Recently I bought a small, red cabinet for my wife and kid’s homeschool books. It was from IKEA, so how hard could assembly really be? Yet in only 20 minutes, I had managed to drill three holes in the wrong side of the red cabinet door. My wife took the project away from me, and assembled it for herself. I have concluded that I not only lack a manual and spacial intelligence, but that I’ve significantly undervalued those who build just about everything I see.
My respect for our culture’s craftsmen has grown – especially since Christ Horst and myself recently did an article for Christianity Today entitled “The Handcrafted Gospel.” The editor chose the subtitle “Meet the craftsmen reclaiming the honor of manual labor.” In our culture, “honor” and “manual labor” don’t often go hand in hand. We steer our students away from ‘tech schools’, believe thinking is for the office, not the shop, and have precious few “faith and work” events for electricians, contractors, carpenters or plumbers. Yet there is a huge skills gap and labor shortage for skilled manual labor in the US.
We have a problem.
Here’s a sneak preview of our theology for the craftsmen. Enjoy.
“I’ve always enjoyed building and fixing things,” says Brandon Yates.
After high school, Yates became an electrician. A fast study, he advanced quickly through the first two electrical certifications, apprentice and journeyman. Finally, when he became a master electrician in 1999, Yates founded KC One, an electrical contracting services company based in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Craftsman is a lost word in our day,” says Yates, now 37, who aims to change that by recruiting hardworking high-school graduates with an aptitude for making things. KC One’s apprenticeship program provides on-the-job training and certifications for one or two young electricians each year. “Society teaches these kids that they’ll become losers if they become electricians. My job is to unteach them.”
The perception that the trades offer less status and money, and demand less intelligence, is one likely reason young people have turned away from careers in the trades for several generations. In Yates’s school district, officials recently shuttered the entire shop class program. In our “cultural iconography,” notes scholar Mike Rose, the craftsman is a “muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hands and brain.” Thinking, it’s assumed, is for the office, not the shop.
But considering that Scripture identifies Jesus himself as a tektōn (Mark 6:3, literally “craftsman” or “one who works with his hands”), we think it’s high time to challenge the tradesman stereotype, and to rethink the modern divide between white collar and blue collar, office and shop, in light of the Divine Craftsman who will one day make all things new.
Apprentices and disciples
Craftspeople (harashim)—masons, barbers, weavers, goldsmiths, stonecutters, carpenters, potters—are replete in the Bible. The first person Scripture says was filled with the Spirit of God was Bezalel, who was given “ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze” (Ex. 31:1–5, ESV). Passages like these suggest God cares about craftsmanship, above all in his most holy places. From the tabernacle to the temple, what was built was meant to reflect and reveal God’s character. The temple was not just a majestic building; it spoke powerfully of his holiness.
Likewise, some of the most important New Testament figures worked with their hands…more
Jeff: I laughed upon reading your anecdote about the headache and hassle of putting together IKEA furniture. Been there, done that. I’m glad you wrote a needful corrective to our society’s privileging of white-collar work!
As a mental worker in the field of education, I must register disagreement with this claim, “Without reintegrating the trades back into the liberal arts, we will perpetuate the falsehood that plumbers, electricians, and other skilled laborers are somehow less intelligent.” I’m just as interested as you are in restoring the dignity of manual labor, but your solution seems misguided because it fails to understand the telos of (religious) education, which is well-articulated by The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts: “The entire program is designed to help our students to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ (Philippians 2:5) by forming them in human and divine wisdom and by preparing them for a life of service to the world as eloquent witnesses to the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.” The telos of education does not involve “training in repairing a leaky toilet or hardwiring a smoke detector,” and nor should it.
Rather than collapsing the division between trades and education, why not challenge the assumption that higher education is for everyone? All work has dignity because it belongs to our God-given cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28). Some people are suited for the trades, others for higher education. One is not better than another. The mistake is to turn higher education into vocational training, whether that’s for white-collar or blue-collar jobs. Unfortunately, white-collar vocationalism has already endangered the survival of humanities. College students demand that their school prepare them for a lucrative career in engineering, medicine, law, or business rather than equip them to be “eloquent witnesses to the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.” This demand reveals how deeply students need a true education, which, as the etymological origin of the word suggests, has the potential of bringing a person out of the dark and into the light.
Christopher, good thoughts! But, of course, I disagree. 😉 The point I was trying to make (at least in a prior version of the essay!), was that the humanities used to include manual competence. That is, in the late 1800s, scientists actually made what they designed, and there was no such division as we see today. Today quick ideas: (1) Shouldn’t a “liberal” arts education make a man more ‘free’? But as Matthew Crawford points out in “Shop Class as Soul Craft”, when we’re removed all manual learning from a well-rounded education, the typical “white collar” worker can’t even fix their toilet or deck or washer – which means he must depend more on others to do this, thus becoming less “free”. (2) As you pointed out, the telos of education should not only be “eloquent witness” as Littlejohn and Evans argue, but also “service,” in ALL its forms. Does true service not require that we build a physical world since we are physical creatures? We are not just minds (as your definition of the telos of education seems to emphasize), but minds AND bodies. Thus, we need the work of the craftsman just as much as we need the work of the intellectual. They should be complementary. I believe that we could train those who are manually gifted to pursue a career in the trades WHILE we also train them to think about theology, philosophy, and politics. Such is the call to engage God’s world as those with a “liberal” education.
Well, enough for now. Hopefully I’ll see you soon for lunch.
Jeff: I welcome the challenge to my thoughts. 🙂 While I lack enough historical knowledge to definitively rebut your claim, when did “the humanities used to include manual competence”? I have trouble imagining that liberal arts colleges ever offered training in manual labor. After all, that’s why they’re called colleges of “liberal arts” as opposed to “servile arts,” a distinction that’s worth upholding. See this blog post on the website for CiRCE Institute:
I’m afraid that your proposal asks colleges to achieve more than is possible or desirable, almost like expecting your vacuum to write an essay on David Hume’s epistemology. Trades should cultivate skilled workers while colleges should cultivate wise and virtuous citizens. Collapsing liberal arts education and vocational training is a mistake. Given the limited career of college, a student should devote himself to an education in what Matthew Arnold famously calls “the best which has been thought and said.” That means he needs a course in British Literature or Greek Philosophy rather than Carpentry or Masonry.
John S. Carpenter
Jeff – EXCELLENT article in CT! I was very impressed with all the information you included from different sources and the fabulous way your wove it together. I am one that appreciates fine craftsmanship. I deeply value the apprenticeship model of training in any field – especially with a journeyman who loves God and instills a Biblical world view into his apprentices – sharing the Gospel and giving glory to God in his work.
I heard recently that “carpenter” is a misleading translation for “teknon”. It is suggested that Jesus was more likely a stone mason than a carpenter that works with wood. – Perhaps he and his earthly father, Joseph did both. However, in that setting I think there was more work with stone than wood.
John, thanks for the kind words. Yes, there’s disagreement as to whether Jesus was actually a carpenter. But the point is, we know he worked with his hands because that’s the plain translation of teknon. You’d think then we could encourage our young people to be craftsman if the incarnate Son of God was? Keep on praising those examples of excellent craftsmanship….
John S. Carpenter
I’m currently staying in a cabin looking out over the Metolius River in Camp Sherman, Oregon. The cabin is an excellent example of fine craftsmanship. Interior is entirely wood – knotty pine (not a square inch of drywall). Beautiful wood floors, granite counter-tops, top of the line appliances, etc. (I am staying here out of the generosity of a grant – I could never afford it otherwise. I could also never afford to build such a cabin.) I mention all of this to point to the relationship between the filthy rich (many of which are white collar, highly educated folks) and the excellent craftsman. The most admirable art (in all its forms), architecture/construction, and high craftsmanship of all kinds, usually comes with a hefty price tag. I am grateful for the rich who have a deep appreciation of fine craftsmanship and are willing to pay good money for it. [However, it does pose a bit of a struggle for me to see millions spent on a finely crafted over-the-top mansion when there are millions who are starving to death and have little shelter.] Of course, “the poor you will always have with you.”
I’m not sure where I am going with this – other than to point to the obvious fact that there is a interdependence between the rich and poor, the white collar and blue collar. [Don’t feel you need to post this – unless you have a comment that may redeem my ramblings.]
I’m glad you replied. And yes, appreciating excellent craftsmanship is, I feel, appreciating the image of the Creator in the craftsman. Great stuff. And yes, we should care for the poor – but we evangelicals could also use a few cathedrals of Norte Dame ourselves.