Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Charmed Big

This week, Al Hsu's The Suburban Christian collided with Wendell Berry in my head.

Berry, discussing farming, says, "We need to confront honestly the issue of scale. Bigness has a charm and a drama that are seductive...but bigness promotes greed, indifference, and damage, and often bigness is not necessary."

Hsu feels convicted that most American homes give each occupant 718 square feet of space, while most Canadian homes provide 442 square feet, and Japanese homes offer 170. In other words, he questions the drama of the big house, which often carries with it the drama of a big mortgage payment (and the banks like this kind of theater... why is that?, Hsu questions).

So I wonder... does the big house and the big mortgage do what Berry claims in a different context? Does it promote greed, indifference, and damage? Is the bigness necessary?

Photo by Stefani M. Rossi Used with permission. Berry quote is from p.xi The Way of Ignorance. Hsu summary is from Chapter 2 of TSC.

Seedlings Invitation: If you write a post related to this post and Link It Back Here, let me know and I'll link to yours.


Charity's Me Casa, Me Casa

Maria's Suburbia: A Home of One's Own

Al's Housing Size

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Blogger Every Square Inch said...


Thank you for another provocative post.

Does [big house, big mortgage] promote greed, indifference, and damage?

Let's see - is owning a big house [by implication, big mortgage] essentially sinful? Every person's situation is different but I think probably not.

Does the house or mortgage promote greed? Possibly, but not because the big house is inherently bad but because it may reveal the sin of greed in all of us. When we ask these questions, we may often assume, by implication that it is the owner of the big house who is greedy or materialistic...that is possibly the case, but perhaps it reveals our own materialism instead?

Since I'm first to comment, I'm eager to hear what others might say about this.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Charity Singleton said...

When others have big things, it's easy for me to judge them as if they were greedy. I think I jump to judgment so quickly because of the greed in my own heart that wants big things. The Lord has been faithfully showing me my own sin in this issue, and also that others may not be sinning when they buy the big house, big car, etc.

I also believe, however, that this is an issue we need to wrestle with regularly because it touches on so many other issues the Lord is clear about. Am I generous? Am I being a good steward? Am I showing hospitality? Am I making an idol out of possessions?

Great post, LL! By the way, I was writing my own post about this chapter at the same time you were! Just before I finished, I decided to see if you had written anything, and lo, you had! (I almost used a Berry quote, too!) Anyway, my part of the conversation is up over at Wide Open Spaces now too!

9:56 PM  
Blogger One More Writer said...

I don't know if a big house breeds greed, but I know for our family a big house bred isolation. We moved to a smaller house--just about three hundred square feet smaller but a lot fewer rooms. It has forced our teenager to spend more time in our presence, and us in theirs. It has bonded us in a way I never dreamed possible.

So I often counsel others to really consider the big house. For me, it isn't really about the money or the possessions more space holds, it's about the relationships.

10:19 PM  
Blogger A Musing Mom said...

I work in a non-profit setting in an area of incredible wealth. There I see all sorts of conspicuous displays of wealth. And I agree with every square inch that those displays are not the source of the problem, but the symptom. Among those who have pursued wealth, the greed is evident. But I also see some that wealth took by surprise and these folks are incredibly open-handed with their time and money.

10:24 PM  
Blogger David A. Zimmerman said...

I have a hard time stifling the giggles every time I read "big house," but I do think it might be helpful to think of "big house" not as sinful but as imprisoning. Big house equals big mortgage or a move far outside the reach of the city, which means big house can equal social isolation. It strikes me that the big house is more folly than concupiscence. But the big house at this point, at least where I live, is almost an unstoppable force. If it's little around here, it's torn down and replaced with big. And to my mind that's not just individual folly but cultural folly; the village is pricing its own residents out of the village. It's gonna come back and bite us, as all folly does.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Maria said...


You got me thinking, as usual...

1:55 AM  
Blogger L.L. Barkat said...

Every Square... Personally, I would like to have a slightly larger house... not more rooms necessarily, but slightly larger because I find it hard to entertain in our current home. I do think that having a big home should probably meet some kind of need, or what's the point? (Sorry, hope I don't offend anyone with that opinion!)

Charity... And yet, to continue my thought from above (and tie in your comment on generosity), I am more able to be financially generous because I carry a very small mortgage. So this brings up the question of which type of generosity is more vital... that I could extend in hospitality, or that I can give in dollars.

One More... I'm so glad you mentioned this. I noticed in my own life that the move from apartment living changed the dynamics of our family relationships. I do tend to be a little more isolationist in this context.

A Musing... so you don't think that our context influences our behavior or values at all? Curious.

Dave... sounds like you may have worked on editing TSC! Al Hsu raises some of these issues in his ensuing chapters. Still, I like the way you articulate the issues, and I hope you come back for more conversation along the way.

Maria... and how! I loved your companion posts.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Every Square Inch said...


I think I agree with your assertion to great extent that having a big home should probably meet a need. However,since you said "need" and not "preferences" or "desires", it makes me wonder if you extrapolate that principle to other possessions, is there any room [forgive the unintended pun] for aesthetic value or preferences?

For instance, how about cars. Is it wrong to buy a expensive German engineered car instead of a lesser priced, American made car...assuming quality and functionality are comparable? Or, how about jewelry - is there any functional benefit to jewelry or it purely aesthetics?

What do you think?

1:28 PM  
Blogger Al Hsu said...

L.L. - Actually, Dave wasn't the editor for TSC (though I was his for Comic Book Character). You and I actually share the same editor - CB.

We know some good examples of folks who use big suburban houses very missionally, for hosting ministry events and visitors and whatnot. It's not size per se that's the problem, but lack of stewardship of whatever size homes we do have, as well as lack of alternatives of more affordable, less isolating housing, etc.

3:44 PM  
Blogger spaghettipie said...

Interesting post and discussion. I'm not sure I have anything new to add. I like the way you said (in the comments) that it should probably serve some function. We bought our current house - which is a little bit bigger than what we "need" - because we love to entertain and hospitality is important to us. We feel like the extra money we pay in mortgage is worth being able to open our home to visitors.

To ESI's last question, perhaps you could say the aesthetics DOES serve a function. I think it is wonderful to appreciate the beauty in both nature and craftsmanship.

The problem lies in our motivation. Dick Staub (in The Culturally Savvy Christian says, "We buy things we don't need, made by people who don't know or care about us, with money we don't have, to impress people we don't really like." If we're truly finding our acceptance, value and satisfaction in Him, then I think our purchasing patterns will be in line with His desire for our lives.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Andrea said...

PAradoxically, we moved to a big, new house because it was *simpler* for us--(living in an older home was a lot of work for us at this busy time in our life--we have always lived in older, smaller homes)

What I find is this: there are people who have a lot of money who are greedy and materialistic and there are people who don't have a lot of money who are greedy and materialistic.

Rod Dreher, in his book "Crunchy Cons" talks about the "House" in a chapter. (Of course he likes the older, better architecture home, as do I) But I question "House." It's more about the relationships within the house--not the house itself.

4:54 PM  
Blogger A Musing Mom said...

LL-does context influence? Definitely! Okay, so big houses are a problem in some ways and a revealer of problems in others.

I think context matters a lot. When we moved from a small home on a big lot to a bigger home on a smaller lot, suddenly the isolation nearly disappeared. So maybe context is sometimes even more important than the size of the house. Then again our bigger house is in a neighborhood of older mixed housing stock and so the "big house" influence is somewhat mitigated.

This is a slippery topic and I'm still working my brain around it. I need to catch up to you in Al's book first before saying more.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Ted Gossard said...

L.L., Great post and comments here.

I think what we do has to do with priority. But also I wonder how many actually take the time to think through issues as is being done here. It's good to bring up and think through these things. I wish I would have been clued in on alot of this years ago.

Okay, I'm jabbering. But for me it's all about priorities. Seeking God's kingdom first and everything else being beside that point. But trying to think in terms of that.

I remember doing yard work one time for a multi-millionaire Christian well known for his business. I was taken back by the fact that their house, while nice was really not extraordinary. Nor was anything I saw there.

I really do have a hard time with Christians driving "ultra"-expensive cars, though all that is relative. Ultra compared to what. So each, in the end, must answer before God who knows our hearts.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Oh, by the way, I want to add that the kingdom of God does not exclude enjoying the good gifts of God. It's important to remember and practice that. I think this is part of God's will for us, to richly enjoy all he provides for us (1 Timothy 6?).

5:44 PM  
Blogger Eve said...

Proverbs 15:16
Better is little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble therewith.

It doesn't say it's wrong to have treasure, as long as the trouble doesn't accompany it:)

10:47 PM  
Blogger kirsten said...

I don't think I can add anything new to the discussion, but I'd like to echo some of the previous comments.

I would agree that "bigness" per se is not the problem, but how we steward what we have/what we're given. I think for many a big home could be a trap and/or an ostentatious display of wealth (and perhaps debt), or an effort to one-up the Joneses. On the other hand, a larger home could be used to extend hospitality and thereby serve the body.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I was actually just thinking this about houses the other day. I currently am living in, renting, and mostly caring for my parents' house while they live overseas (in a much smaller place). I currently also have two roommates. I feel that if I'm going to live in a place this big, I have a responsibility to share the space with others (even if the sharing isn't "free" ;).

Also--sometimes I dream about roofs for some reason. The photo in this post reminded me of one of them.

12:14 PM  
Blogger bluemountainmama said...

that's funny to read that, because we just purchased a home that's much smaller than our old home. part of the reason is that real estate is more expensive here, but we have also been wanting to simplify and downsize to reduce our footprint.....

it is ironic how people are building bigger and bigger homes , but most are having smaller families. we got rid of a lot of things before we moved into our current rental 2 years ago, and now we will be reducing the amount of "stuff" we have again...and that is just what it feels like to me- "stuff". it's actually quite a good feeling to purge our life of all the unneccesary things......

and there is a local family who's house burned down and they lost everything. so we'll be able to help someone else out in the process.

4:35 PM  
Blogger L.L. Barkat said...

Oh, I got a little behind in answering! Sorry all. I'm going to make these brief (famous last words).

Every Square... you know, I thought you were going to say that. And I agree there is a place for aesthetics, but it's hard to look at the life of Christ and justify certain kinds of purchases. (for me)

Al... yes, my own father has a huge home. But almost every week of the year, he uses it to host friends, family, missionaries on furlough, and people in simple need of a vacation who don't have funds to spend on one.

Spaghetti... I like the Staub quote. Especially because it brings me back to the question of whether my lifestyle grows out of and nurtures my local community in positive ways.

Andrea... and so the seasons of one's life come into play.

A Musing... I have the best of both your worlds. A small house on a small lot! (with plenty of isolation, except to my backyard neighbor).

Ted... yes, I find it very valuable to think through issues. You know, it was in the context of the blog world that I made some new decisions about how I'd spend my Sabbaths. And I'm filled with joy in the practice!

Eve... so I'm going to wager that a big mortgage is a form of trouble.

Kirsten... or it's even just that we do it because we CAN, without considering why we perhaps should do otherwise.

Jenn... I love that you mentioned your dreams. Because I think it reminds us that "house" is closely linked with identity (my house dreams are always nightmares). So, we might consider questions of identity when thinking about our choice of home.

Blue... oh! Footprint and stuff. Two of my favorite topics. Glad you mentioned them. How does our house size influence these? (anyone can feel free to pick up on this question!)

6:50 PM  
Blogger Green Earth said...

Enjoyed your post, and I know I have been the happiest in small homes. It is not the size of a house that makes it a home.

12:13 AM  
Blogger A Life Uncommon said...

We spent our early years in a 900sq. ft. home. I stripped the kitchen coubords and we saved to replace the carpets. We sold that first house after 4 yrs. We then moved into a home of around 1900sq ft. After living there 16 years we brought a child home from a Russian orphanage. We sold that house (the nicest one on the block) to a man who spoke fluent Russian and bought it on the spot. We were able to buy a home of 2050 sq ft. With the proceeds of our sweat equity we were able to bring another child home out of a Russian orphanage.
Every home was full of chuch and worship on the weekends for the frindge of our culture. There was allways one denominater the bigger the house the more stuff accumultes to fill it. There is a type of vortex in the space. After 25 yrs of marrage I have witnessed two things.
Families living in home they own. Families being owned by the homes they live in.
Stuff can both bless and bind the hands that own it. To whom much is givin much is required.
I am a jeweler and this a talent that God has given me. Yes even the beauty of it can cause one to pause and reflect with humiliy.

4:25 AM  
Blogger Inihtar said...

LL, I don't have too much more to add. . . I think the intent behind the big house could be different for different people. It could be either to be hospitable and share what we have with others, or it could be to show that we're better and better off than others. I do desire a place that's slightly bigger than what I "need," because during most of my teenage years, my family of four lived in a one-bedroom flat, so I've developed a craving for more space.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

LL, I'm intrigued by your observation about house-dreams. I never made the connexion to my identity, but mine are always nightmares, too. They don't scare me anymore, but they're always "scare-y." And it might be significant that I've been having a lot fewer of them of late . . .

11:12 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Also, I want to comment on inihtar's observation about different motivations. My parents used to pastor my church and they always had people over for meals. Now that they've moved overseas, our associate pastor has become the senior pastor, and he and his wife purposely bought a much larger house than they had had before, partly because they wanted to pick up where my parents had left off, and be able to be more hospitable to people.

11:15 AM  

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