"Live Wrong and Prosper"In June, Wired magazine published an article by Laurie Penny entitled "Live Wrong and Prosper: COVID-19 and the Future of Families." I thought that the article offered a fascinating insight into ways that changes in American family structure have made this pandemic different from the Spanish Flu epidemic a century ago.
Penny's article is a follow-up and expansion upon a Los Angeles Times article entitled "Coronavirus Quarantine Buddies Try to Lessen Isolation," a front-page article that featured a picture of Penny and her "pod"—what she calls the collection of "people [she was] neither related to nor sleeping with" with whom she was cohabitating and quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Penny argues that such an arrangement—a "found family"—has come of age and is the optimal arrangement for herself and for her generation. Her ancestors might disapprove and say that there is something wrong with anyone who would choose this sort of family arrangement over something more traditional, but in Penny's estimation, this is the only sort of arrangement in which she has any hope of finding relational fulfillment.
Critiquing the Traditional FamilyAn article like this one would be incomplete without some assessment of the shortcomings of traditional family structures. Penny's article does not disappoint. She borrows heavily (not in terms of word-count, but in terms of philosophical indebtedness) from David Brooks's March 2020 feature article in The Atlantic entitled "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake." Brooks's thesis, and Penny's, is that the traditional nuclear family was really only suited to the 1950s, and was only artificially suited even to that decade. As Brooks put it, the 1950s constituted "a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family."
It is a tendency of Marxism to reduce all of life to economics and a tendency of liberalism to reduce all of life to personal choice in search of independence and personal fulfillment. The critique of the nuclear family in these articles falls predictably along those lines. Traditional families lived and died by the sword of economics, and there's no going back, because doing so would curtail our individual freedoms too severely.
And yet, what struck me about Penny's article is that, although in it she spells out her critique and exclusion of traditional family life, the article contains no suggestion that she knows traditional family life apart from academic analyses like Brooks's or secondhand reports. Her family of origin was fractured by divorce in her childhood. Her adult life has consisted of living "in 35 places in five countries with, depending upon how you count them, over 200 housemates." The one time she decided to go all-in and "try to be normal" is represented by a brief cohabitation, sans marriage, with "a dear friend who had just become a romantic partner."
This is how far the family has fallen in Western culture (Penny is from London). The traditional family is so far over the horizon as to be out of view entirely for entire demographics.
Both Brooks's article and Penny's perform a strange feat of legerdemain. They narrate a tale of human family arrangements in which a longstanding arrangement of extended families gave way to the isolated nuclear family after World War II. Then they explain why the isolated nuclear family was unsustainable. Then, having knocked the legs out of the isolated nuclear family, they walk away from BOTH the isolated nuclear family of the 1950s AND the extended family of the centuries preceding the 1950s, but without having bothered to offer any serious explanation for why a serious rapprochement with the extended family might not be in order.
After all, Brooks's isolated nuclear family is not incompatible with the extended family. Brook's presents it as though it is some sort of replacement, but that's an inaccurate view. Nuclear families exist WITHIN extended families. Nuclear families are not the unsustainable thing; the stripping away of extended family is what makes the nuclear family, previously quite healthy and resilient, suddenly untenable. Brooks wants to leap right over the extended family to hunter-gatherer bands, which is a strange leap to make. After all, the story of the nuclear family within the extended family is well-documented in writing back as far as written human history extends. The Old Testament is not the only record of this phenomenon, but it certainly is a noteworthy one. The lengthy genealogies that frustrated your through-the-Bible-in-a-year effort stand as testimonies to the importance of nuclear families within extended families back as far as 5,000 years ago.
In contrast, what do we know about hunter-gatherer bands? Nothing much in the written record (unless we equate them with Native American tribes or other modern tribal societies). All we have are the speculations of people who dig up cemeteries, analyze DNA, and generate theories of what might have happened. It's not that these early clan groups have no part in the story of human families; it's the oddity of leaping over the oldest, best documented patterns of human living (the nuclear and extended family) to locate the future in a largely imagined, utterly undocumented past.
And yet, even though the critique has some flaws, from a Christian perspective, there are opportunities to nod a head in agreement. The New Testament envisions a multi-generational life that appears to be very difficult to sustain, even within churches, apart from healthy multi-generational family life. In a century we've moved from an expectation that children would establish their adult lives in the same community as their parents, through a period of thinking that children might do whatever they like in their adult lives, to an expectation (unless you live in a major city or a university town) that children must absolutely establish their adult lives somewhere other than the town of their upbringing. Extended family survives now, where it survives, on the backs of improved mobility among grandparents who are healthier and wealthier than their own grandparents were, and are therefore able and disposed to chase their grandchildren across the country in search of intergenerational relationships.
Even for Christians, nuclear families are not enough.
Also, Christians receive a needed education from Penny's article about what "traditional family life" means to the people who hear us speak about it. For Penny, that's two heterosexual lovers deciding to live together. Biblical ideas of lifelong monogamy, covenant marriage, and permanent family are fictions to her. For a preacher like myself, this sobering reality means that in my sermons, I have to be more careful to define terms that previously I assumed everyone understood.
One final critique of the critique of Penny's dismissal of the nuclear family is in order at this point. I've survived as long as I have preaching the way that I preach because the traditional family is a lot healthier, even among her own generation, than she seems to want to admit. Don't get me wrong; the statistical shifts away from marriage are unmistakeable. And yet, my facebook friend list is full of Millennials who are getting engaged, getting married, and building two-parent families that they expect to last a lifetime. I don't doubt Penny's assertion that "in LA, nearly half the adults are currently living with a nonpartner," but there's actually a world beyond New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Washington. Outside of those locations, quite a few young people are encountering no insurmountable obstacles at all to building stable two-parent homes. Either David Brooks or Julie Penny would have authored stronger articles if they had given a little space to telling just one of those stories.
Promoting the "Found Family"Julie Penny's favored alternative to the unrealistic ideal of a traditional family is the "found family" or the "forged family." Her preferred defintion is borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut—family is "whoever is around to be loved." In her interview with the Times, Penny preferred to call it a "pod." There's no procreative bond here. There's no sexual bond here. Procreation is not acknowledged as an aspiration anyone would have in these articles, and although there's plenty of room for sex, this kind of sex doesn't create or require anything resembling a "bond." There are some people who happen to be, at this particular moment, in your vicinity. You love them and hope they love you back. That's family. No ongoing commitment expected or given.
Penny's personal narrative gives very little reason to conclude that this way is to be chosen because it is better. Loneliness is all around this essay, barely held at bay by temporary measures, but never farther away than a multi-page letter from the roommates who are booting you out of the house.
Yesterday I participated in an hour-long Zoom call with college roommates in celebration of a roommate's fiftienth birthday. It was a lot of fun. We told a lot of stories. If God is merciful to me, none of you will ever hear any of them. I love those guys. It was a blessing to see how God has blessed and used them down through the years. But ultimately (and I think each of those roommates would write exactly this), what came into our lives when my wife and I married is something so much deeper and more enduring as to make two years in the Baylor Plaza II Apartments spent with good friends an appendix tucked away into the back of the story of our lives. Tracy has shaped who I am. We have struggled together, cried together, served together, and aged together. There are bonds that have been forged, and that's a good thing. Loneliness will someday come by way of illness or death, but otherwise, there is no loneliness so long as there is Tracy. Roommates (nor lovers) just can't provide what a spouse does.
But I didn't sit down and write this article just to trash Penny's article. Why invest in writing a blog article just to say that I disagreed with Julie Penny? Thoughtless curmudgeoning is why God invented Twitter.
I've written this article because Penny's essay offers an unintentional critique of Evangelical Christianity that we need to consider. The idea of the "found family," though it may sound to us unhealthy and bizarre in the California-est way possible, is actually a Christian concept, fundamental to our faith, and yet largely beyond our grasp.
Somewhere Between Oneida and PalmyraIn the ninetheenth century, Evangelical Christianity in upstate New York spun off a number of experiments. Although all manner of Christian doctrine gave rise to one sect or another, many of these groups were searching for a new family model. Two sects are noteworthy for our consideration in this article.
In Oneida, NY, John Humphrey Noyes was trying to do away with the nuclear family. His vision was thoroughly communistic, although not atheistic. He wanted to bring together a community bound by spirituality, labor, and equality. The urge to claim possessions for oneself was, from Noyes's perspective, a principal divisive force within human community. For Noyes, monogamy was nothing more than a capitalist approach to relationships, provoking the same kind of possessive divisiveness.
So, Noyes scrapped the nuclear family, asserted his concept of "complex marriage," assigned the task of child-rearing to the community at-large, and even instituted a sort of human breeding program, attempting a spiritual eugenics (matching people in order to produce the most devout children possible).
The handwriting was on the wall for the Oneida Community by 1880. These sorts of arrangements never last.
The Oneida Community gives a picture of what a Christian version of Penny's new family order might resemble: Sex, relationship, and community without family.
About a hundred miles away from Oneida sits Palmyra, NY. There in the same milieu a young Joseph Smith was devising another, different heresy. Alongside claims about golden plates nobody ever saw written in a language nobody ever spoke delivered by an angel nobody ever mentioned before, Joseph Smith (and his successor Brigham Young) spelled out a vision of Christian family that was on the opposite end of the spectrum from that of Noyes.
Noyes wanted to disestablish the nuclear family; Smith wanted to embed it deeply into the Mormon concept of spiritual life. Marriage plays an important role in Mormon eschatology. Husbands and wives seeks to be married in the temple so that their family will endure forever. Mormon marriages offer the hope of eventual elevation through procreation (and devote spirituality) to an ultimately sublime nuclear family life. Even for those who don't manage to get married before they die, Mormon eschatology offers the hope of posthumous marriage. If you're Mormon, eternity is all about the nuclear family.
Everyone knows that the Christian vision of the family is NOT the partner-swapping communist vision of John Humphrey Noyes. Everyone NEEDS to know that it's also not the family-centric vision of Joseph Smith, either. According to New Testament Christianity, marriage is a holy institution to be honored and respected (Hebrews 13:4); divorce, premarital sex, and adultery are to be rejected (also Hebrews 13:4, as well as Matthew 19:1-12); marriage and sex are strictly heterosexual, grounded in the creation of all humankind within the binary gender space of male and female (Matthew 19:1-12); and marriage serves, in addition to the emotional, relational, and sexual purposes that are obvious, a spiritual purpose by which it mirrors the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Joseph Smith was right (contra John Humphrey Noyes) that the nuclear family is a big, big deal in Christianity.
And yet, the New Testament is also full of speed bumps and guardrails to keep us from overstating the importance of the nuclear family. Jesus denied that marriage is a part of Christian eschatology at all (Matthew 22:23-33), and for the apostles, this temporary nature of matrimony became an important teaching tool for explaining the nature of the gospel (Romans 7:1-6). It wasn't only about eschatology; even for Christian discipleship in this life, the apostles did not make marriage the default plan (1 Corinthians 7:25-35). Christianity endorses Christian marriage, but it endorses it as a temporary, imperfect, mundane institution.
What the New Testament lifts up as eternal, perfect, and spiritual is a "found family," the church. But there's a key difference between Penny's "found family" and this one. The modern idea is that the "found family" is the family that you find. It's a curated group, tailored to meet your individual proclivities with minimal interference. The New Testament "found family" is a family of those found by Someone Else. Assembled across racial, ethnic, national, economic, and preferential lines, the churches became the principal familial units for the earliest Christians.
After all, Christians in the early church were outcasts and vagabonds from their families of origin. Much like Penny's own story and Brooks's "AOC-DC" example, these were people against whom the doors of "traditional family" had been decisively shut. They called one another "brothers and sisters." They announced a theology of divine adoption into a family that was new, transcendent, and divine. Nuclear family existed. It was important. It was honored. It was respected. But it was secondary to the true family of the churches.
Rosaria Butterfield's observation that churches are "on a starvation diet of community," if true, constitutes a wake-up call in this environment. Brooks is right—a nuclear family can't survive without an extended family to prop it up. Even in a dispersed society like ours, churches who cultivate spiritual family can buttress nuclear families in the ways that they need. And for people like Penny for whom the Christian vision of family belongs in the same category as JK Rowling's vision of wizardry education, a true spiritual family environment is far more likely to lead her to the gospel (and to a Christian view of marriage) than is any nuclear family experience in her future to lead her to a Christian view of spiritual family. But although the spiritual family of the church can offer support to the nuclear family, to place too much emphasis upon this reality is to let the tail wag the dog. The nuclear family exists to serve the spiritual family, not the other way around.
If the "found family" seems as foreign and strange to us as the "traditional family" seems to Julie Penny, then that's a crying shame. We had it long before she did, and it meets basic human needs that nothing else can satisfy. I read her article and was tempted to shout out, "The nuclear family is not going away!" But it is, actually, in an eternal sense. And we already have among us the family that will outlast it.