How Then Should We Work? (Book Review)

how-then-should-we-workWhen I was in seminary, one of my classmates and friends was also the campus director: Hugh Whelchel.  He is an experienced businessman, the executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, and a careful thinker regarding Christian worldview issues and their relation to the American workplace.  Our seminary degree required students to write a long “integrative paper” that incorporated Bible, theology, and church history into a unique interdisciplinary study.  I’m not sure, but I suspect that he got his paper published in book form.  How Then Should We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work is a wonderful introduction to the topic of Christian vocation, and how vocation, calling, and work can thrive in the midst of our secular culture.

Whelchel begins his exploration of the modern problem of work by describing the problem.  Most of us hate our work.  “A recent Gallup poll found that 77% of Americans hate their jobs.  Another poll found that Americans hate their jobs more today than in the past 20 years; fewer than half say they are satisfied with their current job” (1).  He recounts an incident of an arena filled with over 5000 business people attending a motivational seminar.  When asked by the speaker, “If you went home tonight and found that a long lost relative had died and left you ten million dollars, would you be at work tomorrow?”, the halls echoed with a resounding “NO!”  This is sad and funny at the same time, perhaps because misery loves company!  This is just an illustration of what all of us feel at some level.  Is your work satisfying, fulfilling, joyful, meaningful, purposeful, difference-making, and commensurately profitable?  Probably not most of the time, but all of us long for our labors to be so.  According to the Bible, work was not always difficult, it will not always be so, and it doesn’t have to be so now.  Whelchel sees one of the main problems with our unhappiness is that we’ve lost the plot.  And thereby we’ve lost the doctrine of vocation as integral to humankind’s creational culture mandate from God.

In order to understand the plot, we must recover the full gospel of the kingdom and our calling to live in that kingdom.  Whelchel argues that most Christians have a truncated view of the gospel.  If the full gospel plot is Creation-Fall-Redemption-Recreation, then the truncated gospel is abbreviated to Fall-Redemption.  Unfortunately, this removes the bookends from the gospel, decontextualizing it and stripping it of its narrative power.  Without situating the gospel in the story of creation and recreation, we lose the purpose, meaning, and destiny of everything, including how we should view our work.

By tracing the history of work and calling, Whelchel documents how the biblical view of work was challenged by the Greeks, preserved by the ancient Jews, adopted by the early Christians, and then slowly lost and replaced with the Medieval view of work.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Protestant Reformation recovered and restored the biblical view of work, but it slipped away again in the 18th-20th centuries with the rise of the Enlightenment thinking and the progress of industrialization.  In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Christians have begun to ask worldview questions that are leading to the rediscovery of the doctrine of vocation that seeks for nothing less than shalom (peace, wholeness, prosperity, flourishing, success, justice, goodness) for all.

Whelchel concludes his brief tour on vocation by calling us to our biblical mandate to renew the culture.  We are called to be obedient servants, to reweave shalom, and restore the culture one step at a time so that God’s kingdom may be tasted and hoped for.  His last chapter includes some practical, helpful, and doable suggestions for applying Christian vocational principles in our various workplaces—secular or otherwise.

My friend has not written a book of original ideas (most books aren’t).  Instead, he has penned a compelling summary of what others have said before.  This book could be considered a collection of the best sources on the biblical doctrine of vocation.  It is literally filled with quotations weaved together to form a cogent argument for how then should we work.

Below are some of the online resources Whelchel mined in his study on how Christians ought to work.  They range from sermon texts, blog posts, professional peer-reviewed journal articles, essays, interviews, and historical studies.  They appear in sequential order as cited in the book.

Vocation Needs No Justification, by Steve Garber

Our New Global Center: Ministry in Urban Centers, by Tim Keller

Christianity and Culture, by John Frame

The Kingdom of God, by James Renihan

The Kingdom of God and the Old Testament, by Graeme Goldsworthy

Thinking About the Kingdom, by Kevin DeYoung

The Growing Kingdom of God, by Trevin Wax

Is Natural Revelation Sufficient to Govern Culture, by John Frame

Co-belligerence and common grace: Can the enemy of my enemy be my friend?, by Daniel Strange

Standing Together, Standing Apart, by Albert Mohler

The Problem of Good, by Scott Kauffmann

Calvin and the Christian Calling, by Alistair McGrath

America’s Debt to John Calvin, by John Piper

Identifying the Talents: Contextual Clues for the Interpretation of the Parable of the Talents, by Ben Chenoweth

The Parable of the Talents in Missionary Perspective: A Call for an Economic Spirituality, by John Carpenter

Our Calling and God’s Glory, by Gene Edward Veith

Faith and Work: From the Puritans to the Present, by Alistair Mackenzie

Making Peace with Proximate Justice, by Steve Garber

Toward Integrating Work and Faith, by Laura Nash

Calling, Vocation, and Business, by Scott Rae

Luther on Vocation, by Marc Kolden

Work and Cultural Renewal, by Tim Keller

The Church and Culture: The Need for a New Mind, by Bill Crouse

A Call to Give Yourself to God, by Ligon Duncan

Educating for Shalom: Our Calling as a Christian College, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Cultural Influence: An Opportunity for the Church, by Gabe Lyons

A New Kind of Urban Christian, by Tim Keller

Use Your Creativity to Change Culture, by William Hopler

Work, Beauty, and Meaning: A Biblical Perspective on the Daily Grind, by T.M. Moore

Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers, by Tim Keller

Influencing Culture, by Gabe Lyons

The Kingdom Work of the Corporate World, by Richard Doster

The Gospel in All its Forms, by Tim Keller

Let It Flow Out: An Interview with N.T. Wright, by Mark Roberts

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