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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

On being derivative - and finding pleasure in work

jenmichel@me.com

Roasted summer squash, okra and onions; arugula, baby spinach, buffalo mozzarella, and grape tomatoes; flaky tomato tart with basil; turkey burgers; ripe cantaloupe and strawberries: last night’s dinner was the first proper summer meal I’ve had - and it was delicious! The meal was prepared by the wife of a college friend, whose family is hosting ours while we visit Memphis. I hope Lissa took it for compliment (and not rudeness) when, as we brought in dishes from the porch and began rinsing them, I helped myself to a second turkey burger, grabbing it with my bare fingers and tearing it apart without the courtesy of a fork. Audrey, too, dug her fingers into the bowl of the leftover strawberries and cantaloupe. (We’re an ill-mannered crew, I guess. Or just love food.)

As the cook, I love that pleasure of seeing that people have really enjoyed a meal, that they’ve enjoyed it enough to want more. Maybe that’s why I love kitchen work. What can feel like the mindlessness of peeling potatoes, chopping basil, and skewering meat to grill gains visceral meaning the moment people gather to eat and enjoy.

I’ve been thinking about my kitchen work as a metaphor for my book, which has recently released. People have begun reading – and eating. Some are finding the food delicious. And to be quite honest, I feel uncertain about how to feel about that reaction. What do you do when people clap you on the back and say, “Well done,”? How does that praise not immediately blow hot air into you? Should you resist your first response, which is of course pleasure?

I don’t ever feel guilty about the pleasure I feel at serving a good meal. Must I feel guilty about the pleasure of having written what some may call a good book? Should there be a difference between my reactions? And most importantly, what response is most Godlike?

Of course a return to Genesis 1 reminds us that pleasure over work done well is ultimately Godlike. God calls all of his work good, and there is a satisfaction he enjoys when surveying his work. He names the seventh day a day of rest in part as an expression of his satisfaction and enjoyment: he had finished his work, and he rested from it, calling it complete and good.

Every human work of creation (or culture-making, to borrow Andy Crouch’s term) is mirrored after these first creative acts of God. We are called to make something of his work, to “fill the earth and subdue it.” As those who bear the image of God, we are creative and will delight in doing creative work. That work may be making a tomato tart or writing a book, but whenever we make something of the world, we are living into our Genesis 1 mandate. This is good and right – even pleasurable.

However, there is an essential difference between what God did in Genesis 1, and what we do now. God made something from nothing. God’s creative acts were ex nihilo: he had no raw materials with which to work. He didn’t pick tomatoes from a garden to make a tart, and he didn’t select words from a lexicon to write a book. He made the tomatoes. And he made the words.

Which is to then say that all human creative acts are fundamentally derivative. We make something from something. We exhibit no ex nihilo cleverness, and as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. We arrange and rearrange. We combine old parts to make new wholes. But everything is ultimately borrowed from someone: the tomatoes from the farmer, the words from other books. (And everything ultimately from God.)

So how does this help me reconcile my reaction of pleasure to what has been some warm reception to my book? Pleasure does not have to be pride (although it often is). Pleasure, in fact, can become praise when it’s remembered that our work is derivative from God’s. If I’ve made a delicious tomato tart, I can take no credit for the sweetness of a ripe summer tomato or the freshness of garden basil. I can love that you’ve loved it – and credit your pleasure to the One who made summer tomatoes and fresh basil. And if I’ve written a good book, I can take no credit for the compelling truth and beauty of the gospel, which is central to that book. I can loved that you’ve loved it – and credit your pleasure to the one who sent his Son to die for our faithless desires and redeem our wandering hearts. If that is the hope upon which readers seize, it is not a hope I have authored.

In Christianity Today, Laura Turner calls Teach Us to Want “a book that, on the whole, is so smart and instructive and engaging. We must trust that God gives us desires for a reason, and that if the desire is not, on its surface, good and selfless, there is something underneath it that might be. This is the task of desire—to bring the flourishing of the family, the town, the school, and the soul.”

I’m thankful for her review: and would love for you to read it.