All of the think pieces in all the Christian-cultivated blogs across the Internet expounding the Christ-hauntings in every television show ever aired or streamed—they’ve been pretty good. I mean, someone even managed to bring the Gospel to Game of Thrones. I’d like to look somewhere even less likely: This Old House, which I’d claim is literally the most redemptive show on TV.
For those unfamiliar with the PBS stalwart, This Old House spends each season following the same New England renovation crew: host Kevin O'Connor, master plumber Richard Trethewey, landscape wizard Roger Cook, electrician Scott Caron, wise carpenter Norm Abram, and, my personal hero, general contractor and all-around genius Tom Silva. Together, they take one dilapidated home and bring it back to life. Right there you’re dealing with the repeated work of making old things new, so, you know, redemption ahoy!
I am indebted to Dallas Willard for the wonderful metaphor of renovation for Christian spiritual formation. The more you press into This Old House with the idea that the house is your heart, the more true this line of thinking becomes.
Your heart is not a blank space. It never was. If your heart began blank, then all of your life’s work would be to build your identity from scratch. This notion of self-actualization feeds into a contemporary, identity-seeking narrative, wherein we are all supposed to be striving to realize our highest possible versions of ourselves. We’re to do what we love. Never settle. Find ourselves. Lean in. This way of living is highly seductive because it invests our lives with an intoxicating level of autonomy and possibility. But it has a dark underbelly. The pursuit of self-making burdens our lives with a paralyzing amount of choices, as well as subsequent guilt when we fail to achieve what the world would define as our Best Life.
Luckily, we don’t build our hearts from scratch. They are inherited things, crafted for us by a God who knit us together in the womb and set us in the place he saw fit. We have a self and a life formed by transcendent wisdom. What a relief from the crushing directive to build our own identity.
That’s not to say our hearts don’t have their problems. Flooded by the waves of the Fall, we spend years and even decades inhabiting dilapidated identities that are falling down around our heads. In a sense, we grow up living in a tumbledown old house not unlike those Silva and his team repair. But at the moment of rebirth, we find that Jesus has big plans for this old house. He doesn’t tear down and rebuild. He renovates and redeems.
Jesus doesn’t tear down and rebuild. He renovates and redeems.
When you buy an old house, you move into a figurative picture of fallen life in a broken world. Every room is a project, and often each project reveals the need for deeper, more structural repair. How apt. Who hasn’t caught themselves at some behavior that seemed so simple to change, only to find out that a deeper issue was at play? In renovation of the heart and home, we need a master carpenter.
Enter Tom Silva. He’s no Christ figure—this being reality television, thankfully no one dies. If we have to put a label on Silva, that of a wise and affable priest does nicely.
Silva has a trained eye for structural disintegration and the ill-conceived cosmetic fixes that allow such problems to fester. To abuse and neglect he brings a vast knowledge of holistic repair, often stripping the house to its bones in order to mend its broken heart. With such deep renovation, he returns fallen houses to their original glory and girds them for the depredations of time, storm, and living to come. As a master craftsman, he does all this with deference to beauty, while also working according to code.
This issue of building codes—laws that exist to ensure homes are safe and trustworthy—also pertains to the metaphor of home renovation as heart renovation. Our fear of rules and limits is exactly why visions of autonomy are so seductive, even though the practical effects of pursuing them are often alienating, exhausting, and depressing. We cannot imagine having our desires curtailed. Yet if there is a proper way for a heart to be shaped, surely this means we can’t always get what we want.
Yes, and no. There are some parts of the heart that serve an essential purpose, some walls you cannot take down without collapsing the whole thing. We need people who can look at us with the wisdom to say whether or not our desire is honorable, while also having the compassion and creativity to build a structure that channels our desire in sustainable ways. We need good pastors and friends who know a good God and see in us the potential for a life of obedience and joy, one found in a holy mix of freedom and surrender.
Every old house on This Old House is different, but each is restored beautifully. Likewise, the ways to express a robust life of faith are kaleidoscopic. This should give us pause. We are all so personally dilapidated, and God is so intimate, that our identities in Christ have the potential to be as various as the stars in the sky. As we encourage and chasten each other—as we love each other—we must bear in mind with reverence the differences between code and taste. And we must remember that heart renovation is a long work of discernment. No old house gets fixed in a day.