Monday, February 28, 2011

A new essay from Dr. Derek Nelson

Dr. Derek Nelson, professor of religion and co-director of The Global Institute at Thiel College, offers the following essay for our reflection:

Theology, Mission Style: Simplicity, Nature and Beauty in Wood and World

Rev. Derek R. Nelson

Lutherans Restoring Creation

February 25, 2011

My wife and I bought a Craftsman home about a year ago. You have almost certainly seen houses built in this style, even if you didn’t know the name. Here is a website with many pictures of similar homes and home d├ęcor . Among the characteristics of the style are an open floor plan (the absence of hallways facilitates gatherings and allows for larger rooms) and wide eaves above a deep porch. The roof’s rafter tails are usually exposed, and the interior of the house has numerous built-in cabinets, seats, and shelving. The interior beams of the house are often exposed and used as decorative elements. A bungalow is a one-story Craftsman home, and the “mission style” is the West-Coast incarnation of the Craftsman.

What does this have to do with theology and creation? Much, if you consider the context out of which the Craftsman home emerged. At the end of the 19th Century, the predominant style of architecture was the Victorian. This style was highly ornate, and its principal virtue seemed to be its ability to call attention to itself. Towers or turrets frequently adorn the front of the home, and elaborate latticework is often incorporated. Victorian homes often look like gingerbread houses, with irregular exteriors and free-form, rambling floor plans.

The problem with the Victorian home is that its ascendancy coincided with the industrial revolution. Mass production meant that building supplies could be created and shipped with never-before-seen ease. Highly decorated wall coverings could be cranked out, and the patterns could be as elaborate and loud as possible. Anything that could be fabricated – posts, floor coverings, staircases, knobs, hearths, you name it – could just as easily as not have an intricate design. And if you can design it that way, so the Victorian-era logic went, you should design it that way. This led to a kind of hyper-ornate style that serves no purpose except to say, “Hey – look at me!” There is a kind of joy and frivolity that goes with “unnecessary” adornment, to be sure. In fact, a case can be made that art begins where function ends. But what is true of art – that its non-necessity is part of its beauty – is not necessarily true of home design.

The arts-and-crafts movement is the name given to the skilled artisans who objected to the tackiness and superficiality of the Victorian era. They valued not intricacy of mass-produced design, but quality of hand-made construction. The connection between form and function became central, where it is peripheral (if not absent) in the Victorian. Heroes of the movement are people like John Ruskin, William Morris and, in the U.S., Gustav Stickley, whose magazine, The Craftsman, did much to renew architectural design in America in the early 20th century. The Victorian style highlights complexity, the Craftsman, simplicity. The Victorian wishes to stand out against its surroundings; the Craftsman sees human construction woven into the context of natural elements.

We who are concerned about the plight of God’s creation might learn something from this turning point in the history of architecture. As green building construction becomes more common (but far from widely accepted), its determinants seem primarily economic. Heating and cooling bills can go down if geo-thermal considerations are employed, for example, or recycled building materials can be used in green homes to some advantage or another. But the arts and crafts movement pointed to a deeper reason to consider the natural environment in which a home is located and how it is constructed: human being (and therefore, human living) is to be seen as continuous with, not transcendentally above, the material world. Humans are humus, soil.

The political philosopher Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) wrote an important book called England’s Ideal which contains a critique of Victorian opulence and hypocrisy. Some of Carpenter’s ideas were incorporated into Arts-and-Crafts design. In Gustav Stickley’s eyes, Carpenter’s chapter of that book entitled “The Simplification of Life” was key. Stickley wrote,

“By ‘simplicity’ here is not meant any foolish whimsical eccentricity of dress or manner or architecture, colonized and made conspicuous by useless wealth, for eccentricity is but an expression of individual egotism and as such must inevitably be short-lived. And what our formal, artificial world of today needs is not more of this sort of eccentricity and egotism, but less; not more conscious posing for picturesque reform, but greater and quieter achievement along lines of fearless honesty; not less beauty, but infinitely more of a beauty that is real and lasting because it is born out of use.”

The Victorian era was known for its formality, its highly structured way of personal inter-relating that shunned thoughts of human bodiliness and what it regarded as humanity’s “baser” desires. Horrified by Darwin’s suggestion that humans might have more in common with other animals than was previously thought, members of the “high culture” in the Victorian days needed to see themselves as having transcended the natural world. This attitude showed forth in the construction of their homes. The ornate, complex, and intricately patterned features of these homes was important to their occupants precisely because they were not useful. Such opulence confirmed them in their artificial hopes that humans did not have so much in common with other creatures whose material needs were more pressing.

What can we, who seek to recover humanity’s rightful place within, not above, the natural world, learn from the Craftsman home? I leave it to your comments to discern these lessons, but for the moment, at least the following may be said. First, church architecture might be re-thought along the lines of continuity with creation, rather than set-apart-ness. The famous church built into the rocks in Helsinki, the Temppeliaukio Kirkko, might be one example of this. Secondly, the church might be more fruitfully involved in advocacy work along the lines of sustainability in home design. The exact form this might take is not clear to me, nor is it clear to me that the church’s already diffuse social witness should be spread even thinner by engagement on this topic. But the Gospel enables Christian freedom, and the Law requires Christian moral action. And together law and freedom comprise the moral life. And life is, well, life! It’s broad, and all-encompassing, and lived largely inside the walls of dwellings that can be as informed by principles of Creation as can anything else.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great reminder that "human living is... continuous with, not transcendentally above, the material world." Our dwellings are vessels and extensions of presence: our presence in and to the world, and the world's presence in and to us. As such, they are places of communion. Thanks for a fine reflection.