Book Review: Work Matters: Lessons from Scripture, by R. Paul Stevens
Based on what I saw in the Google preview of R. Paul Stevens’ new book Work Matters, I couldn’t wait to receive my copy in the mail. I was anxious to see how this author would write a theology of work focusing on individual narratives in Scripture’s storyline. I anticipated the book being amazingly theological, biblical and creative. But my expectations may have been unrealistically high, because after the first couple chapters, I was disappointed.
I thought I would see an unfolding theology of work, traced through the storyline of Scripture, almost like Greg Beale’s theology of God’s presence moves from garden to temple to Christ to church to the new heavens and earth. Instead, the book is more of a series of expositions and reflections on prominent biblical personalities that can be read in almost any order.
As I continued reading, however, my disappointment transformed into curiosity and moments of personal reflection coupled with thanksgiving.
SPOTLIGHT ON BIBLICAL CHARACTERS
The book is divided into sections of Scripture like Pentateuch, historical books, wisdom literature, and so on. Within each section Stevens picks three to five characters such as Moses, the sluggard, and Paul. Each chapter contains a brief exposition including or followed by implications for work. The book teaches about work through people who have (or haven’t) modeled “good work.” Good work is defined as “purposeful energy that brings glory to God and serves our neighbor” (17, 83). Every chapter ends with a couple thoughts or questions for discussion and reflection.
Throughout the book Stevens refers to a host of people and traditions ranging from Elizabeth Browning to John Calvin, with monks and Eugene Peterson sprinkled in.
NOT QUITE A COMPREHENSIVE BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF WORK
Let me tell you what I found disappointing before I discuss what I found helpful.
First, the book is not quite “a comprehensive biblical theology of work” (4) as I hoped, and as the book describes itself. He uses samples from throughout Scripture. But he does not show Scripture’s unfolding connectedness, nor does it thoroughly work through lots of Scripture. That, at least, is what I expect when someone says “comprehensive biblical theology.” To be fair, he might be using the phrase “biblical theology” to refer to theology that’s biblically informed, not to refer to understanding any given theme within the redemptive storyline of Scripture.
Second, his book is not sensitive to Scripture’s epochal changes or the progressive nature of revelation, and therefore he does not explain how the coming of Christ uniquely shapes the nature of our work. But doesn’t the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes have any bearing on our theology of work? I’m not sure the book made that clear, which is why I say you could read the book in any order. This may be why I found his introduction to the New Testament section and chapters 19 and 20 to be the weakest parts of the book.
More interaction with biblical texts or theological reflection would have been helpful. John Frame does this when he relates the “cultural mandate” to the “great commission,” in essence saying the latter is how believers fulfill the former (Salvation Belongs to Our God, 98). I know this is a controversial topic that could be pursued at length. DeYoung and Gilbert’s What Is the Mission of the Church?, which takes a slightly different approach than Frame, might be a good place to start.
There was much that I found encouraging and useful in Work Matters. Here are seven highlights:
1) Unlike many books, the reflection questions were more than “Do you understand such and such concepts?” They often invited people to align with more Scripture or challenged people to live differently. Stevens frequently aimed for the heart even as he engaged the mind.
2) Because Stevens had the whole Bible as his source, he was able to drop in thoughtful little nuggets of reflection on things like entrepreneurialism (98-99), imagination (118), and helping the poor (56).
3) Not just in the New Testament sections but in the Old Testament chapters also Stevens connected believers’ work to our covenant relationship with God in Christ. The Old Testament portion of the book didn’t feel moralistic. You walk away from the book seeing work as a response to God’s grace, so that you work to please him and love your neighbor. This was a great emphasis of the book: work is not about self-preservation or the accumulation of wealth, but is a means to honoring God and loving others.
4) His introductions to portions of Scripture were succinct, orienting people to storyline of the Bible and even offering hermeneutical hints tied to literary genre.
5) The book as a whole flowed well. The section introductions and summaries solidified his points, but would still be useful if you cherry picked certain chapters or read them out of order.
6) He was able to re-tell familiar narratives in a compelling, concise way.
7) Lastly, I appreciated his grasp of eschatology, holding in tension the “already/not yet” as it applies to life and work this side of heaven.
Even though I brought up the weakness of chapters 19-20, I would still recommend the book. It provides biblical perspectives, and needed correctives, on work.
If you read Work Matters on your own, I would take your time reading it. Read it in conjunction with a Bible-in-a-year plan, so you can see what Scripture says and reflect on his discussion questions.
Probably the best thing would be to read it with others. You might read it with a young believer, a college student, or your own child, molding their theological cement before it dries. You might read it with a group of peers to be more deliberate in conforming your view of work to Scripture. You might read it with people who are unemployed, who have a little extra time on their hands, but are probably dealing with issues of fear or identity. God intends for us to glorify him with our work, but as Stevens points out, work is often an idol in our lives.
Stevens writes with years of experience and knowledge of Scripture, and though you might not agree with everything, there will be plenty to ponder about our gracious God, who is always working, and who through Christ invites us to join him.