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Home is where the eternal is

by
29 May 2020

Andrew Davison explores theology, domesticity, and interior design

Kim Baile

An image from the chapter on “Nourishment” in Theology of Home

An image from the chapter on “Nourishment” in Theology of Home

IN WACO, Texas, there is a bookshop with two ways into the children’s section. Adults walk in the usual way, but for children there is an entrance through a wardrobe hung with fur coats, like the gateway to Narnia. This is Evangelical country. It isn’t even a specialist Christian bookshop.

Waco is also the epicentre of what you might call the American interior-decoration or house-improvement movement — except that neither of those phrases can do justice to American willingness to knock down, knock through, build up, and build on. The sort of house that receives this robust regenerative treatment, bought cheap and “remodelled”, is colloquially known as a “fixer upper”. So, too, are the doyen and doyenne of that house-improvement movement, Chip and Joanna Gaines. Their television series (like them, and the houses they improve, called Fixer Upper) has an enormous following, and is based in Waco.

Religion and remodelling came together when, walking into that bookshop last November (the wonderful Fabled Bookstore and Café), I found that its small section on design, or interior decoration, contained a book on theology: Theology of Home.

 

THEOLOGY of Home: Finding the eternal in the everyday is the work of four Roman Catholic women. One of them, Kim Baile, is a professional photographer, and it shows. This does not look like any other book of theology I have come across: here, catechism class meets The World of Interiors.

A home, they write, is where life unfolds: it should offer nourishment for the soul as well as for the body. Little did the authors know that many of us would soon become unexpectedly familiar with our residences (those of us who have one). Homes can evangelise, and each Christian home is a small church of its own. St John Paul II wrote about this “domestic church”, but the idea would have been familiar to Martin Luther or Susanna Wesley. The closure of churches has put “church at home” at the centre of our conversations as Christians.

Kim BaileAn image from Theology of Home

The authors show that two of the Church’s highest priorities — discipleship and evangelism — can begin at home; and, by that, they mean home in the mundane run of things. This contribution to discipleship and evangelism comes best through the ordinary and everyday, not through anything exceptional. We spread the faith more effectively, in this domestic fashion, by inviting friends regularly and unselfconsciously into the humdrum life of a home shaped by the Christian faith — when that is possible again — than by seeing our homes as a venue for exceptional ventures of outreach.

Our authors have shared meals in mind, or the value of welcoming someone into the ordinariness of a domestic life for longer, if they are struggling. Their suggestions include the joyful but unforced celebration of Sunday with a meal that we might invite others to join, where “family, hospitality, prayer, food, wine, gratitude, communion, and rest” meet. They quote Fr Frederick Faber: “Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, or learning.”

That ordinary and everyday angle applies as much to discipleship as it does to mission. The more obviously religious aspects of discipleship at home probably come easily to mind: having a nook or desk for prayer, with the books and other paraphernalia for devotion easily to hand; placing holy images here and there; saying grace, and having a timetable for prayer, reflection, and Bible reading.

That has probably proved all the more important during lockdown, but is also quite a challenge. All of that, however, even taken together, rarely takes up more than one part in 20 of the time that we spend at home. What about the rest, the other ways in which our homes shape our faith and practice, for better or worse?

As an example, consider that maybe half the time that many of us spend at home is spent asleep. We would be right to think that setting aside a space for prayer is a devout thing, but what about also making sure that our bedrooms are fit for sleeping?

We rightly pray for kindness or pastoral creativity, but one part of an answer to such prayers might be ensuring that we are as well-rested as we can be (“as we can be”, since infants, for instance, make their demands). We might take a timetable for devotions seriously; what about a timetable for sleep? Something as mundane as a blackout blind might nudge us towards a better temper during the day.

 

WRITING in the 1960s and ’70s, the psychologist James Gibson (1904-79) came up with the idea of “affordances”: animals interact with their environment in terms of what it offers or “affords” them. For a small insect, for instance, a blade of grass may be a thing-that-can-be-climbed: for such an insect, that’s what grass is. For a heavier insect, grass cannot offer that possibility: it does not have that “affordance”. On the other hand, for both insects, larger and smaller, that blade of grass might also be encountered as a thing to be eaten.

Compared with bugs, human beings have astonishingly complex, able, and subtle minds; but, even so, we do not perceive places, or things in them, only in terms of value-free geometry or physical appearance. We perceive places and objects and value them according to what they “afford”: to how they meet needs, and offer opportunities, or frustrate them. Places and things suggest possibilities, or close them down.

Kim BaileAn image from the chapter on “Comfort” in Theology of Home

Picking up Theology of Home opened my eyes to the value of thinking theologically about “home”, and the idea of “affordances” seems like a good way to go about it. Why not approach our homes asking what the place “affords” us for a Christian life: for discipleship or mission, for prayer or devotion, for health as a human, and health as a Christian? We might turn our eyes, and our prayers for discernment, on what lies outside and all around, not only on what lies within.

I will give a couple of examples. I am prone to living too much in my thoughts, for instance. It has been a good move for me to have photographs framed, and set out, of family and godchildren, and a reminder to make some extra prayers for them. Insignificant though it might sound, setting out my living room for listening to music has opened up some evenings without work, which I had aspired to, but never quite managed. If you felt comfortable, it would be great to have a personal example here — are there things in your home which, you feel, aid your faith?

 

LET IT be said, I found Theology of Home as frustrating as it was thought-provoking. On the positive side, the authors have a beautifully Catholic vision of grace working through all that is natural, our homes included. They have an appealing sense that places can be holy, and that time can be hallowed.

There is a particularly strong flavour to their piety, admittedly, which won’t be for everyone, and their assumptions about gender will raise many eyebrows. Some of that is quite open: we read about a husband showing “heroic manliness” because he is willing to do some cooking when he comes in from work. I was left wondering what the authors would make of early research suggesting that the additional responsibilities of working from home during lockdown have fallen disproportionately on women.

Many of the authors’ concerns about gender lie submerged, however, surfacing in frequent vague, but telling, snipes at the wider culture. The picture here — literally, in so many of the photos — is of a smiling wife and husband with plenty of children. Families that depart from that pattern are occasionally brought in, to be rescued by contact with a traditional family; others are unmentionable.

Also downright troubling are assumptions about ease and wealth. Readers are assumed to have “relatively comfortable, safe, orderly ways”, hardly able to imagine that parents found it difficult to feed both themselves and their families during the Great Depression. Yet, according to the United States Census Bureau, between 12 and 15 per cent of the US population lived in poverty in the decade before the book was published last year. It has just got a lot worse.

I would be tempted to say that this is a Pope Benedict XVI book (quoted with enthusiasm) rather than a Pope Francis book (not mentioned), except that that would be unfair to Benedict XVI and his concerns about poverty and economics.

What does that mixture mean, of the helpful and the unpalatable (at least to me)? It suggests that there is more than one useful perspective on a theology of home, and that we would do well to learn from one other. It also reminds me that ecumenism — which builds the bonds of fellowship and affection within the Church as a great home, household, or oikos (the Greek word behind the term) — can be as difficult as it is indispensable. In a household, we do not always see eye to eye.

 

Kim BaileAn image from Theology of HomeTHERE is further work to be done, then, on the “theology of home” or — which would be better — on theologies of home. What would today’s Evangelicalism have to add, or the historic Reformed tradition, or Orthodoxy, or people without children, or an emphasis on friendship? I feel that our Christian deliberations over marriage and sexuality would be greatly helped if we approached the topic in terms of home and homes. There are other rooms in a home, if I might put it this way, besides the bedroom.

Homes are a pressing, practical matter, not least because so many people either don’t have one, or do, but are struggling badly, perhaps because the building is inadequate or too small. Church communities are already contributing a good deal in response, whether in working with the homeless, or providing a community where people can talk about experiences of home that are far from nurturing.

The campaign for a living wage — so much the product of religious communities — is also hugely important. It is almost impossible to have a good experience of home as a place of rest if your wage won’t stretch to running a household, even after five days’ solid work each week.

The local church is already a repository of wisdom on the theology and practice of home; for instance, over ways to mark the church year, such as house blessings at Epiphany, or the Latin American Posadas that mark the way to Bethlehem in the run-up to Christmas; there would also be wisdom about how to draw children into daily prayer, or advice on how to live by the biblical maxim “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” We could do more to draw that wisdom out, and share it, but it is there.

“Home” would be an ideal topic for group study or reflection, thinking together about what a home is, or could be, sharing our experience and imagination, reflecting on the Bible and tradition of the Church. Everyone would have something important to contribute, whether from experience or from desire. Older members of our congregations might have the most to offer; affluent younger “high-fliers” might have the most still to learn. Our period of confinement to home could be a good provocation for that discussion.

 

OUR faith teaches that we are all “fixer uppers”. We are like the houses given that name, battered and far from their intended glory, and yet in the hands of the master renovator. We are also like those repairers, also called “fixer uppers”, working together, as God’s assistants on a project that goes beyond repair, producing habitations for the Spirit that exceed anything we can imagine.

Although that might all sound abstractly theological, mundane matters of home are central in all of that, as we have seen. Our homes and what they offer, furnish, or “afford” play a quiet but powerful part in shaping our lives. Now might be a good time to do some surveying.

 

Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Science at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College.

Theology of Home: Finding the eternal in the everyday by Carrie Gress, Noelle Mering, and Megan Schrieber is published by Tan Books at £27.99 (9781505113655)

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