the imaginative conservative logo


Chapter Two in The Young Man’s Guide to Building a House

A house, you can see with your eyes, comes with walls and a roof. The house I will teach you to build is made with love.

That sounds really sappy, I know. Most people think love is a sunny disposition towards others, and, if you are exceptionally loving, towards humanity in general. If that’s all it is then it is useless for building a house. But love is more, it has structure—it is faithfulness and it is sacrifice or it is nothing. Now those are things you can build with.

Allow me to explain; this could take a while.

In the ancient near-east, in the days of the patriarchs, when the world was wild and wide-open, the greatest house-builder who has ever lived laid the foundation of his house. Ironically his entire life was spent in tents because he was a Bedouin. His name was Abram. His name means “exalted father”; that is another irony: at the beginning of his story he is childless.

People made covenants in those days. Because things were so wild and wide-open the bonds that tied people together had to be exceptionally strong. Covenants did the job.

When a covenant was made it was said to be “cut”. In fact, the Hebrew word for “covenant”” means, “to cut”. As with so many Hebrew words you can intuit the meaning just by the way the word sounds. The word is “berit”. Notice the dental? You may have been told a covenant is like a contract. Well it is in a way, but by comparison a modern contract is a toothless thing.

Covenants were so common in that world it is hard to find a description of one. That’s the way of things, common things don’t need to be explained, it is unusual things that find their ways into books. If you don’t keep that in mind old books can be very misleading. Fortunately we have a description of an unusual covenant in Genesis. It is unusual because one of the parties to the covenant is the Lord of heaven and earth.

According to the story, the Lord tells Abram to cut some animals in half then arrange the pieces adjacent to each other. After he does this Abram falls into a trance. Two symbols of the Lord’s presence appear before him—a smoking pot and a burning torch—and then the Lord makes a marvelous promise to the childless Bedouin. He promises to make Abram the father of a great house. Then the symbols of God pass between the halves.

It all seems so mysterious and barbaric, and in some respects I suppose it is. But if we can put away our squeamishness and enter Abram’s world sympathetically, we can make some sense of it.

Abram’s world was a world without State Troopers on the side of the road, or hospitals in the center of town. It was a world of rampaging armies and bands of marauding thieves and of famine and drought. It was a hard-scrabble world without convenience stores or refrigeration. Your food was right outside your tent or your window, in the pasture or the field.

The fear people lived with is impossible for us to appreciate. How did they reassure each other in a way that was strong enough to quell their fears and yet make them afraid to break their promises? They did it by cutting covenants.

When a covenant was cut men were called to witness it. Animals were then sliced in two, usually a sufficient number to feed the gathered crowd, then the halves were laid out so as to form a bloody corridor. Then the parties to the covenant made their promises. One might say, “Before God most high and these witnesses, I, Isaac, will be bound to you. I will come when you call, and when you are in need I will lend you aid. Your enemies will be my enemies,…” and so on and so forth. Then the other man would say something similar. Then they would walk the bloody way. And as they did so the men witnessing the covenant would shout their approval. Then a feast would follow and they’d all eat themselves sick.[1]

What was it all about? Why couldn’t they just shake-hands like civilized people and be done with it? The reason is the agreement had to have some bite. Here’s why. When rumor has it that ten thousand pillaging Midianites are coming your way because a plague of locusts has wiped out their crops and your neighbor between you and them calls for help, what could possibly keep you from turning the other way and running for your life? A handshake? Perhaps, if you are an exceptionally principled man. No, what you need at that moment is the threat of blood-vengeance to steel yourself. And that’s what the covenant promised. When men walked through the blood they declared in effect, “If I fail to keep my promise, you may do to me what we have done to these animals.”

Throughout the Bible, when people attribute love to God, his covenants were what they had in mind. They didn’t reduce love to radiant benevolence. Frankly, that had no bite. When the Israelites sang, “your steadfast love endures forever” they meant, “you keep your covenant promises.” According to the covenant, the Israelites had promises to keep too. And when they failed to keep them their prophets called them a nation of “whores”. Then the prophets promised the wrath of God.

In our cosseted world this seems a bit over the top. But if you spend a few nights in the desert without your cell phone even our world can begin to look a little different. [2]

Covenants were bonds that gave people shelter. This is what I want you to see. We tend to look back on those Bedouins with contempt and we also tend to think the world they lived in is too small for open-minded people like you and me. But we flatter ourselves; we don’t live in a wide-open world. We live in shelters that are so large we mistake them for the world itself. We’re like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show only we don’t have the ambition to get into a boat and sail to the sky. Yes, you could say in a way Abram lived in smaller spaces than we do—he lived in smaller dwellings—he could still see the world outside. It was because people like Abram could still see the real world, with all its frightful power and immensity, that the men of those days were actually larger than we are in many ways.

Warehouses Verses Real Houses

Today the ties that bind us are stronger than ever, we just don’t think about them much—that’s their genius I suppose, as in diabolical genius. We’ve found ways to bind ourselves to one another unconsciously, automatically, and almost painlessly.[3] But the bonds only remain painless so long as you don’t try to break them. If you do try the coercive forces of our society will tighten on you like a Chinese finger-trap.[4]

Today we do not live in houses so much as warehouses. And, like warehouses, these structures are not so much built to serve the interests of the occupants as the interests of the owners. But their capaciousness does create a feeling of freedom and that feeling is important for the occupants.

For most of us, eight hours or more, five days a week, we live in a warehouse known as a business corporation. Outside of that there is something we like to call the “welfare state”. One of the things the welfare state is said to provide is a “safety-net”—something ostensibly designed to keep you safe if for some reason you are thrown out of a business corporation. But it also keeps you from getting away—sort of like a fishing net.

These shelters have not been around very long, 150 years or so, tops. The transition from a nation of households to a nation of warehouses is a subtext of the industrial revolution. The low-cost goods churned out in the factory system made household production difficult to justify. This, plus the promise of economic security in the form of a steady paycheck and a pension, made the move from a house to a warehouse seem reasonable. As a consequence the household was stripped of its economic role in society. Houses became places to eat, sleep, and eventually, watch television—that’s about it.[5]

I’ve reached mid-life—that makes me old enough to worry about the failure of many young people to form households of their own. But it is easy to see why they lack motivation. They just don’t feel the need for them. They are sheltered already.

The paradox of all this is that we believe ourselves to be freer than ever when in fact we are more dependent than ever. While many young people admire the self-reliance of their grandparents, they feel no compelling reason to master things that would make them equally competent and independent. I am reminded of the tribute song of Jason Mraz to his grandfather, “Frank D. Fixer“. It is a marvelous song; in it he describes his grandfather as a man who knew how to grow his own food and fix his own car. But what is the take away? Mraz wishes he could fix the messed up emotional life of someone he loves. As a minister I can assure you that is a hopeless task. So the song is more a lament about human impotence than it is about mastering your life. Remember my point about people being smaller these days? This is what I mean.

Somewhere along the way a shell-game of words has been played. The old notion of liberty has been replaced by something called liberation. Whereas liberty depended on self-reliance and its requisite disciplines, liberation is simply freedom from restraint. But the mechanisms of liberation create a different form of dependence, but without the consolation of self-respect. I suppose that is why we need self-esteem nowadays: we need pep-talks because we can’t take care of ourselves.

We are content to be warehoused because so little is asked of us in the warehouse and because the benefits are good. Hardship has always been the goad to self-discipline and self-reliance. It will be again someday, but for the foreseeable future the people who run the warehouses will work to keep that from happening. Raise costs and people may look for someplace else to live—perhaps in houses of their own.

Also, there is free sex in the warehouse. And, for many people, that is enough to keep them there. Conservatives are often accused of being obsessed with sex, and in a way I suppose that’s true. Conservatives have always maintained that sexual passions must be controlled if a traditional household is to function. Sexual probity is the most important condition of the household bond. It protects the interests of both husband and wife and it secures the interests of their children. But progressives are just as obsessed with it but for another reason. If sex outside marriage is a taboo for conservatives, then for progressives it is a kind of idol. (Perhaps, in part, because it is one of the few forms of transcendence that materialists can know.) Fidelity is unnecessary in the warehouse because no one truly relies upon anyone else directly for anything of material significance. And, because an economy of scale hides waste, people can live profligate lives for years before the system feels the effects. In a household the effects of infidelity are felt almost immediately.

What’s love got to do with it?

What this all amounts to is the sense that we just don’t need love like people used to. Some people claim that relieving love of its obligations has purified it. Now we can emote without a burden of duty. But this is nonsense; what this has done is give love nothing to do. You can only sing so many love songs and send so many bouquets, if love doesn’t take the form of something useful it becomes optional, like a condimen—something that adds a little zest but is something you can really live without.

Today we get physical security and economic well-being from other institutions than our household. And in an appalling reversal, some people actually consider the household to be a threat to these goods. Many women fear domestic violence more than home invasion and many men fear losing wealth to a woman through divorce. For these women direct reliance on a man for protection seems dangerously retrograde; for these men the idea that a wife could be the first acquisition in a pursuit of true riches just seems naive.

The irony is very bitter. Once upon a time the security and prosperity of a political order depended so much upon households that the state secured the bonds of marriage through the law. Today so little is believed to depend upon the household that the legal process for liquidating a household can be purchased on-line for a nominal fee. Going to Costco is more trouble. But what can be done? Since the household arrangements serve little more than personal tastes how can the state justify holding people to account when their tastes change?

Preparing for the end, or at least striving for a different one

In the eleventh chapter of Genesis we see it did not take much to bring the tower of Babel down, just a little confusion. The warehouses we live in can be brought down in much the same way. All it would take is a loss of confidence. Economic insolvency, political disintegration, those would do it. Then the logic of the household would suddenly be plausible again. The problem is that most people would have to start from almost zero. Where household structures still stand they are so frail they can bear almost no weight. The traditions of the household are largely gone, their remains are fossilized in old books. If the warehouses go down times will be hard for many people.

This is one good reason why you should build your own house now. There is another though, one I like even better because it has nothing to do with the prospect of social collapse. Building your own house is a noble and rewarding task, maybe even heroic these days.

If you long for a greater measure of control over the things that bear most directly upon you, a house of your own is the only way I know of achieving that. But you must do your building in a world that not only does not understand what you are doing, it actively seeks to undermine it. The apologists of the welfare state and the business corporation will question the legitimacy of your enterprise and they will seek to provide low-cost alternatives and draw away the members of your house. But if you can bind the members of your house truly to you in love, you will all be better off for it. And you will know the sweet and the bitter of faithfulness and sacrifice. In other words, you will all know the true meaning of love.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

1. Covenants were often used by kings to bind lesser kings to them. There was no assumption of equality between the parties involved. We know that covenants were often involuntary and imposed. Marriage is also a covenant—but that is a subject for another time.

2. Although Biblical religion praises God’s glory in creation, the romantic view of nature is completely missing. The wilderness is a scary place: Adam and Eve were exiled to it, as was Cain, the Israelites were forced to wander in it for 40 years for their unbelief, and Jesus went there to be tempted by the devil. Only people largely unfamiliar with life in the open, or at least with ready access to a quick return to civilization, can romanticize the wilderness.

3. W-2 withholdings come to mind. What do you suppose would happen if people had to pay their taxes in person and in cash?

4. The film Cool Hand Luke is a meditation on the ultimacy of the bonds that hold our society together. As you may recall, Luke is killed in the end for nothing more than denying the legitimacy of legal and social bonds.

5. Before this a house was a productive place. The word economy is derived from the Greek words, “oikos” meaning house, and “nomos” meaning management. In a recent book entitled Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb shows how “economies of scale” and the amelioration of risk through ever larger aggregations actually makes a society more fragile. If the Great Depression and the Real Estate debacle of 2007-8 have not taught us this, how will we ever learn? The message of Taleb’s book could be summarized as, “Too big to fail is too big and sure to fail.” This book on householding is a proposal to break society up into the smallest political and economic units—households. Such a society, in the parlance of Taleb, would not just be resilient, it would be “anti-fragile”.

Print Friendly

Published: Jul 18, 2013
C. R. Wiley
C.R. Wiley is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and a Presbyterian pastor in Manchester, CT. He writes young adult fiction under the pen name, Mortimus Clay. His short stories have appeared in The Mythic Circle and Fear and Trembling. His nonfiction has appeared in Touchstone Magazine, Relevant Magazine Online, and Modern Reformation.
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. I think you understand the point of covenants. But you missed the obvious in your analysis of the words “covenant” and “cutting.” Do a real word study here!

    Holiness = spiritual separation. It means to ‘cut’ oneself off from sin and the world and then ‘bind’ oneself to the divine. It’s first a renunciation and, then and only then, an embrace. God symbolized this truth with the covenant, which for Abraham and his descendants was literal circumcision – a shadow of the circumcision of the heart in Christ’s New Covenant. Covenant / cutting imagery saturates the Bible.

Leave a Reply