There is a nostalgic allure associated with the family farm and home industry of yesteryear, where once upon a time families labored together towards a common goal, with achievements physically manifested in the world; a field plowed, a fence mended, a crop harvested. It’s easy to romanticize this pre-industrial norm, overlooking its challenges and difficulties: disease, drought, drudgery. Yet even the white-collar knowledge-work of the modern workplace cannot insulate us fully from similar challenges. In fact, challenges inherent in our modern economic arrangements are coming more into view, especially during the past few years of pandemic living. Many people stuck in tiny city apartments or in land-locked suburban homes were wishing for such bygone self-sufficiency, yearning for an increased sense of agency over their lives, and searching for some measure of independence from the churn of corporate structures and the global supply chain. And many of them made these wishes come true. With unprecedented rates of job-change during what is now called the Great Resignation, and with more Americans relocating, it is clear that there is occurring a substantial reconsideration of what constitutes the good life in relation to work, family, and community. And Christianity’s vision of the family offers some intriguing complements to this re-evaluation.
While it is by no means possible, or even desirable, that everyone go “back to the land,” this moment has generated much-needed reflection upon how we structure our lives and where the balance of human formation takes place. Not everyone needs to wield the plow, but human beings benefit when life orbits around truly foundational, even primal, aspects of human flourishing: family, faith, and the work of our hands. Could all the relocating and reshuffling, all the resets and resignations, be some faint echo of Eden, the remnants of some primordial residue, an Edenic resonance with God’s original estate of the family?
Pandemic Economics: New Businesses, New Careers, New Homes
COVID-19 economic convulsions have instigated significant rethinking of what a meaningful professional and home life might be. Work-life balance was thrust to the forefront during the initial lockdown scramble with schooling and working from home. But it did not stop there, as millions of Americans have created new businesses during the pandemic. Just a few months into the pandemic, the US Census Bureau was already recording a precipitous increase in business creation, with over 2.6 million new business applications in the second half of 2020, compared to 1.7 million in the first half. Reports from 2021 show similar trends.
Now nearing the two-year mark of the pandemic, the number of job resignations continues to astound. Data just released in February by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of “quits,” or, “voluntary separations initiated by the employee,” which function as “a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs,” hovers around all-time highs. Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic that “the basic terms of employment are undergoing a Great Reset. The pandemic thrust many families into a homebound lifestyle reminiscent of the 19th century agrarian economy—but this time with screens galore and online delivery. More families today work at home, cook at home, care for kids at home, entertain themselves at home, and even school their kids at home.” Thompson suggests that all of this “represents a new vision of work-life balance that is still coming into view.” Jeffrey Goldberger, Managing Partner of a leading public relations firm, recently told Forbes that “one of the biggest takeaways from this period is that people aren’t just interested in achieving a favorable work-life balance—they’re demanding it – and they’re not wrong! People want to be well-compensated, and they want a seat-at-the-table in crafting the terms of their employment.”
So too, the number of relocations has risen substantially. A North American Moving Services Migration Report released at the end of 2021 showed that “over 20% more Americans moved in 2021 compared to 2020,” and that the top reasons were “cost of living, proximity to family, work flexibility.” Interestingly, the relocations also tended to be from populous urban areas to less-populated areas. States that saw the most departures included California, Illinois, and New York, which are among “the most densely populated states.”
I guess I would be considered a statistic of the Great Resignation, too. Due to a combination of factors, I resigned from my public high school teaching position at the end of the 2021 school year. My family and I have been preparing for this eventuality by developing a fairly robust home economy with a variety of income streams for many years, but there is no denying that the disasters of COVID schooling and further ideological drift nudged me along a bit sooner than anticipated.
Edenic Economics: Home and the Work of Our Hands
There is something afoot in the growing search for rootedness and purpose beyond career and wealth, and reorienting life around the family and the home is a good place to start. Unity between home living and economic and educational productivity was quite familiar to prior generations as life more commonly centered on family and community, where lessons in self-sufficiency, household thrift, preservation of foods, maintenance, and repairs naturally flowed from hearth and home.
Despite the mainstream cultural messaging that tends to diminish family, contentment, and the ordinary, while simultaneously lionizing schooling, career, and changing the world, the pandemic has shown that a family-centered household economy with all members contributing is not stale and limiting—it is actually smart and liberating. Life within the family structure fosters human freedom in ways that individualism and careerism cannot. Philosopher Byung-Chul Han suggests similarly in The Scent of Time that “to be free does not simply mean to be un-tied or un-committed. It is not the ‘release from’ something or dis-embeddedness which makes us free, but inclusion and embeddedness.…One feels free in relationships of love and friendship. It is not the absence of ties, but ties themselves which set us free” (31). The challenges of 21st century living actually shed fresh and favorable light on such embeddedness and on the possibilities of recovering home economies of simplicity and some measure of self-sufficiency.
For Christians, this comes as no surprise. God’s purposive structure to the universe provides frameworks in which humans can thrive. “The works of God,” Luther explains, “are divided into three hierarchies: the household, the government, and the church” (446). And the first of these structures God created was the household. Before the creation of government, and even the Church, God brought to man a woman—bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh—and performed a wedding. “The Whole Divinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” Luther writes, “all unitedly say to Adam, Behold, this is thy bride with whom thou art to dwell and with whom thou art to generate and bring up children” (180). Luther asks, “is it not worthy of admiration that God instituted and ordained marriage even in the state of innocency?” Even in pre-Fall Eden, the family unit was embedded into the cosmic order, tying us together in relationships that set us free. So too, even after the Fall, Luther suggests that, “this living together of male and female, as man and wife, in the state of matrimony, their keeping house together, their being blessed together with offspring, their bringing up their children, is a faint picture and remnant of that blessed original married life” (178). In his 1529 “Order of Marriage for Common Pastors,” Luther says, “this is your comfort that you may know and believe that your estate is pleasing to God and blessed by him” and that the God “who hast created man and woman and hast ordained them for the married estate…hast typified therein the sacramental union of thy dear Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the church, his bride” (115). We can recover something of this robust vision of the family’s inherent generative and creative power when we develop the home and the work of our own hands.
Practical Possibilities for Recovering Home Life
Developing the household arts and useful trades within the context of a simple home economy has generations of proof, and still can be recovered for the good of individuals and for the good of society. One place to find this recovery is in the kitchen, and in the varied yet repetitive act of eating. We can leverage this daily part of embodied life towards higher ends than just filling our stomachs by heeding Wendell Berry’s advice to resist “industrial eating.” Berry writes, “the food industrialists have…persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. They will grow, deliver and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it.” Being an industrial eater, Berry contends, contributes to “a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous” (146-147). COVID-19 also has brought to light the instabilities of industrial eating, causing many people naturally to reclaim a role in producing and preparing their own food. In his essay “The Pleasures of Eating,” Berry offers practical recommendations for doing so, and concludes that such efforts will “revive in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household. This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of ‘quality control’: you will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat” (150). The arts of kitchen and household, as Berry calls them, are not demeaning tasks of drudgery, but are gratifying, economically fruitful, solidifying for familial bonds, and resonate with the scriptural motif of feasting and table fellowship.
Another way to develop the household is by embracing home not as a place of consumption, but as a source of productivity and creativity. Matthew Crawford laments in Shopclass as Soulcraft just how far removed we are from that creative vision: “What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair.” Crawford’s suggestion from over a decade ago is more relevant than ever: “perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world” (2). Such manual competence makes economic sense and builds contentment, useful skills, resiliency, and confidence for children and adults. Engaging with material reality also keeps us properly oriented towards the world as embodied creatures. Whether it starts with learning to use a cordless drill and planting a garden, or if the garage already overflows with vintage tools and there’s already an acre under the plow, there is something profoundly gratifying and richly human in working with our hands. The home is the original classroom for such things; a place where physical and mental activity, where work and rest, all meet—much like in that primordial Garden.
Turning homeward just might be an echo of Eden that human beings long for as it offers a more holistic and unified approach to life where faith, family, education, and economics can all align. The daily reciprocity and cooperation of life together counteracts excessive individualism with lessons in civility and negotiation and the limits of freedom and authority. This mundane arrangement has subtle beauty and power as men and women are brought outside of themselves into the deeper satisfactions of sacrifice and service in the development of human character. What this looks like for each family will be different, and idealistic illusions of going “off the grid” or starting a sustainable farm aren’t what I’m referring to. I’m talking about incrementally shifting the balance of human formation back to where it rightly belongs. There are a thousand small decisions and tiny steps that can lead towards treasuring the original community of family and the physicality and humanness of embodied work: food from your own garden, a home-repair completed by you and your children, taking ownership of your children’s education, a freshly-baked loaf of bread, catechizing your children, reviving old family traditions or forming new ones. Such habits forged in the crucible of the family prepare the way for meaningful service in community based on the same values and choices made first in the household. Here we come to learn the beauty and simplicity of Wendell Berry’s visionary yet commonplace call: “We…must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home” (64). Home indeed.
Joshua Pauling taught high school history for thirteen years and is now a classical educator and furniture-maker. He is head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, Salvo, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.