"This Old House" as a Model of the Church

Here's an idea that has been bouncing around in my head for a while.  It's in its most preliminary phases, so this is more of "getting something down on paper" than any kind of polished product.

The Christian church, in many ways, is like a very old house.  For one thing, it is old--2,000 years old.  For another thing, like many old houses, it has a bunch of stuff in it that is not in keeping with modern times, some of which are actually dangerous--old school fireplaces that vent gases into the house, asbestos coverings on pipes, etc.  And, even if you don't have things that are affirmatively dangerous, you still have a number of things that don't make sense in the context of the way we live now.

Now, there is a school of thought that says, "why bother with these old houses?  Let's just tear it down and start from scratch."  So, on this plan, you tear down the old house and build something new.  Maybe you build some sort of gigantic "McMansion" in its place (we might think of one of those evangelical megachurches); maybe you build some super-modern, ecologically friendly "tiny house," or a yurt or something (we might think of an "emerging church" congregation here).  On this theory, people can get precisely what they want, without any compromise.

But, there are three problems with this approach.  First, it is fundamentally wasteful.  Any house you are going to build is going to need walls, floors, a roof, plumbing, and electrical wiring.  Tearing down and scrapping all of that in the existing house just so you can put the same stuff in the new house is re-inventing the wheel.  It is an enormous amount of wasted effort to end up in the same place.  Plus, there is a very real chance that you won't actually end up in the same place, as not everything modern is as well-made or enduring as the stuff from the past.

Take for example, the increasing focus in many evangelical communities on structured liturgy.  On one level, I think this is great--I love liturgy, it is a critical part of my spiritual life, and I am not alone in that conclusion.  At the same token, so much of what they are doing could be achieved by simply adopting the existing forms of liturgical worship.  Why spend all of your time and effort developing your own book of common prayers when you can just use, well, the Book of Common Prayer?

The second problem is that building exactly what you want reflects whatever it is that you think is great in a particular moment in time.  What seems to be great now may not seem so great in a while, or even relatively soon.  You might go whole hog on this tricked-out yurt, only to come back in a year and think "why did I think it was a good idea to live in an oversized tent?  What was I thinking?"  At which point, you likely will be forced to start over again.  Old houses reflect patterns of building that have been proven over time.  They may not be perfect for your needs, but they fundamentally work.

The third problem is that, even if your tastes and preferences don't change, creating a house precisely in your image is a kind of narcissism.  If "church" means "everything I want and need, in the way I understand these things," you are never going to be stretched.  There is an ever-present danger in religion of recreating God in your own image, and if everything around you is a product of your values and ideals, it becomes very easy for that to creep into how you understand God.  God should unsettle us, and insofar as we experience God via church, then church should unsettle us somewhat as well.  There is no little bit of a consumerist mentality behind the idea of insisting that your house, and your church, is exactly the way you want it to be.

So, let's exclude the people who don't see the point of the old house and consider what we might call "traditional" folks.
Those folks fall into two additional categories.  The first category are people who, whether they acknowledge it or not, are basically museum curators.  The purpose of an old house, for them, is to keep the house in precisely the condition that they received it, which in turn reflects some specific era when the house was thoroughly up-to-date.  For these folks, to change anything is to destroy the thing that makes old houses great.  You don't conform the house to modern life, these folks will tell you; instead, you conform your life to the house.

Museum curation ecclesiology is especially present in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity, but you can find it everywhere; after all, some people are as passionate about preserving a 1950s style house as others are about preserving buildings from the 1650s or the 750s.  But museum curation has several problems.  First, there can be, and often is, some really bad stuff in those old houses.  Pipes made of lead is a thing, and it is super-dangerous; so is having asbestos everywhere.  Yes, we should be challenged by our house, but if those challenges are affirmatively damaging to people, then church ceases to be a challenge and starts to be a threat.  People cannot, and should be expected to, live in a house that is actively hostile to their well-being, no matter how authentic an experience of the past the house represents; giving your kids lead poisoning so as to not disturb the place's historical character is irresponsible.  After all, dying of dysentery is an authentic experience of the past, too, but no one would suggest intentionally drinking contaminated water is a good idea.

Second, the way we live now is just different from the way we lived then.  Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's famous house in Virginia, for our non-American readers) has stables but not driveways, because Jefferson, like everyone else in his time, relied on horses for transportation as opposed to cars.  If we expect people to live in a home, we need to make accommodations for the fact that we have to get to work and take the kids to school in a car.  We also have had in the interim developments that unquestionably improve our lives, and we want those developments to be incorporated into the place where we live.  Do you like flushing toilets, for example?  Do you like having electrical outlets available in rooms?  Because I like both of those things very much, and if I am forced to pick between historical charm and running water, I am going to take running water every time.

Third, time takes its toll on old buildings.  The older the building is, the more maintenance is required.  More specifically, each original component in a house requires far more work to keep up than a similarly-situated new component.  Old fixtures are often in what are now non-standard sizes, making it hard to replace this particular light or that particular door knob.  Structural components wear out, and the longer they have been there without being addressed, the more radical of a fix is necessary to bring them back to working order.  It is very, very hard work to keep an old building in working order, especially if there is a requirement to keep the building in a pristine, historically-authentic state.

But there is another way to be a traditionalist and love old houses, and that is the way of Bob Vila.  

Bob Vila had a show on PBS (the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S.) called This Old House in the 80s, and then a syndicated show Bob Vila's Home Again after that.  They were basically the same show--Bob would come in to an old house and renovate it.  There are now entire cable networks dedicated to this concept, but Bob was the originator.

The ethos of This Old House and its successors was to take that which is cool and useful and unique about old houses and use it as a springboard to build something functional and modern.  So, where possible and sensible, Bob kept the old features of the house, recognizing that many of these things are enduring and strong.  But, where they weren't strong or didn't make sense, he had no qualms about letting them go.  Bob was not a museum curator--he had no fear in breaking through a wall, ripping out a kitchen or bathroom and completely replacing it, or tearing up the floors and changing them up completely.  The goal of Bob's projects was not to return the old house to some old state, but to use the antique features of the house as a platform to create a new synthesis, a blend of old and new.

This idea of the old house as a platform to build on, looking toward the future, as opposed to something we conserve from the past can serve us well in thinking about the church.  So much of the tradition-oriented discourse in Christianity starts from the premise that the only conceivable approach to tradition is to keep what we have as it is, in perpetuity.  To do anything else, in this view, is to abandon tradition--it is a completely binary understanding.  But sometimes it is not enough to just fix burned out light-bulbs or replace ceiling tiles.  Sometimes, as Bob Vila would show us, you need to break through that wall (such as, for example, expanding ministry to women); sometimes to you need to rip out those lead pipes (such as getting rid of positions on homosexuality that harm people in the pews).  We need to do these things so that the old house is a place we can live in now.  After all, at the end of the day modern people, with modern needs and understanding living in a modern world, are 100% of the people that go to church.  Making people go to the bathroom in an outhouse because "that's the way our ancestors did it" is not going to work; they just won't live in the house.  Church is there to serve the congregation you actually have, and you need a house that reflects that.  In doing so, you are not violating the basic character of the old house, but instead preserving its essence by allowing to to change into a different, but recognizable, new form.

There is certainly a danger of renovating a house in a manner where you lose part of the thing that made the old house great in the first place.  Discretion and discernment is always necessary.  But, if you screw up and put something in there that doesn't work, you can always start another renovation.  And, even if you screw something up, fixing your mistake is still likely going to be cheaper overall then if you either had to start from scratch or you were forced to do some radical reconstruction to keep the place from falling apart completely.  If your guiding star is "let's keep as much of the old house as we can while making the house something we can live in comfortably and well in the here and now," then you are likely to only have a handful of hiccups.

It also should be acknowledged forthrightly that the Bob Vila approach does not preserve the old house in the same way as it was.  You are changing things, and those changes are real and they are often significant.  There is a temptation among Bob Vila-oriented people to try to downplay the changes--"oh, it's really not that different."  No, knocking down the wall to allow women to become priests is a big change; removing those lead pipes is a big change.  The house is not the same as it was before, and it is not completely faithful to the way it was prior to the renovation.  That's OK.  Again, if the end goal is not to preserve the building as it was at all costs, but to take what is good from the old building and bring it forward to the present, then this is not something to be feared.  It's only if you start from the premise that the end goal is to preserve what you have that changes are something to be inherently feared or avoided.

In the end, it comes down to what these old houses are good for.  Are they good because they carry with them things that are enduring and strong for our own use in our own time?  Or are they good in a kind of existential sense, for their own sake?  If they are only good in and of themselves, for their own sake, then all you can do is fight as hard as you can to keep them as they are.  But if you view tradition essentially in functional terms--as bringing with it a set of tools that you can then build on--then you don't have to fear making changes where changes seem warranted and needed.  Ripping out walls and tearing up bathrooms can make the house a better place for us to live in.  It can make the old house better, but only if we understand that an old house is ultimately there for us to live in, not as something to be preserved for its own sake.


Popular posts from this blog

On the Amice and Ghosts

Two Christianities

Quick Hitter: Why Pastoral Discretion Is Not a Panacea