Diane L. Olinger
Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life, by Margaret Kim Peterson. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007, xiii + 175 pages, $21.95.
In the preface to Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life, the author, Margaret Kim Peterson, tells us of a guaranteed conversation killer. When asked what you do, you respond by saying, "I keep house." She writes of her own experience, "I had the uncomfortable sense that virtually any other answer would have been more acceptable. People would have been happy to hear that I was an artist or a writer, that I was developing a small business, that I was practicing the piano or taking flying lessons. But keeping house? I might as well have said, "I'm wasting my time." In this eight chapter book, Peterson, both a housewife and a theologian, briefly examines the historical development of our contempt for housework and those who do it and then asks us to look at the subject "not through the postindustrial and postfeminist lenses provided to us by our culture but through the lens of Christian scripture" (12).
"Before industrialization, women and men had worked together in and around the home at complementary unpaid tasks" (9). After industrialization, men (and some women, mostly single) "went to work," in other words they went to factories and other workplaces and earned wages. Women (especially wives) "stayed home" where they did "housework." Housework became low-status "women's work," and was suspected of not being work at all. Contempt for the work transferred to contempt for the worker. In a recent survey on attitudes toward gender and the workplace, respondents ranked business women favorably, similar to their rankings of business men and millionaires, while ranking housewives as similar in competence to the elderly, blind, retarded, and disabled (11-12).
In striking contrast to this cultural contempt, Scripture teaches us that God cares about the physical needs of his people and desires that his people should care about these matters as well. The Gospels, in particular, teach us of the Christian duty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. (See, e.g., Matt. 25:34-40.) "Housework," notes Peterson, "is all about feeding and clothing and sheltering people who, in the absence of that daily work, would otherwise be hungry and ill-clad and ill-housed" (3). Although housework is only a beginning to our duty of merciful service, not an end, it is a beginning. Not a sidetrack.
Peterson surveys Scripture showing us that "God does not appear to think as lowly of housework as members of our culture are apt to" (12). Scripture portrays God as a homemaker and housedweller (Ps. 104); God provides food, clothing, and shelter for his people (Gen. 3:21, Ex. 16:4, Deut. 8:4, Lev. 23:43); God's presence with his people is mediated through dwelling places, the tabernacle, the temple, and finally in the person of the incarnate Christ (12-14). The story of redemption is a journey from home (Eden) to home (New Jerusalem). During this journey, we are "resident aliens" with an eschatological expectation of a home that will truly satisfy our human longings, which are frustrated in this life as a consequence of sin (24-25, 146).
As the subtitle of the book suggests, Peterson views housekeeping as the litany of everyday life. "When we have prayed through a litany, we may not have prayed at great length about everything of concern to us, but at least we have covered the bases" (19). Similarly, housekeeping is about a lot of different things (errands, meals, clothes, messes) and is characterized by repetition (a meal is cooked and is eaten; a few hours later, everyone is hungry again). This comparison is extended to other "sacred routines that shape the corporate life of the church," like the cyclical church calendar. These comparisons did not resonate with me, coming, as I do, from a different tradition than the author. Nor do I think they prove much other than that all things should be done decently and in good order, whether at home or in the church. True, as far as it goes.
The interior chapters of Keeping House, 2-7, contain Peterson's musings, sometimes based on Scripture, sometimes just based on common sense, regarding housing, clothing, and food, two chapters each. A wide variety of topics are covered, from walk-in closets to sock darning to farm markets. Peterson analogizes housework to God's creative and providential work, e.g., comparing God's creative work of bringing order out of chaos, to the task of turning a "heap of damply repulsive clothes" into "stacks of neatly folded laundry," (39). I generally saw this as an uplifting attempt by Peterson to see God's image in the keeper of the house and to apply Luther's doctrine of vocation to housework, though she does not speak in these terms. Rather, she describes what she is doing as showing us how "the patterns of our lives ... echo and emulate the patterns of the larger story that we, as Christians, believe is the true story of the world" (21).
Peterson's thesis is that housekeeping matters. It's not all that matters, and it doesn't matter most. But it does matter. This is common sense, and one might think that it hardly warrants a book length treatment with biblical exegesis to support it. But, for Christian women who keep house (whether a little or a lot—Peterson's book is not aimed solely at the "stay-at-home" housekeeper) and who struggle from time to time with the societal contempt Peterson so aptly describes, it is a good reminder. In addition to the book's use in encouraging those with such struggles, readers of Ordained Servant might find Keeping House helpful in counseling new homemakers (whether singles or newlyweds) or in providing a theme for a women's retreat.
Diane L. Olinger
Diane Olinger is a member of Calvary OPC, Glenside, PA. Ordained Servant, March 2008.