I earned my master’s degree as a single mother while working full time. It was as intense as it sounds. Once or twice a week for about two years, I’d leave work and immediately drive an hour east to my night classes at the closest state university. Afterward, I’d get home around 10:00, stay up to complete assignments, grab a little sleep, and head back to work the next day. My doctoral studies half a decade later followed a different but equally arduous path.
It was a grueling process, earning these degrees, one I do not recommend to anyone. But neither could I avoid it. Something in me knew that I was made to study literature and to teach it. The seed for that idea was planted in a community college classroom, where my professor stirred my passion for English and encouraged my interests in furthering my education. That aim, that end, sustained me through the years and helped me navigate seemingly impossible obstacles to reach my goal.
It’s tempting in hindsight to mythologize my educational journey, and it does have all the makings of an inspirational film—a woman with a life-giving dream, fighting against the odds and overcoming them for the sake of herself and her son. I confess that I’m a sucker for such movies, especially if there’s an educational angle at play.
My history and my vocational bent make this narrative framing especially enticing to me. But here’s the rub: taken to its logical conclusion, casting myself as the hero of this story and my degrees and teaching career as the prize engenders nothing less than idolatry. This may sound hyperbolic, I know, but Timothy Keller captures my thinking here: “[Idolatry] means imagining and trusting anything to deliver the control, security, significance, satisfaction, and beauty that only the real God can give.”1 The study of literature served such an existential need in my life, coming as it did at a crucial inflection point, that I recognize my susceptibility to turning this good thing (with a small g) into the Good thing, a burden that no one but God himself can bear.2
The last two years have been especially clarifying along these lines, as I moved from one institution to another and during a pandemic to boot. The challenges of that transition have underscored the foolishness of looking to my discipline or vocation for anything like security or salvation. And of course I’m not alone. Increasingly, the academy, and especially the humanities, feels like a house on shifting sands, subject as it is to volatile cultural trends and rapidly declining enrollments. The faultiness of this vessel for investing one’s hopes and dreams becomes clearer by the day.
Even still, none of this diminishes my story or the value of studying literature. The corrective to idolatry is not denigration. If anything, reframing my vocational calling as penultimate imbues it with its true value, which emanates from God, the locus of the Good. In the preface to his Every Good Endeavor, Keller recounts J. R. R. Tolkien’s many attempts to write The Lord of the Rings, the composition and completion of which notably spanned the better part of two decades. Amid Tolkien’s frustration and despair about whether the project would ever come to fruition, the great fantasy author wrote “Leaf by Niggle,” a short story about a painter in a similar situation.3
As the story goes, the aptly named Niggle sets out to paint a tree. In the process, he becomes fixated on recreating a single leaf and zeroes in on that small section of the canvas, leaving the rest blank. Although he spends most of his time on this subject, he’s never satisfied with the results. Complicating matters, he’s often interrupted with the needs of his friends and neighbors. The vision in his head is always just beyond the reach of his paintbrush, never fully realized. Eventually Niggle dies, with this incomplete painting all that remains of his work until it, too, is consumed by a fire.
How depressing. All Niggle’s work come to naught. Or so it seemed.
Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. In a eucatastrophe4 befitting Tolkien’s Christian convictions, Niggle makes his way in the afterlife to the outskirts of heaven and discovers there, to his astonishment, the tree that had for so long captured his earthly imagination and animated his passions. This end, this goal around which he had ordered his life, was no longer a mere vision but now a dazzling reality. No longer at the mercy of the caprice of this earthly life or subject to human limitations and the frailties of fallen creation, but caught up in the fullness of the eternal life scripture offers: “All the leaves he had ever labored at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.”
The tree, Niggle’s tree, was in fact real, his apparent failures on earth notwithstanding. And this tree was even more beautiful than he had envisioned it. The work Niggle thought futile, in reality was accomplishing more than he ever could have dreamed, stemming from and partaking in God’s redemptive work. N. T. Wright puts it this way: “What you do in the present [. . .] will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”5
Like Niggle, each of us as educator and scholar paints our own incomplete canvas, helping students the best we can, pursuing our research with meager resources. We revel in the successes and grieve at the setbacks. And we repeat the cycle term after term, year after year, always reaching beyond our grasp. This Herculean task requires a robust eschatological vision big enough for our wildest dreams, one that is holy enough to purify them and powerful enough to realize them in the fullest possible way.
Thank God the gospel promises one. As Tolkien’s story powerfully reminds us, if we set our sights on things above,6 we need not lose heart. As with Niggle, so too with us. For you, and for me, there really is a tree.
- Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Penguin, 2012), 128.
- This post was inspired by a faculty cohort at Houston Baptist University that I participated in this past semester. Under the guidance of longtime HBU theology professor, Randy Hatchett, our group of eleven spent the term wrestling with the relationship between our vocation and spiritual formation, reading books by Timothy Keller and Justin Earley and studying Colossians and Philemon together.
- “Leaf by Niggle” can be found here: https://wp.lps.org/mpayant/files/2010/08/LEAF-BY-NIGGLE.pdf.
- In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe to describe the sudden turn of a fairy story from tragedy to joy. See the essay here: https://uh.edu/fdis/_taylor-dev/readings/tolkien.html.
- N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 193.
- Colossians 3:1-4.