Artificial Grace: Why the Creation Needs Human Creativity
The sanctuary of our church in the core city of Grand Rapids is a throwback to another age. The windows are a lighted mural of Tiffany stained glass, their colors bounded by beaded lead lines whose gentle imperfections attest to the hands that made them. The rich oak of trim and pews evinces its own sort of warmth on cold Michigan Sunday mornings, with little details that can occupy a distracted 4-year-old during long sermons. As we say of cars and refrigerators: They don't build 'em like this anymore. The space speaks of the generations of faithful who have preceded us who didn't seem quite so captive to our pragmatic utilitarianism.
And at the front, below the pulpit, is the Communion table. On it you'll see a jar and a chalice and a tray sculpted from clay by a potter in our congregation. But only recently did I notice an interesting juxtaposition: Around the sides of the grand oak table are a series of alternating carvings of wheat and grapes, sheaves and bunches around the bread and wine sitting on the table. It is precisely into that space—between wheat and bread, between grapes and wine—that the sumptuous short film "Furniture Fit for the Kingdom," spotlighting furniture maker Harrison Higgins, invites us.
The opening might make you expect a hymn to "nature" of the most romantic sort—the kind of encomium to nature's pristine, pure, terrifying beauty that sent Wordsworth and his ilk into rapture. In such romantic views of nature, humanity is always an imposition, an interruption; our presence is the beginning of corruption. In romanticism, culture is the enemy of nature; human making is a threat to an idyllic creation.
But the film immediately sends a signal otherwise: in fact, as Higgins points out, the real beauty of the tree is unveiled when it is cut. More than that, the beauty of the tree is elucidated and illuminated when it is planed and sanded and stained. And the tree's strength and durability and beauty are channeled and amplified when it is put into service as a chair, or a cabinet, or a Communion table.
So for Higgins, there is no simplistic opposition between nature and culture, between a pristine creation and human artifice—the creative "work of our hands" that gives birth to artifacts, to cultural goods. To the contrary, good artifice is its own kind of grace: to make is to serve, is to bear God's image to and for the creation. A Christian theology of creation is not the same as Mother Earth mythologies of "the natural" that ultimately end up lamenting humanity's presence as a blight on creation. No, we worship the Maker of all, the Artificer we come to know in Jesus of Nazareth, the son of a carpenter. A Christian affirmation of the goodness of creation is also an affirmation of artifice—redeeming the very word, we might say, from its association with the fake and the faux. In an older sense, artifice attests to creativity and craft.