At Work & Theology 101

The Creation and Destruction of a Sand Mandala in ‘House of Cards’: Not a Good Way to Think about Work

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In season three of House of Cards, a group of Tibetan monks are invited to the White House to perform a Buddhist tradition involving the creation of a sand mandala. The ritual requires painstaking work and intricate detail.

But almost as soon as the masterpiece is finished, it’s destroyed.

In episode seven, four monks bend over a mandala blueprint, holding a metal rod in one hand and a grated funnel in the other. Running the rod over the funnel grates, they tediously shake each colored gain of sand into place. They work for an entire month until their work is finished. Millions of grains of sand display a breathtaking image, but the image  is soon wiped away.

I couldn’t help but silently say “Nooo!” to myself as I watched the monks destroy their masterpiece. If I spent a whole month working on a sand mandala that looked like that, I’d probably be on the phone with an art conservator.

But it’s not surprising why this scene appeared in House of Cards. The creation and destruction of sand mandalas is a Buddhist tradition of healing that signifies impermanence, which might symbolize the impermanence of Frank Underwood’s work to further his own influence and power as President of the United States.

Underwood is a modern, fictional example of what man’s work looks like when it’s not in line with God’s work. A biblical illustration of this is found in the story of the Tower of Babel. When we work for ourselves and not for God, we are like the people of Babel who said in Genesis 11:4,

Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.

The people of Babel worked to glorify themselves by building a tower to reach the heavens, assuming they would be capable of doing what only God is capable of doing. They also deliberately disobeyed God’s command to fill the earth and subdue it by concentrating their power in one central location. Then God confuses them with many languages, which ultimately destroys their plans.

Similarly, Underwood works to build his own Tower of Babel in season three. He desires to leave a legacy for himself by increasing his power and influence, so he oversteps his presidential authority in several ways.

Underwood’s selfish work is like a sand mandala that will be quickly destroyed.

But there are some Christians who think all work is impermanent in this way. Vincent Bacote calls this the “temptation of meaninglessness.” He says,

This is when we view culture and the world of work as useless because we believe that “it’s all going to burn up in the end.” Our work is not meaningless, but neither is it responsible for ushering in the kingdom. God is responsible for that.

Revelations 21:23-26 even says that the glory and the honor of the nations will be brought into heaven:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

Theologians still discuss what is meant by “the glory and the honor of the nations,” but in general, it’s thought to mean that the best of our work may not be impermanent. Art Lindsley writes,

What is this glory and honor of the nations? It has to be something that distinctively comes from the nations that expresses glory and honor. This probably means the best of humanity’s diverse creative works, the best products that people from the nations have created. Perhaps the best artistic works, the best of our engineering, and the best of other human endeavors will be for us to enjoy for all eternity.

The creation and destruction of sand mandalas, while a fascinating Buddhist tradition, is no way to think about our work.

Man’s work for man’s sake is fleeting, but work for God’s sake is everlasting.

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