewise, if we are here to despise the academy, to decry its culture and scorn its triviality, if we are here only to make converts, if we’re tent-making without caring about the quality of the tents we make or the lives of those who will inhabit them, then we are not seeking our culture’s shalom either. Both these attitudes—assimilation and contempt—start with the same question: what can the academy provide for me? Assimilation answers ‘everything’ and contempt retorts ‘nothing’.

But Jeremiah 29 starts from a different question altogether: what can I give to the city, to the culture, to the academy? Both assimilation and contempt are about keeping power. Assimilation keeps power by not challenging the current norms, and contempt by teaching you to withdraw from the culture around you. But the gospel of God’s grace lavishly poured out on us through Christ’s death on the cross and the new life of his resurrection is too humbling for us to WANT to seek power, and too affirming for us to NEED to seek power over others.

Instead, we ask: What does it/would it mean for my discipline to flourish according to God’s definition of flourishing (which I don’t have time to go into now but has so much more to do with relationships than processes and structures)? For my department, or group, or faculty, to flourish? For culture to flourish? And how can I pour myself out to help make that to happen?

If we reject both assimilation and contempt and embrace the gospel, its truth shapes our perspective on our disciplines, notes Tim Keller:

 We must live in the city to serve all the peoples in it, not just our own tribe. We must lose our power to find our (true) power. Christianity will not be attractive enough to win influence except through sacrificial service to all people, regardless of their beliefs.

Keller cashes out this servant attitude in this way: it’s the sort of attitude that makes people say: “I don’t believe what they believe, but I can’t imagine the city without them. If they left, we would have to raise taxes.” Isn’t it the challenge of seeking shalom for us to be the people you can’t imagine the department without, who, if we left, they’d have to get more staff in to cover the deficit? It is a huge sacrificial challenge, and only one thing can prepare us for it: an ever deeper and firmer grasp of the gospel of the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

A prayer of Brother Lawrence

I turn my little omelet in the fire for the love of God. When it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and worship my God, who gave me this grace to make it, after which I arise happier than a king. When I can do nothing else, it is enough to have picked up a straw for the love of God. People look for ways of learning how to love God. They hope to attain it by I know not how many different practices. They take much trouble to abide in his presence by varied means. Is it not a shorter and more direct way to do everything for the love of God, to make use of all the tasks one’s lot in life demands to show him that love, and to maintain his presence within by the communion of our heart with his, there is nothing complicated about it. One has only to turn to it honestly and simply.

Turning George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’ into an academic prayer

George HerbertAs well as writing my own academic prayers I love the economy and precision of phrase in good poetry and find that it makes great prayer material as well. One of my favourite poems-cum-prayers is The Elixir, by George Herbert. It captures beautifully the spirit of Colossians 3:17 and 23-4:

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  […] Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

Amen! The poem is also in its own right one great answer to the question ‘How does being a Christian make a difference to the work and life of an academic?


TEACH me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for Thee.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into action ;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake ;
Nothing can be so mean
Which with his tincture (for Thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine :
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold ;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.