The Three-City Problem & Christian Productivity

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In “The Three-City Problem of Modern Life,” Luke Burgis explains the confusion of values and desires that mark our current age with a helpful paradigm. And in this essay, I will explain his three-city paradigm and share some insights on how it can help believers as we consider what it means to be productive as Christians.

The nub of Burgis’s argument is that we live amid a collision of three radically different worldviews. He represents these competing ideologies as cities:

  • Athens – The World of Reason
  • Jerusalem – The World of Faith
  • Silicon Valley – The World of Materialism

This, of course, is picking up on Tertullian’s famous line questioning the mixing of Greek Philosophy with the Christian faith,

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”


But Burgis adds a third city to the equation, Silicon Valley. And though I believe Burgis is a Roman Catholic, he’s not presenting a Christian apologetic but rather a tool for evaluating how our modern world has become so fractured.

He writes, “But today there is a third city affecting the other two. Silicon Valley, this third city, is not governed primarily by reason (it is practically the mark of a great entrepreneur to not be “reasonable”), nor by the things of the soul (the dominant belief seems to be a form of materialism). It is a place, rather, governed by the creation of value. And a large component of value is utility—whether something is useful, or is at least perceived as good or beneficial.”

In fact, argues Burgis, this third city has begun to annex the other two. “The questions of what is true and what is good for the soul are now mostly subordinated to technological progress—or, at the very least, the questions of Athens and Jerusalem are now so bound up with this progress that it’s creating confusion.”

The Three Cities and Productivity

I’ve found this three-city paradigm to be very helpful in dissecting how the modern age has subtly influenced my worldview, especially regarding work. There is often more Silicon Valley and Athens, and less Jerusalem than I’d like to admit.

We can easily define productivity in terms of utility, value creation, and progress. The best way to notice it is by evaluating whether you had a “productive day” or not. What are your criteria?

  • How much did I get done?
  • What projects did I complete?
  • Did I answer all my emails?

But how often does your evaluation of your day involve soulish matters?

  • Did I walk with Christ today?
  • Did I serve others from a heart of love?
  • Did I seek to honor God in all that I did?

But if personal productivity is to be in any way Christian, we must evaluate it in terms of fruitfulness not just in the work itself but in our development in sanctification, worship of God, and service of others. These are harder to quantify. So using our Silicon Valley model, we default to evaluating our days in terms of value-creation, with its easy-to-measure data points and units of work done.

But a Christian understanding of productivity must apprehend more than just tasks accomplished if it is to help us to lead God-honoring lives. We have to consider the much-harder-to-measure realities of spiritual matters.

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