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This has been such a busy semester that I haven’t had much time for TV–at least, the kind of extended binge watching of whole series. But what I always have time for, particularly while I eat supper, is home renovation shows. I suppose they’re my “comfort” views: what’s not to love, after all, in starting with an ungainly property and finishing with delight and order. Sure, there are always problems along the way–that’s an essential component of the genre–but eventually, open concept achieved and shiplap firmly in place, everything ends quite easy peasy.

The fact that there are multiple programs on multiple channels devoted to this genre (plus allied lifestyle brands and the like) provides just another example of how deep-seeded our urge towards self-improvement is. Watch enough shows, and the DIY delusion kicks in.

Except, of course, that it’s never really that easy or peasy. Which is why my new favorite goes the exact opposite direction. Entitled “Help, I Wrecked My House,” it chronicles the massively misguided attempts of average people to redo their houses, based on their belief that they can figure it out. Instead, each episode begins with a cataloging of the disasters they have brought upon themselves. Typically, they’ve spent piles of money, while wreaking havoc on their homes and (often) their marriage and family life. Into the mess sweeps an actual expert, the sunny California contractor Jasmine Roth. She tours the devastation, asks them all the obvious questions to reveal their lack of expertise, and helps them figure out what they can afford to fix. And then…she capably and cheerfully fixes it with a crew of trained professionals.

In so many ways, it’s a show counter to the zeitgeist–and that’s why it’s so satisfying. The implicit assertion of the show is that there are things worth knowing, that there are skills that have to be mastered, that specialized training deserves respect. And most of all, that one shouldn’t do it all oneself. Help is not only okay, it is absolutely essential.

Which makes me think of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (because, of course it does). In one of his “Terrible Sonnets,” so named because of his struggle with doubt and depression, he says of himself: “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.” In other words, trying to be the activator in your own life (“self yeast”) does not improve the bread. In fact, like the folks on “Help…” realize, it fundamentally makes an already bad situation (“dull dough”) worse (“sours”).

It’s why I’m grateful for people who have trained to help–ministers, counselors, doctors, teachers, spiritual directors, writers. People who masterfully come alongside us to help us repair the areas for which we don’t have the right tools ourselves.

And, more importantly, in the season we find ourselves right now, we’re reminded that DYI spirituality is not going to work, either. We’ve indeed wrecked the house, and no amount of fixing it up is ever going to make it more habitable. As if we could–we don’t have the necessary skills.

But thanks be to a God who wants to come and, in the words of Eugene Peterson, live in the neighborhood.

Only that will improve it.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.


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