Is Discipleship a Craft?

(This is Neil.) Before reading the current Circuit Rider, I was completely unfamiliar with the work of the Methodist theologian Tex Sample (his website assures us that he was actually named “Tex”). But I feel that I really have to share with you any article on discipleship that begins like this:

 I worked my way through college in the oil field. One day we were laying a pipeline. The gang pusher, the leader of the gang, told me to give a try at “stabbing pipe,” something I had not done before. I had to aim my joint of pipe so that it would screw straight into the collar of a pipe propped up on the board. These pipes are two inches in diameter, twenty feet long and weigh two hundred pounds, so I had to get the threads lined up just right while wrestling with this pipe that outweighed me by twenty pounds. It didn’t help that the pipe bends a little making it even more difficult to line up exactly. Further, I was using a small chain wrench. You turn the wrench with one hand and hold the pipe in line with the other.  

I was obviously inept and struggling. As I wrestled that pipe, Shucks Burt, a trucker in the gang who reveled in my incompetence was laughing and stated the issue with no little accuracy.  

“Hey college boy, there’s a right way to do that and all the other ways are wrong and your opinion don’t mean a damn thing.” 

The entire gang collapsed in laughter.

Let’s assume that the laughter was not meant to be too cruel. Dr Sample is directing his reflections to those who work in ministry to working-class Americans, but his association of discipleship with “the craft tradition of knowing” and “things of a laboring kind” might be of use for all of us. 

Dr Sample makes a few points: 

“[I]f you are going to lay pipe, you do not start with your opinion or some universal notion of reason or some general kind of knowledge.” You have to pay attention, he says, to pipe – its particular “weight and balance and aim.” Furthermore, “you have to have the feel and practiced use of wrenches, and so on.”

I assume that we can say similar things about learning to play a certain musical instrument or a particular sport. Put more generally, “our minds are not adequate to the task until we have conformed ourselves to the objects on which we are focused.” How do we conform ourselves to Christ? We are conformed to Christ through Christ, not some universal notion of reason or a general kind of knowledge: “to know Christ is to apprentice with and for him.”

Second, the craft tradition of knowledge does not recommend abstract knowledge about pipe, but privileges knowing how to do things with pipe. Dr Sample refers us to Kathryn Marie Dudley’s study of the closing of a Chrysler plant and the plant’s “culture of the hand.” Dudley concluded that, for autoworkers, “individual ability is demonstrated by what people do – by their actions rather than words, by deeds rather than fancy degrees, and most important, by the tangible results of their labor.” The craft tradition, then, reminds us of the importance of real narratives of concrete actions and tangible results.

Third, the craft tradition of knowledge reminds us of the importance of skills. Most working-class jobs require knowing a tremendous number of skills, from the replacement of ball bearings in moving parts to cleaning complicated machinery to “stabbing pipe.” We often imagine discipleship as involving a more academic and abstract sort of knowledge: a New Testament class in a seminary seems like another world from an oil field.

Dr Sample remembers his father, who quit school in the fifth grade. He later took a course on drafting at a community college, and felt so intimidated by the ethos of the place that he never completed it. But years before that, Sample says, his father had actually drafted and built a creosote plant by himself, based on his careful observation of other plants in Mississippi, carefully recorded on a number of brown paper bags. Dr Sample’s father made some mistakes on the way but learned “on the job,” claiming that the whole process was “just a bunch of things I had to learn but I never had any question that I could do it.”  What if reading the Bible, for instance, is best described as just a “bunch of skills,” like running a creosote plant, which can best be learned “on the job”? 

Obviously, these skills are not learnt spontaneously, individually, or, for that matter, easily and quickly. Skilled and semi-skilled trades generally require a process of apprenticeship. Before drafting the creosote plant, Tex Sample’s father had necessarily worked for some time around machinery, pumps, and gauges. We have already suggested that becoming a disciple means becoming an “apprentice with and for” Jesus Christ. This cannot be done at a distance, or, for that matter, easily and quickly. One accepts Christ as a mentor when he or she participates in the life of the church and learns various skills: prayer, confession, Bible reading, caring for others, Eucharistic practice …

An obsession with the craft tradition of knowing can become destructive if it discourages reflection on the reasons for connecting pipe. And Shucks Burt’s line about the “right way to do that” will strike many of us as counterproductive, since it immediately disposes of alternative methods of connecting pipe and even the further development of the usual method. But I think we already know that. 

That said, can the craft tradition of knowledge help us better follow Christ?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to Is Discipleship a Craft?

  1. Yes, I entirely believe that the “craft tradition” of knowledge can help use better follow Christ. In fact, I believe that at least some of scripture has shown that the craft tradition of knowledge in Scripture is perhaps the only effective way of gaining knowledge of Scripture.

    As I recall, St. Isaiah the Prophet, in the book of Isaiah, stated that the “craft tradition”, or in other words, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and fear of the Lord.

    In the Hebraic tradition, the word knowledge (yadaa) in Hebrew doubles for both knowledge and the act of physical, mental and spiritual communion between a man and a woman. (e.g., Genesis: And Adam knew Eve, his wife. Thus, implicitly, one should know Scripture as intimately as a husband does his wife. In the tradition of Torah study, and later, of the study of the Talmud, this meant and means memorization of scripture, until it becomes a part of one.

    As to understanding, Scripture clearly indicates that this is done through meditation. In the first psalm, we read: But his delight is in the law (literally, ha-Torah) of the Lord, and in His law does he meditate day and night.

    As to wisdom, we read throughout the Proverbs that the gaining of wisdom involves the application of the Scripture which one has memorized and the insights which one has gained through meditation to one’s life. I invite the reader to examine the Book of Proverbs to that end.

    As regards fear of the Lord, I think that scripture makes it plain that it is not a terror or a fear which freezes the soul, but a healthy regard to the right relationship between God and Man. As the Psalmist says:

    Be ye sure that the Lord He is God
    It is He that has made us and not we ourselves.
    We are His people,
    and the sheep of His pasture.

    I think it no mistake that the Ashkenazim, the Eastern European Jews who for centuries made it a part of their culture to study Torah and Talmud in this manner, have for centuries been, to a far greater degree than their small numbers would indicate, involved in scientific, literary, musical, and philosophical studies.

    I think also that our Lord has also recommended this way of the “craft tradition of knowledge” when he said: “A scribe who gains knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings out from his store both treasures old and new”.

    Finally, I believe that in the sceptical and academic tendencies of most modern theologians, we see an unfruitful form of study which even God despises:

    Blessed is the man,
    who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
    nor stands in the way of the sinner,
    nor sits in the seat of the scornful
    Psalm 1.1

  2. Todd says:

    The modern approach to the catechumenate involves seeing the godparent-newcomer relationship as that of believer and apprentice. At least, that’s what I would say if I were to sum up the essence of the restored catechumenate as an ideal. I’ve recruited sponsors with the simple explanation: you will be walking with an apprentice; work with her (or him) well.

    I’d be cautious about characterizing “most” modern theologians as skeptics. What I see more of is an openness to inquiry and a lack of fear in addressing important questions. Scorn is read too much into the words and actions of academics. Theologians, like the rest of us, struggle with the Big Questions as well as with the foibles, if not sins, of interpersonal behavior.

  3. Pingback: More on the Craft of Being a Christian « Catholic Sensibility

  4. Dear Todd:

    I think that you are spot on in your comment about the catechumenate as apprenticeship. In fact, the greek word for disciple (mathetes quite literally has the association with apprenticeship and study. The word mathetes is also the etymological basis for the later word mathematician. I think it not unreasonable to assert the connection may be in the fact that both the study of Greek and modern mathematics involves in the student a form of apprenticeship.

    For my part, I would be cautious about characterizing what I said above as meaning that “most modern theologians” are “skeptics”. What I in fact said was:

    Finally, I believe that in the sceptical and academic tendencies of most modern theologians, we see an unfruitful form of study which even God despises

    I think that a distinction can be made (and has been made) by C.S. Lewis, near the end of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, when he pointed out the distinction between the contemplation of a subject, by which he meant the outside study of a thing, with enjoyment of a subject, by which he meant the intimate knowledge and meditation upon that subject. I would assert that the modern academic tendency in general (and not simply among theologians) is to engage in contemplation to the exclusion of enjoyment. Among theologians, this tendency results in the deconstruction of a text, instead of the intimate knowledge of that text. I believe that this academic tendency, particularly among theologians, is ultimately fruitless.

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