Reader: My dad had a great line when Hillary and Santorum has their dueling books It takes a village vs it takes a family. Neither was right, dad said: it takes a clan. Now that I am raising kids, I’m amazed how much that is true. My fridge died on Friday. My father-in-law came over to make out its death certificate. My mother-in-law made room in her fridge to save as much food as we could temporarily. My brother offered to empty his garage fridge of beer but had to stay home and watch my nieces, so my dad drove over with his truck to retrieve it and deliver it here. And my mom came with my dad and brought her own chalk to write a message to my sons our sidewalk, since they were out on a hike at our local park at the time. Within eight hours we were back in business.
Of course it’s far more than that - one leaves the kids with the grandparents two weekends a year to get away as a married couple to a bed and breakfast. My dad was unavoidably booked one day I had a father-son golf tournament as a kid, and my uncle played for me instead. I hope for all the world my brother has a conflict on just one father-daughter dance date so I can take my niece. Obviously a nuclear family can make it, and there’s nothing to say a tight knit church small group and couple best friend can’t play many of the same roles. But the fact of fictive uncles (and we assign the title aunt and uncle to our adult friends in front of our kids more than probably any other fictive family tie) proves the point: it takes a clan.
Me: Well said.
A reader: Your thoughts really jive with what I’ve seen these last 5 years, working with students on a commuter college campus. If you’re a student with safe, stable, affluent nuclear family (like with a lake house and boat) and the $$$ to pay for summer, Christmas, and spring break getaways … you’re not usually looking to receive and share in Christ’s ministry in ways that transcend “consumerist” approaches to Christian community.
But if you’re a person of color, an immigrant, or have struggled with depression or social anxiety, are coming out of generational poverty, identify as LGBT, or have a strained relationship with your parents … it’s a whole different story. We have enjoyed such deep relationships with many of these folks and been able to witness God’s Spirit begin to form “fictive” lines of kinship in our midst. In the last few years, we’ve been encouraged to see a number of student leaders who were raised in stable Christian homes begin to hunger for and practice this expanded notion of “family” with outsiders on campus. Christ-centered hospitality, solidarity, mutuality…I’m not trying to romanticize it because it’s often really hard and messy and progress is halting, but it’s been a joy for our family to be a part of ministry with such a diverse community of people and experiences.
Highlighting the disparities in how different communities understand ‘family’ is really valuable. For my part, I’ve learned more about the real meaning of 'social capital’ from the lower-class black guys I play basketball with than almost anyone else. I overheard one very memorable conversation a few years ago when one person offered to lend another money if they needed to make rent, because even though they weren’t “blood” they were “family.”
Reader: I finally realized what bugs me about Brooks’ take (other than it is by Brooks), and your missive: The nuclear family is creaking under the weight of expectation set upon it, aided and abetted by American Evangelicalism writ large. The focus on the nuclear family to the exclusion of the extended family and community has been fundamentally driven by individual, autonomous pursuit of economic advantage and personal freedom.
And yet the prescription is not to abandon this selfishness and repent of our individual desires for economic advancement at the cost of the extended family, most often starting with our parents, but instead to reimagine family?
Well, yes. And doing so necessarily involves abandoning our individual desires for economic advancement, and embracing marriage as a means to our happiness. If I ever get back to reading through 1 Corinthians, I suspect I’ll find myself arguing that the nearest form of desires to sexual desires are not the desire for food, as is often thought–but rather the desire for money.
The reality is that many Americans are turning against marriage and the nuclear family these days, because our idols always disappoint us in the end. But many evangelicals who want to (rightly) denounce such trends and defend the nuclear family want to disclaim any responsibility for helping create this world we live in. But judgment, as they say, begins at the house of God–and the only way forward is by casting down our idols. And that means reimagining how we understand family and the household, in order to save them both.