A Discussion About Home From Two Guys Stuck at Home
What distinguishes a home from a mere physical shelter? And why do so many of us long to escape our homes? Since COVID-19 continues to keep many of us confined to the places we live, Nathan and Cameron discuss how Christianity reframes our understanding of home.
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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud as a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost, Cameron McAllister.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I'm your cohost, Nathan Rittenhouse.
Cameron McAllister: All right, Nathan. It's difficult to talk about virtually anything besides the pandemic right now, but we've actually talked about it quite a bit on this podcast. And so, what I thought, well, this is really your topic, Nathan. You had an idea and I thought it was a good idea, for us to focus on the distinction, the difference between a house and a home. Now, of course, that runs the risk initially of sounding a bit academic, but the practical breakdown happens actually for many of us right now as we are sheltering in place and finding ourselves under various levels of quarantine. We're stuck in our houses, right? And we're learning a lot about the culture of our respective homes, whether we recognized it or not.
And so this is going to be our focus on this episode. We're going to talk about what it means to have a home or to cultivate a home versus having just a house, just a shelter, just some sort of a structure that keeps the rain off your head. I thought that was a really good topic, so here we are, Nathan.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Here we go.
Cameron McAllister: Okay. Let me just start it off like this, though. It strikes me, and correct me if I'm wrong, that we, you and I, we're studies in contrast here. My life before the pandemic was pretty hectic, in the sense that I was frequently out of my home. Now, both of us travel. So let's just bracket that right now, the travel. But aside from the travel that you do as a speaker, it seems to me that you're actually at home a good deal, and you're pretty involved in your community.
For me, I'm ashamed to say it, but I know I'm not alone here. This is the first time for me that I'm really getting to know a lot of my neighbors, for instance, beyond just waving at them from the porch, but actually they'll stop and talk at the edge of my lawn. And Heather and I repeatedly are saying, "You know what? These are great people. We should be hanging out with them." So it's just a strange state of affairs, but I have a feeling that's not quite the way things are on the ground for you, Nathan.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Well, let me back up, because this is a topic that I've been thinking about, and it didn't start with the pandemic. I think, as you say, this highlights something that's ongoing. But in the last several years, there's been a little bit of an attitude that I've picked up on in funny ways. Often times when I'm like in an airport or in that some business of travel and somebody will say, "Where are you going?" And I'll say, "Oh, I'm going home." And it's met with like, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." Or maybe some stronger language of them expressing disappointment as if home is the wrong direction to be going. Or if that's a disappointment.
And for me, I've been gone for a week. I want to get home and see my family. I'm like, "No, I'm desperately longing to get there, but you see that as a step in the wrong direction." And so I've felt myself in that cultural narrative tension of, is home a place we want to be? And so then is there a difference between yeah, like you said, a home and a house, but I don't know if you've ever run across anything like that. And maybe I'm just more sensitive to picking up on that, but it does seem odd to me to think that going home, for me, that's a destination of relaxation, of relationship, of a comfortable spot that I've had a means in cultivating the atmosphere there. And so it's a place of production and expansion of my interest and of relationships and the foods that I like and the community that I like. And so it's something that I desire. And so it always strikes me as interesting when it's something that somebody wants to get away from. Have you seen any parallels to that anywhere?
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Well, I think where I see it most often is vacations. So people will want to...The vacation is kind of a wonderful means of escape from the home in many people's minds I think. And the reasons for this are complex. One seems to be though that the home is, or the house, if you will, is deeply implicated or integrated into the mad rush of daily life in the United States. So you mentioned your home is for you a place of rest and replenishment. And I think that's as it should be, ideally speaking, but I think for many of us, our homes are actually woven deeply into the warp and woof of just the rush, and they're just centers where we go to maybe refuel, eat some food and get a little bit of rest so that we can just get back on our tracks and start racing all over the place.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And it's basically just an enlarged version of the turnpike rest stop really.
Cameron McAllister: Exactly. Well, yeah. Now of course we're speaking in exaggerated terms, but yes, I think for many of us, that's an apt metaphor. So I know personally several couples who obviously, they're dealing with their share of anxiety and they're worried about many of their neighbors. And they're worried about the state of our nation. They're worried about the state of the economy. But with that said, they have really relished the slowed down pace because for them, this has been the first time that they've really been able to enjoy time with their kids and get some serious rest because they were running themselves ragged. It's not just one couple, we've seen this with lots of people, and Heather and I have felt this in our own lives as well. So that's been kind of eye-opening.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, and I've been referring to it as “pandemic guilt,” because I've talked to a lot of people who are having that, who are also feeling terrible for resting, knowing that so many other people are suffering.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. And here's where it's, it's important to note that this is not uniform territory. I keep having to remind myself of that. That's part of the complexity of where we find ourselves as a nation and where we find ourselves as a globe. So for some of us, we're in the front lines, so whether you're involved with the medical industry, if you're a nurse, or you're a doctor, or you're administrator in a hospital, or if you're driving a delivery truck, or you're one of the so-called essential workers, we should talk about this language of essential workers at some point, Nathan. But anyway, if you're a person who's out there on the front lines, you have to be out there. Or then there are those who have lost their jobs. And so there's profound worry and anxiety there.
And then there are those who are working from home and who are kind of pacing around. So on the one hand it's really intense. It's “all systems go,” especially if you're a medical worker. On the other, it's a source of heavy anxiety. And then for others of us, it can be maybe kind of restful and maybe even find yourself a little bit bored, but this is so different that I think it just makes for the kind of unified experience of this virus is just so different. And I think that's part of what's contributing to this. Some of the sense of confusion, even.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I think so. You're right. And who's experienced whose version of it gets to count as the normative narrative for the pandemic right now that I think we'll be thinking that through for a long time. If I could just mention a book in here, a couple of months ago, I read a book called Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home by Jen Pollock Michel. And you might recognize that name. If you read Christianity Today, she's a frequent contributor there. And yeah, it's an interesting read. I'm probably, as a mid-30s male, not the stereotypical audience that she was writing to, but I thought there were some meaningful things in there. But on the theological spectrum that she places this in, it's interesting to note that displacement throughout Scripture is a sign of God's judgment and punishment. And so to not be home within the biblical narrative is a sign of a curse. And we treat it as a sign of economic blessing if I have another place to be.
And that's a sharp disparity to introduce here, but I want to start weaving in the Biblical perspective. It starts with God as a homemaker, creating a home and a haven for Adam and Eve. That is the narrative. And then because of disobedience, they get expelled from their home. You have, obviously, the land of Canaan and a promised land imagery of looking for that future coming home, the homeland imagery. And then of course there's all types of displacement and unrest and unsettlement and military agitation and the rise and fall of kingdoms. And of course, ultimately the Bible ending with the fullness of a home being prepared for God's people, Jesus, "I've gone to prepare a place for you." So these reflections on place and what it means to be home and to think about that, it's not just a, "Oh, well, there's a pandemic. We need to think about this." Actually, this is a broader theological imagination that needs to be used here to map this onto our lived experience.
But I also want to say that I don't own a house. I make my home in a house that I rent. Jen, in her book, talks about moving frequently. And so this is not saying, "Oh, you haven't lived in the same building for 25 years. You don't have a home." It's deeper than that. Obviously, being consistently residentially in a place is a benefit, but there's more to the idea of a home than just the physical structure that you're in, even though that's a big part of it. So sorry for the tangent there, but I wanted to throw some of those ideas into the conversation.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. And so the notion of a home being...There's a sense that there's a kind of placelessness that defines modern life, broadly speaking, and take it from one guy here who...So I do own a home, but I live in the suburbs of Atlanta. And so the suburbs are kind of a poster child in some ways of the placelessness I'm talking about, there's a generic look, you go into a neighborhood and it's kind of a house of mirrors where you basically have the same design repeated over and over again. And the idea being that, the main draw for a home these days, isn't so much that you were born into a specific community, and you've grown up in this place, and you have a trade that's waiting for you, or a job that has been waiting for you for a long time, that you're born into. Homes are set up now for convenience.
I think that would be one of the driving forces for many homes. This isn't necessarily good or bad, but people want to buy a home for its location to schools or maybe its location to the airport. But that tends to again, that's placing amenities above human relationships. And then another way to look at that, you mentioned moving. And I know Wendell Berry brings this up frequently. The point is often made that our default these days is to think almost purely in economic terms. So let's say if you're offered a job that has maybe better pay and benefits, many people, it doesn't enter into their mind. Well, my relationships here on the ground, maybe it enters in, but it's a small background noise. But the relationships, my friendships here, and my proximity to those friendships, should play a serious role in the decision move, but many people will just move because, it's better opportunity.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And I've seen some interesting... But when you do it differently than that, everybody looks at you like you have two heads. I know some people who had just finished their degrees and then decided on the church that they wanted to attend and then moved there for the church and then found jobs.
Cameron McAllister: Oh man, backwards in modern terms.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. So you're like, wow, but it's an action that challenges the economic part in, actually when you're talking about Wendell Berry, he makes that distinction I think in some of his...Not implicitly, but subtly, of saying that home has shifted to a place of consumption rather than a place of production. And he would say that our houses now, we don't even produce our own entertainment. We have to have that imported from outside.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. And that's definitely a prophetic word because it just makes you feel rough when you hear something like that. Well, some of us, at least. Homes as centers of production. So here's one interesting change that's come about through it. Just speaking personally, this has come about, I would say largely because of where we're at right now as a nation. But Heather and I are starting to, as you know, Nathan, we've talked about this, but we're starting to grow our own food now, and we're taking slow steps to get some animals, a chicken in particular, we're going to start with one, but the joke I've been making is that I'm growing a modest beard and starting to grow some food. So I'm trying to be more like Nathan Rittenhouse right now. That's what quarantine life-
Nathan Rittenhouse: And that's really created an identity crisis for me because now I feel like to balance this out I need to upgrade the comportment of my vocabulary into polysyllabic soliloquies and start reviewing pop culture movies so that we're balanced out. But we'll see how this goes in the future.
Cameron McAllister: Well, I've got a list of recommendations for you. So you just let me know when you want to start.
But it has been amazing to discover firsthand the kind of wholesome joy and fun it is to go out there and get your hands dirty, and to teach your kids as you're going along, how to cultivate the ground. A lot of people have pointed this out, but when we talk about culture and engaging culture and all this popular terminology, that's often used in Christian circles and in apologetic circles, culture making always begins with the central primal metaphor for that is gardening, really, and keeping a garden.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Even Biblically speaking.
Cameron McAllister: Absolutely. Yep. You have it right in Genesis. So it's been fun for me to get away from the movies and the television shows and plunge my fingers into the earth and start composting.
And it's also great to hit the books during daylight, during the afternoon hours, and then to go out in the evening and just start using your hands and breaking up wood, and clearing brush.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Walking in the garden in the cool of the day.
Cameron McAllister: Hey, I think I've heard that somewhere. But since you mentioned, you wanted to frame this Biblically. I think another important item in this conversation would be the fact that, so you've mentioned already that the home that you have, you are renting. And in that, I think there's a really interesting picture. So whether you own a house or whether you're renting, all of our homes here, as in this side of eternity, are impermanent. And I think we need to bring that into the conversation a little bit as well. The meaning of home has to be deeper. I think we've already hinted at this, but it's got to be deeper than just the place that gives you physical shelter. And it's got to be deeper than what you own as well. So when we talk about home in the Biblical sense, and I immediately thought of Jesus's words to his disciples that you quoted there. "Let not your hearts be troubled, for I go to prepare a place for you." So how does that frame our housekeeping, our home-making efforts?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things there is that there is an impermanence to it all. However, the blessing of being home is not intended to be just for the people who live there. So if you look at the parallel, so you have home as a deep Biblical issue, but the parallel one to that is hospitality. And so home is a place that you can invite other people into for sustenance, whether that be food, fellowship, consoling people, counseling people, or just enjoying life together, that creating a home as a place of invitation and hospitality. And you see that in the life that Jesus lived of Mary and Martha inviting Jesus and the disciples into the home and the people that supported him. So that hospitality element there, even if you look at, in Paul's writings, everybody needs to work with their hands.
Why? To have a good 401k, no, everybody needs to work with their hands in order that they may have something to share with anyone in need. And so the idea of stability, Biblically, is not just for an isolation of, now I've constructed my tower and I have enough pumpkins for ten years. It's, “how do I use this stability and the blessing?” That's God to Abraham, right? I'm going to bless you and make you a blessing to other people. So there's a sense in which the generosity that flows from having been given something is an action that is a replication of the character of a giving God, that we're actually participating in the divine nature when we take the stability of the goodness of the earth in our homes and share that and use it as a source of invitation to celebrate God's goodness and to invite other people into that relationship.
So there's this image of this homesteading idea of “I just need to be build a big wall and then I'm prepared for the worst.” That doesn't flow well from this Biblical theme of home and hospitality and generosity and goodness. So there's the physical element of that.
And then also we're living in a time where it's popular to talk about being on a spiritual journey, but people on spiritual journeys can only be fed by people who are in spiritual homes. And so the traveler along the way has to stop at the house for a bowl of soup. And so for me, in my spiritual journey, that's growing deeper in a place not wandering across multiple places. And a home is a place where you can infinitely explore-in depth without moving the depth and the beauty.
I saw two birds yesterday in the apple tree outside our house that I've never seen before. And that was a lot of fun. I mean, I moved nowhere and there's deeper and richer explanation and exploration going on there. So I think we want to have an outward facing look at the stability that the concept of home brings in addition to house, if that makes sense.
Cameron McAllister: So much of what you said there is so rich. So I'm essentially just going to rehash a little bit, Nathan, for our entire listeners.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Interpret me to myself, please.
Cameron McAllister: Well, no, it's really good. So the first item, worthy of note, which I think we need to explore a little bit more deeply as it plays out in our context right now, but is that hospitality is a direct outgrowth of the Biblical sense of a home. So it's not that you batten down the hatches, now you have all that you need, but it flows directly from the two great Commandments to love the Lord, your God, with all that you are, and then to love your neighbor as yourself.
And also, I love what you said about that we do in the United States, it makes sense that we love the imagery of being on a spiritual journey. I actually talk about this a fair amount in the introduction of the new book I'm working on with my dad, which is called Faith That Lasts.
But in the United States, it seems that broadly speaking, and you can trace the DNA of this back to some of our central poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson, but everybody is on a journey, but there's no destination. The point is often to be on the journey for many Americans. So in other words, it's summed up really nicely in a saying that's often framed and put on walls, which is, "It's about the journey, not the destination," or, "The journey is the destination."
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. There's your motivational poster.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. And so one of the examples that I drew on to illustrate this comes from Andrew Delbanco and this is in his book, The Real American Dream. But there's a famous section of Disneyland in California, the original park, that has never really worked. We may have mentioned it on the show before, but it's called Tomorrow-
Nathan Rittenhouse: I think we did on the one on beauty and limitations. To rehash that, go over that quickly for us again.
Cameron McAllister: So Tomorrowland. And Tomorrowland has just never really worked. And Walt Disney himself said, "Well, it won't work because technology simply moves too fast. By the time you build it, we'll have already surpassed it." But it's my contention that I actually don't think that's quite right. You can build something hyper, hyper futuristic actually, that exceeds our technological capacities. We make movies like this all the time. The problem is that Americans don't like the idea of a destination. I think it violates our romantic sense of permanently moving forward, always progressing and never really arriving, because there's something about arrival for a lot of us in the modern world, and I think particularly in the United States, that makes us feel just restless. We don't like the idea of stopping. We don't like the idea of a destination.
And yet basically, from the standpoint of Christianity, I'm going through the book of Hebrews right now, and the word “rest” is used so many times in that book. And so often a powerful picture of the dynamics of sin and Scripture involves restlessness or fierce thirst or unquenchable thirst that just can't be satisfied. And though that seems to be the driving force of so much industry in our nation and it's kind of the engine that keeps pushing us forward, it just shows us how counter-cultural the gospel picture of the home really is.
So that idea of having a place where you can rest and be nourished so that you have, I love the word “stability.” You have the stability to help others is so vital here. And that's a very important part of what it means to have a home, the place where you get that replenishment, where you get that rest so that you are able to help others. And so that you're able to give forth what you actually have.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So I think, without sounding like I’m going in like a self-care direction, which is the other new hip thing these days, it is true though, that a tree can only bear fruit in proportion to the strength and the health of its roots. And Walter Brueggemann in his book This Land, talks about when we're geographically displaced, that you have to have rootedness to have meaning. And so that strikes against that idea of, the journey is ever going to be satisfying in and of itself.
But he says that without those roots, it's not just an intellectual journey, but it's also a question of my own identity and who I am that gets warped when I'm displaced from a place as the name suggests there. So I've actually been reading Hebrews two at the same time as you have, as it turns out. We aren't exact carbon copies of each other, but that concept of home and place and inheritance. Inheritance is a theme that continues from the Old Testament, right in and through the New Testament that I don't hear as much spoken about.
We're just scratching the surface here I think, of ideas that are going to play out differently in the life of each listener listening, but we want to poke and prod that and hopefully flesh something out here that's meaning for you to work on, as you think about, why do we say it's a stay-at-home order and not a stay-in-your-house order? There's a desire that I think we have for home and the other good news here, Cameron, is that maybe when we use the word “home,” we think maybe too much of a stereotypical nuclear American household, but that vision doesn't show up anywhere in Scripture. You have homes with single people in them, homes with multiple generations in them. You have lots of very dysfunctional homes throughout. So we're not—hear us out here.
This applies to you. And don't fall into the trap of overly narrowly defining what family or home is as you're listening to this. So anyway, as you think about this and maybe just do it as a discipline in the upcoming week as you continue to hear about stay-at-home orders, challenge yourself to think, what does it mean for me to be at home and what am I doing with this? And then also, you know what, maybe you're not at a place where you're able to offer hospitality just yet, but this would be a great time to plan and say, you know what, when our social distancing is over and our quarantine has come to an end, who can I invite into my home and into my house?
And I've found that that's been a great thing of refreshing for me. And one other little tangent here, I think. Is it in Disruptive Witness where he makes the distinction between, what is it, entertainment and hospitality?
Cameron McAllister: Yes. Entertainment and true hospitality.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And true hospitality.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So when we're inviting people into our lives and the way that he says, when you're entertaining somebody, you get your home spotless and perfect, the Instagram photo version of the way that you live and that's entertainment. But to have genuine community and to invite somebody into your home for real hospitality, is you're letting them see you in the way that you really live.
Cameron McAllister: And I think this is Alan Noble, by the way.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Alan Noble. Yeah, thank you for that. So don't let the imperfections of the way that you perceive that your home should be, be a detriment to using that in a God-honoring Biblical way as you think about what it is that God might be calling you to craft and to cultivate within your home space, and then thinking about how he wants you to share that goodness of the land and the goodness of the gospel with those around you. Anyway, hopefully there's something fruitful in there for you to think about, but you've been listening to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.
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