The God of Handicrafts

Last night I picked up my knitting again after a long break. I have been knitting on and off since I was eight years old. While I have also enjoyed such things as sketching and card design, and have attempted several other crafts over the years, knitting has always been my preferred craft and I frequently find myself returning to it. I knit while chatting on Skype, while watching DVDs, while listening to MP3 lectures, and sometimes as a way to keep my hands occupied while I think. While I have never reflected upon knitting and other crafts themselves for any extended period of time, I have always found crafting to be an incredibly worthwhile and enriching activity and have suspected that, if one were to reflect upon it from a theological perspective, one would find much to reward such exploration. The following are some rough initial thoughts.

I suspect that God shares my passion for handicrafts. God is first introduced to us as the Creator, the one who brings into being something new and expressive of his glory, who moulds and fashions, who finds delight in his work and who rests from it, who teaches skills to others, and creates the human race to be his assistants in crafting a world and filling it with beautiful things.

The first time in Scripture we read of someone being filled with the Spirit and gifted for a particular task it is for the task of embroidery, weaving, and tailoring (Exodus 28:2ff.). God gifted the craftsmen in order that they would create clothes of glory and beauty for the High Priest, clothes that would be meaningful, beautiful, and functional. He later gifted Bezaleel and the artisans who served under him for the task of creating the tabernacle and furniture for which Moses had received the blueprints (Exodus 31:1-11; 35:30-35). The name of the wise master builder and his chief assistant are given to us and we are told of the others who worked with them, such as the gifted women in Exodus 35:25-26.

The work these gifted craftspeople created was intricate and beautiful. It wasn’t merely an expression of human skill but was also a gift and manifestation of the work of the Spirit. God desires his house to be a place of skilled workmanship, a place that exceeds the merely functional and exhibits beauty. This pattern continues in the New Testament, where we see that Paul is another ‘wise master builder’, who builds according to the plans given to him by Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10), the tentmaker serving the one who trained as a carpenter.

One of the things that has always struck me when thinking about such biblical descriptions of the construction, filling, and decoration of God’s house, whether tabernacle, temple, or Church, is the attention given to particular persons. The work of construction and decoration is not anonymous, with everyone’s contributions interchangeable, but each person contributes something unique and expressive of themselves and the gifts and roles with which God has blessed them. And God’s delight in his house is founded on this fact above all others. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 expresses this truth clearly: ‘…each one’s work will become manifest’ – not just the quality of the construction but also the identity of the hands involved in its construction.

The fact that God so values the connection between persons and their work is significant. In an age of massive construction projects, employing huge machinery, and often large labour forces, within which most workers are interchangeable and anonymous, we can start to consider Christ’s building of his Church according to a similar model. In reality, God’s building project is the externalization of the hearts of a willing people. It is a labour of love in which spiritually gifted artisans produce a building together, a building within which everyone leaves their unique mark.

This has always been an important theme in N.T. Wright’s work on this subject. He writes:

The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life… What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—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 (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom… That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s re-creation of this wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.

God delights in our labours, not just for their own sake, but also because they are ours. Just as the parent will treasure their young child’s macaroni art, irrespective of its intrinsic artistic merit, so God delights in work expressive of loving hearts: we can be assured that it will still be stuck to the divine fridge after the resurrection.

While we can never completely separate a person from their work, the connection between the two is especially pronounced in crafts. The craftsperson always has a strong relationship with the things that they produce, something of their individuality and care being expressed and externalized within each of their creations. I suspect that this is just one way in which a deeper engagement in the world of crafts may help us to see the world a little bit more like God sees it.

Craft is particularizing. Through a person’s craft, they distinguish themselves from everyone else, creating in a way that is uniquely expressive of themselves. This is especially the case in light of the relationship between craft and the body. The discipline of craft is also an act of self-creation as we develop and master skills and abilities, skills and abilities that are uniquely ours. The craftsperson also creates things that are unique and particular. We have innumerable mass-produced items in our world, but every item that one handcrafts is distinct from any other, set apart by virtue of its relationship to and expression of its creator.

Craft also particularizes the creation. Craft takes materials from the natural world and fashions them into objects that are meaningful, useful, and beautiful. Left unused, the raw materials would have little value, character, or significance. However, through the activity of the craftsperson, the creation can be elevated to new levels of meaning, beauty, and use.

One of the most marked characteristics of the craftsperson is care and a close relationship with materials. In contrast to those who operate upon the world with machinery, craftspeople primarily work with their bodies and with simple tools that serve to extend their body’s capabilities. The craftsperson needs to develop an intimate acquaintance with the materials that they are working with, with their potentials and limitations. The craftsperson ‘elevates’ their materials from their raw form to something that is unique. However, the process of crafting preserves and develops a close and personal connection between the creator and the material order upon which they are operating. Crafting can bring us closer to the created order and teaches us the virtues of care and attentiveness in relation to it. It reminds us of our basic human task as the interior decorators of God’s cosmos. Without stigmatizing those who work with machines, the perspective of the craftsperson has a particular importance, especially in a society where our relationship to the creation is increasingly attenuated by intervening media and technologies.

Crafting forms relationships. It is a way in which we refashion and relate to the creation, transforming it, bringing it under our care, control, and incorporating it into our lives. The craftsperson fashions the creation into something expressive of their skill, desire, and vision. Perhaps the thing that has proved most valuable to me in crafting has been appreciating the rich forms of ownership and gift that it can render possible. The relationship that I form with a knitting project upon which I have worked for a couple of months is unlike the relationship that I can have with any mere possession. I have become invested in it and it expresses something of me.

When you have invested yourself in the creation or use of a particular object it becomes an extension of you. Thinking in terms of this sort of connection between person and object comes naturally to us and is also found in the Scriptures. Even when removed from their original owners, physical objects with which they formed a connection still bear something of their identity (e.g. Aaron’s rod or Elijah’s mantle).

Perhaps the thing that I most appreciate about crafting is that it enables you to give something of yourself to someone else. The very best gifts are those which are thoughtful and creative explorations of the unique character and potential of the particular relationship between two persons and which can serve to externalize and symbolize that bond. For me, there are few better ways to accomplish this than in the creation of a particular handmade gift for a person. Such an item can be deeply expressive of yourself and your extension of friendship to the other person in a way that few other things can. It is a particularized object in a way that shop-bought items seldom can be.

It has been through crafting that I have come to understand the meaning and the value of gift, more than in anything else. The handcrafted item always bears the unique mark of its creator and can never be completely alienated from them. When it is given to someone else, it doesn’t so much pass from one person’s possession to another as form a symbolic bond between the two persons who are invested in and related to that object, a bond which it continually recalls and expresses. Even when it is sold, one is aware of the gifted pair of hands that were involved in its creation. Through our work of craft we can receive and give the creation as gift. The material world can become the expression of relationship, both of our relationship to ourselves and to others.

I have pondered how to distinguish between Art (more in the modern sense of the fine arts) and craft before. Perhaps one of the areas where a difference can be found is in craft’s embeddedness in a world. While Art typically stands apart from a world in the site of the ‘sublime’, craft is deeply embedded within it.

Craft arises from within a world and offers itself to a world. Craft serves the world, rather than standing outside of it as an end in itself. Craft forms and strengthens relationships, beautifies, and creates objects that are useful. It quietly fills and glorifies the world in which we live. Craft, as the externalization of love and care, is particularly associated with the domestic sphere. Craft typifies those activities of quiet concern whereby love externalizes itself in the tasks of place-making and filling.

Perhaps there is a sort of modesty to it in this respect: it doesn’t reckon itself above being useful and is willing to go unrecognized. While the fine artist may seek to stand apart and have his name recognized by the multitudes, the creator of the handcrafted item is almost universally unknown and unacknowledged. The value and meaning of the item is known only by a few people. Rather than the recognition of the masses, the crafter seeks the recognition of particular persons, whose recognition they value so highly that they are prepared to go unnoticed by all others. This recognition is not the recognition of a public reputation but the recognition of oneself as a person, of one’s love, character, care, skill, and devotion externalized in an object or place.

There is always a risk of a lack of true recognition. The secret act of love and concern often goes unacknowledged by its recipient, or its true value is unrecognized. However, to have one’s craft truly recognized – not only the skill involved, but also the care and love invested in it – means a great deal.

Matthew 6:1-4 is a passage that warns us against being good works ‘artists’. Rather, we must learn to practice the anonymity of the craftsperson, forgoing public reputation, seeking personal recognition from God alone. For God sees the craftsperson who works in secret. He sees the love and care driving them and he delights in what they produce.

Craft is both a way and a metaphor for other ways in which we perform the task of filling and beautifying God’s world. In craft, personhood is externalized and expressed. Craft fashions the natural world into a site of communion. Craft brings us closer to the material order and to each other. Through the love and care of craft, houses become homes. Through craft we can render the creation an extension of ourselves and communicate and give ourselves to others. Through the secret habits of the craftsperson we can seek a form of recognition that is deeply personalizing. As we create things with love and care, we can be assured that we serve a God who truly recognizes and takes pleasure in our work.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, Culture, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The God of Handicrafts

  1. sosopilgrim says:

    Being a stitcher and sewer, I appreciate your thoughts on the validity of being a ‘creator’. I do feel guilt that I might be doing more practical chores but working on my little projects takes me into a safe world where I have control over my work and see almost instant results.

    • Thank you. I quite understand that feeling. There is something very satisfying in seeing a project progress, especially when compared to many of the tasks we have to do that make no discernible impact, or which just serve to keep things looking the way that they ought to.

  2. jmpadoc says:

    Very good thoughts here. You’ve given me much to ponder, especially regarding the difference between art and craft. The career I left was in the “arts,” and oddly, now I find myself obsessed with knitting (and other crafts on occasion) to a degree that I haven’t been in decades. I think my desire to craft so much over the last several months stems from several things: 1) the need that is so deeply programmed in all of us to create *something*; 2) a desire to “make” something that I can get “right”–i.e., participate in something more objective than art; 3) a penance, of sorts–a need to “make things right” between me and people I ignored while I was pursuing other endeavors.

    Whatever the reasons, I can’t deny that when I knit, I relax. It’s productive; even if I sit in a chair knitting all day long and do nothing else, I will at least have something to show for my “laziness.” Other people do have a deep appreciation for knitted gifts (I knitted gifts for about 20 family and friends last Christmas; every one of them thanked me personally), and handmade gifts do seem to cement bonds between people. And of course, I do enjoy the twinkle in my husband’s eyes when he pulls on a pair of socks I made him and brags to his fellow Scoutmasters that his wife made his socks. Knitting is probably the one and only way that I fulfill anything of the Proverbs 31 woman. 🙂

    I may have to blog on these ideas myself… Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    J M

  3. Pingback: Art vs. Craft | Notes from the Threshing Floor

  4. Vega says:

    Hello Alastair,

    (Late to the post as usual…) As an artist myself (but not much of a crafter), I greatly appreciate this post!

    I’ve wondered myself what is the difference between Art (mostly visual arts, which may include sculpture and theatre/dance) versus Craft, and you’ve touched on it. I think they differ in their orientation and focus of God the Creator. I’ve always thought of Art as revelatory and oriented “inwards”, since the artist draws/depicts what he sees of the world (and God). Whereas craft is oriented “outward”, interacting with the stuff of the world, just as God was the first crafter of mankind. So Art and Crafting go hand in hand: one looks at the face of God and reveals truth, the other reaches out with the hands of God and engages.with the world.

    Sounds a bit highfalutin, perhaps! But this also reminds me too what kind of responsibility I have as an artist, and how I can glorify God through my art.

  5. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2012-2013 | Alastair's Adversaria

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