Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home by Jen Pollock Michel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I sometimes think that Goodreads ought to give me two ways to rate a book: what the book wants to be on its own terms, and whether I think the book is really something someone should spend time reading. On its own terms, and trying to apply John Updike’s dictum that we shouldn’t blame a book for not achieving what it didn’t set out to achieve, I think Michel’s book is OK; probably even good. Thinking of it as a series of meditations on the nature of home, the book embodies a vision of the dignity and even sacrality of home life, home work, and house keeping–understood as making a place for ourselves and those we love, perhaps even those we don’t, in the world. In it, home becomes a metaphor for the work of the Church. And more than a metaphor. For Michel, “Christian men and women, praying for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, work to make it possible for all human beings to flourish–now and into eternity, Housekeeping, as an important dimension of the home story, insists that an in-between life must never be an idle one. To be blessed is to be sent.” At its furthest reach, home is the be all and end all of our existence as Christian people; indeed as human beings:
As James K. A. Smith describes, we are “‘narrative animals’: we define who we are, and what we ought to do, on the basis of what story we see ourselves in” Home is that story.
And we are its witnesses.
This last statement reveals the deeper subterranean ambitions of this book, what it really wants to be despite it’s fairly modest statement that it is merely a series of “reflections.” It is a statement that the “home” is what the Christian life is about, that “HOME” write large is the Christian story.
This is a large, I would say grandiose, claim, and the book suffers for it. On the one hand, in terms of the book’s composition, it is an overextended metaphor leading the author to make claims about the centrality of home in biblical narrative and ecclesiastical life that are finally strained beyond the breaking point of belief. Moreover there is all too little critical force attached to these reflections to make the kind of theological claim that she really wants to make plausible. There is all too little mention of all the ways that the biblical narrative disrupts and unsettles the idea of home and home making. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head, as he admonishes his followers to remember. If we take the words of Jesus seriously that all those gathered around him, at times by the hundreds or thousands, are his mother, brothers, and sisters, this makes the boundaries of home so permeable as to be dispersed into the solution of humanity in a way that the metaphor of home strains to accommodate. The people of Israel most often stumbled when they preferred the comforts of home to the arduousness of obedience. In the end the book is the apotheosis of home, but I find myself suspicious of every human metaphor made into a divine thing.
I read this book in the midst of a cranky mood about the world we’re living in, and were it only for that fact I would do well to heed Updike’s advice and not review the book at all; give the book it’s two stars and move on. Nevertheless, as I write thousands of immigrants have left their homes and travelled on foot or hopping trains through unimaginable danger and deprivation to seek some degree of safety in a place called the United States–a place we call, perhaps ironically, the home of the brave. These mothers, fathers, and children come only to be imprisoned and separated at the hands of an agency we officially call Homeland Security. This disharmonious irony ought to call to mind the fact of how many evils in our world are done in the name of home and family, even of family values, whether their protection or their preservation. From the evils of Jim Crow segregation to the imperialism of Manifest Destiny, the primacy and protection of the (white) home and the (white) homeland–present or utopian–played a large, even a predominant part. Moreover, we have just lived through the wretched vision of the Baptist church struggling with whether and how to discipline a male leader who told women to stay in abusive homes for the greater glory of God. He is hardly the only one. The poet Warsan Shire reminds us home is not only the place that we long for, but the place we flee from, for our own lives and the lives of those we love:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
I do not mean to imply by this statement or my mood, that the author or her more sympathetic readers are somehow in sympathy with the evils that have been wrought by white supremacy or by misogyny. Indeed, one of the best things about the book is the ways that it dignifies what is often, almost always, taken to be “women’s work” in the making of home. I appreciated Michel’s note that this was a fairly recent phenomenon in many ways, the responsibility of men for life at home being a theme to be found in earlier eras of human culture. (Even if, I would hasten to add, those cultures were usually no better at exhibiting the mutuality that Michel seems to long for, but never fully articulates). The book is earnest; there are scores of anecdotes and tidbits of practical advice that will help those that struggle with the difficulties of home life, and it will remind those who can hear it that all acts, great and small, are or can be acts of holiness that sanctify the world. Perhaps more importantly they are acts that aid us in the pursuit of holiness ourselves.
Nevertheless, I wonder what kind of faith it would take for us to stand on the Southern border and stretching out our arms, say, “These are my mother, brothers, and sisters.” I am quite sure I do not yet have that faith, though I am shamed to say it. I do not think a theology that divinizes our middle class American notion of home, and seeks at all costs to protect and glorify it, is going to get us there.