Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Purpose-Driven Craftsmanship

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

January 11, 2008 - In his insightful book, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, British missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin describes the Enlightenment’s impact on various aspects of contemporary Western culture. Among other things, Newbigin suggests that the loss of a teleological (or purpose-driven) view of the universe together with the supremacy of an exclusively logico-mathematical approach to knowledge has led to the demise of traditional craftsmanship. Newbigin is worth quoting at length.

As a result of the Enlightenment, Newbigin writes, “the work of the traditional craftsman that spanned the whole process from raw material to finished product is analyzed into its smallest parts and then broken up into separate operations, each given over to a different workman. By this division of labor, it is possible to increase enormously the quantity of finished articles produced, but the individual worker no longer shares directly in the vision of the final product that governs the whole process. His work is assimilated more and more into the repetitive action of a machine rather than to the purposeful work of the craftsman, whose operations are all governed by a vision of the end. Craftsmanship is replaced by labor, and human work is assimilated into the pattern of the Newtonian universe, from which teleology is banished.”

Still, according to a recent story by NPR, craftsmanship refuses to die altogether. As the story points out, for example, 27-year-old Joe Genuardi passed up opportunities to purse a career with global firms like Ralph Lauren and DKNY to become an apprentice to 89-year-old tailor in Ardmore, PA. According to Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Genuardi is possibly part of growing trend who “not only want to avoid creating things or consuming things on a mass-market level, they are engrossed in the concept of craft, especially something so intimately connected to the human body.”

Anyone who has ever worked on an assembly line has experienced and felt what Newbigin describes in philosophical terms. The repetitive, machine-like actions of the modern factory (and in many cases even the contemporary office!) produce a deep sense of alienation from one’s work. This point is well-documented, but it is not merely Marxist.

Moreover, Mears’s analysis that what is desired is work that is “intimately connected to the human body” is not quite right. For it is not mere embodiment that gives a craft its meaning. Rather it is purpose.

In Genesis 2:15 God places man “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” God didn’t merely analyze the process of gardening into its constituent parts, assigning specific repetitive tasks to maximize efficiency and productivity. Instead he entrusted to man the dignity of ends. Surely, here is one of the ways in which we image the Maker!

It’s no accident that Genuardi says, “I love what I’m doing.” To be human is to be teleological. Traditional craftsmanship is, by its very nature, purposeful. This is why the loss of craftsmanship about which Newbigin writes is so serious. For the extent to which craftsmanship flourishes is an index of our humanity – a point that should give Christians in the marketplace pause.