Arts & Culture & At Work

Stripping Away the Magic and Make-Believe from Our Vocations

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Last month our family went to see the revival of Steven Schwarz’s musical Pippin as an early birthday present for my oldest daughter, who loves the theater.

Pippin could be described as “themes from the book of Ecclesiastes set in the time of Charlemagne.” A group of players leads the title character through pursuits such as war, kingly rule, sensual delights, and others, all in the hope of finding deep personal fulfillment.

As seen in Ecclesiastes, all of these things fail to satisfy, even as the troupe performs all kinds of magic throughout the show.

At the end, Pippin is urged to perform “The Finale,” which will be truly extraordinary: setting himself on fire in a great and spectacular act.

Pippin refuses and decides to live a mundane life with a widow and her son. The troupe’s leader commands the entire stage be torn down, including the hair and make-up on Pippin, the widow, and her son.

The magic setting is gone.

As our family drove home we had a conversation about what it meant that the make-believe and magic was stripped away at the end of the show. There is a great, persistent temptation to treat our lives as a magic show where our vocations provide the fulfillment only God can really give us.

Society tells us we can craft a version of life where our work and hobbies deliver the deepest satisfaction of all. This is a counter-narrative to the perpetual sigh expressed in Ecclesiastes’s refrain, “All is vanity.”

As we encourage fellow believers to recognize the great truth that their work matters to God, we should be wary of suggesting work itself provides an eschatological type of satisfaction. As we embrace the fullness of our vocations before God, it is vital to resist a spiritualized form of idolatry leading us to treat work as a magical performance.

The point is not that we never experience enjoyment in what we do. Delight is not absent in Ecclesiastes or Pippin’s pursuits, but ultimate satisfaction and significance remain elusive.

There are many articles about job dissatisfaction, leading me to wonder if part of the explanation is that the magic does not work as advertised – especially for those who put much effort into extraordinary acts.

Perhaps distress occurs because our work, though a good and proper dimension of our humanity, cannot bear the weight placed upon it.

The fact that we sometimes sigh even amid the sweet spot of our vocations provides a great opportunity for self-examination. Are we giving God alone his proper place? We can ask ourselves if we are truly considering the ways we are tempted to create magical illusions with the practice of our vocations.

How do you regard your work? Do you try to create an anti-Ecclesiastes illusion? Do you worship God truly and dive into your work without creating a vocational idol?

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  • John Thomas

    I needed this. Thank you.

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