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.

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?

Let’s read Pascal (22): Don’t underestimate the power of habit in shaping what you believe

Let's Read Pascal

There is a website that will tell you how many days of your life you have spent watching particular TV series.

According to “statistics brain”, in 2013 the average American watched 5.11 hours of television per day, or nine full years over a lifetime (though the Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to think that in 2012 it was 2.8 hours per day; either way, it’s quite an investment of time). According to the same site, the average American youth spends 900 hours a year in school, and 1200 hours a year watching TV, consuming 16000 thirty-second TV commercials over the same period. In 2005 the Guardian calculated that the average London commuter would see 130 adverts in a 45 minute journey through the capital, and in a day we are “exposed to” around 3500 advertising messages, though of course we cannot recall them all and we do not notice many of them consciously.

How many of those TV hours and how many of those adverts reflect a life that is lived, to quote Don Carson, with “eternity’s values in view”? Some, perhaps, but the overwhelming majority do not.

On a daily basis, we are enculturated (habituated, indoctrinated, evangelized, proselytized, brainwashed: choose your verb as a function of how insidious you find the situation) subtly and repeatedly into viewing the world and ourselves in a certain way. We are enculturated into wanting certain things (whether those “things” be objects, lifestyles, values or character traits) and, by default, into not wanting other things that are simply absent from the ambient enculturation.

What does this have to do with Pascal? The link is in the importance of recognising the role that habituation has in shaping who we are. The reader need not worry: this post will not turn into a tirade against capitalism or the marketing industry. I do however want briefly to explore how belief formation functions, both in relation to marketing and more broadly. In reading through the Pensées again this year, one of the book’s themes that has given me most pause for thought is Pascal’s insistence on the importance of custom (enculturation, habit) in the way we form beliefs. Here is one example from, pensée 252:

For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much automatic as intellectual; and hence it comes that the instrument by which conviction is attained is not demonstrated alone. How few things are demonstrated? Proofs only convince the mind. Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter. Who has demonstrated that there will be a to-morrow, and that we shall die? And what is more believed? It is, then, custom which persuades us of it; it is custom that makes so many men Christians; custom that makes them Turks, heathens, artisans, soldiers, etc. (Faith in baptism is more received among Christians than among Turks.)

Pensée 252 continues with Pascal stressing the importance of custom not just in arriving at beliefs, but at maintaining the beliefs we hold:

Finally, we must have recourse to it when once the mind has seen where the truth is, in order to quench our thirst, and steep ourselves in that belief, which escapes us at every hour; for always to have proofs ready is too much trouble. We must get an easier belief, which is that of custom, which, without violence, without art, without argument, makes us believe things, and inclines all our powers to this belief, so that out soul falls naturally into it. It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary. Both our parts must be made to believe, the mind by reasons which it is sufficient to have seen once in a lifetime, and the automaton by custom, and by not allowing it to incline to the contrary. Inclina cor meum, Deus. (“Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!”, Psalm 119:36)


I feel that it would take a whole book to tease out the consequences (and to question some of the assumptions) of what Pascal says here, but let me just touch on just one point in this post. It flows from the sentence “It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary”. In other words, we try in vain to believe something that cuts against the grain of our habits. This is why what we believe will always, ultimately, be linked to how we behave or, to put it another way, this is why epistemology is rightly understood as a branch of ethics. Our beliefs follow our behaviours as much as our behaviours follow our beliefs, and the cognitive/behavioural dissonance engendered by claiming to believe one thing while living as though the opposite thing were true will eventually resolve itself by either a change in belief or a change in behaviour.

This, I think, is the sense behind Pascal’s much maligned and almost always spectacularly misquoted advice to the skeptic to “Kneel down, say your prayers, and you will believe”, as if Pascal were goading us to pretend to have faith. Let me quote the relevant pensée (250) in full:

The external must be joined to the internal to obtain anything from God, that is to say, we must kneel, pray with the lips, etc., in order that proud man, who would not submit himself to God, may be now subject to the creature. To expect help from these externals is superstition; to refuse to join them to the internal is pride.

First of all, this pensée is not only talking about the unbeliever coming to faith, but about any prayerful encounter with God, whether by believer or unbeliever. Secondly, Pascal explicitly states the limits of the thought’s application in its final sentence: ‘To expect help from these externals is superstition; to refuse to join them to the internal is pride’. If I seek the Christ who did not come to be served but to serve, the Christ who made himself nothing, and the Christ sent by the God who “opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5), if I seek this Christ in a spirit of intellectual or moral pride then we will most likely not find him, however acute our reasoning powers. The whole person must come to God, not just the mind. Another way of putting this is that lifestyles and habits generate plausibility structures and restrict our freedom to believe certain things, regardless of whether those things happen to be true or not.

I don’t think there is anything more controversial here than saying that, if we are exposed to n hours of TV and n commercials per day, enculturating us into particular habits of mind and behaviour, our desires will increasingly reflect a proportion of the choices offered to us, rather than other choices that happen not to be offered (after all, the companies do not pay for advertising for disinterested aesthetic reasons). Similarly, we are likely to find ways of living not reflected in this enculturation to be alien and implausible.

These Pascalian reflections raise an interesting set of questions for Christian academics to ponder:

  • Are there any lifestyle choices, values or character traits that “fit” particularly well with my discipline?
  • If there are, why do they fit well? What do they reflect about the discipline itself? How, in turn, is the discipline formed by them?
  • How do these choices and values predispose the discipline to holding certain truths, and how do they make other truths seem implausible?
  • Is there any point at which my discipline and people in it are professing to believe one thing but behaving/writing as if a contrary thing were true?
  • Where does an enculturation into my discipline resonate with an enculturation into the values of God as revealed in the bible, and where is there the greatest dissonance between the two?

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.

Let’s read Pascal (14): “It is a deplorable thing to see all men deliberating on means alone, and not on the end”

Let's Read Pascal

If you are a Christian in academia, here is a question to ask about your discipline or sub-discipline: what are its goals or ends? How do people in your field justify doing what they do? There is always a rather mundane answer to this question: we do what we do so we can get a qualification that will lead to a job, or to keep our jobs so that we can put food on our family’s plates. But there are also bigger answers: in the story that your discipline tells about itself to the world, is it about improving global health, or efficiency, or knowledge?

Once you have an answer or answers to that question, ask again: Why is efficiency better than inefficiency? Why should everyone be healthy, and not just the rich? Why is having more knowledge better than having less? Pursue the question until you arrive at a value that cannot easily be reduced to anything more fundamental (examples might be the equality of all human beings, or human autonomy). The ends of our disciplines are informed by fundamental and often unspoken values that all successful scholars in the discipline share, but that are very rarely questioned or even discussed.

In the following pensée, Pascal highlights the way we can neglect the ends in our focus on means alone:


Bias leading to error.—It is a deplorable thing to see all men deliberating on means alone, and not on the end. Each thinks how he will acquit himself in his condition; but as for the choice of condition, or of country, chance gives them to us.

Similarly in the academy the final end for which a particular project or question is being pursued can emerge almost by chance, whereas the means to pursue it are poured over in minute detail and hotly debated.

What ends is your discipline pursuing? Why is your discipline pursuing them? What are the values it is necessary to hold in order to see those ends as desirable?  How do they compare to God’s ends and priorities as revealed in the bible?

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).

Christian academia and the wisdom (חכמה, chokmah) of Solomon

In this post I want to consider one word from the wisdom literature in the bible. It is the word for wisdom itself, transliterated into English as  chokmah. This word is used to describe what the fear of the LORD is the beginning of in psalm 111; it is what Bezalel and Oholiab are given when they make the tabernacle in Exodus 36; it is what God gives to Solomon; and it is what Job longs his comforters would show by shutting up (Job 13:5).

In Solomon’s proverbs he counsels his son:

Get chockmah, get understanding…. Do not forsake chockmah …. chockmah is supreme; therefore get chockmah. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding…. Accept what I say…. I guide you in the way of chockmah. (Proverbs 4:1-11)

So what is the wisdom that Solomon prizes so highly and wants his son to desire? In scripture it has many facets and it is built most fundamentally upon a fear of the LORD, but it also embraces what we would call “secular learning”. Listen to the description of Solomon’s own chokmah in 1 Kings 4:

 29 God gave Solomon wisdom (chokmah) and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s chokmah was greater than the chockmah of all the men of the East, and greater than all the chokmah of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34 Men of all nations came to listen to Solomon’s chokmah, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his chokmah. (1 Kings 4:29-34)

 The wisdom described in these verses that of a philosopher, poet, musician and natural scientist, and this wisdom seen as a wonderful thing, which the bible commends and commands us to seek.

In addition, according to Stephen in Acts 7:22 Moses was “educated in all the wisdom (sophia, the closest NT equivalent for chockmah) of the Egyptians”. Stephen does not condemn this pagan education as evil, but, as Dennis Johnson puts it, he “concurs with the Jewish tradition’s positive assessment of Moses’ intellectual engagement with pagan wisdom.”[1] And I have already written about Daniel’s professorship at the university of Central Babylon.

The book of Proverbs describes a man who both sought and taught wisdom, and the book’s seamless blending between what we would call “spiritual” and what we would call “practical” proverbs indicates that the wisdom literature in the bible does not draw as polarised a dichotomy as we tend to do.


[1]Dennis E. Johnson, “Spiritual Antithesis, Common Grace, and Practical Theology,” inaugural address, photocopied, accepted for publication in Westminster Theological Journal 64:1, Spring 2002, 74.

Is it OK with God to devote myself to studying a secular discipline?

I have posted before on why I bother studying a “secular” subject, and I have mentioned Donald Hay’s reflections on the question (primarily in relation to Jeremiah 29).

Among the other purple passages in the bible for thinking about what it means for a Christian to undertake secular study is Daniel 1.

Daniel, Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego were at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar precisely (at least as far as the court was concerned) to learn the knowledge of the Chaldeans:

3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility- four young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service. (Daniel 1:3-5)

Daniel 1 surely teaches us that it is possible to be a believer in the one true God in a secular institution and culture, profiting from the knowledge of the day, while not compromising one’s integrity. After all, Daniel is prised in Scripture for his righteousness, not criticised for his compromise.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong, it appears, with learning the ‘letters and language of the Chaldeans’, even though those letters would surely have included practices and beliefs that no Christian or Hebrew of Daniel’s time would practice and hold. Indeed, such learning, including understanding of the occult practices, superstitions and half-truths of the Babylonian society, was given to the four exiles by God:

To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. (Daniel 1:17)

So: secular learning–even learning which, if held to be true and practiced, would merit God’s disapproval–is given by God. But can a Christian prosper such an academic atmosphere? Let’s read on:

 18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them in, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. (Daniel 1:18-20)

The least we can say is that the Hebrews’ fervent and uncompromising faith was no handicap to their progress at the University of Central Babylon.

Now of course there will be certain subjects that some Christians should steer clear of, and there will be some intellectual atmospheres which make it almost impossible for Christians to study certain areas with integrity, but they are the rare exceptions. The very least that Daniel 1 proves is the principle that learning in a secular institution, and learning about practices some of which displease God, is not inherently evil in the state of exile in which we find ourselves (1 Peter 1:1).