FOR people who grew up with Jesus, he was a carpenter (Mark 6.3) — or a builder, or a craftsman, since the word tekton means all three. Here, it was a case of like father, like son: Joseph had the same trade (Matthew 13.55), and “the builder of all things is God” (Hebrews 3.4). That suggests that worshippers of the divine builder incarnate would do well to celebrate manual work. Here, Matthew Crawford is quite an ally, as the title of his book makes clear: The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good.
Crawford laments two related shifts. First, corporations found it cheaper to replace skilled workers with honed instincts with unskilled workers guided by general procedures. It started in factories, a century ago, but today similar trends apply to office work. Second, the things made in those factories have become so complex that household skills in maintenance and repair, which were previously important, have withered away. Again, that serves corporate interest, because we now tend to throw things away and buy new.
That might sound heavy going, and the book certainly contains a fair amount of history and philosophy, but it is enlivened throughout by coming to us through Crawford’s own colourful story, stretching from childhood in a commune, through academic studies and office work, to a lucrative position at a DC think tank, on to his momentous decision to leave all that behind to become a professional motorbike mechanic.
Doing something about the first of Crawford’s complaints, about factories and offices, may be beyond most of us. We can, however, all get more involved with hands-on maintenance and repair. That, Crawford thinks, would lead to greater satisfaction in life for all of us, and provide a secure career for not a few. While service-industry jobs can be transferred overseas, he argues, cars and plumbing can be fixed only locally.
At heart, this is a book about happiness, excellence, and openness to the world around us. Crawford has no illusions that work can involve drudgery, but he does see something wrong when work offers so little by way of happiness in itself that the most it can do, when it comes to pleasure in life, is to finance leisure and holidays.
Like others writing about satisfaction, Crawford associates happiness with getting absorbed in an activity, often because we need to pay careful attention to things and tasks before us. That reminded me of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams’s comments about the importance of attentiveness, and its relation to prayer.
Crawford’s own analogy is that his apprenticeship with motorcycles was similar to learning to draw. Like the artist, he had to learn to see (and, in his case, to learn also to hear and to feel the machine). Both the artist and the mechanic demonstrate a kind of humility before reality: an attentiveness to the particularity of what they are dealing with. The artist might learn from other artists, and the mechanic from other mechanics, but real excellence in either field comes from paying careful attention to the object of your work, and letting that teach you, too.
If all goes well, time spent paying attention leads to skill, and what Crawford calls “excellence” in some domain or other. His account offers a useful recalibration of our sense of where excellence is to be found: plumbers and gardeners join the ranks of musicians and sports stars. Provocatively, Crawford suggests that ethics, too, could do with a shift from an emphasis on rights to an emphasis on excellence, and pride in doing things well. He sees this as a good way to transcend barriers, since being good at something allows us to recognise equivalent excellence in other people, and value them for it, even if they come from a very different background from our own.
With suggestions such as “excellence over rights”, Crawford’s book is bound to provoke a lively discussion. He consistently stands outside current political distinctions, belonging to neither the contemporary left nor the contemporary right.
He prefers excellence to rights, but is also fiercely critical of contemporary capitalism; he praises pride and patriotism, but also the truer “liberalism” of the motorcycle workshop over the think tank. He is likely to offend and delight different readers in different ways. If his usefully contrarian politics do not raise hackles, his occasionally strong language might, or his frustrating attachment to using male examples throughout.
I came away from The Case for Working with Your Hands more convinced than ever that an environmentally sustainable future requires a different way of life: one that is both possible and attractive, and frustrated by current economic interests. To meet even halfway- sensible goals over climate change, we need to make less stuff, and throw less stuff away.
Crawford’s vision of hands-on involvement with the objects in our lives, through repair and re-use, would be sustainable and satisfying, but tricky to bring off today. I think how I used to fix my own computers, but my new laptop, though wonderfully light, and thin enough to slice a cucumber, does not have a single part that I can change myself.
Other areas of life offer greater hope, and half the fun of what might come out of reading this book in a group would be in swapping examples of how to cultivate a more hands-on way of life.
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Corpus Christi College. He speaks about the book on this week’s podcast. Listen at www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast
The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good by Matthew Crawford is published by Penguin at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 978-0-141-04729-4).
THE CASE FOR WORKING WITH YOUR HANDS — SOME QUESTIONS
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3.19). What did you think of the various models of work explored in Matthew Crawford’s book?
What lessons does this book have for us as consumers and customers?
How might Crawford’s book make us more attentive?
What did you think of the book’s distinction between “obligation” and “solidarity”, and how might that change how we think about our “duty” to others, ourselves, and God?
To what extent is the Christian life about “excellence”?
What might be the spiritual characteristics of Crawford’s “spirited man”?
Having read this book, what do you think it means for us to ask God to “prosper [. . .] the work of our hands” (Psalm 90.17)?
Do you feel that modern society alienates us from the physical world? How might we go about re-engaging with it?
How valuable is this book in teaching us how to improve our “judgement”?
Do you think Crawford’s writing about teamwork could be useful in a church setting?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 July, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. It is published by Serpent’s Tail at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-78125-545-2.
The Essex Serpent is a gothic novel of love, faith, science, and myth, set in the social and intellectual ferment of 1890s England. The widowed amateur naturalist Cora Seaborne leaves the rush and squalor of London, and moves with her son to the parish of Aldwinter, in Essex, where tales of a frightful and magical beast pique both her scepticism and her curiosity. She strikes up a friendship with Aldwinter’s Vicar, the Revd William Ransome, and their joint investigation of the rumoured creature calls long-held beliefs and commitments into question. The Essex Serpent was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2016; writing in the Telegraph, Charlotte Runcie described it as “the kind of work that makes you alive to the strangeness of the world and of our history”.
Sarah Perry was born in Chelmsford in 1979. She grew up as a member of a Strict Baptist family — she has joked that she “grew up in 1895” — and her work is strongly influenced by the Authorised Version. After working as a missionary, a Sunday-school teacher, and a civil servant, she completed a Ph.D. at Royal Holloway, writing a thesis on Iris Murdoch’s sense of place, supervised by Andrew Motion. Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood, was published in 2014. Describing herself as “post-religious”, Perry has said that her work is concerned with the question “how to live with a faith and an intelligent and inquiring mind”.
Books for the next two months:
August: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
September: Becoming Friends of Time by John Swinton