Cooking is universal among our species. Cooking is even more uniquely characteristic of our species than language. Animals do at least bark, roar, chirp, do at least signal by sound; only we bake, boil, roast and fry….
Few advances comparable in importance to cooking have happened since [its development]. The most important have been more quantitative than qualitative. We began not simply to harvest but to adopt certain palatable plants and animals as aids and conspirators. By 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, we had domesticated all those that have been central to our diets ever sense—barley, wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and so on…. We have domesticated nothing more significant than strawberries and reindeer since.
Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Peering into the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP!” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!”
After five months at the think tank, I’d saved enough money to buy some tools I needed, and I quit and went into business fixing bikes. . . . The business goes up and down; when it is down I have supplemented it with writing. The work is sometimes frustrating, but it is never irrational.
And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.
As in any learned profession, you just have to know a lot. If the motorcycle is 30 years old, from an obscure maker that went out of business 20 years ago, its tendencies are known mostly through lore. It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a community of mechanic-antiquarians.
As the philosopher Albert Borgmann has observed, human cultures have the strange yet fortunate property of always being full. No culture experiences itself as thin or incomplete. Consider language. No human language seems to its speakers to lack the capacity to describe everything they experience—or, at least, all our languages fail at the same limits of mystery. Even though our languages divide up the color spectrum very differently from one another, for example, every human language has a name for every color its speakers can see. No one is waiting for a new word to come along so they can begin talking about yellow.
—Culture Making, p. 67
It is the very rare human being who will give up some set of cultural goods just because someone condemns them. They need something better, or their current set of cultural goods will have to do, as deficient as they may be.
—Culture Making, p.68
Perhaps the most striking thing of all about the vision of the new heaven and earth at the end of Revelation is that it is indeed new. This is worth probing and pondering carefully. It is new in the sense we have already spoken about: the created world is not returned to its beginning but (like the risen body of Christ) elevated to a fresh level. But it is surely “new” in another sense also—it is ever new. In the world to come, nothing ever becomes old, and since it is hard to imagine this as a static state of perfection (if time and movement, as part of God’s creation, are taken up in the new heaven and earth), we must surely speak of endless and surprising novelty as belonging to the new creation. We dare to envisage the Holy Spirit weaving limitless, unpredictable improvisations out of the “givens” of creation, doubtless to the delight of us all.
What needs subverting here is the common assumption that there are only two possible basic shapes to our lives—order and disorder. Order is considered good and fruitful—disorder evil and damaging. If our house is immaculate, we are complimented; if it looks like bedlam, we apologize. But are order and disorder the only options? What about laughter? It is not order (predictably patterned) but nor is it disorder (destructive). It is an example of what Daniel Hardy and David Ford call “non-order,” or the “jazz-factor.” . . .
[One] of the reasons artists and pastors need each other is to learn and relearn together that the richest fruit comes from the interplay between order and non-order, between the given chords and the improvised riff, between the faithful bass of God’s grace and the novel whirls of the Spirit. The question for pastors, then, is: Are you prepared to allow artists room to provoke the church to venture into risky arenas of novelty—a fresh “take” on a parable, a hitherto unexplored zone of culture? The question for artists is: Are you prepared to get to know the “bass lines” of artistic tradition, and, more fundamentally, the bass lines that God uses to hold his church in the faith?
[My relationships with artists] have been messy and, at times, unpleasant. I’ve struggled with patience, expected too much, pushed too far, and overstretched my own small spool of energies. But the use of a gentle, consistent hand is, despite my stumbling, effective. Why? Because the arts are made by people for people—each as intricate and organic as the corn my grandfather raised. In this very human endeavor, I have to continually remind myself that the arts are not buttons we push to enhance a sermon. They’re not levers we switch to intensify an evangelistic tactic. Art has to do with people we love, and this love bears witness to Christ. . . .
As farmer-pastors, we are lovers. We tenderly work the soil of our culture by identifying artistic gifts with discernment (pastoring). Then our joyful response to discovering the artists is to push their gifts outward in order to share their creativity with others (promoting). Finally, we prune the gifts and coach the artists to mature so that their fruit will be sustainable and long lasting (producing). . . .
How can the gospel find a vibrant witness through the arts to transform our neighborhoods and cities? We must begin with a renewal of our churches before we have anything to offer the culture outside the church. And we begin this renewal not by asking what the arts can do for the church, to vary on John F. Kennedy’s dictum, but how the church can serve the arts. As patient, careful stewards, we, as pastors and leaders, can nourish the soil of our culture by the way we love artists intentionally—loving not only their artwork, but who they are as persons in the process.
In my experience, artistic talent shows up early. I’m very leery of forty-eight-year-olds who come to me and say, “I think I’m going to become a writer.” I always want to say to them, “And I think I’m going to have an IQ of 237.” It’s not about deciding what talent you have. You either have it, or you don’t.
I was in my seven-year-old nephew’s second-grade class around Christmastime. Looking up on the wall, it was immediately obvious to me which of the little blokes had talent because some of the things on the wall looked like blobs and some looked like reindeer. Not only that, but some kids had put the reindeer in a setting with foreground, while others had them frolicking in the snow. That is, some of the kids were already playing with composition.
I asked my little nephew and his two best friends, Matt and Allen, “Who is the best artist in your class?” And they replied with one refrain: “Joey. Joey can draw.”
Don’t you wish we could do that in the church? Simply accept the self-evident truth that this kid can draw, and that one can sing, and that one is good at dancing? There is something beautiful in the way kids accept the divine economy, which doles out graces and talent so arbitrarily. It’s dreadfully uncivil of God to make us grownups so uncomfortable by giving some kids artistic talents and others none at all.
So, if you want to be a patron of the arts, go into the second grade of your local grammar school, find out whoever produced the coolest reindeer, and then patronize that kid.
The Jewish communities of my childhood taught me, among other things, about art. Specifically, Judaism taught me the principle of hiddur mitzvah. This is the idea that one does not just do the commandments, one “beautifies” them. The roots of this commandment may be found in Exodus 15:2, which may be translated something like: “This is my God and I will beautify him with praises.” In a passage of the Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 133b), the rabbis muse over this verse: What exactly does it mean to “beautify” God? How does one “beautify God with praises”? The rabbis have an answer: “Adorn yourself before him by a truly elegant fulfillment of the religious duties, for example a beautiful tabernacle, a beautiful palm branch, a beautiful ram’s horn, beautiful show fringes, a beautiful scroll or the Torah, written in fine ink, with a fine reed, by a skilled penman, wrapped with beautiful silks.”
In other words, when you fulfill the commandment to blow a shofar, a ram’s horn, during the liturgies for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, don’t blow just any old ram’s horn—beautify the commandment by using a beautiful shofar. And when you build and take your meals in a sukkah, a hut, during the festival of Sukkot, do not just throw up a shack whose dimensions happen to meet your requirements, but build a beautiful tabernacle in which to take your holiday meals. . . . This is the theological sensibility that prompted those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century eastern European Jews to craft intricate marriage contracts, turning simple legal documents into objects of art. Those papercutters knew that a man pledging to treat his soon-to-be wife fairly and honorably was more than just the faithful discharging of a commandment. It was an opportunity to “adorn”—glorify—God.
“Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 3:9). This garden, this original gift of culture, is not just a utilitarian source of nourishment. It is not just a vegetable garden, populated with a healthful array of plants that will provide the Creator’s RDA of nutrients to the dutiful fruit- and vegetable-eating human gardener. It is also a place of beauty. The trees of the garden are not just good for something. They are good simply in the beholding. They are beautiful.
But even more striking than the description of the vegetation is the least remarked-upon part of the whole story in Genesis 2. “The name of the first [river] is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there” (v. 12).
Why does the author indulge in this metallurgical excursion—with its digression within an excursion, “And the gold of that land is good”? Is this a treasure map for future readers? What is the point of this list of precious natural resources? Note that these are not primarily useful minerals or substances. The text does not say that the land of Havilah has good iron, granite, and bauxite. These are substances whose only real value is in their beauty. God has located the garden in a place where the natural explorations of its human cultivators will bring them into contact with substances that will invite the creation of beauty.
I owe to Makoto Fujimura the further observation that these substances are hidden. They are not like the low-hanging fruit of the garden’s trees. They are latent—lying below the surface of the very good world. Only by exploration and excavation will they be discovered. Only by experimentation and craftsmanship will their possibilities be disclosed. God has placed primordial humanity in a world that will only reach its full potential for beauty when it is cultivated, explored—where more goodness waits to be unearthed. The world is even better than it appears. The gold of that land is good.
This afternoon I had the great pleasure of interviewing Carey Wallace and Jill Lamar, two remarkably creative women with deep insight into creativity, faith, and the world of publishing. Carey’s first novel, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine, will be released by Viking Penguin this summer. Jill is a senior executive at Barnes & Noble who directs their Discover Great New Writers program.
We had a fabulous conversation about fiction, story, what helps artists create (hint: too much money is actually a bad idea), and how Christians can create excellent art of all kinds. Fortunately the conference call, sponsored by Wedgwood Circle, was recorded. If you care about art, writing, and faith, it’s absolutely worth an hour of your time. You can listen here (free registration is required). Enjoy. (I’m sure of one thing: by the end, you will want to read Carey’s new book when it comes out in July.)
As a working pastor I found my tradition ambivalent, if not actively resistant, to the artistic life—to the imagination, the emotions, the senses, the material realm, and beauty. . . . If I were a gardener, I would say that my tradition offered me thin soil with little hope for a flourishing of the arts. At worst, it taught me to view the arts as ultimately expendable, a luxury far from the center of biblical Christianity. . . .
This book aims to redress this deficiency. It aims to inspire the church, in its life and mission, with an expansive vision for the arts. By “the arts” I mean at least music, dance, drama, poetry and other literary arts, visual arts, film, and architecture. This book seeks to show how the many parts of the landscape of church and art can hold together. . . .
For whom is this book written? It is written for pastors and artists along with lay leaders working in the context of the church. This book is for pastors who gather in cathedrals or in junior high cafeterias, for artists in the urban core or, as the case may be, out in the cornfields. It aims to inform our ecclesiology as Protestant Christians, regardless of our material or missional particulars.
My hope is that this book will also be of benefit to educators and seminary students, to critical observers of Christianity and the arts, and to all those who seek a common vocabulary to advance the discussion of the church’s mission of artmaking.
My year-long exploration of the United States is—so far, at least—surprisingly cost-efficient. My trip from the state of Washington to Pennsylvania, for instance, only cost around $9. If I keep this up, I’ll be able to smell the smells and taste the tastes from the Atlantic to the Pacific—non-contiguous states and the District of Columbia included—for a little over $100. And it’ll keep me fed in the process. So far, this journey has taught me a lot about myself, about discipline, about improvisation under pressure, and an awful, awful lot about chili.
Chili. Chili con carne, or “peppers with meat” in Spanish. Simply meat and chili peppers, if you’re a purist (plus a lot of other ingredients, if you’re not). OK, so I’m not actually traveling from state to state, but instead I’ve been using Jane and Michael Stern’s Chili Nation (Random House, 1999) cookbook as a tour guide. The Sterns made stops in each state and collected recipes that they felt captured some of the local flavour—coffee-accented chili from the state of Washington, chili with seafood in place of beef from Maryland, a flavourful dish popularized by some of the diners on Mississippi’s Route 61, and so on.
So, in lieu of spending a year traveling, I thought I’d let my tastebuds and stomach take a trip instead. Fifty-one chili recipes in 52 weeks. One chili a week, with one week off (which I’ll probably cash in on my honeymoon, but my fiancée likes chili too, so maybe not!)
Todd Nelson, a Columbia sophomore, plans a double major in environmental science and history with a focus on industrialization and the rise of consumerism. He sleeps next to a worm bin where he composts food scraps.
He’s one of 13 students in Columbia’s GreenBorough dorm, where an experiment in sustainable living launched this semester is a competitive sport.
Showers are limited to five minutes (Nelson’s personal record is 1:50). A chart on the wall keeps track of offenders who forget to turn off lights and unplug appliances.
“We’re semi-paranoid about leaving on lights,” Nelson said. “We try to implement social pressure.”
The house won’t buy anything wasteful — like plastic cups — so its “off-the-grid” party two weeks ago had acoustic-only bands, flashlights, and was BYOC — Bring Your Own Cup.
Mine is a family of craftsmen—woodworkers, to be specific. My grandfather was a cabinetmaker, my father was a cabinetmaker, I have done woodworking, my sons work in wood. I have always resented the many ways in which those who work with their hands are demeaned. R. G. Collingwood’s aesthetic theory is shaped by his contrast between “mere craft,” as he calls it, and true art; the attitude expressed is typical.
I spent thirty years of my life teaching philosophy at Calvin College and fifteen teaching philosophy at Yale University. At both institutions there was a pecking order (these institutions are typical in this regard, not unique), more evident to those at the bottom of the order than to those at the top. If you use your hands or teach those who use their hands—“hands” being used both literally and metaphorically here—you are inferior to those who use only their heads: practicing musicians are inferior to musicologists, painters are inferior to art historians, teachers of business are inferior to economists, teachers of preaching are inferior to theologians. The basic attitude was stated crisply by Aristotle at the opening of his Metaphysics: “We think the master-workers in each craft are more honourable and know in a truer sense and are wiser than the manual workers.”
It’s a strange attitude for Christians to hold, since Jesus was the son of a carpenter and since God is presented in the opening pages of Scripture as a maker, not a thinker. Sennett observes, correctly, that “early Christianity had from its origins embraced the dignity of the craftsman.” That dignity was vigorously reaffirmed by the early Protestant reformers.
A craftsman, for Sennett, is someone who is dedicated to doing good work for its own sake. This good work will normally have desirable consequences; if things go well, the craftsman will get paid for what he does or makes, for example. But the craftsman is not content to aim at those external consequences; if consequences become his preoccupation, he will think in terms of getting by rather than getting it right, in terms of good enough rather than good. The craftsman’s “primordial mark of identity” is that he or she is focused on achieving quality, on doing good work. Craftsmanship is quality-driven work.
Sennett holds that in thinking about craftsmanship it helps to begin by looking closely at those crafts in which one uses one’s hands to make something. But if craftsmanship is doing good work for its own sake, then craftsmanship obviously extends far beyond manual crafts. It extends to the craft of writing book reviews. It extends to the craft of governing well that I mentioned at the beginning.
The child’s language learning, now and later, is governed by two obvious motives: the desire to communicate and the desire to be admired. He imitates what he hears. More or less successful imitations usually bring action and reward and tend to be repeated. Unsuccessful ones usually don’t bring action and reward and tend to be discarded.
But since language is complicated business it is sometimes the unsuccessful imitations that bring the reward. The child, making a stab at the word mother, comes out with muzzer. The family decides that this is just too cute for anything and beams and repeats muzzer, and the child, feeling that he’s scored a bull’s eye, goes on saying muzzer long after he has mastered other and brother. Baby talk is not so much invented by the child as sponsored by the parent.
Eventually the child moves out of the family and into another speech community - other children of his neighborhood. He goes to kindergarten and immediately encounters speech habits that conflict with those he has learned. If he goes to school and talks about his muzzer, it will be borne in on him by his colleagues that the word is not well chosen. Even mother may not pass the muster, and he may discover that he gets better results and is altogether happier if he refers to his female parent as his ma or even his old lady.
The revised book could be viewed as another example of adults contributing to the growing disconnection between children and the natural world—a trend that was identified by a study conducted a few years ago by two zoologists at Cambridge University. Reporting in the journal Science, the researchers revealed that a typical 8-year-old could name 78 percent of the 150 characters in the popular video game Pokémon, but could identify less than half of the common British plants and animals in pictures.
Which brings us to one final irony: The concept of the Pokémon universe stems from the hobby of insect collecting, a popular pastime of the game’s inventor when he was a child in Japan.