I met Jen at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College where she was a panel speaker for one of the breakout sessions. Prior to the event, I learned that she was writing a book about “home,” which was the subject of my master’s thesis in seminary. Following the panel, I introduced myself and she shared with me some of her thoughts on home and we have remained online friends since. Now, I’m thrilled to see that book, Keeping Place, in published form. Jen is a brilliant writer (her first book, Teach Us to Want, won Christianity Today’s 2015 Book of the Year award) and a gracious model who lives out the words she writes. I’m grateful for her willingness to offer some more personal thoughts on home and Keeping Place. —Collin Huber
Why write a book about home? Is it your experience as a wife and mother that most informs this book or something else?
There’s no doubt that my experience of making a home for my family these past twenty years has informed the writing of this book. But Keeping Place isn’t only meant for wives and mothers. In fact, I think the longing for home is a human longing. It’s not particular to women. Men feel it too—even if they might characterize that longing in different ways.
I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. Partially this is because I’ve experienced so much loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s also true that home has been elusive for me simply because I’ve been so geographically mobile—somehow landing in Toronto, six years ago, as an American expat.
These life experiences springboard a scriptural exploration throughout the book. In Keeping Place, I’ve wanted to explore what God has to say about the longings for and losses of home.
What’s the challenge of writing a book about home for both women and men?
I recently had coffee with a young woman from church, and at the end of our conversation, she said that she looked forward to my book on “homemaking.” Later, I couldn’t help but wonder if she imagined a book of recipes, table setting ideas, and the best way to organize a linen closet.
I think that’s the fear: that men will see a book on the topic of home and immediately think it’s a book meant for their wives or mothers or sisters. That’s why the history of home is a really fundamental part of this book (in chapter 2). I want to trace how home was once a shared space for residence and commerce and industry up until the Industrial Revolution. That historical analysis might sound sort of heady, but it’s really meant to provide a backdrop for the way that we read the Bible, which never talks about “home” as something which women are solely responsible for.
You write that the “longing for home” is a theme instinctive in Western literature. How can stories or fiction help us develop a more holistic view of home?
In the most general sense, I think stories are critically important for helping us access and name and shape our longings. I borrow that idea from James K. A. Smith’s work (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom), where he argues that we are fundamentally creatures of desire—desire that is shaped by the “poiesis” of story and narrative and image.
In terms of the naming and shaping our ideas about “home,” stories have the possibility of illuminating all three dimensions of home, which we identity in scripture: home as our connection to place; home as our connection to people; home ultimately as our communion with God.
Even here, I feel my own impotence at explaining it in the abstract. So much better to pick up one of the three novels from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series!
What other books have influenced you to keep a wider perspective in your home-keeping?
In terms of non-fiction, I really do see Keeping Place as having resonance with a lot of the great work that’s being done on theology of place. In particular, I really appreciated the early chapters of Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell, because it makes the case for God’s good gift of place. I have also loved books like C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church, which I believe help us see the role that the local church can play to “keep place” in our cities. And a perennial favorite is also Kathleen Norris’s The Quotidian Mysteries. Beyond that, it’s always been important to me to read outside of my own experiences: books like Kent Annan’s Slow Kingdom Coming and D. L. Mayfield’s Assimilate or Go Home would be two examples.
What do you believe are the most common ways Western culture misunderstands the concept of home? What about the church?
Particularly since the Enlightenment, it’s easy to see everything as cut off from transcendent purpose or value. I think this has been true of the home. Rather than seeing our homes as something to be used as resources for God (and our families as witnesses of God’s love), home is now easily seen in purely material or social terms. We have homes (and families), not for any greater good in the world, but for our own personal comfort and happiness. Home is something we buy for rather than give away. That’s really tragic.
But on the other hand, the church can easily overemphasize home. And what I mean by this is that we can mistakenly make marriage and family the capstone of the good life. We sometimes make it sound as if you can only flourish if you have a Ward and June Cleaver life. I think we’d really benefit from recovering some of the ways we used to cherish celibacy as good and holy. But with that, we’d need to help our churches—married and unmarried, childless and child-full—develop a vision of home that’s bigger and better than the nuclear family and the two-car garage.
How do you combine motherhood, writing, and speaking? How does your home-making life practically work in the day-to-day?
A lot of my day is taken up with caring for my family, especially because I’m the primary parent for our five kids. And even though I’m the first person to try and find help when I need it (I pay someone to clean my house, someone else to do virtual assistant work for me), there’s also something irreducible about the labor that love requires. I have five kids and a very busy executive husband, which means that my work life is sometimes more constrained than I would like it to be because of my responsibilities at home. I can’t accept every speaking invitation I want to. I can’t write on every topic that interests me. I can’t stay connected on social media (even if truthfully, I don’t really want to). But I think this is what it means to be human. We are limited.
Who do you hope is reading this book, and what do you hope they will gain?
I suppose it’s fair to say that women like me will probably read the book, and I hope that they’ll come earlier to the realization that their home is a shared responsibility with their husbands. This “sharing” benefits children, for sure—who need both mom and dad fully engaged at home. It also gives women permission when other God-given callings sometimes call us away from home.
But I hope it’s not just women like me reading the book. I’d love to see women and men who aren’t married, who aren’t parents, find ways they can have and make home today, especially in their local churches and communities. I’d like for people to catch a vision for justice in the world—to see that the gospel isn’t solely a spiritual endeavor to save souls but that it also inspires practices of caring for physical bodies and environments.
And if I could just dream a bit, I’d love for someone on the margins of faith, maybe even on the outside looking in, to read this book and start making sense of the life and death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ. Sadly, when we get to telling that story, we often use a vocabulary that people are not familiar with. But what if we could talk about the promises of the gospel through the lens of home?
Last question: isn’t there a DVD video series to accompany the book?
There is! It’s meant as a teaching companion to the book, and what I especially love about the videos (and something I can claim no credit for) are the personal stories shared by others in each of the five sessions. I think it makes it really relevant to our everyday lives. You can watch the trailer or buy the DVDs as a complement.
Cover image by Annie Spratt.