As a book reviewer, I have the privilege of learning about a large number of books, usually before they are published. In light of this stream of books, it is oftentimes easy to think that we do not need any more books on a particular subject. We have been blessed and inundated with a quantity of faith & work books over the last few years. I think there is a case for at least more, with this thoughtful contribution by John Van Sloten: Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses and Astronauts Tell Us About God. Van Sloten is a writer, speaker and teacher.
The premise behind this book is the idea that each of our vocations is a kind of parable. “…a lived-out story within which and through which God speaks in multiple ways.”
For years my view of how Jesus’ parables worked was limited. I understood them to be narrative tools for the conveyance of moral and ethical truth, stories with a built-in spiritual lesson. I still believe this. But lately I’ve come to realize that the created elements of his stories – the down-to earthness, the real-life content, ordinary people doing ordinary things – also carries revelatory weight…When Jesus wrapped a parable around a particular vocation, he was affirming the creational goodness of that job.
Van Sloten argues that what Jesus was doing in the Gospels through parables, He continues today through our vocations.
God is more present at your work than you know. And I think he wants you to know that. God wants you to see that he is there and that His Spirit is moving in you, through you, and all around you. God wants you to know him in all you do – including the third of your life that you spend working.
Throughout the Bible, in fact, God accomplished his will and made himself known through real people doing real work: creating, building, tending, leading, managing, restoring, and filling the world with good things.
According to Van Sloten, the purpose of this book is to help Christians “experience God at work more, and to help you read the parable that is your job. It is for people who trust that God is at work everywhere.”
I believe God intended work to be a means through which we know Him, experience Him, and relate to Him – all in the context of his providential unfolding of history. After all, we are made in the image of a God who works.
I see at least two distinctives in this book when compared to some other faith and work literature. First, Van Sloten does not shy away from the questions of sin and brokenness in this world.
Is God really that involved with everything that fills creation? Are all things really playing out on purpose and for the greater good? What about corrupt governments, businesses, and cultural practices, and all of the other twisting, polluting, exploiting, and perverting impacts of sin? What about those who endure terrible working conditions? What connection could all of these broken things possibly have with God’s revelation? Isn’t there a line between what God does and what human beings do?
Second, I have never seen a book where the author is so intentional in describing so many different vocations:
Years ago, with the help of nephrologist Dr. Garth Mortis, I preached a message on the human kidney, an organ that maintains homeostasis in the body. It keeps the good going and the bad in check and allows your body to stay in balance, to be at equilibrium.
Even as the kidney does this balancing work for the human body, so too does Dr. Mortis bring homeostasis to the whole of a patient’s life, via his deep knowledge of how the human body works and his great bedside manner.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Van Sloten.
TGR: Why did you write this book?
JVS: Because of the beautiful reactions I’ve seen on people’s faces as I’ve exegeted the parable that is their job. It’s happened every time. Workers undergo what can only be described as a vocational epiphany; seeing their work from a whole new angle: the epigenetics researcher connecting his field of study to the back half of the second commandment, about the sins of the parents being passed on, and realizing that what he does is all about the genetic inheritance parents pass on to their children. The server realizing that she images the Jesus who humbly served as he brought good things to us from God’s kitchen. The largest residential landlord in Canada telling me he cried as he watched my sermon on God’s home-providing heart, unpacking his vocation.
TGR: What makes it difficult for Christians to connect their faith and work?
JVS: I think most Christians have an insufficiently robust theology of work – especially in relation to the revelatory nature of their jobs. Few are told they can experience God at work. Because of sin we all fall short as well. I think the church’s pre-occupation with naming what’s wrong in the world has blinded the church to what is right. Especially so when it comes to our work. I’m not sure how many people pray for a deeper connection between their faith and work. Even if they do, many think that God has nothing to do with what they do. But that’s not true. There is no job too small for God. This really hit home for me when I preached on the vocation of a sanitation worker one Easter – not a traditional Easter topic! At first I thought I was nuts… and then I realized that sanitation workers are made in the image of a God who takes out the trash to make room for the new!
TGR: How can the church promote a strong theology of vocation?
JVS: Preach it—the pulpit is the place where most churches talk about what they value most. Create vocationally based small groups. Go to people’s places of work as part of the sermon research process. I cannot emphasize how crucial it was to sit in that mechanic’s garage, scientist’s lab, stylist’s salon, and judge’s chambers. Naming God’s vocational presence in those places made them feel a bit more holy.
I am pleased to see this book has received warm endorsements from leaders through the faith and work movement:
Deeply thoughtful about the most important things while also drawing on the best of the Christian tradition, Every Job a Parable is for every man and every woman who cares about the work of work. (Steven Garber, author of Visions of Vocation)
A greatly needed resource that pastorally weaves together biblical teaching and rich theology in the context of a wide diversity of occupations. (David H. Kim, executive director, Center for Faith and Work)
John Van Sloten gives us eyes to see that our work is not only designed to serve others but is also essentially formative on our journey to greater Christlikeness. I highly recommend this book. (Tom Nelson, author of Work Matters and president of Made to Flourish)
All work is meant to be God honoring. I have long believed that and taught it. But in this marvelous book John Van Sloten brings it all alive for me in new ways. I will be ready to read a parable from the Lord every time I see a sanitation worker or a Walmart greeter! (Richard Mouw, president emeritus, Fuller Theological Seminary)
I heartily endorse this book, too, but as LeVar Burton has said in Reading Rainbow, “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Check out my friend Byron Borger’s excellent review here, then check out the book for yourself. I think this book is an important read and will be referenced for many years to come.