on a theology of anthropologie

For a while now, I have been smugly content to loathe luxurious and beautiful spaces and things; I consider myself above the ignoble aspiration for gorgeous layouts, crisp white sheets, and matching furniture. After all, as a Christian, I’m supposed to favour choices which respect the earth, demonstrate care for the poor, and fight global injustice… right?

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My current living room features the enormous floral couch that the previous tenant sold to us, a green rug that my husband and I nabbed from a new student furniture exchange when we were at school, a dark IKEA coffee table that I pilfered from Craiglist, and various other bits and pieces of things, combined with artwork in a variety of mismatched frames.

But – and this is a realization that I have been fighting to admit – I am very restless in this hodgepodge of a space. On weekends when I am home and trying to do things around the house, I am easily distracted and unsettled. Somehow the lack of symmetry in my space actually interferes with my ability to do things. Not only that, but I’m often frantic before hosting anyone over – worrying about the lack of functionality and the constantly dirty-looking floors.

I don’t think I’m crazy; I’m missing some beauty in my life, and it’s affecting me.

Beauty and Anthropologie

Stores like Anthropologie have latched onto the principle that beauty sits well with our souls.

If you are unfamiliar, Anthropologie is a lifestyle store. It claims to be “a destination for women wanting a curated mix of clothing, accessories, gifts and home décor that reflects their personal style and fuels their lives’ passions, from fashion to art to entertaining.” Basically, it sells beautiful and attractive things to a willing audience.

anthropologie

Every one of their 189 locations is a perfectly curated ensemble of delicately painted bowls, unique jewelry and gorgeous clothes all specifically laid out to give the feelings of home. I’ve yet to meet someone who is uncomfortable in their store space.

Anthropologie’s creative director, Kristin Norris, has said, “We want the customer to come into the store and exhale, to come in and be comfortable in the space.” In other words, Anthropologie has successfully manufactured an irresistible sense of “home.” Isn’t that wild?

I’m going to go out on a limb and propose that while we don’t all need to spend thousands of dollars purchasing Anthropologie items for our homes, their success has something to teach us about the value of beautiful things and spaces.

Beauty in the Real World

As you have learned from what I told you above, I have a penchant for despising what is extravagant and costly. My tendency is to want to get along with as little as possible, making do with furniture, old clothes, less frequent hairdressing appointments, etc. And while there is a place for simplicity and frugality, especially in a world where injustice related to fashion and lifestyle industries threatens lives, I can see that a lack of beauty irritates my being, and impacts my life.

A while ago, I was struggling to rectify beauty and injustice when I came across the following ideas from a theologian called Nicolas Wolterstorff (I wrote a post on this before). Wolterstorff is grappling with this question: “What is the greatest thing to which Christians are called to contribute as human beings?” To this question, he responds that we would tend to think that, with all the injustice in the world, we ought to be after liberation – freeing the slave, lobbying for the down-and-out, picking up the downtrodden.

And yet he does not think that that is an adequate answer, because he sees another unanswered question: “After liberation, then what?” Listen to what he has to say next:

“I suggest that immediately at hand in the Christian Scriptures is a better concept for describing God’s goal for human existence: the concept of peace […]. The goal of human existence is that man should dwell at peace in all his relationships […] a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though certainly it is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in nature, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself. A condition of shalom is justice, and a component in justice is liberation from oppression. Never can there be shalom without justice. Yet shalom is more than justice. Justice can be grim. In shalom there is delight.”

This idea shifted my paradigms in a huge way. Justice does not look like despising beautiful Pinterest boards, or boycotting Anthropologie. In a world where all will be set right, beauty — as found in people, spaces and even material things — will delight all of us, and that will be good.

We can observe the deep, deep goodness of beauty in the book of Revelation, which tells us about a world set right. In the second last chapter, we find an insane description of the lavish New Jerusalem, which comes “down out of heaven from God” – to be the new place where His people shall live:

“The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.”

(Rev 21:18-21)

Appreciating, and even pursuing, a home and a space which is filled with nice things is not bad; it may even be a sign of what we’re made for.

Beauty Points Us Home

As I was reading about the Anthropologie phenomenon, I came across a blogger who asked, “Isn’t [this] what we all want for our homes? Don’t we want to walk in, feel embraced and at peace and not want to leave?”

I think she’s onto something.

Space is important because creating “home” for people is important. As a Christian, I believe that God [wonderfully] did not make us to live without homes. In fact, God created us for hospitality.

Some of the words of Jesus that have impacted me the most have been his words in Matthew 25, where he talks about how when we serve and clothe those in need, we serve and clothe him. He commends those who welcome the stranger, because they welcome Jesus himself.

I’ve come to believe that one of the greatest ways that we can serve the stranger — which Jesus says is equivalent to serving him! — is to invite them in, especially into a place that we delight in.

In a book on faith and art, Christian artist and writer Madeleine L’Engle posits: “The journey homewards. Coming home. That’s what it’s all about. The journey to the coming of the Kingdom. […] the purpose of [Christian art], be it story or music or painting [or curating lovely spaces], is to further the coming of the kingdom, to make us aware of our status as children of God, and to turn our feet toward home.”

L’Engle insists that all of our work is creative. As we create things we delight in – whether it is physically making a painting to hang, or tastefully arranging furniture, or purchasing a matching towel set – our creative delight can point us, and the strangers we invite in, to our true home.

on art [or something]

This has been mesmerizing me lately.

I’m not a dancer [at all.] but I just can’t help being so moved by this piece. A desire fills me to want to do the same thing – to leap up and move in fluidity with these people, putting movement to a beautiful song [especially the swell at the end. EEP.].

This semester, I am taking a class called The Christian Imagination. As one assignment, we are to reflect on an artistic piece which has influenced us spiritually, and present it to the class. I think I have to do something about contemporary dance or musicals.

I remember watching the curtains fall after a high school performance of Oliver Twist and sitting in my seat with a deep ache in my heart. I want to do this. I wish I was part of this. And it’s not like I wanted my parents to stop making me go to school and send me off to some musical theatre academy (can you imagine my alternative life?), but it was a deep longing to sing and dance and be choreographed. So funny. I’m excited to explore what exactly this ache was and means as I continue this semester.

One thought from a reading from James Elkins (an excerpt from On The Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art) has caught my thought in particular:

Looking at Manet’s painting, you realize that the concatenation of biblical references is not the point; the point must therefore be that the concatenation itself is intended to provoke the thought that a painting has to remake religious meanings as painting. “We cannot separate faith in God from faith in painting… as easily for the 19th century as we think we can nowadays,” and Manet’s painting does ask for an act of faith in both: the painting makes us ask how much we might have faith in the painter, or in painting, and that leads, by a subtle thread, to faith in religious meanings that might be communicated only in painting or only in this painting.

This leads me to wonder… are certain fullnesses of truth only expressible in painting? Or photography? Or contemporary dance? Maybe it is that as I come to a stillness in front of these pieces and creations that I understand more fully the truth of Scripture and our Creator-God.

Beauty.

on beauty

Today was the most beautiful day. It was:

My favourite 4-year-old shouting “Bethney!!!” and nearly toppling me down the stairs with a huge hug when I arrived to start my shift.

Brand-new volunteers causing a beautiful Christmas dinner to arise out of a sparsely furnished kitchen and much laughter around navigating the carving of turkey-in-a-bag and the nearly disastrous lack of pots.

A game of Skip-Bo with two smart-aleck boys (whom I’d never seen this side of!) teasing me by hiding cards in their pockets and wondering aloud if they could “borrow” each other’s cards.

So much laughter at a dramatic Christmas story reading (20ish teenagers and young adults captivated by a child’s version read aloud with crowd-produced sound effects).

Distributing a church’s generous donation of pillowcases filled with carefully selected quality hygiene items.

Being so blessed to watch mentors and mentees sharing gifts with one another.

Picking up a girl and her friend from the skytrain station, eager to join in on the fun.

Hearing karaoke full-blast downstairs (one of our pastors singing MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t Touch This’).

A hilarious tin of cookies decorated by a young man for his mentor… just filled with icing and candy and pretzel sticks.

Last-minute super secret team wrapping of a forgotten gift.

A co-worker still smiling even after his car had been towed before 9:30am.

A young man threatening to throw a discarded turkey neck at me.

Crowder’s ‘How He Loves Us’ sung by a choir of 5 on the ride home with the girls (one of whom arrived at the life skills gathering late with a scowl and a bitterness at even being there in the first place followed by a refusal to talk to anyone for the first half of our time).

This doesn’t convey it, but needs to be breathed out somewhere. Thank you God, for beauty. And especially for this kind of beauty, so different than carefully produced artwork or symmetry. For mess and warmth and relationships and growth and home and sharing and giving and taking, we thank You.