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REVIEW: The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Shaeffer

Edith Shaeffer’s Hidden Art of Homemaking, was first published in 1971 and has had many imprints since, the latest being the 1985 edition published by Tyndale House Publishers. When I came across it recently it crossed my mind that an updated version of the book might well be titled, The Lost Art of Homemaking. The book still enjoys a degree of popularity as a gift to new brides among Christian communities in America, perhaps, because the author herself  is both the daughter and the wife of a minister of religion. Her husband was the late Francis Shaeffer, philosopher and evangelical pastor, who with his wife founded the l’Abri community in Switzerland, a forum to explore and discuss religious and philosophical beliefs. It still endures and has a number of foundations around the world.

The book, however, as the title suggests, is not primarily about the art of creating a faith centered home life but about the value of domestic creativity and how it gives us an outlet for the God given artistry that is within each of us.  We are made in the image of God, the sublime artist, and ‘working creatively helps you express something that is in you’. Not everyone gets to be an artist in the conventional sense but we are all gifted with creativity, however impeded ‘by limitations of talent and time and distorted by sin’.  Our creativity in the simple arts of homemaking, preparing food, beautifying our surroundings, indoors and out, is personally fulfilling and ‘gives us glimpses of the image of God.’  It also deepens our appreciation of the simple, everyday gifts. When we take time and care to serve others with all the artistry at our disposal, we express appreciation and love for them too. We also give them ‘permission’ to trust and explore their own creativity.

The values and doctrines of our time have dismissed the age old arts and skills of homemaking as belittling to women.  STEM subjects are promoted in schools for girls and boys equally today and that is a positive thing but the reality is that most young people will go on to lead lives that might be as enhanced by basic culinary skills as much, if not more, than whatever soon-to- be discarded knowledge they gleaned of STEM subjects. It’s not about either or, but about giving due value to the life skills that build a foundation for home and family life in future years.

Of course times change and some skills are rendered obsolete by advances in technology and industry. Not all are however and some remain better alternatives to speedier, more convenient options. Besides,, in an age that sets a premium on fast food, fast fashion and low maintenance homes to match the pace of modern working life, there is an obvious question about how the lack of time and attention for the small things that enhance family life also hides a lack of time for the bigger things like conversation, sharing recreational activities, apart from watching TV together, and family prayer?

While Shaeffer’s book offers much practical advice for making our homes more affirming, stimulating, welcoming and beautiful and would certainly spark some family enriching ideas in readers, she does not open the discussion to the impact the work and career imperatives that shape family life today are having on children, spousal relationships and family life.

In his exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis observes that ‘individuals in personal and family life receive less and less support from social structures than in the past’. The poor quality of family life naturally conflates to poor social interaction and co-opoeration in neighbourhoods and the wider family circle. The lack of strong social communities is also reflected in a lack of vigour in the faith community and parish. While there are many and complex reasons for the decline of parish life and the faith that underpins it, the time-poor quality of family life creates its own obvious impediments.

In his earlier exhortation, Laudato si, the Pope emphasises the importance of beauty and leisure in both the domestic and communal environments. Shaeffer gives considerable time to the importance of interacting with nature and how we can use its offerings to beautify our homes.  The Pope, in more generalised terms, writes ‘we are not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal and deprived of physical contact with nature’. Yet that is the idiom of much modern architecture that sets low maintenance, work minimising minimalism as a sort of ideal setting for modern family life where as the Pope puts it, the family itself, like the home, becomes a sort of ‘way-station, helpful when convenient, a setting in which rights can be asserted while relationships are left to the changing winds of personal desire and circumstances’ (AL)

Investing time, care and creativity in our homes, in the small touches that affirm and show appreciation for others and their needs is not a trivial thing. At one level, it is about creating a table centrepiece that turns into a conversation piece over dinner or taking the trouble to bake a cake and involve the children or create something together with pinecones or shells from a nature walk or something to bring to a neighbour in need.  The time taken in such tasks is time building awareness of the possibilities of creativity in everyday things. It is also time spent nurturing relationships. A family that has time for such things will also find space, is in fact already opening up the space, for the more important task of handing down its values and beliefs.

Shaeffer finishes her book with the interesting idea that children need to feel fully integrated into family life if they are to integrate well later in other social and work settings.  The more integrated family life is, the richer the interconnections between parents and children, the better prepared they will be to become fully engaged and integrated members of other communities and have the skills to build nurturing home environments for the next generation in turn.

Shaeffer’s book paints something of a domestic idyll which might seem a bit unrealistic in the context of work-consuming modern life. Its very nostalgia however, is a useful reminder of how radically the culture of home and family life has changed in a couple of generations and continues to change, ever more radically, as ideological imperatives join forces with the exigencies of work and the economy to make books like Shaeffer’s seem almost subversive.

Perhaps, the plethora of books, magazines and TV programmes on the domestic arts and their obvious popularity shows people are living vicariously the lives modern society has made almost impossible for them.  Even for avowed secularists, too much of what makes life worth living is being sacrificed to the idols of progress across a growingly demanding and bizarre spectrum of ideology.

 

  • Title: Hidden Art of Homemaking
  • Author: E Schaeffer
  • Format: Book
  • Language: English
  • Number of Pages: 224
  • Publication Date: 1985-06-01
  • Publisher / Label: Tyndale House Publishers
C Half a Cup of Yoke
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