Christianity hinges upon several vital assumptions, one of which is that all people – without exception – are sinners who need help. Most people, I should point out, react poorly to being told this about themselves; call a person a sinner, and the best you can hope for is that they laugh and credit you with an ironic wit.
In seminary, I took a class on evangelism in which the professor – a product of an era when street evangelism was socially acceptable in some places (the more I know about the 70s, the stranger they sound) – insisted we should seek to convert sinners into Christians in one conversation, and actually graded us on our attempts. Overwhelmed with resentment towards the idea that the principles guiding my life could be packaged and sold in one conversation – and mindful of the fact that it generally takes two conversations to buy a cup of coffee at a drive-thru window – I found his prescribed methods abhorrent, and I marshaled all of my considerable stubbornness in an effort not to learn from him. I failed. This professor taught me that while nobody wants to hear that they’re a sinner, nobody is ignorant of this fact either.
I suppose I might compare it to a massive zit on one’s chin. If your face erupts with an apple-sized pimple on your chin, you will probably react poorly to the tactless lout who brings it up. This is true because it hurts, because you see it every time you look in the mirror, and because you don’t want to discuss something so unsightly and embarrassing. But your unwillingness to make it a topic of conversation in no way diminishes your awareness of it. You know about the fruit growing on your face, and you know about your sins, but you probably find equal pleasure in discussing them, particularly with strangers.
I bring this up because over my holiday travels I indulged in a guilty pleasure that illustrated to me the ubiquity of pride, greed, and other nasty sins in all of our hearts. I watched two episodes of House Hunters on HGTV, and couldn’t believe at the ugliness exposed by such an innocuous show. Who knew that House Hunters could be a window into the hidden pollution of the human heart?
Before I continue, let me clarify a few things. For one thing, if you had a way to conceal the aforementioned pimple, you would do so. That’s what we do with things that embarrass us: we hide them. Unbecoming attitudes and sins – greed, pride, lust, et al. – are exactly the same; we conceal them as best we can. And the degree to which one succeeds at covering such sins is directly related to the esteem with which one’s social graces are held. In general, the less obvious your sins, the more likable, respected, and ‘normal’ you will be considered.
I state the obvious truth above so you’ll understand what I mean when I tell you that the home buyers I watched on television seemed pretty normal and well-adjusted. Of course, that’s how they want us to see them, but I maintain that they were in no way obviously rapacious or narcissistic; as they were introduced, I felt like I knew (and liked!) dozens of people just like them.
Then they started looking at houses. Wow.
If you’ve never watched House Hunters (or House Hunters International), I should also clarify that it’s more scripted documentary than reality television. What I mean by that is that nobody throws drinks in anybody’s face, nobody schemes about the downfall or degradation of anyone else on the show, and the producers never make obvious use of editing to add drama to the show. Instead, the show pairs a realtor with a person or couple who are shopping for a house, films the realtor showing them three options, and reveals the home buyer’s choice at the end of the show. The drama is entirely in the struggle between the house hunter(s) and their ability to realize their dreams on the budget they have.
Believe me when I tell you that it is drama, by the way. The house hunters are filmed in the midst of a quest to realize some part of the American dream, and that means that the cameras capture glimpses of what the hunters have spent decades learning to conceal. A person can spend her whole life claiming to have simple tastes and feigning indifference about all manner of superficial home luxuries, but in the moment of decision before spending $400,000 on a new home, the truth emerges.
More often than not, it happens in the kitchen. It starts with the pride evident as the potential buyer expresses ridicule and contempt for the current homeowner’s taste in kitchen lighting or layout or counter material or cabinet color or any one of 100 changeable details. Preferences are expressed as absolutes, wants are expressed as needs, and the home buyer presumes to be an arbiter of truth and taste when it comes to architecture, interior design, and construction materials. In short, the perfectly normal house hunters become insufferable in their self-regard as the show unfolds, and like a zit too massive to hide, sin announces its presence.
I’ll omit the specific maladjustments evident in the buyers in the episodes of House Hunters I watched over the holidays; they’re not actually the point. The point is that these insufferable buyers were just like all the other house hunters. The point is that they were just like me, and just like you.
We’re all sinners, and – like that class taught me – we all know it, and with time we learn to hide it. Being at the precipice of realizing a dream, however, creates a circumstance in which our efforts to hide our self-regard are in conflict with the opportunity to let our desires off their leash. And when that happens, our selfishness slips into the open. It happens basically every episode on House Hunters, but I imagine that’s only because it happens in home buying whether there are camera crews involved or not. House Hunters just happens to show people when their defenses are down. And that – along with the gorgeous houses – is what makes it such a great show: in just ½ an hour, we first get to see each house hunter how they wish they were, and then we see who they really are.
So remember that the next time you contemplate changing your kitchen. No matter how nice it is or how nice you make it, the insufferable narcissist who buys your house next will mock you for how it looks. Just like you will the next time you buy a house. Apparently, that’s where we’re worst at hiding our sins: in the kitchen.