Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement
My prolific bookseller friend has insisted that Beyond Homelessness is one of the most important books of 2008.1 I find it hard to disagree. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh assert that “Christian faith is a faith that is always placed. Placed in a good creation. Placed in time. An incarnational faith” (xii). Antithetical to this strong notion of place, they argue that North American culture is increasingly one marked by a deep and disturbing sense of homelessness. Beyond Homelessness presents a thorough characterization of home, investigates the multi-faceted crisis of contemporary homelessness, and responds to this crisis with a prophetic and imaginative voice. A work such as this has yet to be offered to the Christian community and it is time for the church to listen.
Bouma-Prediger and Walsh begin their investigation with the poignant story of two men. One lives on the streets of Toronto. The other embodies the upwardly mobile life of the jet-setting executive. In these initial pages the authors argue that the homelessness crisis is not simply one of shelter. Rather, they extend the boundaries to include a more complex consideration of displacement. Further, through the works of Elie Wiesel, Barbara Kingsolver, and Wendell Berry, they demonstrate that place and displacement are rooted always in narrative and memory. Displacement prevails when people lose the connection between their stories and their dwelling places. Then they move to show the role of home throughout the account of the scriptures, from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem.
They continue to consider more unorthodox categories of homelessness including the immigrant, the exile, the refugee, the perpetual tourist, and the postmodern exile. Dislocation is not simply an affliction of the socio-economic homeless, but is also one of bohemian vagabonds who valorize life on the road. To define the impetus of their work better, they offer a phenomenological perspective on the meaning of “home.”
Chapter three begins with an allegory demonstrating the impotence of contemporary responses to the problems of socioeconomic homelessness by government, the church, and charitable organizations. The moral of their tale is that we must understand the structural problems of displacement and poverty: trust in trickle-down economics, broken public policy, and globalization. Expecting a typical liberal rant against the evils of neo-conservativism to follow, the reader finds the authors critical of both conservative and liberal ideology. They argue that neither liberal nor conservative policy engenders what is necessary to cure the ills of displacement. They offer the alternative of a change in habitus. They explain habitus as “[h]abitual patterns of behavior and ways of looking at the world [that] are rooted in societally shaped and shared dispositions, values, and orientations” (107).
Chapter Four argues that housing and home necessarily are issues of worldview. All matters of home, from the design of built places to public policy decisions, rest upon one’s worldview assumptions.
The crisis of ecological homelessness is chronicled in Chapters five and six. Beginning with the accounts of journalists and scientists, the authors create a signpost toward the issue of creational devastation. Within this crisis our authors return again to the structural issues. They provide ten causes of ecological devastation, including globalization, a blind market economy, and a lack of responsible technology. Yet, the feature that stands out from the rest is the transient nature of Western culture. The authors claim that without place commitments, we lack place knowledge. A vacuity of true place knowledge necessarily will lead to a lack of care. The solution, again as habitus, is founded on the Biblical notion of shalom.
Chapter seven begins with a discussion of the double homesickness of the postmodern milieu. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the postmodern subject becomes sick of home and its homogeneity. Once gone, there is a sickness for home. They also consider (albeit cautiously) the feminist and postcolonial critique of home. Bouma-Prediger and Walsh argue that home for these theorists produces borders and boundaries of exclusion. Realizing that home is really just a construction (à la Peter Berger), one becomes conscious of the possible toxicity of these constructed borders. This realization creates self-displacers on groundless journeys. Yet, most interestingly, the authors assert that this neo-bohemian worldview is perhaps joined more strongly to the assumptions of capitalism. They even suggest that its genesis is based in a late-modern capitalistic glorification of freedom and autonomy.
In Chapter Eight, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh consider Robert Wuthnow’s conception that our contemporary culture has traded a spirituality of dwelling for a spirituality of seeking. Wuthnow argues for a return to a dwelling church. The authors are not content with trading the postmodern wanderer for the spirituality of dwelling which they claim is “too akin to the settled cozy religiosity of 1950’s America—white middle-class, Protestant, safe and secure in the fortress of sexism and racism” (273). In lieu of these, they suggest the metaphor of the sojourner, a people trying to “negotiate the rough terrain of our dislocated cultural wilderness on the way home” (273). Finally, the authors consider the eschatological view of the creation as a dwelling place now, while understanding it as “not yet.”
The final chapter asks the questions: “In the face of intractable homelessness, is there any way home? Is homecoming possible if we’ve never had a deep experience of home?”(315). Their answer is: not without imaginative hope. This imaginative hope, the authors proclaim, lies within a deep faith in the narrative Christian story!
Bouma-Prediger and Walsh merit praise because their text is timely. Too often Christians watch others on the forefront of a field and then react. Bouma-Prediger and Walsh have been within the dialogue of place studies as the conversation has been blossoming into fruition over the last decade. In Beyond Homelessness the authors take up the writings of philosophers, scientists, sociologists, pop-culture bards, and theologians. These pieces are employed with integrity and care. The authors offer explanations that are neither watered down norm is characterized. Further, they introduce difficult ideas including feminist theory, postcolonialism, and phenomenology in a reasonably accessible way.
All too often books are coauthored poorly. Bouma-Prediger and Walsh have overcome this difficulty. They write a text that is cohesive thematically, while not sacrificing the personal narratives that flavor their chapters. Most importantly, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh have cast the vision of home within the grand narrative of the scriptures. They describe the situation that we find ourselves in now adeptly, shape a narrative-based ethos for being here, and present a telos worthy of longing. The authors do not fall into the snare common of contemporary evangelicalism that keeps its eye on the sky, claiming that we are merely aliens lost in a foreign, hostile, and combative land. They inspire the reader to understand that within the sojourn of the “already,” we need to seek shalom, a peaceableness regarding our dwelling that manifests an expression of healthy borders, care for the poor, work for justice, and love of mercy here and now.
Reciprocally, they do not fall into the trap some neo-Calvinists incline toward occasionally. They refuse to jettison the consummate kingdom for a reformational philosophy that focuses too keenly on “every square inch” at the expense of the New Heavens and New Earth. Rather, their text calls us to be hospitable, thoughtful, just, and compassionate homemakers in the already, yet to hope imaginatively in and yearn expectantly for the ultimate homecoming.
A text this significant is not without fault. One concern is the sheer scope of the work. Breadth can be a double-edged sword. The extent of the work is truly laudable; still, at times the text appears a mile wide and a few yards deep. Throughout the book there seems to be several projects running concurrently. Further, the intended audience remains unclear. In many instances it resembles an interdisciplinary text for an undergraduate classroom, at other points a work for armchair theologians and recreational philosophers. Considering the interludes between chapters (diverse creative devotional pieces that border on being near maudlin at times) it is apt for morning contemplation with a cup of coffee and a leather-bound journal. Ironically, in this work on the crisis of place, the text appears to have a multiple personality disorder that could leave the readers as confused pilgrims lost along the way. Their style of moving from earthy stories from the street, to the philosophical, to poetic interludes, and back could prove disorienting.
Finally, the authors do not fall into the trap of tired neo-conservative bashing. Within the movements of the text they state that neither liberals nor conservatives articulate the solutions to the crisis of displacement sufficiently. They do well to document the ways that the Bush administration (and Reagonomics in general) has augmented the institutional brokenness that contributes to the problems of homelessness. Yet, while they mention very briefly that the contemporary liberal agenda does not provide structural redress, they would do a service to delve into further analysis regarding why this is the case. Such scrutiny could be particularly engaging, especially as many who might be interested in this book would be nestled somewhat comfortably in the politically progressive Christian demographic.
Even with these critiques (which some readers might consider strengths), Beyond Homelessness is one of the most engaging, auspicious, and important texts to be published in the Christian community in a long, long time. Rather than focus on areas in the Christian community that are over-saturated, such as the Christian marriage or general worldview studies, Bouma-Prediger and Walsh offer here a fresh, engaging work that is likely to become a classic. Finally, it is evident that this text is not a thought experiment. This is a work into which Bouma-Prediger and Walsh have poured their lives. It is part autobiography. Clearly they incarnate a habitus marked by justice, compassion, and mercy for fellow dwellers and the creation that has been gifted to them—they are sharing this in Beyond Homelessness.