(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?