By Joe Carter
In 1958, Leonard Read published his famous essay, “I, Pencil.” The original essay was written from the perspective of a pencil, explaining why it is as much a creation of God as a tree:
Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.
For Christians, the idea that God creates trees is uncontroversial since that claim is made directly in Genesis 1:12. But where do we get the idea that God creates pencils?
Culture and Its Artifacts
It comes a few verses later, in Genesis 1:28, when God blesses mankind…and then puts us to work:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (ESV)
In the Reformed tradition, this command is often referred to as the “cultural mandate.” As Nancy Pearcey explains in her book, Total Truth:
In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws.
The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less.
Crops, bridges, computers, and music are all examples of cultural artifacts. Artifacts are any man-made things that are created from artifice (human skill). The range of what is classified under this term is almost endless. Artifacts include everything from stone arrowheads to skyscrapers to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to the lowly pencil.
Culture, therefore, is simply a collection of various artifacts within a particular grouping of peoples. Some of these artifacts are much more complex than we might realize. Take, for example, a chicken sandwich.
A Community of Creators
Andy George set out to make a chicken sandwich from scratch. To get the ingredients he needed he had to grow his own vegetables, make his own salt from ocean water, milk a cow to make cheese, grind flour for wheat, collect honey, and kill a chicken.
The result: It took him 6 months and $1,500 to completely make a sandwich from scratch.
Unlike creating a pencil—which no single person could do by themselves—it’s theoretically possible to create a sandwich from scratch using raw materials.
Yet George was only able to make a sandwich that quickly and cheaply because he took shortcuts (e.g., he didn’t have to raise the cow, chicken, or bees himself). What this shows is that we humans were not intended to make sandwiches by ourselves—we need the help of other people.
By design, every culturative act requires the connectivity of human interaction. What we call “spontaneous order” is merely the outworking of the underlying laws and norms that God weaved into the very warp and woof of creation. Without God’s providential structuring of economic activity, we couldn’t even make cultural artifacts that are as simple as a chicken sandwich.
As the theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper once claimed, “No single piece of our mental world is to be sealed off from the rest and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Because every aspect of creation belongs to God, he can providentially use our interactions in the economic sphere—whether working at our vocations or engaging in the marketplace—to help us fulfill his cultural mandate.
When we engage in economic activity we are not only serving our fellow humans but also cooperating as sub-creators with God. Human activity, combined with the raw materials of the earth, is the way that God provides us food—including chicken sandwiches.