cheetah2I love Shark Week. Long before Discovery Channel existed, however, there was a program called ‘Wild Kingdom,’ a show about nature hosted by Marlin Perkins. Think Planet Earth before Planet Earth. Every week I would sit on the couch with my siblings and hope beyond all hope that the show would feature a cheetah or an orca. For me, it was about the speed, particularly in the case of the cheetah. 60 miles an hour in a blink of an eye, though I always found it interesting that every clip of the furry comet was in super-slow-motion. Nevertheless, I was riveted. The voiceover would inevitably close the segment with an appropriate cliché like, ‘Speed kills.’

I’m mesmerized by pure speed. Cheetahs aside, my grade school days were filled with sketches of fighter jets and falcons. I played wide receiver for the 5th grade recess brigade. My favorite car was the Ferrari Testarossa. What is it with me and all things fast? Maybe it’s not just me, since I regularly hear two chitlins from the back of the minivan demand, ‘Go faster, Dad! Go faster!’ Knowing the axiom ‘speed kills’ as a father prompts me to keep it at an even 45 with my hands at 10 and 2.

Speed certainly kills. Now, the question is what. What is being killed?

Not to get too philosophical, but I think it’s valuable to recognize how speed, as a desirable trait, is cultivated. I suppose in the natural world, speed is a critical advantage. It allows the predator an advantage to kill and survive. The ability to run (‘like a gazelle’) likewise allows the prey to escape harm and seek refuge before it becomes a meal itself. But, when we talk on a human scale or from a cultural standpoint, the ability to do something fast is seen as a cultural good precisely because humanity has bought into a particular narrative about the advancing of humanity: We assume progress is inherently good.

If ‘progress’ is good—and the term implies movement—the faster we achieve progress, the better we’ll all be. Speed, in this sense, contributes to all of our happiness. Get there faster, wherever ‘there’ is.

One thing that speed does not help, however, is wisdom.

I had the recent fortune of conversing long and slow with a group of fellow kindred spirits about the cultural issues facing our Church. So slow that it took us four sessions of about two hours apiece to disentangle the various approaches we held. At the gathering, one fellow showed the rest of us a video clip during a break in the conversation, reinforcing a simple point: A life of wisdom is about craftsmanship. And craftsmanship cannot be rushed. It was called, ‘The Birth of a Tool.’

This is no simple skill. And speed appears to be the enemy.

When you have a craft, you philosophize about it. You understand the history of your craft and the major players that shaped it over the years. A craftsman seeks to respect the tradition that under-girds his/her own work. You may have read stories about chess masters who think about chess obsessively to the point of dreaming about chess strategies in their sleep. Chess is not a game to them; it is an analog of life. The strategies they employ on the chess board open a door into the nature of life itself, and only the greatest of these men and women recognize the elegance of this simple fact. Craft is life.

When you have a craft, you philosophize about it.

In contemporary America, the economy has long since abandoned the goods economy in favor of the service industry. A necessary shift, perhaps, since so much of our world is automated and digitized. Relatively few people can say that they actually make a product and deliver it to a customer. Most of us simply provide a disembodied service to another person: we consult, we sell, we buy, we sit in our cubicles and answer our phones, we even teach theology …

With a little effort, however, I believe we can understand craftsmanship—the slow, painstaking formation—no matter which field or industry we work.woodwork1

I’m convinced that there is a deep danger in worshiping efficiency, or even skill. Once we put skill on a pedestal, it becomes the end when it should be a means to an end. Humans weren’t built to perfect a certain set of actions mindlessly and without contemplation; we were built for God’s glory. Once we admit that little fact, we (almost accidentally) reap a huge harvest in the follow-up fact: Since we were built for God’s glory, our lives and our work have profound meaning.

LeBron James may be the best basketball player in the world, but if his work gives no meaning to his life (or worse, he only receives value by virtue of his basketball skills), what has he gained? The answer: He has the ability to place an inflatable piece of leather into an iron ring. That’s it. It’s just a skill. The better way is to move past skill into craftsmanship. Past ability to philosophy. Past behavior to significance. My guess is that LeBron, in his quieter moments, waxes poetically about basketball. He talks about it in a way that speaks to the deep history of the game, he reverently acknowledges the forebears he emulated his own game after.

Skill is created by pouring hours into a step-by-step process, honing ability until it becomes mastery. Yet when you add purpose, vision, creativity, flow, wisdom … when you add these things … the skill transforms into something greater. It becomes craftsmanship. True craftsmen know why their work is meaningful.

It’s the difference between:
A mercenary and a warrior-poet
A maker and a creator
A person who likes to cook and a chef

‘God, why aren’t you helping me? I go to church, I’m a good person…’
‘God, what is your will in the midst of this calamity?’

 The ability to do stuff is skill, and the affair is centered on the person. But being a craftsman is, in part, the attempt to transcend a certain ability and imbibe it with meaning. In the case of the Christian … a Christian who is hammered over and over again by God’s shaping Spirit … our individual ability, our own narrative, is given an identity from an external source. God lays down our identity in baptism, his own maker’s mark hammered into the blade. Our movement is no longer our own but the Spirit’s within us. Our words and deeds are not our own but the image of God being born to our neighbor.woodwork3

I don’t want to be the guy who does the right thing because he’s been told what to do. I want to be the guy who does good because he has a heart for God.

Being crafted takes time. It takes the work of a master, who learned his trade from a master, who learned her trade from a master herself. It’s slow and painful. It requires the anvil. But God’s work builds in us the kind of strength to resist the Evil One, the internal fortitude that protects, renews, and encourages. God be praised that his work in us will be brought to full fruition at the end of time, where the blade will finally be polished and without blemish.

Speed kills, but slow craftsmanship makes us warriors.


© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.