Good Work and Good Works: Of Magic & Machine

by Jonathan Sands Wise, PhD, Georgetown College

(PC: Bruce Jeffrey)

I don’t know about you, but I love the Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien and the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. They capture my imagination and weave this beautiful and amazing world that is so different from our own, full of epic battles, talking animals, elves, dwarves, meaningful sacrifices, and difficult moral decisions. Actually, that might be what is most amazing about these worlds: for as different from our own world as they are, I have always found that they actually help me understand myself, my world, and God more fully. This undoubtedly says more about me than anything else, but I confess that there are times when I have been more moved by, and have understood more clearly, Aslan’s death and resurrection in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe than I have Christ’s own death and resurrection in scripture and in our world. This may show some immaturity on my part, but I don’t think it is bad either: in this way my imagination may yet be taught and led on, baptized and chatechized if you will, so that I can understand Christ more fully.

Given this, the way that these tales often help me understand my world, I have always been struck by one interesting feature of them: they all seem, either explicitly or implicitly and with more or less vigor, fairly anti-technology and, in the same exact way, fairly anti-magic. Now this probably sounds crazy to you at first, since magic is all throughout and is used by many of the best characters, like the good Wizard Gandalf or the elves in Tolkien’s work or Aslan himself in Narnia, and of course the dwarves in both worlds are master craftsman praised for their work. But consider these very examples: the elves use magic as a skill that works with the essential nature of the trees or forest or whatever else to bring about an effect, and Aslan relies on, for example, Deep Magic to self-sacrificially end the Witch’s curse while saving the traitor, Edmund. What is notable here is that neither uses magic to do anything but bring out what is already there – magic for them is more like construction or sculpture or any other skill or craft that shapes the world by working with the world. Contrast with this the White Witch in Narnia, who artificially freezes the seasons, or Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, who uses magic to control other people’s wills and make them slaves.

Perhaps the clearest example of this whole feeling, though, comes with Saruman. It is significant that Saruman’s primary ability as a Wizard was to convince others with his voice, even against what they previously believed to be the case. From such persuasion, Saruman has turned to darker means of control, taking virtual control of Rohan’s king, raising an army to dominate all around him, and seeking the Ring of Power for himself. Once great and wise, Saruman has become petty and power mad, more a tycoon of industry than a wicked wizard. As the Ent Treebeard says of Saruman, “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment” (462). Saruman has dammed the stream, burned the forests, and even engaged in bioengineering by somehow combining Orcs and evil men to make the Uruk-hai, an Orc-like creature that is larger and stronger and can move about by day.[1]

After the Ents, with an assist from the good wizard Gandalf, defeat Saruman completely, he makes his way to the Shire, the home of the hobbits, and becomes Sharkey. Once again, Saruman is bent on destroying the native goodness of the Shire, if only out of spite. Old houses, well-suited to hobbits, have been left empty, and old fields and gardens have turned to waste and weeds, while trees have been torn down to make way for roads, factories, and new, ugly houses that all look alike, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all (981 and 989). The wizard who began by trying to help people using magic and machines ends by destroying everything of value using those same machines and for no apparent purpose at all. Even if you are not familiar with these works, it is clear by now that Lewis and Tolkien were deeply worried about magic and machines, which might well lead us to wonder, why? Why is Tolkien so worried about technology and magic? Aren’t toasters and pace-makers and iPhones and cars good things that make life easier and better.

In a telling letter, Tolkien writes that all of his work is ultimately about the Fall, Mortality, and the Machine: mortality causes us to fear that our work will remain incomplete, the fall causes our work to too often become possessive, clinging to our work as if it is our own and solely under our control. After the fall and mortality comes the machine: the desire for power, for making the will more quickly effective.

So it turns out that Tolkien is worried about magic and machines for a somewhat surprising reason: he is worried about magic and machines because they make for bad work. When we use either one, they make our work too easy, they make it too easy for us to impress our will upon other things and other people, and this can be destructive for us as human beings. He doesn’t say that either is inherently evil – it isn’t wrong to be efficient – but he does seem genuinely worried that being able to do whatever we want is morally corrosive for us and tempts us to believe that we are gods ourselves, rather than sub-creators under God.

What could this look like in your life or in our world? If Tolkien was looking at our society today, which is certainly highly addicted to machines and technology, what might worry him now or make him think that we have become too enamored of our own abilities? I think a lot of things would worry him, but let’s just think about food for a moment – how do we get food, and what effect does that have on us? Well, let’s contrast how we get food in developed countries now with how people in our own country 100 years ago or in much of the world today gets food. When I’m hungry, I probably just go to my cupboard or my fridge and grab something that is ready to eat right now. If I don’t have exactly what I want, I have a bunch of restaurants open 24 hours a day that I can get to with the minimal effort of driving and that will give me more calories than I should eat in a week for a fairly cheap price. If I don’t feel like that, I can go to multiple different 24 hour grocery stories that have an average of 40-60,000 different items on their shelves and buy ready-made food, then go home and microwave it, eating it within minutes. Even so I sometimes find myself saying, “There’s just nothing I want to eat,” or “I want to eat but I don’t know what…” or, when I’m most honest, “I just don’t know what I want,” which is the real problem. In much of the world today and certainly throughout history, eating a full meal like this would require planning and labor that started back before the last growing season, continued through careful tending of animals and crops, through harvest, through butchering, through preserving, through trading with others who did similar work for other ingredients, and finally through careful preparation of a well-earned feast.

How do we eat differently, or see our food differently, because we can get food with so little work or labor; because, that is, we get food from machines? Well, we tend to be wasteful, wasting up to about 40% of all food we produce in the US. We tend to be destructive, engaging in mass farming techniques that are wonderfully efficient at producing food and even more wonderfully efficient at destroying the environment. We tend to not care where our food or other products come from, which is why we have the largest number of slaves in human history right now – about 27 million by the UN’s estimate, many of them engaged in picking or making or mining the chocolate, coffee, bananas, rugs, t-shirts, and iPhones that are in our bellies, on our backs, and in our pockets.

Let’s bring it even a little closer to home: how do you, as a student, engage in bad work, work that takes shortcuts to try to get your effect rather than putting in the slow careful labor of bringing things to fruition? Well, some of the ways that you might do this (and I’m sure that none of you do) are obviously wrong, such as cheating on an exam rather than studying for it, or plagiarizing ideas for a paper rather than working through your own ideas and writing. But perhaps there are other things that are more accepted that might still be harmful, like skimming a reading you are assigned rather than reading it carefully (or reading Spark Notes, even worse!), or cramming in your studying for an exam rather than trying to truly understand the material, or worrying more about your grades or your college applications than the person that your school work is making you. In all of these ways you put career before character (oops!), and in all of these ways you take shortcuts that can be harmful to who you are.

Tolkien thinks that it is obvious that we have to worry about what our work makes – clearly we should not do work that makes evil things – but he thinks that we also need to worry about what our work is doing to us. What kind of person are you becoming through your work here in school, and as you consider future careers, what kind of person will doing that career make you?

But enough on bad work, let’s talk about good work. While there are many images of good work in Tolkien, I think we find an especially beautiful one in our reading this morning from Genesis. What do we see God doing as he creates? We see him doing good work – he even comments on this fact himself in the text! This is a rich passage full of a lot of details, but if you zoned out a little, perhaps this time you just heard the cadence of it: God was, and God made, and God said or did, and God saw that it was good, and there was evening and there was morning. Over and over for six days we get this pattern of work and of pronouncing it good, and at the end “God saw everything that he had made, and it was very good!” In the beginning is chaos: nothingness and meaninglessness, then God spoke. God did work, and the work was to give meaning and being by naming: light, form, and life in all of its varieties. God works, and after each work he pauses to consider what he has done and he sees that it is good work: notice that this is what God says, that his work is good. He doesn’t say that his work is loving, or nice, or “won’t it be nice for the flowers that I made gentle breezes blow and rain fall,” or “won’t human beings enjoy these sunsets I just thought up?” – no, he says that his creation is good in itself, that he has done good work. Now don’t misunderstand me, this doesn’t mean that he didn’t care that it was also good for us, but it means that the primary truth about his creation is its inherent goodness. It is good for us precisely because it is good in itself.

And we, who are one of those works, are given the job of continuing this work as well, for we are made in God’s image! This is what we would see, in fact, if we went on to the next chapter, that as soon as we are made, even in paradise, we are given jobs in the garden, jobs of tending and growing and naming and blessing: work, even hard work, is not a result of the fall, it is what God does and what we were to do in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the fall itself could be understood as an attempt at Magic, at getting the goods (in this case knowledge that makes us like God) without the work to attain that knowledge. Eating the forbidden fruit is a lot like trying to have a relationship with someone through your iPhone, or passing a class using Wikipedia: it is an attempt to have a good thing without putting any effort of your own into getting that good thing. But enough on that, we are trying to focus on good work: so what does good work look like?

Just like God, our creator, our work is only good when it is good in itself. If you are writing a good story, it must be good as a story before it can be good for anyone else. If you are growing food, it must be good as food, which would include being good for the place that grows that food, before it can be good for anyone else. We must work so that we can look at our work and say that it is good. Work should be a way of life that allows our nature “to find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God.” Work should be a “creative activity, undertaken for the love of the work itself,” and we should make things as God does, “for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.” I am partly quoting here from an essay called “Why Work?” by Dorothy Sayers, a friend of Tolkien and Lewis, so you can look that up if you want to read more about these ideas.

In short, good work makes things that are good for us, and it makes good people of us. Bad work goes wrong in one or both of these ways, by not making something that is actually good for people, or by making bad people of us, teaching us to take shortcuts or not to care about the world around us in various ways.

So let’s make this practical again: what might good work look like now for you as students? Perhaps it means that when you are reading a book, you begin to try to appreciate the goodness of the book in itself, rather than just reading the assigned number of pages and nothing else. Perhaps it means that when you write a paper, you try to make it the best paper you are capable of writing, demanding greater excellence of yourself than perhaps your teacher even demands of you, so that you can honestly say of your work when you are done that it is good. Consider for yourself: the way that I do my school work, what kind of person is that making me? Am I just trying to get done or am I doing good work? If I am just trying to get done, how does this affect how I do other things in my life, too? When I go to do good works, in other words, to take care of my friends or to serve strangers, do I try to do good work there or do I let the same laziness and efficiency control how I deal with my parents, friends, and those in need? I am certain that our exemplar, Christ, always did good work: certainly when he turned water into wine, it was very good wine! Most important, when he did what we might now call good works, whether it was teaching or healing or ministering or praying, he did it excellently: his good works were always good work. I’m afraid that too often when we get around to doing good works they get whatever time is left over, and we tend to do them rather shoddily.

Consider this, too, as you consider what careers you might want to do in the future. Make sure you find one that is good work, one that makes good things for the community and makes a good person of you. Know what you make, and make sure it is worth making. Your life gains some of its meaning from serving your work: what are you serving? Is it good? Is it worth your life? Recognize that your work makes you a certain kind of person, so make sure you are making yourself a person you want to be. Pay attention to what your work is making of you: Try to have a job that is so fulfilling that it is what you would do with your time even if no one paid you to do it. Sure, we need money to live, but just as an artist will typically make art even when no one is paying her (as her “hobby”), so have a job that you will do in your free time for the sheer joy of it.   Try to have a job that requires all of your capacities. As the body of Christ, we are only fully in God’s image in a community where everyone’s capacities are used to their utmost and so we can complete each other.

The result of doing good work may be more than you can know.

In a very interesting little allegory called “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien tells a story that is not part of middle earth, a story about an artist named Niggle. Now you should know that in Britain to ‘niggle’ is to fool around and waste time, kind of like what we might call piddling about if you are familiar with that phrase. Basically, niggling is what most of us do most of the time on social media. Niggle is an artist with some promise who is always trying to draw a great, big picture of a tree with a forest and mountains in the background, but he never really gets further than painting in some of the leaves of the tree, though these leaves are really quite good. He never gets further than this because he is always getting side tracked by other little jobs, or starting to paint pieces of other trees or the background or helping a neighbor, but he never does these other little jobs well either. He is, in short, a niggler. One day, someone comes and announces that Niggle is already late for his journey and he must start immediately – in the story it is clear that this journey is an allegory for death. Niggle always knew he would have to make this journey, but still it sneaks up on him in the event, and he is not ready.

The journey is itself interesting, but the point that I want to get to comes at the end. After having been allowed to continue this journey to the end, Niggle gets off of a train one day and looks at a forest and a particular tree that are very familiar – it is like he knows them, and yet doesn’t, too. Suddenly, with a shock, Niggle realizes that it is the tree that he was trying to paint all of those years, and in a rush he sees all of the ways that he got it right and all of the ways that he missed the point of it entirely. This is the Reality that Niggle was trying to see, the Truth that he was trying to say all of those years, and now that he is here is finally able to finish this good work. For this is the most amazing part of all: Niggle did not just see and imitate this Reality in part, rather, God graciously allowed Niggle to sub-create this part of Heaven, of true Reality, through his work on earth and then finally in heaven. Our highest work, Tolkien suggests, to the extent that it is good work that grasps some Reality and speaks some Truth, becomes part of eternal reality by God’s astounding gracious creative power in us.

Paul says something similar in the passage that we read today from 2 Corinthians: our bodies, these earthly tents, will be perfected in heavenly bodies, as Christ’s body was resurrected at Easter, and our mortal, meaning dying, selves, will be swallowed up by true and eternal life. In the same way, we do not put off what we are or what we have done, rather it is made more than it is right now – it is taken up by grace. All good work is really part of something bigger, even if we do not know it; whatever we do that is good work is part of God’s work. As our mortal body will be swallowed up by an eternal body, as death will be swallowed up by life, so our weak and partial work will be swallowed up in God’s gracious eternal work. By an unbelievable grace, God does not just save us and take us up as naked souls, God makes our work part of his eternal work in glory. This is the promise of Easter, the season we are living in now: that all we do and are will be perfected and made whole in God.

Avoid the temptation of magic and machines, do not be Saruman, seduced and finally reduced by his reliance on ease and power, but be like Gandalf, who never uses magic to seduce or dominate but instead commits himself to the long, slow, sacrificial process of changing those around him for the better, and so wins the final victory. Don’t take the easiest path, even if everyone else is, don’t be so taken up by your phone that you are unable to take in a sunset, or so addicted to a video game that you are unable to read a slow book. Instead, do good work, work that makes good things for people, and makes a good person of you, especially when you are doing good works and serving others. In short, so work, both now and in your life, that it is good work, work that grasps some part of God’s truth, work that brings about some part of God’s eternal reality.

[1] Or so Treebeard surmises, though they might be ruined men instead (462) – the movies seem to have taken their hint from Treebeard.

Dr. Sands Wise delivered this piece as a chapel talk at The Stony Brook School on April 12, 2015. It is published with the permission of the author.


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