By In Culture, Politics

Slavery and New Testament Household Codes

Slavery is an ignominious fact of history.

Historically it was also well-nigh universal. I know you’ve heard otherwise, but its universality is simply another fact. Western civilization didn’t invent slavery. In fact, civilization itself didn’t invent slavery. Some of the most degrading forms slavery has taken developed within hunter-gatherer communities.

I learned these things years ago when I read the best treatment of the subject that I have come across,  Orlando Patterson’s, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. (It won the National Book Award in 1991.)

Patterson is a social historian at Harvard University. He is also a descendant of slaves. (He was born in Jamaica.)

Based upon what I learned from Patterson I think its safe to say we’re all the descended from slaves. Somewhere, at some point in the dim past, your ancestors were slaves.

Early on in the book Patterson recounts his dismay when he learned that slavery was a universal institution, while freedom has a very particular and surprising provenance. What we know as freedom today arose in the West, in the very civilization that many people making a good living love to denigrate.

But here’s another surprising thing that Patterson reveals: it is the experience of slavery that served as a midwife for freedom. That shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Bible. It was bondage in Egypt that was the womb for the nation of Israel. Exodus is the story of their liberation.

How odd then that the Israelites should have permitted slavery. Or so it seems to us. And I think it is the same apparent inconsistency that bothers many people today when they read the household codes of the New Testament. Those codes made room for slavery. Why didn’t Christians simply free their slaves? Why didn’t Paul command them to? What’s all this about obey your masters?

While I’m sure that many Christian slave owners continued holding slaves for bad reasons, and while it is true that over time the emphasis on spiritual freedom in Christianity provided a theological basis for challenging the institution, still here in the New Testament we have codes telling slaves to obey their masters.

What do we do with that? No one says we should bring slavery back–no one we should listen to anyway. But more important for me is the claim that the codes as a whole are defunct because they provided for slavery. Ipso facto, wife, don’t bother respecting your husband, after all the code that calls for that also told slaves to obey.

I think defenders of the codes are familiar with that line of argument. But rather than address the role of wives, or children for that matter, I’d like to spend the rest of my time looking at slavery.

I think the place to begin is with the fact that I noted above: historically slavery was nearly universal. And something doesn’t get to be universal unless it solves certain problems.

I think we all know what one of those problems is: the problem of cheap labor.

But is that all there is to it? That addresses the demand side of things, but what about the supply? Sure, people could be born into slavery and you can wage war to acquire slaves. But there is something deeper to consider.

“Slavery is the permanent, violent, and personal domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons. …(A slave) does not belong to the legitimate social or moral community.” pp. 9-10

Social displacement can happen in many ways: warfare (as I’ve already noted), natural disasters, economic insolvency, and so it goes, ad infinitum. When people are displaced, the problem for a society is the problem of re-placement. Where do you put these people? There are relatives, of course. But what if they’re lost, or overwhelmed, or just unwilling?

Most people don’t think along these lines today. Individualism blinds us to a plain fact Aristotle noted: we’re social animals. We truly do need other people. Furthermore, many of the social institutions we take for granted could only have come into being in an advanced industrial civilization like ours. (Think of where all those charities and government social services we rely upon would be without fractional banking or taxes levied on the capital of highly productive corporations. They just wouldn’t exist.)

The cultures of antiquity in the near east and in Europe didn’t have those things. They were made up largely of hardscrabble households. When displaced persons needed somewhere to go, it was houses that took them in.

Some slave holding households could be quite large. The houses of the Patricians in Rome for example, or the house of Pharaoh in Egypt. But you see the point.

And once they’re brought into a household there’s the whole problem of where these people go in the hierarchy. You don’t suppose the folks who are already there are keen on being displaced themselves? And what about inheritance? How do these newcomers fit into the household’s long term prospects?

So you see, taking people into households solved the displacement problem. But it created new problems. and the answer to those problems was slavery. A slave was a person who contributed to the economic livelihood of a household without enjoying ownership or inheritance rights.

Hopefully this is beginning to make a little sense. Abolishing slavery is a little more complicated than just legislating it away. Slavery solved problems. To abolish slavery for good you must find new solutions for solving those problems.

And this is what western civilization has done. After many fits and starts and a lot of bloodshed over many centuries, we’ve managed to do it. But I suspect that the only way to keep slavery abolished is by keeping the institutions that have replaced it healthy. Lose those and slavery will be back.

But functional households don’t need slaves to function. And a wife is not a slave, neither are children. They are members of a house and enjoy the full benefits of membership. They are not property, they help to work property and derive a living from it. And this is one of the reasons why members of a household submit to its governing authority–the head of the house. Ideally it is in their interest to do so, because a household is a commonwealth and its members must work together to realize that wealth. And wherever people work together someone must serve as the head of the enterprise.

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By In Culture, Family and Children, Film, Politics, Wisdom

Bombadil at Home

When it comes to what the Bible means by taking dominion Tom Bombadil comes to mind for me; but I think what comes to mind for most people looks a lot more like Saruman.

If you’re a reader of Lord of the Rings, you understand those references. But if you’ve only seen the films, you probably didn’t–at least not the reference to Bombadil.

Poor Bombadil, what’s he in the story for anyway? (Peter Jackson, the director of the films thought he was expendable.) That whole episode in the Old Forest before the hobbits get to Bree seems like a senseless detour. Was Tolkien dallying? Was it just a bit of comic relief?

I don’t think so. Tolkien worked with texts professionally and he doesn’t strike me as the sort of person to do something on a whim. He was fussy.

I’m a writer in my own small way, and even I know that something that can’t be made to fit should be thrown out.

Either that, or you leave it in because it is somehow a way to underscore the point if the thing.

What’s the point?

There are many things like this in the world: the Sabbath, (what’s the point?), beauty, (what’s the point?), higher education, (what’s the point?).

When it comes to those things some people edit them right out of their lives. Or perhaps worse, they repurpose them to make them fit our restless, ugly, and benighted lives.

I think Saruman missed the point of life in Middle Earth. That’s why he tried to repurpose what he found there.

This was the reason he was interested in the lore of Middle Earth. He wanted power, ostensibly to save Middle Earth from Sauron. But in the process he became Sauron’s slave.

In order to acquire this lore, many eggs had to be cracked and his interrogations were torturous. That’s why Gandalf said to him, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Saruman thought he could save Middle Earth by dominating it.

But Bombadil just lived there. That’s why he was truly the master.

The word dominion has a fascinating provenance. It’s from the Latin, domus, for house. It is where were get the words: domestic and domicile. And those words never alarm people. But say, dominion, and your mind immediately runs on to domination.

But really, should it?

And this brings me to Bombadil. Just who is this guy? Tolkien didn’t say.

But in The Fellowship of the Ring, in chapter a chapter entitled: In the House of Tom Bombadil (the seventh chapter, by the way), we have Frodo, and the other hobbits wondering the same thing.

And Frodo asks, “Who is Tom Bombadil?” And this is the answer he receives:

“He is, “ said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.

Frodo looked at her questioningly.

“He is as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look. “He is the master of wood, water and hill.”

“Then this strange land belongs to him?”

“No indeed!” she answered, and her smile faded. “That would indeed be a burden,” she added in a low voice, as if to herself. “The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has caught old Tom…. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.”

Goldberry is Tom’s fairy-like wife that he received as a gift from the Withywindle–like a similar gift received my another man, long ago.

But unlike that man, or Saruman for that matter, Tom’s mastery is of a different kind than the kind sought by those men. We’re told that he knows the songs. I think that means he knows the natures of things. And his mastery preserves those natures. I think that can be seen in Tom’s rescues of the hobbits. And each time he comes singing the songs that set things right, not as a conqueror. (I’ve written more about that here.)

That’s real dominion for you. It is a very different sort of dominion we see in other deliverers. Whether the deliverer goes by the name Adam, or Bacon, or Saruman, we can know one thing, the sort of dominion they seek is unnatural.

But Bombadil, the funny fellow with the nonsense songs and the yellow boots, we can be sure that he’s on our side. And even though he looks clumsy, he’s graceful enough to flick individual raindrops away from his head in a downpour. He’s the master.

Fathers, when it comes to dominion in your houses be like Bombadil.

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By In Culture, Politics, Wisdom

Localism and the Pastorate, a.k.a. Dying Where You’re Planted

I was honored to be asked to speak at the annual Front Porch Republic conference alongside the Notre Dame political theorist and savant Patrick Deneen and the regionalist writer and wit Bill Kauffman, among others. The theme of the conference was, Localism and the Professions. They let me tag along I suppose because, like Mr. T., they “pity the fool!” Another reason may be that ministers were once considered professionals. 

The conference this year took place at Hope College in beautiful Holland, Michigan. A portion of this talk was adapted from something I published at Front Porch Republic a few years back.

Here’s my talk:

Professionals profess things. That’s what professionals do. They have been entrusted with valuable information.

I’m a minister, I’m entrusted with professing the gospel.

Information should bring Aristotle to mind, the man who identified the causes that inform everything. While every community begins with material causes that make a community possible, there are three other causes that actually make a community out of the materials on hand.

It is worth noting that each of the traditional professions corresponds to one of these causes. I think it is fair to say that the medical profession attends to the efficient cause. Sick people can’t work. Then there is the legal profession. Lawyers are stewards the formal cause. Through the administration of the laws, people can serve the common good as they pursue private goods. But traditionally it was the clergy that helped a community see what it is all for. We were the stewards of the final cause.

Notice the use of the past tense? For reasons that have spawned a million books, I’m out of the traditional job. No one really wants to hear from me about what it’s all about.

This can be seen in urban planning. People don’t build churches in the center of things anymore.

I live in New England where every town green is graced by a while clapboard Congregational church. But the only question people ask of those old buildings is, “What time is it?” when they glance at the steeple clock.

When people do look to the clerisy for guidance it isn’t as a community, but as consumers. And generally these individuals are looking for what George Barna calls “life coaching” to help them reach their personal goals. I’m like the trainer down at the health center. I provide advice on a proper diet and workout regime for the spirit.

Some of my colleagues have taken this up with gusto. They help people develop a personal relationship with Jesus. And this relationship is inward, and very, very personal. I’m reminded of Harold Bloom’s take on the old hymn, “In the Garden”. People go to the garden alone to commune with Jesus. And Bloom asked, “Just where is this garden, anyway?” It’s a Gnostic garden, he surmised, I think correctly. It is a virtual place; it only exists inwardly.

But local communities are real places that can be found using a map.

The Blessing of Getting Stuck

Speaking of places, now that I’ve treated the professions, let’s look at the other operative word in title of this conference—localism.

I now grudgingly accept that you don’t choose the location; the location chooses you.

I’ve moved around a lot during my time on the planet, first as luggage, then as the guy with the luggage. But I’ve been sitting on the same spot for the last ten years or so. The spot is in the Connecticut River valley, the rusted heart of industrial New England. The mills are largely gone; the gun makers are leaving, and if we ever beat our spears into pruning hooks the folks who work for Electric Boat will be out of work. But I won’t be leaving any time soon. I’ve set down some roots.

It’s not because I’m from there. I’m from a different valley—the Ohio River valley, western Pennsylvania specifically. It’s a rusted belt too, but different enough that I don’t feel entirely at home in my new home. There’s no going back, though; I’m different enough now that western Pennsylvania isn’t home anymore. I’m a stranger wherever I go, I suppose.

Now, we all know what Wendell Berry thinks of ministers. We’re careerists, careening from church to church. We just don’t care enough about the places we’re called to. He’s right. But it begs a question.  Yes, many of us blindly take our cues from mega-church pastors thousands of miles away, and we hanker after a “larger sphere of ministry”, but the ladies in our churches often take their cues from a pastor who’s been dead for thirty years. And when a congregation turns on you, your best hope is to get out of Dodge as fast as you can. This can discourage putting down roots.

What does it mean to put down roots anyway? Does it mean buying a house? Shopping at farmers’ markets? Scolding yourself when you feel the urge to run?

After thinking about it a while I’ve concluded it means what the metaphor implies: it means drawing nourishment from the place where you’re planted.

I’m not talking about drawing something from the atmosphere of a place. Local color is wonderful, but it won’t feed you (unless you can package it and sell it like they do on Cape Cod or in Vermont). What keeps you somewhere is productive property, the sort that can’t be moved. Wendell Berry has a farm. He cultivates it, and draws a living from it.

We can’t all get back to the farm, though–not soon, anyway. But there are other forms rooted property can take.

Small businesses usually work this way. Your reputation for minding the store takes years to build. And a pastor knows that a local businessman is worth three corporate executives. While the guy in the corner office may fill the offering plate with dough, his knowledge of a community is generally nil. And he could be transferred to Minneapolis in the blink of an eye. I’ve seen it: there he is; now he’s gone.

There is a risk to staying put. We should acknowledge it. That seems odd—what could be more conservative than putting down roots? But it is wildly speculative. The risk goes by the name: “opportunity cost.”  By staying put you limit yourself to what this particular place can yield. And if you’ve made Detroit your home, well, too bad.

Local churches are somewhat like this. They’re not property—at least not a pastor’s property. But how my church fares will largely determine how I fare. While Connecticut isn’t Detroit, I do see young people leaving, and old folks too. It’s a hard place to start out, and a hard place to finish. It’s expensive to live there; it’s even more expensive to die here. Still, we’re holding our own, even growing some.

I wonder a bit about the future of my church, though. Someday she will be better served by a younger man. What then? Where will I go? I’ve seen old preachers kill their churches by using them as life support.

My church isn’t the only thing that keeps me here. There’s my wife’s family. We moved here between pastorates a decade ago in part because we wanted our kids to be around grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was a good move.

But there was another reason we moved here: investment real estate. I had collected some properties in the area on the side over the years.

When I was just starting out my wife and I went to visit a saintly pastor and wife who were getting along in years. They lived in a trailer. Their good cheer and hospitality spoke to their royal status in heaven amid their humble surroundings. But I was ashamed of the church for forgetting them. I’ve known others like them, elderly ministers living in trailers.

Often they were the best men, not ladder-climbers, or namedroppers, just simple preachers who visited widows in their distress and went to fetch wayward children from the street. These were men I think even Wendell Berry would respect. But it was in the car during the ride home that I decided I would not become one of them. If possible, I would be both saintly and propertied. I don’t know if I’ve managed saintly—I’ve been told my faith is pretty earthy—but I’ve managed to become propertied. Maybe I’ve made some kind of trade. But I knew that day that, while I could trust the Lord to meet my needs, I could not trust the church.

That sounds terribly Protestant, I know. I suffer from the cautious love for the church that typifies the brand of Christianity I belong to.

I began investing in real estate in the early 1990s. I’ve done all right. Now I’m a freeholder. I even own enough to be considered a yeoman. I could have been a voter in colonial New England. It has afforded me a rare measure of independence for a preacher. But it has cost me something. I’m not free to get up and go. I’m rooted in the Connecticut River valley.

Commercial corporations have their own form of itinerancy. In the church the itinerancy was there from the start. The Son of Man had no place to lay his head, and Paul was a tentmaker—the perfect trade for a man on the road. Apostles didn’t set down roots. There was always another village on the other side of the hill that needed the gospel. But the apostles depended on the Lord. Their rootlessness distracts us from the roots that stuck straight up into the air. Corporation men are not rooted in the soil either. But their roots don’t reach up to heaven. They dig into corporations that float in the contested space between heaven and earth, where the Prince of the Power of the Air dwells.

Every formula for freedom I’ve come across contains some measure of dependency, usually hidden, like some secret ingredient. The Apostles were free because they depended on bread from heaven; corporation men are unencumbered by local loyalties because they live like tiny corpuscles in national and transnational bodies. But the yeomanry: family farmers, small business owners, and people like me, depend directly on a particular place for a living. As those places fare, so do we.

But we enjoy another form of freedom. We’re more self-reliant because we depend on things close at hand, things that grant us more agency than the rootless are granted. Sure, our local communities can’t separate themselves from the world entirely, as Berry’s fiction beautifully laments, but I’ll take the risks that come with my place over the freedom of the corporation man. He’s tied to the earth too. The body he lives in is a giant Mickey Mouse in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s tethered to the ground with strings too thin to be seen on television. But eventually everything that begins on earth falls back to earth and dies. There is great freedom in accepting this. I suppose I will die where I am planted.

If you’d like to know more about my latest book before shelling out your hard-earned money for it, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of my book, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

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By In Culture, Wisdom

New Testament Household Codes: Enlightening or Embarrassing?

In my old church, we never read the household codes. (The church I’m referring to here is the denomination I served for nearly 20 years.)

What codes am I referring to? These: Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Peter 2:13-3:7, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

We never read them from the pulpit, and if we could manage to skip them in small group Bible studies, or Sunday School, we did. And no one would object, on the contrary, sighs of relief might be heard.

Nonetheless, those good folk claimed to believe in the plenary inspiration of scripture. But it never jibed for me, either the codes are inspired, or they aren’t. If they are, we should read them. If they aren’t, we should say so.

Since I believe that they are inspired I left that church (for this reason among others). But some of my old friends appear to have reconciled their faith with their practice and are now saying that some parts of the Bible are inspired and useful for life and godliness, and others simply are not.

Still, some of those folk feel a need to justify themselves. Essentially they play the cultural relativism card. The idea is that those embarrassing codes were culturally relevant for the time, and Paul, not wishing to upset anybody, simply was all things to all men and went along with the benighted thinking of the day. He didn’t really mean what he was saying, though, and since those practices are now defunct, we no longer have to talk about them. (That’s what the nice people say anyway. Others just say Paul that was a misogynist.)

But Paul actually justified the codes theologically, not culturally. He actually used the codes to illustrate the Gospel. (I’m thinking of Ephesians chapter five here in particular–and yes, you can take that to mean I do believe Paul wrote Ephesians.)

But let’s just take the cultural relativism argument at face value. We can ask those who proffer it this question: “Okay, I get the culture argument, but can you help me understand what it was about that culture at the time that made those codes legitimate?” The response you will get I assure you will boil down to patriarchy, you know, that irrational urge many men suffer from to control everything. In other words, the codes reinforced a life that was always wrong.

But perhaps Paul knew something contemporary people have forgotten.

That line of thought has been tremendously helpful for me. It has helped me to reconstruct in my own mind the institutional framework within which Paul and his interlocutors lived. And this has led to some unexpected discoveries.

One of those discoveries is this: our attempts to contextualize the gospel to modern life have twisted the gospel. We believe we can abstract the gospel from the practices and institutions from which it sprang and then insert it into new patterns of life without altering it. But there is a wineskins problem here, form and content always go together. And some cultural forms just will not hold the Gospel.

When you try, you drive a wedge between faith and practice, and consequently, between salvation and creation. Christians end up living lives that smack of gnosticism. Salvation is reduced to an inward thing. And the social dimensions of the Christian faith necessarily end up being filtered out.

But here’s something else that I’ve discovered, we’ve had it largely wrong when it comes to the households of antiquity. Sure, there were many abuses, and there are certain features we do not need to recover. But those households had this going for them: they held together many things we’ve allowed to fly apart. Within those households: love and law, men and women, the young and the old, faith and works, creation and redemption, were all kept together and they all worked together.

What I intend to do in upcoming posts is introduce you to the household that I’ve discovered in my research. As I’ve grown in my understanding of it I’ve gone from seeing the household codes as embarrassing detritus we can live without, to a sort of rosetta stone for interpreting salvation and practicing the Christian life.

And to begin I will speak to that institution that many people consider most damning in the household codes: slavery.

An earlier version of this essay was published at Patheos.

If you’d like to read my book on the subject of household economics, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt


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By In Culture, Wisdom

Are Humans Obsolete?

“Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” Orange Catholic Bible

That quotation comes from a sacred text found only in the imaginary universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga. But if things keep going the way they’re going, we may need that “Bible”.

Dune is about a distant future, over ten thousand years from now. Man has gone off to colonize the galaxy, but on the way, there has been great social upheaval. The machines man made had come to dominate him, and even enslave him. Some of the elite had merged with the machines, achieving god-like power and seemingly unending life, while the rest of humanity was enervated and idle. Then came the war, the Butlerian Jihad. Over a 100 year span, the machines were defeated and the new commandment you see above was enshrined.

Just so much science fiction?

If you’re dismissive of science fiction, you shouldn’t be. Not only has this preoccupation of teenage boys predicted many of the things we enjoy today, everything from smartphones to gene therapy, it has helped to direct the aspirations of those boys.

You could say science fiction is a series of thought experiments about the role of science and technology on the development of human society.

What are people for?

I have a book, a collection of essays actually, by Wendell Berry by that title. It is one of the basic questions. A great deal depends on the answer. I’m afraid most of the people working in the fields of science and engineering proffer a really bad answer. And because the question is so terribly important to being human, the implications of those answers are dehumanizing.

The real Bible tells us that man was made in the image of God and was immediately situated in a garden in order to cultivate it. That work was performed within a household economy right from the start. The union of a man and wife was intended to be productive and they were to share both the work and the fruit. The cultivation included their bodies: Eve is the mother all the living and Adam is the husbandman, tilling the soil of her body. And they are to be fruitful and multiply and extend their dominion, their household–their domus–over all the earth.

The rise of the machines

The machines began their rise when creation itself was reconceived as a machine. Once, man had been the center, a microcosm, the hermeneutic of the cosmos. Man’s life was the scale by which the universe was ordered. This made the cosmos our home.

But today we see things differently. The universe is a vast mechanism and human beings are just tiny cogs in it, perhaps even malfunctioning ones. But we are still microcosms, but now the hermeneutic works in reverse. Now the machine defines us.

Are you obsolete yet?

A few years back a fantasy purporting to be social commentary was published entitled, The End of Men. The gist of it was pretty simple, men are obsolete because many of the functions traditionally performed by men are now performed by either the welfare state or by machines. (The same thing, actually, the welfare state is a kind of machine.)

I’m not sure what would make a feminists think women are exempt from this. Many of the jobs performed by women in the corporate economy are just as vulnerable to being made redundant by machines as those performed by men. (See the video below to see this explained.) Even sex with women is subject to obsolescence; virtual reality-porn is just around the corner and we even have sex-bots to look forward to. And don’t think your uterus makes you indispensable ladies, people are working on a replacement for that too. (Click here to learn about artificial wombs.)

The first possibility is to merge with the machines. There are people out there advocating the way of the Cymeks of Dune. They’d like to take a hand in their evolution and upgrade humanity. (If you think this is overblown, just follow the diva of transhumanists, Ray Kurzweil and I think you’ll begin to see things differently.)

But this is odd; we are told repeatedly by materialists that evolution is a blind process, feeling its way forward, filling niches in a vast, interdependent, mechanical system. Transhumanists overestimate our ability plan and control human development. And wouldn’t radically extending human life-span, genetically modifying people, and merging humans with machines make for a new species? And how will this be implemented? Who will be the early adopters? And how will they feel about the rest of us?

The recovery of the household economy

But there is another way forward. These new technologies could portend a re-centering of the economy back in the household. Telecommunication networks, and small-scale, highly adaptive manufacturing, will allow for a decentralized economy where husbands and wives, and even children, can work together.

What we need is dreamers, people who can envision an altogether different future than the one seen by the transhumanists. We need a vision of man the microcosm again, where our creations enrich us and lend meaning to our lives, not replace us or turn us into something subhuman.

I leave you with the following video. I hope you can agree with me by the end of it; if we can’t redirect this freight train of technological innovation in a more humane direction, let the Butlerian Jihad begin.

An earlier version of this essay was published at Patheos.

If you’d like to read my book on the subject of household economics, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

Read more