10 February, 2010

Space, place, and grace

The following is a short essay I wrote for a scholarship application. It was my effort to briefly articulate the connections I see between the field of design and the Christian life (more specifically, Christian hospitality). These ideas are still simmering, but I was fairly satisfied with this initial attempt.

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In his essay “Longing for Home,” Elie Wiesel said, “Our century is marked by displacements on the scale of continents…Never before have so many human beings fled from so many homes.” In recent years the developed world has experienced a great influx of different races, religions, cultural priorities, and modes of expression. There are many "strangers within the gate" who are seeking space. Yet in order to really flourish they must not just have space; they must have place.

Design responds to both the realities and the fantasies of our lives/of a time period and culture. It is our response to the way things are, and our vision of the way things should or could be. It can move beyond space to make place - home, belonging - possible. As Christine Pohl writes in "Making Room," "body, soul, and spirit are fed by attention to small details...Attention to these details expresses an appreciation for life which has more to do with taking time than with having money." Showing people that they have worth and belonging - essentially, showing hospitably - is a key component of the Christian calling. Therefore, design is profoundly relevant to the Christian's mission of making the invisible Kingdom visible, for it provides a material/aesthetic language in which to express those truths. Museums and design historians are essential in preserving a record of design's past application to lifestyle (showing us what the "horizons of the possible" have been, to borrow Andy Crouch's phrase). This preserved and disseminated knowledge gives us the foundation necessary to understand our present relationship with design. It also opens our eyes to design's potential role in making the world what it ought to be - and the way we trust it will be, if we believe the Bible's redemptive narrative.
The Modern era has made man out to be little more than a machine, or at best, an animal. This skewed identity has been reflected in design movements that have stripped warmth from living spaces, reducing them to their basic functions. Removing the possibility of creativity and individual expression denies man the exercise of his God-given, God-imitating creative urge. Aside from Francis Schaeffer and his colleagues, where were Christians during this malaise? I think that Christians can offer a better understanding of what it is to be human, and we can do so in part by acknowledging the unique exchange between people and design. In my vocation I want to challenge this incomplete definition of man and the sense of futility present in much of modern and contemporary design. I wish to bring this sense of the fullness of life to my scholarship as a design historian, to my exhibitions as a curator, and to my teaching perspective as a professor.

From my earliest years I recited the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man?” “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” I am finally coming to understand that that “forever” can – indeed, does – begin now, through our efforts to imitate (in every realm of culture) the creativity of God. The fullness of life that Jesus promised in John 10:10 begins now. If even the ships of Tarshish can present their glory to God (Isa. 60:9); if God Himself cared that the curtains of the Temple bear beautiful figurative decoration; then surely our material surroundings can and do matter in more than a temporal sense.