When Francis and Edith Schaeffer were writing about issues like ecology, home, and place in the late 1960s and early 70s, they were to the best of my knowledge the only evangelicals doing so. While they laid great foundations with Pollution and the Death of Man (Francis, 1970) and Hidden Art (Edith, 1972)1, much of their thought remained largely undeveloped by subsequent generations.
It is only in the past decade that evangelicals have really begun to attend to some of these questions more earnestly. Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell remains the definitive pop-academic work on the subject while other books like Walking Gently on the Earth and Making Peace with the Land have both helped to further develop some of the American church’s thinking on this topic. Alongside the evangelical renewal of interest in these topics is the similar concern shown by many Catholics, perhaps best exemplified by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’.
That being said, the topic of the domestic space and how Christians can and should shape it has not been as well tended to. To be sure, there’s a certain type of manual for domesticity that is popular with a certain more conservative, 50s-vintage evangelical. But I am not aware of any notable books from more prominent evangelical publishers on the topic until recently. Our subject today is a welcome correction to this unfortunate gap in contemporary evangelical reflection: Keeping Place by Jen Pollock Michel is the sort of book that most anyone can read profitably because of its expansive scope, occasional devotional warmth, and easy practicality.
We’ll begin with three real strengths of the book before progressing to two quibbles I have with it.
The Importance of Place
I’m fond of quoting a line from Walter Bruegemann that I first came across in Bartholomew’s book: There can be no meaning apart from roots. Michel quotes the line as well and develops it admirably. The book’s opening section is in many ways an attempt to foreground this important topic which evangelicals have far too often pushed toward the background. Michel begins the book with a reflection on home and nostalgia, a word which originally meant “homesickness,” asking why so many of us long for “home” even if we have no actual lived experience of it to draw upon.
Michel has a BA in French and an MA in Literature and it shows in the opening chapter. She ably reviews both the testimony of Scripture and of western literature to describes this nostalgia in more detail, explaining where it comes from and how people have tried to cope with this longing. Her reading is impressively broad, drawing on evangelical staples like the Inklings, fine scholars in the field like Ellen Davis, and French writers like Albert Camus.
Camus forms something of a foil late in the chapter as his absurdism would have us dismiss our nostalgia for home as a longing which can never be adequately addressed. We must instead, according to Camus, make peace with our exile. “We must picture Sisyphus smiling,” as the Franco-Algerian writer famously said. Set next to that, Michel gives us the picture of Samwise Gamgee at the end of Return of the King asking if all that is sad in the world is going to come untrue. Michel rightly notes that this is not Tolkien indulging in escapism, but a profound reflection of his Christian faith: Our longings for another world are valid and in the Gospel we have both an explanation for those longings and their fulfillment.
The Realism of Michel’s Book
A few years ago I had a conversation with my former pastor over lunch about something we were both reading in Berry. He said to me that all Berry’s stuff about home and fidelity to place is easy enough for someone like me: My family has been in Nebraska since the 1870s and I’ve lived almost my whole life in Lincoln. Lincoln isn’t Port William, of course, but if I want to find my roots I know where they are and don’t have to go far to find them. His story was different. A second-generation Taiwanese immigrant, he wouldn’t even know where to begin looking for his own historical roots: “Where is my home?” he asked me. “Is it in Seattle where I was born? Kansas where I grew up? Nebraska where I pastor? Or is it in the Taiwanese village my family lived in for generations that no longer exists?”
If I had to guess, I would imagine that most people today, or at least most of the people reading a site like Mere O, relate more to Mike than they do me. Michel’s own story is certainly closer to Mike’s, featuring multiple moves throughout her childhood and than more moves as an adult. Today, in fact, her family is living in Toronto on a work visa due to her husband’s work.
Given the sad fact of our hyper-mobility, it is good that Michel acknowledges the challenges this creates for home and acknowledges that, while this is an obstacle, it is not an insurmountable one toward being hospitable and creating a warm atmosphere in our home places. She tells several stories of how her family, themselves living as immigrants in Canada, have been able to show hospitality to others.
Additionally, she rightly notes that there are many examples in Scripture of God’s people living migrant existences and this does not make them less God’s people or prevent them from following God. Indeed, in many cases it is God who commands them to leave their home. Obedience to Christ is paramount and those who are obedient will someday have an eternal home, which is a great consolation even as we long for home in our lives today. These reminders are welcome and helpful ones to people who might, through no fault of their own, have lived migratory lives and could be made to feel undue guilt while reading a book like this one.
The Breadth of Hospitality
Finally, it is worth praising the book’s scope. Michel recognizes that one of her chief concerns, hospitality, is something which can be artificially shrunk if we are not careful to include only a relatively narrow sort of activity—namely, having friends over for meals or, maybe, having strangers in one’s home.
But a primary aspect of hospitality is an openness to the other, which is a practice we can cultivate across all of life—in marriage, family, and in our parish churches as well. Indeed, Michel has entire chapters, in a book mostly concerned with place, on marriage and church, both of which are very good. These topics are all related and it is an encouraging thing to see Michel recognize those connections and develop them in the book.
The Voluntaristic Nature of Michel’s Home
This brings us to my two quibbles with the book.
First, I am increasingly of the view that we cannot talk about human community without talking about political economy. Human communities must be sustained materially and financially and if we are not mindful of the manner in which we sustain ourselves, then our communities will be carried about by every wind of corrosive economic practices.
This means that topics like hospitality, home, place, and so on are all connected to topics of politics and economics. While it would be unfair to fault Michel for not writing on these issues in an in-depth way given that that’s not the sort of book she set out to write, I think it is fair to note how deeply voluntaristic Michel’s idea of place is and to fault the book on that point.
Here is what I mean by that: Voluntarism as I am using the term means an approach to human society and community which assumes that we are all isolated individuals with the freedom to choose what societies we will enter and which ones we will leave. “Choose” is perhaps a tricky word because at times it will be chosen for us—as when a job requires us to relocate. But the point still stands: In a voluntaristic world, you don’t really have anything that restrains your freedom to choose besides the hard realities of economics and so all of your various social memberships are memberships you have chosen for yourself.
There are two ways this problem affects Michel’s book. First, while it is an admirable thing to recognize that migrant existences can still be God-honoring and that such existences need not be bereft of some of the comforts of home, I worry that Michel is too sanguine on this point. You can make a home wherever you go, but, as the title of the book implies, home-making is as much about keeping as it is creating. The Scriptures suggest this when they liken the righteous man to a tree with deep roots: Such roots come from staying in the same place for a long time. Trees that are constantly being moved and re-planted do not develop the roots system necessary to grow large. You need to stay put for that to happen.
This is a large part of why our family stays in Nebraska. My children are the fifth generation in my family to be born here. Were we to move it would take 150 years for my descendants to have the same sort of relationship to a place that Davy and Wendell have received simply by virtue of their birth. And, of course, being realistic it would likely be far longer—after you make the first move it is easier to make the second and third. It would likely be centuries before my family had five generations of stability in a single place.
To be sure, this is not an easy thing. The economy militates against this sort of stability in ways I’m increasingly happy to simply call evil. That said, people who read sites like Mere O and read books from InterVarsity Press (Michel’s publisher) probably have more control over this than the typical American. You can choose to stay in your home town. You don’t have to go to college out-of-state and you don’t have to work in a field that requires you to move to DC, NYC, or some other major urban hub. Obviously this requires a sacrifice, one that I know intimately having passed up several opportunities to work in jobs that more fit my desire and skillset but would require us to leave Lincoln. But, then, taking the job is a sacrifice too and in my view that sacrifice is often the larger, though most of us do not realize it.
I don’t mean any of this to bully those people who really do have to move in order to make a living. Such people exist and in increasingly large numbers, to the shame and detriment of our republic. But I suspect if more of us thought more carefully about our “needs” and expectations in life that we would find it possible to make life in our home places work if we actually wanted it to.
There is also a second way in which the voluntarism shapes the book and it relates to what I have just said above. If the only societies we belong to are those which we choose, then keeping place becomes largely a function of making good choices about the maintaining of the places we have chosen to inhabit. But, of course, a moment’s thought demonstrates how one’s ability to keep place often has very little to do with the choices one makes as an independent individual. Jobs disappear. Local storefronts close. Parks fall into disrepair. Bonds of neighborliness wither and so too do the communities sustained by those bonds.
All of these things involve elements of home which are not fully within our control but, instead, belong to some sort of social organism of which we are only a part—the neighborhood, the town, the city, and so on. I worry that Michel’s book does not attend enough to these other memberships. One gets the feeling while reading this book that human community basically happens in houses with families and the people those families receive into their homes and in churches. But, of course, that isn’t at all true. There are all sorts of local communities we belong to which shape our experience of home and the potential for our home places. I wish Michel had tended to this question, how home fits into neighborhood, city, and commonwealth, in more detail because I think it is a vital one for any Christian reflection on home.2
The Attempt to De-Gender Domestic Life
I’ll try to keep this second point shorter. One of the interesting moves Michel makes in the book is that she tries to deconstruct the idea of the feminine “angel in the house” by arguing that God, in fact, is a homemaker. She appeals to the creation account here and, so far as that goes, I don’t see a huge problem with that. Certainly God prepares a place for man at creation and we see Christ using similar language in John 14.
That said, my reservation here is that we would completely remove considerations of gender from home life. The modern norm is to see husband and wife as having entirely overlapping and interchangeable roles in the home. I worry that the way in which Michel goes after the “angel in the house” motif, which does need to be attacked, may actually take her further than she means to go by tacitly affirming the modern norm.
On the one hand, it is true to say that men are involved in home-making. Michel rightly notes that the severing of “work” from “home” and the consequent severing of men from domesticity is an industrial phenomenon. Men have a serious role to play in the building and maintaining of the home and Michel is right to point this out.
That being said, nature itself suggests that there is a kind of domestic work more proper to men and other sorts more proper to women. At minimum, men cannot breastfeed newborn children. Only women can do that. No doubt, even as they read that last sentence some deranged scientist is adding “yet!” and other people are rushing to Google to dig up articles like this one or this one.
That response should be telling for Christians, though: To whatever extent we have made the domestic roles mostly overlapping, it is the result of modern techniques intended to subdue one aspect or another of how human bodies naturally work. Christians, for now, have stopped short at the mostly arbitrary use of contraceptives as the acceptable boundaries of using technique to override the body’s natural functions. Our non-Christian peers have simply marched further down that same road and, often, for reasons mostly similar to the reasons many evangelicals cite when justifying the use of contraceptives. Indeed, we might reasonably say that our non-Christian peers are more honest than we are about our shared beliefs about the body and sexuality.3
So my concern here is that in trying to rightly highlight the egalitarian nature of domestic work, Michel may overplay her hand a bit. Or, perhaps better, she may under-state the ways in which one’s sex does shape one’s normal domestic responsibilities. We should say “men have domestic responsibilities and in most cases those responsibilities will probably look different than the woman’s.” I worry that Michel is simply saying, “Men have domestic responsibilities, just like women do,” which is not quite the same thing.
Of course, one of the reasons I suspect that Michel addressed the issue in the way that she did is because of evangelicalism’s often dark history in how it has approached issues of sexuality and domesticity. So I think I get what she is going for here and am, in one sense, supportive so far as that goes. Evangelicals have excelled in this arena when it comes to binding consciences without biblical warrant or slaughtering biblical texts in searching for warrant to justify the arbitrary rules we wish to enforce. Trying to combat that by establishing the domestic space as belonging properly to men and women is excellent. Combatting that by flattening the distinctions between how men and women inhabit and shape the domestic space is not.
When I come to the end of a review like this I always feel a little bad about how the quibbles end up taking up much more space than the praise. I worry that the ratio might be taken as being in itself proof that I disliked the book. To be clear, that is emphatically not the case with Keeping Place. This is a book I would happily commend to others and which my wife has already mentioned to several friends as a good candidate for their reading group’s next book. Michel’s book is very good for all the reasons mentioned above and I am confident that anyone who takes the time to read it will profit from it.
The reason for stating my quibbles at such length is simple: Points of agreement are easy to summarize: The book said this and it is good. Points of disagreement take more time to develop. Moreover, in this case the two points of disagreement I have touch two issues that I think will both be rather significant ones for the future direction of evangelicalism in North America. For that reason, it seemed worthwhile to spend more time dwelling on those points simply for the sake of clarity and to hopefully prompt some good discussion on the topics. But the length of those points above should not be read as a condemnation of the book, which I quite liked and would, again, recommend to others.
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- The title for later editions was changed to Hidden Art of Homemaking, a title Edith strongly disliked and which rather misrepresents the book.
- Of course, the elephant in the room when Christians talk about voluntaristic societies is baptism. If you’re a Baptist, then even your membership in the people of God is, in an important sense, a voluntaristic thing that you chose. You are baptized as a result of your choice (to join the church) and as a result of a confession you have voluntaristically made. If even this part of your life is a matter of choice (in some sense) then we shouldn’t be surprised that evangelicals, who are mostly Baptist, struggle to think well about the very real communities we belong to apart from our individual choice. We have already established that the community we belong to which most directly concerns our relationship to Jesus is voluntaristic. If that is the case, then so too must our other forms of social membership, even if the actual lived experience of our life says quite the opposite.
On the other hand, if you’re paedobaptist, this implies that you believe in the existence of communities to which we belong apart from our choice and, indeed, that the visible community of God’s people can be one such society.
This is all to say that if Michel is Baptist, as I strongly suspect she is based on a number of comments in the book, then she may well respond that this voluntarism is a feature not a bug. At that point, we’d simply be back to hashing out 500 year old Protestant debates about political theology. UPDATE: I have since been told that Michel attends a PCA church so you can disregard the speculation about her personal ecclesial affiliation.
- I am not absolutely opposed to the use of contraception. I am vociferously opposed to the use of contraception for the sake of one’s career or personal freedom.