Throughout its history, the American economy has transitioned from agrarian to industrial to information-driven.
Given our newfound status, manual labor is increasingly cast down in the popular imagination, replaced by white-collar jobs, bachelor’s degrees, and ladder-climbing. Whether due to new avenues and opportunities or a more general distaste for the slow and mundane, work with the hands is either ignored or discouraged, both as vocational prospect and consumeristic priority.
Amid this sea of new efficiencies, the art of craftsmanship is at a particular disadvantage. Whereas things used to be made with a certain individual artistry (out of necessity, no doubt), so much has become industrialized and systematized. That shift has led to unprecedented blessings, to be sure, whether in time, money, energy, and convenience, and for those fruits we should be grateful and rejoice.
But even in an economy such as this, there remains a need, a market, a knack for the slow and steady. There remains room not just for the magnificence of a well engineered microchip, but for a masterfully carved table and an artfully tailored suit. Creative service comes in all kinds, and God has a plan to both meet our immediate needs and fill our bodies, souls, and spirits with beauty and wonder.
In a new video series called Raw Craft, famed travel geek Anthony Bourdain seeks to highlight the folks who are thriving on this frontier — the best of the best, who continue to create value in trades or methods that many consider dead or disposable. “The great cathedrals of France were designed by artists,” Bourdain says in one episode, “but they were built by craftsmen.”
Bourdain sits down with everyone from brewers to tailors, blacksmiths to instrument builders, but the episode on an age-old printer and bookmaker draws out all the right themes rather well:
Toward the end of the episode, Bourdain expresses the surprising awe of simply holding, touching, and smelling one of their finely made books, noting what he describes as a “metaphysical aspect” to the process and product. “There’s a heft to this,” he says, “You know somehow in a tactile way this is a well-made thing.”
In doing so, he unknowingly points to something profound about our God-given nature and destiny, not to mention the fruits of our labor. We are co-creators made in the image of a creative God, and the outcomes and byproducts of that divine relationship are often no less mysterious. There is something to behold and appreciate about our creations in and of themselves, and there’s a place in God’s economy for activities or processes that we might otherwise deem “useless” or inefficient.
As Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef observe, when we put hands to matter, we partake in something more profound than we often realize:
The forms of work are countless, but the typical one is work with the hands. The Bible has reference to the sower, to the making of tents and of things out of clay, to tilling the fields and tending the vine. Handwork makes visible the plan in the mind, just as the deed makes visible the love in the heart. While the classic Greek mind tended to scorn work with the hands, the Bible suggests that something about it structures the soul.
Even amid our shifting civilizational priorities, and despite the temptations of consumerism, we now have the time, tools, and resources for the carefulness that craftsmanship requires. Oddly enough, and partly thanks to prosperity and efficiency, we now have new freedom and resources to pursue the goodness and beauty of craftsmanship — no longer out of a quest for self-sustenance, but for the service of all humankind.
More broadly, as society continues to blindly elevate this industry or occupation over that, and as our culture continues to assign status and value according to earthbound views of human worth and destiny, the church has the opportunity to lead the way forward in recognizing the glory of craftsmanship. We can affirm what Bourdain already senses to be true, pointing to the transcendent value behind it and the God-glorifying truth that lies ahead.