Published on December 17, 2014 by Mark DeVine  
12 the veteran in a new field homer
The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, Winslow Homer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed that it was not his hands which swung the scythe, but that the scythe was moving together with itself a body full of life and consciousness of its own . . . These were the most blissful moments. . . . Suddenly, in the midst of his toil, without understanding what it was or whence it came, he felt a pleasant sensation of chill on his hot, moist shoulders. He glanced at the sky in the interval for whetting the scythes. . . . Another swath, and yet another swath followed--long swaths and short swaths, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it all came easy to him. . . . These are glimpses backwards and perhaps forwards. To times in which the earth does not oppose us but yields. The thoroughbred under us runs with exultant abandon as it was meant to do.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Art attempts and sometimes achieves numerous and worthy results. It may accurately depict a slice of life, capture a provocative mood or arrest in distinctive posture a person or a poodle. Art may instruct or question and both to great benefit. In a qualified sense, art really results from a kind of creation (not ex nihilo--only the Creator pulls that off!). Yet the successful artist produces something new and of value?something born not of paint or stone or, in Tolstoy's case, the words. These raw materials function as media, they serve as beasts of burden, the humble bearers of priceless treasure. They convey the vision of the artist.

From long hours of agonizing and meticulous chiseling comes Alexander the Great. Was he in there all along? A dazzling and arresting piece of pottery is coaxed ever so carefully first from clay and finally from the fiery white hot kiln.

What separates the great and the not-so-great art? A double-achievement, in my estimation. Double where single suffices to make art, even very good art--but not exceptional art. Great art discloses truth AND displays something of the beauty of that truth.

Tolstoy's account of the mower does this. Oh but what backbreaking, de-humanizing and poorly remunerated drudgery such mowing must have been. Yes. And nothing in Tolstoy's snapshot denies this. And yet, workers from ancient times periodically experience and sometimes even bear testimony to such rich and exalted enjoyment in work.

Construal of work mainly in terms of its distortion through the Fall is a lie. Tolstoy saw and captured a picture of part of this reality. Oh yes, work shares with food, sex, and power in the deep, tragic, punishing loss of its intended good use and enjoyment by us human creatures. But God's word of punishment was only the first word, not the last. The first word was "no." The next and the last is and shall be "YES." The "no" and the "yes" belong to God's typical sequencing and pacing of himself. This pattern belongs to the gospel trajectory of God's ways.

No sooner had we sinned and "become naked" than there He was, fresh from performing surgery on Adam, now sewing up clothes for his wayward and embarrassed creatures. The doom that had settled in and around them would not have the last word. Death entered, yet so did the Great Physician. "Talitha arise!"

He has the last word--on everything, on death and (from the greater to the lesser) on work as well. God's last-word-prerogative arises not only from his unrivaled authority but from his perfect knowledge and perfect love which are, in the end, the basis of his authority. He knows and thus speaks and acts according to what is true. And nothing is true apart from its collision with the steadfast love of almighty God--not work, and not death.

The general resurrection remains in abeyance but the grave has already failed to hold Him. From that failure of the grave's pretentions emanated powerful, transforming good news shock waves not just forward but backward as well. They proleptically caught Lazarus in their wake and the little girl too. The death-keys bearing Lord who already would lay down his life and take it up again already knew the truth about Talitha better than the mourners did or than she could have and so could assert in defiance of her lifeless body to the grief stricken bystanders, "she is just asleep."

The ancient, primordial, and not yet relinquished truth about work is partially uncovered in Tolstoy's mower. And the truth is beautiful. That we human beings express and enjoy the truth about ourselves as God's creatures through work constitutes this distinctive beauty. Work, paid or unpaid, harbors within itself beauty and truth.

Thus, God blesses, in his timing and measure, not only by prospering the work of our hands, but by drawing us workers into the reflection of God's joy and freedom in his own unique work of creation (of which we ourselves are products!).

And so humanity, here and there, from time to time, experiences something of the truth about work; about having dominion in ways that still, in spite of everything, may reflect the glory of the Creator by the creature made in His image.

That something of this freedom and enjoyment still weaves its way through the laboring of the masses provides a partial accounting for the unhappiness retirement brings to the lives of many. It accounts in part for the recent poll in which millennials said by a wide margin that what they want more than anything else is "a job." It accounts for work's incursion into the sphere of art. A museum in Milwaukee is totally dedicated to art depicting human beings at work! Something deeper than the proper need for money or the improper feeding of greed or pursuit of power or things accounts for the inextricable (because divinely created, designed and maintained) connection between human beings and honorable labor. It is the desire and need to enjoy who we really are before God and in relation to each other and this world.