Lauren F. Winner
An Outpost of God's Kingdom
In the 1830s, American readers began to gobble up domestic advice manuals. Lydia Maria Child, Sarah Josepha Hale, and their sisters navigated the new consumer economy and provided the burgeoning middle-class guidance for managing their homes, telling women which curtains, curios, and cutlery to buy and how to care for them. Child and others articulated a close connection between housekeeping, norms of gender and economy, and Christian religious teaching. In The American Woman's Home, for example, Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe explained how to make candles and do the over-stitch, when to go shopping for household necessaries, and how often to sweep the parlor. The Beecher sisters also told readers that their Christian faith should shape their housekeeping. The Christian household manager would show hospitality to the poor; she would emulate Jesus, who "spent more time and labor in the cure of men's bodies than in preaching," by caring for the sick in her household; and she would not squander "the bounties of Providence" by serving gastronomic "monstrosities" such as "Green biscuits with acrid spots of alkali; sour yeast-bread; meat slowly simmered in fat till it seemed like grease itself … and above all, that unpardonable enormity, strong butter!" She would, in short, understand that her household labors were also Kingdom labors, intimately connected to her own faithful discipleship as a Christian woman, and to the Christian formation of her family.
More recent domestic advisors have at least implicitly recognized that housework can be connected to spiritual and religious pursuits, as evidenced by the seemingly endless feng shui craze, with its promises that the correct arrangement of furniture will produce inner peace. Desperate housewives are encouraged, in the words of a contributor to mothering.com, to focus on the "Zen, meditative aspect of housecleaning by trying to slow down and be aware … . [This] makes doing the dishes and folding laundry much more satisfying." Writers freely borrow religious idiom to describe household chores. To wit, a recent article in Good Housekeeping, which tells readers how to "Hide Your Sins"—your sins of cleaning omission, that is: hide the fact that you never do laundry by choosing dark-colored linens that mask dirt, and choose nonpleated lampshades that don't require dusting. Indeed, the language of today's housekeeping manuals suggests that something nearly existential is at stake for the consumers of housekeeping advice. Flylady promises her cult following "a no-nonsense approach to getting your house and your life in order."
It's easy to mock the spiritual language that saturates today's domestic discourses, but in fact, as Margaret Kim Peterson argues in Keeping House, there is something deeply theological at stake in housework. Peterson's creative and compelling exploration of keeping house as a basic practice of the Christian life ranges from the practical (good knives should never be put in the dishwasher) to the spiritually incisive (if you think your house is too small, consider the ways in which, through practices ranging from fasting to marriage, "Christian tradition. . . has been inclined to see limits as a necessary component to human flourishing"; thus the cramped house may in fact be a place in which "to live out our dependence on God and our interdependence on one another").
Contemporary Americans, argues Peterson, a professor at Eastern University, have been shaped by two different cultural conversations about housekeeping. The first tells us that housekeeping is sheer drudgery, that it is mindless, meaningless, and menial, and that if you possibly can avoid it, you should. At the same time, housekeeping has become fodder for fantasy—fantasy that sustains and is sustained by magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Real Simple. Such glossies tell us that housekeeping is not about "doing a good job at something that needs to be done." Rather, housekeeping is an effortless exercise in fulfilling consumerism: buy this magazine/storage unit/boutique, organic cleaning product, and your house and life will be perfect. The truth is that housework is hardly effortless, and it involves, to be sure, some drudgery. But when viewed through the lens of the Gospel, rather than the lens of Better Homes and Gardens, housekeeping presents itself as a theologically meaningful site of Christian formation.
Peterson's interpretation of housework is deeply scriptural. Keeping House is organized around what Peterson identifies as three crucial imperatives in the Bible—the injunctions to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. Those three activities are at the heart of Jesus' words to the disciples in Matthew 25, and they are at the heart of housekeeping. In Peterson's hands, rather mundane tasks like cooking, washing clothes, and changing the sheets become crucial, transformative acts of love. Insofar as housework is creative, incarnational, physical, and sacramental, exposing the ways the material and the spiritual come together to remind us that "the provision of home is a central aspect of God's creative and redemptive activity," housework allows us to participate in life with the God who called the very dust mites into being.
Cleaning per se doesn't get much attention—Peterson admits that she has never loved mopping or vacuuming, and she suggests that not everyone need hold to identical standards when it comes to washing baseboards and polishing the wooden coffee table. Noting that the late-19th-century sanitation movement led some churches to reject the common Communion cup, she gently queries the interplay between theological conviction and culturally scripted notions about cleanliness. At the same time, she honors the committed housecleaning of an elderly black woman who once told Peterson that Jesus doesn't live in dirt. "I suspect," writes Peterson, "that this lady's doors are clean enough to eat off of. I suspect further that in her life she has encountered many closed doors, but one open door has been the opportunity to keep a clean house, with all the potential excellence and beauty that involves."
This tone of balanced generosity characterizes Keeping House throughout. Peterson tartly criticizes the unattainable, and ultimately theologically undesirable, visions of the good life offered to us by Martha Stewart, while still affirming that an orderly house can be beautiful, and that beauty is a good thing. Peterson doesn't condemn the practice of hiring household help: "there is nothing wrong with hiring out the housework, or various bits and pieces of it, any more than there is anything intrinsically wrong with buying shoes or electricity rather than trying to make them yourself." In fact, hiring household help can foster a stance of humility, an admission that you can't "do it all yourself." The problem comes when people frame housework as something they can't be bothered with, something they're too good for, something contemptible.
A society that views household work as contemptible is likely to also view those who clean other people's houses as contemptible as well. Reading Peterson, I was reminded of a story Ariel Gore tells in The Mother Trip. Deciding that a clean house might do more good than continuing therapy, Gore stopped seeing her shrink and hired Anne, whose three hours of scrubbing and dusting made Gore feel saner than any session on the couch. What's noteworthy about Gore's story is not her now commonplace observation that housecleaning sometimes does more good than analysis. It's that Gore didn't elevate herself above housework, or above the woman she was paying well to do some of her housework for her. While Anne was scrubbing the bathtub, Gore was doing laundry. Their daughters played together while the two women worked.
Hospitality is at the core of Peterson's vision of home. She rejects the notion, which was forged in the crucible of industrialization, that home is a refuge from the mean, dirty, stressful world of work, not to mention the mean, dirty outsiders one encounters there. For Peterson, the Christian home is, by definition, a place that welcomes the stranger, and Peterson is talking about something more than just issuing the occasional dinner invitation. She speaks of keeping a "Christ room," a simple bedroom always ready for guests, and she suggests that hospitable homes are handicapped-accessible. She urges "sharing the household itself, by inviting others to become members of it for a shorter or longer time." And she reminds us that "the tide of housekeeping can also run from our own homes to those of others as we assist in the provision of food or clothing or shelter to people who are outside our homes." While never neglecting the goodness of caring for one's own domicile and kids—itself an act of demanding hospitality—Peterson underscores that "a Christian home, properly understood, is never just for one's own family. A Christian home overflows its boundaries; it is an outpost of the kingdom of God, where the hungry are fed and the naked are clothed and there is room enough for everyone."
Peterson accomplishes more than teasing out the spiritual riches possible in keeping house. She also considers the questions about gender and political economy that must be addressed in any meaningful theological account of ironing and cooking. There was no such thing as "housework" until industrialization relocated a great deal of work from the household to the factory; as Peterson notes, the very term "housework" dates to the mid-19th century. And industrial capitalism changed the way that Americans worked in the home. In an 18th-century American household—at least a free, white 18th-century household—women's work was skilled work: women produced and preserved food, spun yarn, made soap. By the late 20th century, the complex set of skills and knowledge that "home economy" once required had become obsolete (or such was the common perception), replaced by the "skill" of smart shopping: shopping for clothes, detergent, food. At the same time, the rise of germ theory created new standards of cleanliness within the home, so in place of meaningful, productive work, housekeeping increasingly devolved into shopping and scrubbing. No wonder work within the household lost social capital. No wonder the women left doing it increasingly felt that their days were devoted to chores both meaningless and banal.
The ineluctably political dimension of housework is adumbrated even in the vignette with which Keeping House opens:
Among the beginnings of this book were conversations I had a few years ago with a couple of women friends. Each was somewhere in midlife, busy at church and at home and at work. And each was ready for a change, although it wasn't entirely clear what kind of change was possible or desirable. In talking with each of these friends, I raised the question of what she might do if all options were open and money was no object. And in each case my friend burst into tears and said "I would make a home for my family." It turned out that each friend's family was dependent on her continued full-time employment outside the home for their health insurance. As a result, each of these women felt locked into a life in which the work of making a home had to be fit in around the edges of unyieldingly long hours laboring at her profession.
These friends didn't want to be Donna Hay (let alone Donna Reed). They simply wanted time to make the beds and cook dinner, to devote themselves more attentively to "so life-giving a work" as running their households.
This vignette handily makes one of Peterson's points—keeping house is good, noble work, and people crave the order, bounty, and provision of a well-kept home. But it also raises several important questions. As readers embark on a call to theological housekeeping, we ought not simply bracket the fact that none of Peterson's interlocutors were men reduced to weeping because they wanted more time to cook. Indeed, housekeeping is but one of many aspects of faithful Christian discipleship in which men and women seem to be implicated differently. When we talk about welcoming children with disabilities into our homes and communities, and when we talk about offering embodied care to the old and dying, we must grapple with the fact that most of the blessings and burdens of that caregiving fall to women. So, too, when we consider housework as a spiritual practice, we must address the fact that it is a spiritual practice most often undertaken by women.
Although Peterson does not devote a vast deal of space to gender, she rejects the idea that housekeeping is solely women's work, insisting that "there are good reasons" for doing housework, "regardless of your gender or your station in life." In a section entitled "Whose Job is Housework?," she notes that the 1970s feminist demand that husbands and wives share housework equally "was a rallying cry that raised very few troops." It is still the case that most men, Peterson writes, expect to come home from work and rest. Most women expect to come home from work and work. What's missing here, says Peterson, is not just equity but Sabbath. In a Christian household, everybody in the household assumes some responsibility for household labor. That way, everyone is also assured a chance to rest.
The gendered nature of housework is not the only political question raised by the story about Peterson's friends who want to quit work and "make a home" for their families. Implicit in that vignette is an indictment of both the excesses of the contemporary workplace and the failures of American social policy. Working full-time may have prevented Peterson's friends from providing their families with home-cooked meals, but it did guarantee them health insurance. Many Americans, men and women alike, share the dilemma of Peterson's friends: utterly consuming jobs, and consequently domestic lives that are spinning out of control; or rich domestic lives that come at the cost of health insurance, as well as meaningful work outside the home. (And how rich and wonderful can your domestic life be if you can't afford to get sick?) That these are the choices is a political problem. If the church ought to be thinking theologically about housework, we also ought to be thinking about how our political economy erodes many of our constitutive practices, including the discipline of hospitably keeping house.
Lauren Winner will be assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School starting this fall.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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