Less Valuable and More Serious – Work and Life as a Sketch

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Julian Barnes, an atheist, claims that he '"misses God.'" In the midst of his reflections on a life without faith wracked by a haunting fear of death, Barnes reflects on the impact belief in heaven would make on his every day working life. '"But if life is viewed as a rehearsal, or a preparation, or an anteroom . . . then it [our present life] becomes at the same time less valuable and more serious.'" It appears that Barnes, if he were to believe in God and a heaven, would see life now as speck of time swallowed into eternity. Therefore, our life now is '"less valuable.'" But because there would be an eternity, life now would become '"more serious'" because what we do now matters for eternity. But, as Barnes puts it, he misses God and therefore he misses a life that is shaped by eternity.

The believing Roman Catholic British novelist, J.R.R. Tolkien of The Lord of the Rings fame neither missed God nor eternity. Were Tolkien alive, he might counter Barnes and argue that our lives now are '"both more valuable and more serious.'" In a typical manner, Barnes confuses Christian belief in heaven with Platonism. Plato believed our bodies and earthly lives really don’t matter and that what really matters is our immortal soul. Such a mistaken view of Christianity alone makes life on earth '"less valuable.'" We dare not underestimate how a Platonic worldview affects our view of work. There is a better Christian way, and Tolkien worked it out for us in a short story called Leaf by Niggle, a wonderful tale about a little silly man named '"Niggle.'"

I love this story, and I can only hope that my brief summary of the plot will lead you to obtain a copy through your local library or through some used bookstore and make the story your own.

Niggle was single, and he lived next to the Parish family in an out of the way place. The lame Parish and his needy wife were demanding and ungrateful neighbors. Niggle’s passion in life was to paint leaves, but his kindhearted nature made him a likely person on whom others relied. He wasn’t always happy about his willingness to help Parish and othersby patching roofs and running errandsbut he helped anyway, sometimes with a curse under his breath. Most importantly for Niggle, these interruptions kept him from getting his leaves painted. Like Barnes and the Christian tradition, Niggle knew death was coming. Tolkien describes death as a future '"troublesome journey'" with a '"Driver'" who will take him into the next life.

Tolkien’s sketch of Niggle’s daily passion, his painting, opens up for us a powerful image of how to see our work. Niggle, he observes, '"was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf,'" he adds. But one of Niggle’s paintings began with a leaf caught in the wind, and then it became a tree with '"fantastic roots,'" and then a country began to develop behind it, and there was a forest and mountains with snow.

Niggle’s Driver came. After his death, Niggle spent some time working in an intermediary place until a Porter took him to heaven itself.

It is here that the genius of Tolkien’s theory of work, and I would like to say a genuinely Christian theory of work, comes to life. Niggle receives a bicycle and he goes '"bowling downhill in the sunshine'" until he realizes the turf under him reminds him of another '"sweep of grass.'" Then he sees the '"Tree, his Tree, finished.'" It is the Tree he '"had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch.'" He sees it all as a gift. Ah, the leavesthey were all there, as he had imagined them but never been able to paint quite right. Some were there that had only budded in his mind. The Forest, too, as well as the Mountainsthey were all there. (And Tolkien’s use of capital letters shows just how important and serious his earlier labors were, but now they stood there in reality, utterly perfect.) Niggle learns that this little piece of heaven is called '"Niggle’s Picture'" and Parish will be with him, and Parish will live in '"Parish’s Garden.'" Over time all that remained on earth was a corner from one of Niggle’s paintings. The folks hung it in a museum: '"Leaf: by Niggle.'" As if to make mortality fully clear, Tolkien tells us that the museum burned down one day.

Perhaps the most magnificent dimension of Tolkien’s vision is that Niggle continued to paint, and he found more to paint as he got nearer and nearer to the borders of his picture. The theology here is a theology of work: what we do now is a glimpse of what we will do then. What we do now prepares us to do what we will do then. What we do now will become the raw materials of what we will do then. What we do now, however incomplete and however below even our own standards, will one day be swallowed up into God’s redemptive perfection and our work will radiate with God’s own glory. The notion that heaven, and I’d prefer to call it the New Heavens and the New Earth, is simply singing in a heavenly choir and that we will float from one praise service to another and that our bodies and jobs will all be left behind is Platonism. That view is not biblical.

Recently Tom Wright, in his stunningly helpful book Surprised by Hope, makes the case for a massive continuity—much like Niggle’s discovery—between this life and the New Heavens and the New Earth. That continuity alone renders what we do now as both more serious and more important than perhaps we realize. Tolkien tells that story of continuity and perfection in the story of Niggle and his painting of leaves.

Let us paint the leaves God inspires in us. Let us also know that what we do now matters and let us do all to the glory of God, for one day those tasks will unfold into what God designed them to accomplish. Let us also know that our frustrations and our imperfections and our failings to realize what we think God wants to do through us now will be perfected someday. Let us know, therefore, that what we do now is a gift from God and that it is God’s work in us now that animates the work we are called to accomplish.

Leaf by Niggle ends with divine joy: '"They both laughed. Laughed—the Mountains rang with it!'" Can you hear that laughter?


Read more from Scot McKnight at his blog Jesus Creed.

[1] Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of (New York: A.A. Knopf, 2008), 59-60). The italics in the last clause are mine.

[1] I have used Tree and Leaf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), but the short story is found in a number of Tolkien readers. The story was written in 1938-1939 but not published until 1947, in The Dublin Review. The story has a few interpretations, not the least of which is an allegory of Tolkien’s own commitment to a life of art and writing.