Last spring, in the early hours of a stormy late May morning, we were literally jolted awake by a blinding bolt of lightning and simultaneous explosion of thunder. The bolt had certainly struck close by, but we did not realize how close until we smelled the charred air and heard sirens approaching. A couple of houses down from ours, flames were already devouring the upstairs. The bolt had ripped through one bedroom, immediately kindling a raging fire that would consume the whole house. Luckily, perhaps, the family was away on vacation. The 8-year-old who would have been asleep in the upstairs bedroom was camping miles away. The grandparents who were housesitting chose to sleep in the basement with the family pets, a choice that saved every living being in the house.
A year has passed, and all of us on our end of the street have delightedly watched the house rise, phoenix-like, from its own ashes. On those occasions such as this one when I have the opportunity to watch carpenters practicing their craft, my thoughts always return to Old John, the master carpenter who marshalled and mentored the team of carpenters that built the oversized garage at my parents’ home in Indiana. As a mentor, John shared the tricks of the trade with the apprentices in his charge. He demonstrated how to calculate true angles, fit tight joints, and fabricate practical jigs. My four-year-old self was especially enthralled by the jigs, fabricated from materials at hand to regulate the repeated board cuts, ensuring that they would be of identical length.
In his new book, The World Beyond Your Head, author Matthew Crawford employs the idea of a jig to ruminate about this current transitional moment in our culture. He remembers, for example, that “a nestled set of mutually reinforcing moral norms” in the values and practices of the Protestant Work Ethic “gave a certain shape to life in early America” (38). Norms such as these emerge within cultural groups, defining values, practices, and relationship boundaries. We build these jigs collectively and we build them to durably guide us for long spaces of time.
Some of us have modified, rejected, or sought to dismantle many of the cultural jigs that have ordered our common lives across the last few decades while others of us have sought to preserve them, sure that by using tried-and-true jigs we will retain some good that we hold in common. So much depends upon cultural jigs. Crawford observes that “the norms that cultural jigs express and reinforce tend to be reiterated, fractal-like, along different axes of social life” so that “together they make up a more or less coherent form of ethical life” (39). These kinds of jigs live deep down in our collective behaviors, our common characters.
But these aren’t the only forms available to us. Crawford goes on the describe what he calls “administrative nudges,” scripts and pre-determined choices that are meant to prompt us to behave “as if we were virtuous, without any reference to character traits” (39). These nudges operate somewhat insidiously by moving the field of control from us, both singularly and in communities, to others who seek to instill what may seem like the same kind of shared experience, but only on the shiny surface. Consider, for example, the difference between shopping in a big box store (where our choices are scripted by product placement, advertising, etc.) and the local farmer’s market (where choice is less restrained).
And it is at this point that I wonder how we are “jigging” our most important cultural institutions, particularly the church. As we think about our common calling from Christ, how can we most effectively live out that calling together in covenant community? What jigs must we create to express this common discipling work in the world? How can these jigs function effectively as cultural institutions shift or die off? How can we tell the difference between the jigs that emerge internally to order our lives and facilitate discernment, and the external administrative nudges that offer superficial choices which skew and restrain our spiritual understanding and God-directed action?
Just as the carpenters’ jigs have been used well to guide the transformation of our neighbors’ house from older, worn house to ashes on a durable foundation to new, revitalized house, may we soon discover how to use our own cultural jigs as effectively as God’s servant leaders in the world. Friends, our carpentry work calls us!