Gideon Strauss, my friend and sometime debate-partner, is the executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, and this week marks the launch of the center’s Fieldnotes magazine, which aims to “provide examples and stories and practical wisdom from men and women who are intensely involved in the day-to-day work of managing businesses, non-profits, churches, and other organizations.” In his introduction to Fieldnotes, Strauss invokes the powerful image of sitting in a chair as “a theological experience.”
“The chair communicates to me that I live in a wonderful world, beloved by God. It communicates to me that work matters — also work done in offices and at desks,” he writes. “And from what I know of its manufacture, it tells me that the work of designers, factory foremen, millwrights, and upholsterers is all worthy work — work to which people are called by God.”
Strauss hints here at the complexity of what might otherwise be considered a simple thing: a chair.
Lester DeKoster similarly urges us in his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life — A Christian Perspective, to consider the chair:
That chair you are lounging in? Could you have made it for yourself? Well, I suppose so, if we mean just the chair! Perhaps you did in fact go out to buy the wood, the nails, the glue, the stuffing, the springs—and put it all together. But if by making the chair we mean assembling each part from scratch, that’s quite another matter. How do we get, say, the wood? Go and fell a tree? But only after first making the tools for that, and putting together some kind of vehicle to haul the wood, and constructing a mill to do the lumber, and roads to drive on from place to place? In short, a lifetime or two to make one chair! We are physically unable, it is obvious, to provide ourselves from scratch with the household goods we can now see from wherever you and I are sitting—to say nothing of building and furnishing the whole house.
The lesson here is similar to that drawn from Leonard Read’s famous essay, “I, Pencil,” or more recently as applied to the case of the modern smartphone: The complex reality of human interdependence and cooperation necessary to create a single chair, pencil, or smartphone is staggering.
Likewise the chair, manufactured by image-bearers of God for the use of their fellow image-bearers, testifies to what might be called “artificial grace.” As Strauss relates, “The De Pree family, founders and for a couple of generations managers of the Herman Miller company, are on record with regard to their concern for the humanity of the people who built chairs like the one in my office.” He continues:
In 1927, while walking home from the funeral of Herman Miller’s then millwright, the founder of the company, DJ De Pree, came to the conviction that “We’re all extraordinary.” Long decades later, DJ’s son Max, in his slim volume of leadership wisdom, Leadership Is an Art, asks what we can learn from his father’s reflections on the death of the millwright. Max writes, “In addition to all of the ratios and goals and parameters and bottom lines, it is fundamental that leaders endorse a concept of persons. This begins with an understanding of the diversity of people’s gifts and talents and skills.”
Or as C. S. Lewis reminds us in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,”
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
So even if it were the case that, as furniture maker Harrison Higgins argues, “There is absolutely no reason that a piece of furniture should not last hundreds of years…literally, hundreds of years,” we must remember that the splendor of the chair derives from its creation and use by God’s image-bearers, from the “artificial grace” given to us by God in his gift to us of stewardship responsibility, “the dignity of causality.”