17 September 2008

I recently enrolled in a pottery class. “How does a doctoral student have time for a pottery class?” you ask. A doctoral student like me has to make time for such things, or else lose part of herself that contributes indispensably to her identity and work as a theologian. I find pottery-making, specifically, to be a thoroughly theological activity.

It can be no accident that Scripture contains so many references to clay, pottery and the potter, because in the beginning God fashions the first human creature from the wet, muddy ground (Gen 2.7). Humans are made of clay, or ‘humus,’ as Ellen Davis has said. Job compares himself to clay, and God to a potter who fashioned him (Job 10.9; 33.6). Isaiah does so even more specifically—human beings are like clay, and reverse the order of things when we speak critically to God the potter (Isa 29.16, 45.9, 64.8). In Jeremiah the breaking and refashioning of a vessel of pottery serves as a metaphor of the effect exile will have (or had) on God’s people. In Romans 9.11 Paul picks up this metaphor of potter and clay in order to illustrate that God made people in great variety and, therefore, they have different purposes. Finally, in 2 Cor 4 Paul compares Christians to fragile clay vessels that—amazing thing though it is—carry around the great treasure of God’s power in the death and life of Jesus. Scripture pervasively uses the clay vessel as a metaphor for the human being, fashioned by God the potter. For me, actually working with clay, and especially with the potter’s wheel, has placed the metaphor into a new light that bears upon the idea that boundaries can bring freedom.

Pottery-making has self-determined rules that, if the potter does not follow them, sabotage her efforts to make a useful and beautiful vessel. The clay may be neither too moist nor too dry, and manipulation of the clay must also proceed in the right order. Wedging, proper cutting, wheel-wedging, centering, opening the piece, compressing the bottom, throwing the walls of the piece, finishing the rim, trimming, drying, firing, waxing, glazing, and re-firing must all occur at the proper time and in consideration of a host of variables at each stage. The necessary body of knowledge—just, for example, in the area of clay types and glazes—demands years of experience and study. It is a craft that requires the involvement of the whole human—body, mind, and creativity. Indeed, it has room for all of that, but one must follow the rules. The rules of pottery are unbreakable in the sense that failure to follow them means that something will go so wrong with the piece as to render it unusable. If something goes really horribly wrong, the piece could explode in the kiln and ruin a whole firing of work. The consequences for missing a step, or for proceeding in a different order, may be minuscule but they may also be disastrous. Not to follow these rules constitutes a failure at pottery-making—one is either making bad (unusable) pottery or participating in another discipline entirely.

Within certain parameters, however, there is room for enormous creativity. Within this space one may craft a glorious array of pieces of great beauty, innovation, reinterpretation, and utility. In this sense, the rules of pottery-making are not the sort that prevent one from having any fun. Rather, it is the rules that make the whole craft possible. Far from limiting the freedom of the artist, the rules enable him to stretch his creativity and see how it functions within this particular medium. The rules of pottery make it possible for a lump of clay to become, for example, a teapot—a useful vessel of beauty.

Anyone who knows the inside of my work right now will almost certainly already hear what is coming next. I think the Bible makes no mistake in comparing humans to clay vessels—there are certain rules that make us what we are, or cause us to fail at being what we are meant to be. This metaphor of pottery-making is a profound picture to me of what it means to live as a Christian, to do Christian theology, and to interpret Scripture. There is a certain set of rules for living, for thinking about our life with God, and for reading the Bible as members of God’s people. However, these are not the sort of rules that constrain us or keep us from being what and who we ought to be. Rather, the parameters make our life, thought and work possible, and guide them so that they are indeed good and beautiful.