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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  • DennisAFRet

    The problem is, we act as if what is done on earth is the main point, when it is designed by God as supporting, teaching work for the main point. Jesus told us His was not an earthly kingdom, yet we try to make our focus earthly kingdoms. This does not mean the earthly work is not important, but we must be clear why it is important. We are told to do whatever our hands find to do, as unto God. We are told not to seek after all the things the ‘gentiles’ seek after, but to leave them to God, working instead for His purposes. What we find to do, He has led us into, and we work at it until He tells us to move on to the next field, trusting that He has purpose in conforming us to the image of His Son through the experiences He has designed into our pathway through life. This includes our work, the relationships in all of life including those at work, and the things we learn in our work, as He applies them to scriptural teaching. His designs are intentional and exquisite in their detail – much like the sand mandala’s discussed. They are impermanent on earth, because they weren’t meant to support an earthly end. But when we do them, as unto God, their outcomes are not at all impermanent. We may or may not see the end results while we are here on earth, but we walk by faith and not by sight anyway…and therein lies the rub!

  • anarchobuddy

    What if the work we do might not be considered the “glory and honor of the nations”? For example, I currently work part time at a sewing and alterations place that offers custom sewing and sewing classes. Some of the people I work with do very fine couture and design work and have been recognized and awarded for their work by organizations such as Threads magazine and the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals. I, however, work on fairly routine jobs, such as pant hems or replacing elastic linings. I think, as far as sewing goes, the work of my co-workers could be considered the glory and honor of the nations, while my work probably would not be. Granted, this is their main vocation and what they’ve dedicated their work life to; for me, this is an opportunity to learn some sewing and make a bit of money.

    So I wonder, from a Christian perspective of work, how comparatively meaningful is the part time work I do as I get through school?

  • Amarah

    This article is true in many ways. The masterpiece of our lives can be one of the following: 1. We can try to be remembered on this earth, by having power, money, “friends” or popularity. This kind of masterpiece may get very attractive to spectators, and people may remember it for years after it’s artist is dead and gone. 2. We can do everything for a better cause-trying to touch people’s lives in the eternal long-run. We can form relationships, be examples, and have hearts for God, and our life’s masterpiece will carry on to eternity, leaving a lasting impact on hearts and souls. This masterpiece will not be limited to the existence of this earth but will live on in the souls we touch. Also our rewards will stack in heaven for OUR eternity when we follow God’s calling for us.

  • DennisAFRet

    The issue of what we do, in comparison to others, is that we are looking at things from the wrong perspective. If our God is truly sovereign, as His Word says He is. And if all the things the Bible tells us about our relationship with Him as one of His people are true…each day of our lives was written down before ever one of them came to be; He is leading us each step of the way; He is with us in a very intimate way, at work in us to will and to do His good pleasure; He is conforming us to the image of His Son (do we see a pattern emerging? – it is Him at work in us, and the work of His Son – in the World, reconciling the world to Himself). The emphasis is on His choice of time, circumstance, resources and relationships. He gives us the work our hands find to do, and we are but commanded to do everything as unto the Lord – even if what He has provided for us is part-time work where we are learning both skills and relationships from those He has put into our sphere of influence. The work (and all else) He gives us is being used by Him for His eternal purpose in our lives and those in relationship to us. Again, the emphasis is on Him – initiating, leading, providing, shaping, using – and the pathway of our journey from slavery to sin to His Promised Land, where we shall ever be with the Lord, is of His choosing – every step, twist, and obstacle there to teach us to trust Him. Therefore, nothing He gives us is of little consequence. It is meaningful because He invests it with meaning – and we walk by faith that it is so…

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