Culture At Large

The spirituality of manual labor

Andy Rau

Is there a special emotional and spiritual significance in doing physical work with your own hands? In "Shop Class as Soulcraft," Matthew Crawford argues that our post-industrial society has lost sight of the value of good old-fashioned manual labor. Partitioned within our cubicle walls and firmly entrenched in our consumer culture, many Americans (myself included) are widely separated from the agriculture and craftsmanship that supports our lives. As a result of that separation, our ideas about wealth and property have changed:

Craftsmanship... poses a challenge to the ethic of consumerism, as the sociologist Richard Sennett has recently argued. The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. The craftsman is then more possessive, more tied to what is present, the dead incarnation of past labor; the consumer is more free, more imaginative, and so more valorous according to those who would sell us things. Being able to think materially about material goods, hence critically, gives one some independence from the manipulations of marketing, which typically divert attention from what a thing is to a back-story intimated through associations, the point of which is to exaggerate minor differences between brands. Knowing the production narrative, or at least being able to plausibly imagine it, renders the social narrative of the advertisement less potent. The tradesman has an impoverished fantasy life compared to the ideal consumer; he is more utilitarian and less given to soaring hopes. But he is also more autonomous.

(Pardon the lengthy quote.) Read the whole article; it's long but worth the read. Crawford isn't suggesting that we regress to a pre-industrial utopian society where we all grow our own food and build our own furniture; but he makes a compelling case for seeking out work that makes you feel like an important part of the community rather than a simple cog in the societal machine.

Crawford does not directly discuss the religious aspect of manual labor, but I think there's a definite connection. Many of the Bible's teachings about wealth, prosperity, and generosity are rooted in a culture that placed a high value on manual labor and craftsmanship. Understanding those cultural values can give us clearer insight into how we're expected to live as children of God in a capitalist society.

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