A Theology of Craftspersonship and Storytelling

Theology of Craftpersonship and Storytelling

The piece that follows comprises most of an essay I wrote for a class at The Seattle School. In title, it is a brief theology of craft and storytelling that speaks accurately to the intersection of theology, design, and craft which I find myself currently. 

I begin by rooting this Crafspersonship and Storytelling in my own theological anthropology, which for me asks a foundational question: What does it mean to be an active human reflection of the Imago-Dei? Or asked another way, “what is the image of the one to whom we are being formed? For this, I look to the opening scene of creation. In Genesis 1 we observe what Robert Alter has suggested, “an arching grand choreography and harmonious cosmic overview.”[1] The account is not a scientific script of the origins of the world, but instead a story about the origins of meaning, where the image of God is presented in twofold: in creatorship and in relationship.

The creation play in Genesis has often been imagined as a grand celestial magic show at the end of the divine figure’s wand. However, being attentive to the text of Genesis 1-2 yields a more likely image of one who is creating meaning of already-present matter. We observe God in the act of dividing the chaotic and formless world, and binding the pieces together with new names. God begins in Genesis 1 by assigning meaningful names to the greater infrastructure of the universe; the sun, the stars, the sky, and the water. Then, God creates humankind and invites the humans to continue naming the more nuanced details of creation; the plants, the animals, the trees and their fruits. This most sacred act of naming continues today. When we participate in a creative act, we are aligning ourselves with the creative nature of God, assigning new meaning to already present matter. Thus the act of craftwork, of making something, is an active reflection of the image of God.

To illustrate, I’ll offer an example from my wood shop. As a woodworker, I have frequently enacted a scene like this: I take a rough piece of black walnut, and after pondering the possibilities determined by the limits of its dimension, the patterns in the grain, the locations of any knots or cracks, I sketch out my cut lines and decide where to divide it. Then, I plane it. I sand the pieces, then glue them back together, and sand them even further. Finally I apply oil to it, and I call it a table, or a tray, or a bench. In this scene I have not created any new matter, but I have assigned new meaning to already present material. Inasmuch, I have given it a new name. I should clarify though; craftwork is not limited to working with wood. Craftspeople are not just those who aspire to make their living on Etsy. Craftwork is the product of being human and bringing beauty into the world as a reflection of God.

I have mentioned above that I observe the nature of the image of God to be displayed twofold in creatorship and in relationship. Likewise, the task of humankind to reflect the image of God is twofold. When we act on a creative impulse, we reflect God’s activity in naming meaning for creation, and hence his work as a creator. But no creative act exists in a vacuum even if our work is done in solo. Again, I offer an example from my wood shop. Woodworking is a skill embodied in many years of human history. When I am crafting with wood, I am engaging the history of the craft and the people who have contributed to it. In my own family for instance, my Dad is a carpenter; his dad was a carpenter, as was his dad, a carpenter. While I don’t work directly with those in my kin who have gone before me as woodworkers, I am connected to them in a relational way through the task of woodwork. Even further, I am connected to the larger historically embodied knowledge of what it means to go about working with wood. In this way, craftspersonship is always relationship to those who have held and contributed to the skills pertaining to a particular medium or line of work.

The relational aspect of craftwork can also be seen by the way varying fields interact to form a complex web of society. In turn, this also reflects the multifaceted parts of the body of Christ. Matthew Crawford writes:

 

“We're not as free and independent as we thought. Street-level work that disrupts the infrastructure (the sewer system below or the electrical grid above) brings our shared dependence into view. People may inhabit very different worlds even in the same city, according to their wealth or poverty. Yet we all live in and are part of the same physical reality.[2]

 

The hand-made trades are experiencing a sort of resurgence in our generation. Craftwork can be a deeply formative lived-metaphor for spiritual formation. It connects us to the idea of change. But just as craftwork connects us forward, it connects us backward also. Sure, we craft to make something new and unique with our own hands, but we also craft to make something that is very old. Craftspersonship roots us both in history and the future. Even if I were to make a chair using a 3D printer, by way of knowledge-deconstruction we understand that a 3D printer is built upon a long history of skill. The skills of sculptors and the technology of ink-jet printers are present in the 3D printer. Even further, the ink jet printer is built on the skill of wood block printing. Thus even “crafting” a chair with a 3D printer is participation in an embodied history of generations of chair crafters, woodworkers, and block printers.

Spiritual Formation In An Era Of Post-Modernity

Perhaps craftspersonship is well suited to guide us into spiritual formation given the era of post-modernity we live. The post-modern mindset can be understood through thinkers such as Derrida who sought not to arrive at objective completeness, but rather to find meaning in the process of becoming.[3] Such a mindset lends well to the creative task, which never seems finished. This is not to say that craftwork as a way of spiritual formation is a newly imposed phenomenon. In fact, what I am referring to as a post-modern posture of finding purpose in the process, and security in the subjective, is by my interpretation the very posture God takes toward the creative act in Genesis 1-2. To observe this, we must consider the implication of the divine refrain heard in Genesis 1, “It is good.” Goodness implies a sense of benefit and beauty to creation, but it does not imply finality. The creator does not say, “It is done.” Nor do we hear the words uttered, “It is perfect,” but instead we hear the words spoken again and again, “It is good.”

 Many artists and craftspersons would resonate with the phrase, “The work is never done.” Personally, I have never felt “finished” with a piece of woodwork. Sure, I have come to the end of a workday and been proud of the piece that sits on my workbench. I have even been tempted to say (if only to myself) “It is perfect!” But I know that inevitably I will return to my “perfect” piece in a day, a week, or a year, and wish that I had done something differently. The creative impulse cannot rightfully be spoken of as “perfect” or finished, or else there would be no point in continuing to create. Thus if craftwork is to continue, the products of craftspersonship can rightfully only be spoken of as “good.”

Said another way, to declare something as perfect leaves no room for participation, or how can it remain perfected? Such a declaration is to speak of an ending; and something that has an end, cannot be eternal. Thus the very thing at stake in God’s declaration of creation as “good” is the possibility of eternity. If creation were perfect, it would not need participation. Genesis 1 presents a story that invites the hearer to participate in God’s good eternal work. It invites us to join God in filling the world with beauty and meaning and relationship and goodness. Hence, spiritual formation, like the work of an artist or a craftsperson can only yield good things. It cannot be fully achieved, nor can it be perfected, less our spiritual formation be unto some temporal gain less than eternal life.  

Storytelling and the Incarnation: Participating in the Body process

To clarify, I am taking the position, that spiritual formation is an eternal process. It is an eternal story that we as individuals cannot achieve its end. Our spiritual formation continues upon the spiritual formation of the worshipping saints before us. This then becomes the basis of the spiritual formation of those to follow. I am not suggesting some sort of spiritual reincarnation, whereby we keep progressing individually again and again after our bodies die. Rather, I am intending to point out that if our spiritual formation has to do with being formed into the likeness of an eternal God, spiritual formation must be an unending eternal process.

As a Christ follower, I believe in the eternal deity of Jesus Christ, whose primary word is one of invitation to follow him. For me, this literally means to join him in his incarnate body. In this view, spiritual formation is the process and journey where we identity with the eternal body of Christ, who is the image of the eternal God. This incarnate body of Christ is present now in this age in those who enact Christ’s heart, and also through history. Thus spiritual formation is a relationship to those in the present who make up the body of Christ, and those in the past who have made up his body and have since physically passed away. As we form into Christ’s image, we care about the things that God and the incarnate Christ care about; the feeding of orphans, and widows, and the welcoming of strangers.[4] Imagined another way, we enact the body of Christ through acts of spiritual craftwork. We create new names and places for those who have been oppressed; we call them “welcomed” and “beautiful.”

James K. A. Smith writes that we are all “narrative animals making meaning of the world through story.”[5] As a Christian, spiritual formation draws me into the story-process of the eternal incarnate Christ. Christ is how I make meaning in this world. Smith writes that, “the way to the heart is through the body, and way into the body is through story.” Thus my heart’s desires and my bodily actions are constructed on the basis of this eternal story and my relationship to those who also live it. This should draw up again the idea of historically embodied craft-skills and knowledge. Spiritual formation does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place in the history and future of the worshiping church. As an eternal story, it cannot be perfected. Spiritual formation can only be a process yielding goodness.[6]

I recognize that such statements regarding the un-achievability of spiritual formation may seem problematic. Yet, especially at a time when our movies and literature seem obsessed with creating stories that tell of the end of the world, one must consider the implication of this infatuation with endings. Is it really to excuse ourselves from the difficult work of eternal living? Could it be that perhaps we are more afraid of the wild possibilities of eternal life? Are we frightened by what it costs to contribute our lives toward the past and future lives of others that together embody the incarnate image of Christ? Perhaps this is why there are so many stories about the end of the world. After all, if we know when our end is coming, are we not excused to stall ourselves away from the hard work of bearing the image of Christ into everything from reconciliation to recycling?

Liturgy, Gravity, and the Paradox of the Eucharist

            The image of God is not displayed as one who endlessly crafts, but as one who rhythmically observes rest among the work. The order of rest, and the rhythm of season is written upon all of creation and within our bodies as well. As a woodworker I observe the rings of a tree and I am fascinated! We live in a world of liturgy, and likewise we are liturgical people. Liturgy, says Smith, is a powerful force in shaping the things that we love.[7] Liturgy shapes our imagination, our desires, and it informs a theology of spiritual formation as an ongoing process. Spiritual formation as a liturgical journey is more so a forward moving spiral, than a static route. We are always moving forward to liturgically return back at sacramental places of familiarity, most importantly the Sabbath. We move forward as culture makers, and craftspeople for six days, reflecting God’s mandate to curate meaning and beauty in the world. Then we arrive back at the Sabbath, which becomes the door back into the world as craftspeople and culture makers. Smith writes of the liturgical observance of Sabbath worship saying:

 

Worship brings us back to the beginning of creation, to our commissioning in the Garden and our deputizing as God’s image-bearers… We are drawn into union with Christ, and sent back for Christian action, rightly ordered cultural labor, the creational task of making and remaking God’s world. We are liturgically (re) made to be makers.[8]

 

The liturgical break from the craft of our hands to observe Sabbath worship is most poignantly about our partaking of the Eucharist. Work leads us to hunger, this is written in our bodies. Similarly, the work of joining God as craftspeople in his creation, leads us back to the Lord’s table. Alexander Schmemann asserts that the Eucharist is a journey toward finality, and that finality is a restoration of the beginning where God is once again as in the Garden, experienced through food.[9] As an experience of finality, however, the Eucharist is the practice of “arriving” without ever “arriving.” Christ gave his body, in bread and wine, to be observed in a very temporal way. Every human can attest; after a meal, we hunger again. When Jesus takes a loaf of bread and a cup of wine saying, “take and eat of me,” he is not intending the meal to satisfy. The Eucharist is meant to instill a craving that causes us to return again and again. The table is a guiding liturgical story about the relationship between humanity and God, self and other.  In the Eucharist, the body of Christ remains eternal, sustained both by and for those who participate.

The temporal nature of the Eucharist contributes to the idea of an eternal spiritual formation process. We are grounded by movement, always returning but never arriving. A useful reflection may be to consider the physics of gravity caused by the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The earth never arrives. Yet its movement is the very basis of gravity that allows creation to remain anchored to the Earth’s surface. Similarly, we find our spiritual formation groundedness only in the process of participating in the relational story of the Eucharist and the ongoing work as craftspeople and culture makers bringing beauty into the world. To engage spiritual formation is to step into the story of God; to actively participate, walk around, sit, dine, converse, and actually live our lives in it.

Conclusion: Becoming a Craftsman-Storyteller Practitioner

God invites humanity to this eternal story in diverse ways. Of course, the work is hard and without the safeness of finality. The trade off however, is quite astounding! In place of endings, we are offered the promise of salvation in Christ’s eternal life. As a practitioner of the body of Christ, I contribute my skills and the crafts of my hands for the aim of eternal goodness. I desire to craft environments that lead people to experience the living God, self and other. My current vocational musings are around a localized urban community market and gathering space. This space will create opportunity for local artists and entrepreneurs from economically marginalized neighborhoods to sell their goods within a growing urban economy. I desire this space to be a vibrant place of human interaction where relationships flourish and the body of Christ assembles to meet needs. In this space, craftwork becomes more than just a lived metaphor to understand spiritual formation, it becomes part of the formation itself. It won’t be perfect, but there is possibility that it will be good. And that is the contribution I’m hoping to make to the incarnate body of Christ. Our aim in pursuing spiritual formation should not be for perfection, our aim should be to join Christ in his eternal being. That we, at the end of our physical lives may have participated in moving the eternal body of Christ forward. Then to hear that lovely promise spoken, “Well done, my good, my faithful friend.”

 

 

 

Works Cited

[1] Robert Alter. Genesis: Translation and commentary. (W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1996).

[2] Mathew B Crawford. Shop Class As Soulcraft : an Inquiry Into the Value of Work. (New York: Penguin Press, 2009).

[3] Jacques Derrida. On the Name. Translated by David Wood. (Stanford Press, Stanford, California: 1993 Original, 1995 translation) 7-11.

[4] Holy Bible. English Standard Version. Deuteronomy 10:18 & James 1:27. (Crossway, Wheaton, IL: 2008) I am summarizing these verses as a reoccurring theme of how justice is understood throughout scripture.

[5] James K. A. Smith.  Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. (Baker Publishing Group: Grand Rapids, MI,

2013). Kindle Edition. 3

[6] It is interesting to consider here the theological concept of the Kenosis, (Phil 2:7)  “Christ Emptying Himself” into the body of the Church. What do we do with the idea of Christ emptying himself into an imperfect body? The body of Christ is eternal, but it is made up of people that die.  Has Christ submitted himself into a body that would never be made perfect and is that the point to be grappled with? The image of a relay race may be helpful, as Paul too invokes this image (1 Tim 4:7, 1 Cor 9:24). We run the race (Spiritual Formation) not to complete the race, but to move the eternal body forward.

[7] James K. A. Smith.  Imagining the Kingdom: Kindle Edition. 3

[8] James K. A. Smith.  Kindle Edition 2, 5-6

[9] Alexander Schmemann. For the Life of the World : Sacraments and Orthodoxy. (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: Crestwood, N.Y.  1973 (1982 printing). 34.

 

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Posted in Creativity, Thoughts from Jordan.