This new book, by bishop and New Testament theologian N.T. Wright, is not about work. Not in the typical sense. Rather, it’s a book about everything, about the way God intends the world to be, and about how we all experience something short of that. Wright’s idea is that specific threads run through all lives in all cultures and times — signposts, though broken in current form, pointing to the world’s proper order. These braid through every aspect of life, including work, and give form to callings and tasks. Wright talked with Common Good in mid-September.
In the conclusion of Broken Signposts, you write about the signposts framing vocations. Can you expound on that?
When we look at these seven signposts — justice, love, spirituality, beauty, freedom, truth, power — most human beings recognize in their bones that these really matter. And when we then explore them through the lens of John’s Gospel, they emerge vocationally. It’s not only that we have a sense that these signposts matter, but that the Christian gospel equips followers of Jesus to be workers for justice, genuine explorers of spirituality, people who care about and work for freedom.
I see this as the sevenfold manifestation of the vocational call to be image-bearers, to be reflecting the image of God. Those who are followers of Jesus ought to know that their vocation is to be working at all of these, anticipating the time when God is going to put things right, when the whole place will be full of freedom and justice, love and beauty.
How does this play out for people who mainly do things seemingly unrelated to these?
The vocational idea is a sort of template that, when I preach on this, I use to tell people: You can’t do all of this yourself as an individual. And indeed, few communities can address all of these all at once. But as a wider church, these are the things we are supposed to be doing and getting on with. These signposts signal how we might launch into that, with individuals finding their specific vocations within them.
Speaking of specific vocations, where does the Monday-through-Friday kind of work fit into your framework?
I think these seven signposts give an indication that, ideally, we ought to be working toward the kind of society where more and more people can be working in ways that do feed into one or more of these. I’m thinking of care workers who are looking after people who are sick in homes and so on. That’s a tedious and difficult job, but it is part of the human project of healing and hope. And so when people can [make that connection], then their worth becomes more obviously fitted into these larger agendas.
The trouble is that sometimes the world is organized in such a way that it insists on having wheels that turn in destructive and negative ways. Some people work on the manufacture of cluster bombs, which are going to be used by malevolent dictators to oppress people. Some may have to work in those industries because there aren’t any other jobs in their location. I’m aware that not everyone has the luxury of being able to make grand gesture choices at this point. Nevertheless, one can evaluate one’s work according to the question: Is it actually helping set forward the work of God in the world?