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Craftsmanship and Originality

I distrust the concept of originality. An artist, author, educator, theologian, or philosopher who strives to be original is apt to spend far more time thinking of themselves than their field of study or their audience. The motivation to be different, to stand out, to make a place at the table can become a powerful impulse that demands ever greater attention and self-preservation. Striving to be original by necessity ignores or rebels against the history and development of a field. This denial flies in the face of the biblical ideas of learning from the past, passing along wisdom, and respecting the clouds of witnesses who have gone before.

Calling something original seems like such a compliment. I remember the pride of having “Orig. Thought” written in red in the margin of high school papers. The absurdity from this vantage point is whether my seventeen-year-old self had anything worthy of saying—let alone to be original.

Maybe this is the only the latent downside of originality (or perhaps my own wrestling with pride), but the implications of originality are far from laudatory. Its characteristics can include the following:

  • Intentionally being different from what comes before
  • Intentionally being different from others
  • Proprietary
  • Motivated by notice and acclaim
  • Seeking to replace what was done before
  • Resists sharing or allowing others to duplicate
  • Credit and notice are important
  • The originator becomes more important than the creation

These things are true if talking about art, writing, educational philosophies, theology, worship planning, etc. This is the impetus that caused artist Yves Klein to trademark his signature color IKB (International Klein Blue), why the sweet old church lady leaves out an ingredient when she shares a recipe so that her version of pie is always the best, and why people brand and monetize ideas or movements.

I wonder if there is something of the Eden temptation inherent in trying to make one’s own rules or to break established ones—the attempt to create something uniquely new ex nihilo without regard to what has already been made. In contrast, the work of the sub-creator is to take that which is and to develop and deepen it—to re-create.

The Bible speaks of the role of the craftsman (Ex. 35:10, 36:1-2) as someone with skill and intelligence. The implications and characteristics of the craftsman often include:

  • Building on and honoring the past and what has come before
  • Knowing your place in history
  • Understanding the materials of the craft (or vocabulary, techniques, etc.)
  • Assessing the potential of ideas and realizing them as fully as possible
  • Passing along what one learns to the generation that follows
  • The creation becomes more important than the creator

Scripture does not deny the opportunity to be creative or innovative, but the emphasis and purpose is far different from our concept of originality. Craftsmanship is much more in-line with the biblical notion of creativity—and is a far more difficult endeavor, requiring the exercise of wisdom and ability. The idea of taking various materials, gathering them, remolding and blending them, and ultimately enlarging them is the bringing of order inherent in craftsmanship—an opportunity to act as a sub-creator.

As a classical educator, the role of craftsman is to recover the foundations of knowledge (what is important), the philosophies of understanding (how to equip others), and the fullness of wisdom (renewing and informing the ideas of the past with subsequent knowledge and understanding). We build upon the best of prior minds and movements as opposed to either venerating or replacing the past. An original educator constantly devises new ways of doing things—unmoored from what has come before and that which is tried and true.

As I teach, plan and lead worship, or educate my child, my desire is not to appear clever, but to connect the richness in the past—fruit of God’s providential hand in time—to the time and place in which I live. These then become the raw materials to be continuously crafted and passed down again. Our mode is one of discovery, wonder, exploration, deepening and stretching. I distrust myself far too much to try and replace those riches with an “Orig. Thought.”

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