Essay / Art

A Theology of Woodworking: The Creative Joy of Oak

I would like to introduce you to the newest member of our furniture family: a mid-sized oak bookcase. And more importantly, of course, I would like to introduce you to the theology behind it.

A Bit About the Case

The bookcase is built from white oak, which I purchased from the man who milled it on his property in Indiana. When we moved to California, we brought it with us: rough, unwieldy and heavy. To highlight the character of the wood, I built the case in such a way as to prominently display a large knot at the bottom, and another large knothole on the lower right side—signs that the wood was not purchased from a big-box store, which would normally discard lumber with “flaws” of this sort.

The sides are paneled, and the shelves are through-tenons , which protrude through the shelf sides, pinned in place with large wooden pins. I cut tracks most of the length of each shelf, for built-in sliding book holders. The case as a whole is meant to be both functional and artistic.

But why go to such trouble when I could buy a bookcase from Ikea for about the same amount of money as I spent on supplies, and for a lot less trouble? Of course an Ikea bookcase wouldn’t be as sturdy, last as long, or be of quite the dimensions I sought—but there are other, deeper, and more theological reasons for the trouble I took to build this.

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Creator

One of the most basic motives to go to such trouble (and trouble it was, for with three young boys at home, every second in the wood shop is that much extra time away from family), is the joy of creating—the joy of being a creator. This is no creation ex nihilo, of course, but nonetheless, in building furniture, I get the opportunity to bring something into existence, to craft, shape, and bring to fruition something that, for a long time, had merely been an idea. And this bringing-to-being is of immense value.

It fights against the grain of our culture, which is so thoroughly consumerist. Instead of purchasing, using or consuming, I had the opportunity to bring something into existence. To create. To make parts of a dead tree come to life in the form of what I believe to be something beautiful. Of course a master-craftsman would make an even more beautiful shelf, but that need not detract from the beauty of what I have made. In fact, that adds to it, for the goal was not focused so much on the object (the bookshelf) as on the process, on the opportunity to exercise those gifts and abilities I have received from my Creator, to join him in the creative task, and seek to create something.

And in creating, I have the opportunity to share or extend myself. To take something that was a part of me, a vision, or idea, and bring it into existence, that others might delight in it. Beyond that, though, they have the opportunity of knowing me better through my creation, for I share a bond with it, for better or for worse (you probably can’t see its flaws as well as I can) in the fact that it owes its existence to me and therefore represents me. Again, this is not an absolute representation, for I did not create the bookcase out of nothing, but used materials and the ideas of other bookcases I had seen. Nevertheless, it remains a representation of its creator.

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Creation 

Because I created this bookcase, it is my creation—and as such I delight in it. Forcing myself to overlook its flaws, I delight in the patters of grain I situated at strategic points. I delight in the careful construction of joints that were difficult to cut and shape. I delight in the fact that the authors of the books (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in particular) would appreciate the labor I put into the project, rather than purchasing a mass-produced shelf of particleboard and veneer.

One aspect of this delight is the labor I poured into it: hours spent selecting the wood, measuring, measuring again, and measuring once more before cutting, chiseling, routing, sanding, sanding some more, gluing, assembling, sanding again, staining, finishing…. I spent hours on this project, but those were hours of pouring my labor, my self, into this bookcase, so that in time, it became mine, became a witness of my craft and labor. Like a room you may have painted, or a meal you made from scratch, the joy in something handmade, into which we have poured ourselves, our labor, gives us exponentially greater delight that something mass-produced and purchased.

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God’s Joy in Re-Creating

This sort of creative project is delightful, but there are higher delights still, according to Athanasius. Without disparaging creation in the least, it is the work of re-making, re-creating, re-fashioning that is, in one sense, the greatest of the Creator’s delights. God’s joy in the creatures he made in his image was so great that even when that image was marred, he did not discard the wood on which it was painted, but sent his Son that we might be refashioned, repainted in his image (On the Incarnation, §14). God gives himself over to this re-creative task for several reasons. First, his honor is at stake, as the one responsible for this creation—a creation which portrays the Creator by its very nature. Second, the same original impetus, the creative joy, is here repeated or renewed. And finally, God takes such delight in his creation that re-creation is the natural outcome, the natural response, to our fall, decay and ruin. God delights in his creation, and the fall only serves to case that delight in a different light.

The correlate of this insight into the logic of the Incarnation (and death and resurrection) of Christ is that while we can and should delight in creating, the joy of re-creation is, if anything, an even greater or more intense form of that creative joy. It weaves together all the same creative motives and longings, along with a commitment to creation in the face of corruption, together with all the challenges that come with working with a distorted or damaged object. What does this look like within the world of carpentry? Reclaiming, restoring, rebuilding…. Using discarded and damaged materials or furniture to build and re-build new and delightful objects, which bring together all the creative joys, with the added delight in reclaiming that which was headed toward decay and destruction—and yes, our home is full of furniture built from such reclaimed materials, with more surely to come.

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