Review: Thumbprint in the Clay


Thumbprint in the Clay, Luci Shaw. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A series of reflections, including some of the author’s poetry, on the “marks of the Maker” evident both in creation and in our lives.

True confessions. My wife is not a fan of most Christian writing. She finds much of it tedious, repetitive, and stylistically poor. And so when this book came in a shipment of books, I passed it along to her, being familiar with some of Shaw’s other work. This book passed “the wife test”! Not only did she read it through, but she kept talking about different ideas, and wanted me to read it so we could talk about it together. And we did. This does not happen often.

The basic idea of the book is a series of reflections considering the “marks of the Maker” that we see both in the creation around us and in the unfolding of our lives and relationships, marks of beauty, order, and grace that reveal something of the Maker’s character. She introduces this by speaking of a collection of mugs and other pottery around her home and how they are reflections of the artists who made each piece:

Each piece, whether it’s a mug, a mixing bowl, a milk pitcher, a vase, a turkey platter, a serving dish, is the result of combining earth and human eye and muscle with individual design, skill and intense heat. Some of these treasures are hand built, some shaped on the potter’s wheel, many bearing the thumbprint signatures of the potters themselves or their names or logos scrawled on the mug handle or the bowl base. Having that personal identifying mark makes a piece of pottery memorable to me. It’s as if the maker is proclaiming his unique identity, saying, “Don’t forget! I impressed this mark in the clay before firing to let you know it is authentically my artifact, and it will always be personal, from me to you.”

The book reflects her wide travels from her home in the Pacific Northwest on Bellingham Bay to cathedrals in New York City to the desert landscape of the American Southwest. She sees these marks in both the beauty and majesty of nature and in the great works of human artistry. There is a physicality about this book that ranges from pottery to mountains and the love of physical books, to the capabilities and frailties of the author’s body. At one point, she recounts a revelatory conversati0n with Fr. Richard Rohr, who says, “I could sit for hours and simply contemplate that tree. Those leaves. Even that one leaf in particular.” I found this resonating with my own experiences of spending a couple hours looking at and sketching a single flowering Columbine plant.

The book traces an arc moving from physical creation to our lives, which also bear unique and distinctive marks of the Maker’s work, marks that point to his forming and molding, sometimes through pain and suffering, that make us both unique creations and reflections of the Creator. Perhaps one of the most moving chapters was toward the end as she recounts the powerful impact of Clyde Kilby, Wheaton professor and C. S. Lewis scholar in recognizing, encouraging, and defending her emerging calling as a writer against her father’s aspirations for her of mission service. At one point he told her father, “Dr. Deck, excuse me, but I believe that is your vision not your daughter’s.”

The writing moves in a bit of a “stream of consciousness” mode around the chapter themes, with some of the author’s poetry interspersed. These are reflections, not an exposition. They allow us to walk alongside a deeply spiritual, keenly observant, long time spiritual pilgrim, and wise woman. At first I thought that this might be a good book for older fellow pilgrims that might give words to their journey, and indeed, this is so. But I also think that for younger pilgrims, particularly those of an artistic bent, this could be a great book for seeing what the life of faith looks like after a lifetime, what a life is like that has been “imprinted” by this way of seeing over sixty, seventy years or more. For all of us, it can be more helpful in opening us up to seeing the ways the great Artist has left “thumbprints” all over that reveal the wonders of the Artist, as well as what the Artist has made.