Faith, work, and biblical commentary: speaking with Will Messenger and David Kim, part II

The Green Room recently sat down with David Kim, editor of the Faith and Work Bible recently released from Zondervan, and Will Messenger, executive editor of the Theology of Work Project, to talk about the Bible and work and the similarities and differences between their projects.  The first post in this series can be found here.

TGR: What are some of the doctrines treated in the Faith and Work Bible?

DK: There are 45 in all, and 90% are pretty classic doctrines that you would find in a basic theology text. We classified the doctrines using basic, traditional categories: doctrine of God, church, redemption. These should be very familiar doctrines for people who actually grew up in a Bible-based church setting, but didn’t think about how justification applies to their workplace. They know about justification with respect to their salvation but don’t think about how to apply it to work.

For example, “how does your idea of being justified or made right before God apply to a performance review context?”  At that moment justification becomes something that becomes real. The story would play off of that.

For a new believer it’s a great entry point in understanding historic church doctrines because it’s not intense, the explanation is pretty short, but for those who want to dive in deeper there are sources listed at the bottom.

TGR: Will, how would you compare it to how TOW treats doctrine? My sense is that the guiding organization of the TOW site is topical rather than doctrinal. Disagree if you want.

WM: We put it together passage by passage, starting with the biblical text. It’s up to the contributor who writes the first draft to decide at what point to bring in how the text was historically understood in doctrinal terms, if they choose.  We expect them always to take into context and incorporate the history of how the passage has been interpreted, but they may not make that explicit. We wanted to have an entry point for users who approach the question not by saying “I wonder what Romans 8 or Song of Songs”–to take a seemingly unlikely example—“says about work,” but “I wonder what the Bible says about conflict”–to use the example David was just talking about—“or performance review.”  We use the term “topical” to think about that. The intermediate step of doctrines or teachings that people would be familiar with is a really interesting idea, but it’s not a way in which TOW has organized our material.

We ended up putting tags on each of the passages of Scripture, so on our website you can click a tag for topics like performance review or conflict. Some of those tags are doctrinal and some are not. Atonement, for example, is a doctrinal one.

I have a question for David. One of the minefields we felt we were almost stepping in was differences about doctrine between different church traditions. Did you find disagreements among the people you were working with between Wesleyan-Arminians and Reformed; Baptist and Presbyterian and Pentecostal—etc.?

DK: Yeah. For us we were trying to being as broad as possible, but coming out of a Reformed tradition. Most of the doctrinal descriptions are not that reformed, but a few are. The editors at CT and Zondervan were looking out for that, and would come back and say “hey, this is a bit too narrow.” The pieces are short enough that there isn’t enough space to get into depth of doctrine.  The arguments tend to blow up once you start talking for more than a minute.

I’m assuming that people can go back into their own resources if they are coming from, say, an Anglican or a Wesleyan perspective.

WM: Can I ask another question? The idea of people coming back to the Bible over and over and seeing the entries again and again—does it assume that people will use the FAW Bible as their primary Bible?

DK: It does. But even if they don’t, whenever a workplace issue comes up, they can pull it off the shelf. The difference between a study Bible and a trade book is that trade books really depend on that first year to sell well: over time the graph goes down. But study Bibles are  almost the opposite: over time the graph goes up.  We don’t know how well a study Bible does until after a good # of years out.

TGR: What would you say the audiences for the projects are? Do they overlap?

DK: A lot of overlap. We both want laypeople as well as pastors—

WM:—and scholars—

DK: I hope pastors use it for sermon illustrations. Pastors should have a good idea of the doctrines, but often the sermon illustrations pastors use tend to feel a little canned or inauthentic. All of these stories you don’t know where they are going to end up because they are real life stories. Some have happy endings, some have discouraging endings, and some are still up in the air. One of the key components was to have a real authenticity to the stories. We hope this becomes a resource for pastors, who really struggle with workplace analogies and stories because they don’t know all the jobs out there. There are 75 different jobs represented in this Bible.

For younger people, it’s a great resource in knowing there are a lot of difference jobs out there. When I was college age I probably thought there were 6-10 jobs out there, and then one easily narrows it down to 2-3 where God might be calling me. This has 75 different jobs, all of them from a Christian perspective, talking about how you can really glorify God though all of them. For older folks these stories allow them to re-engage how God is very present and active in the workplace.

This summer we met with people who weren’t in finance and shared a finance story from the Bible. People were still really able to identify with the feelings of inadequacy in the story. The editors did a good job of making the story specific to a particular profession but broad enough so that others could relate to the heart struggle. I have hopes that as people read through each of the doctrines they will feel encouraged by how God can bring life through their work.

TGR: So you’d say the audience is both pastors and workplace Christians.

DK: Yes.

WM: When we began we weren’t thinking so much of reaching workplace Christians in general. We initially defined our audience as scholars, pastors, and workplace Christians with the theological experience or education necessary to read a commentary. Commentaries are usually aimed at scholars or pastors.

Why that audience? First, we knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to survey the Bible passage by passage. That led us to the genre, and the genre led us to the audience. But also, all along we’ve never seen ourselves as an organization with a general-Christian constituency. A lot of us had experience either in seminaries or workplace ministries and some of our founders were part of Marketplace Network in Boston. Some were pastors. We thought we were equipping the equippers: our material would help a pastor prepare a sermon, a workplace ministry prepare a study series, a scholar or professor teach a class.

What turned out was that an awful lot of people were interested in reading a commentary, at least one about work. A home run for a commentary is a couple thousand copies. Whereas a home run even for a specialized Bible is 25,000-30,000 copies. But when we began to put our commentary on the web, a lot of people just found us through Google search. We’re getting a couple hundred thousand users a month now, and most of that by far are workplace Christians or students, not pastors, scholars, or people with a seminary experience. It seems that a lot of people are willing to put in the work to read a commentary if doing so will speak to the needs they feel at work.


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