Family in the iWorld

The traditional family has become something of an endangered species—even in the realm of public entertainment.  In former years, television brought us the “family sitcom,” shows like Leave it to Beaver or My Three Sons or—most recently—Home Improvement.  These shows depicted traditional family systems—two biological parents, one or more children in the mix—as well as the value of family stability in the face of personal or social change.  Though the changes were gradual, it really wasn’t until the 1990’s that we saw the development of programs like Seinfeld and Friends that completely upended the family system.  Now, our favorite characters were young singles who hopped in and out of bed but skirted commitment—if not avoided it altogether.  Children were a distant dream for some, though for others children represented an unwanted interruption in their personal goals.   Fast forward a bit further to today, when the glut of reality TV programs have virtually decimated traditional family sitcoms.  When families are depicted on television, it’s usually something like the show Modern Family, whose premise rests on non-traditional families becoming an increasing social norm.

I’m not throwing rocks, here.  This isn’t about labeling certain programs as “good” and others as “bad” depending on the way they depict families.  Rather, we must see the way that the world of entertainment shapes us in unconscious ways. The ancient church had a slogan, in fact: lex orandi, lex credendi—the Church “believes as she worships.”  What we look at shapes our beliefs.  Where individual values dominate in media, family stability deteriorates.

This isn’t moral alarmism.  The same sentiments are expressed by Jonathan Chait, an analyst writing for New York Magazine.  Chait points out that in Brazil, family structures came to mirror what was shown on television:

“Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000.…What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television….It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night.…Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement ‘led to significantly lower fertility’—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.”[1]

Sometimes art imitates life, and other times life begins to imitate art.

THE MORALITY OF CHILDLESSNESS

Earlier we’d pointed out that the decision to have children is a deeply personal one, though it has a substantive impact on society as a whole.  For years, sex has been directly linked to families and children—primarily because reproductive technologies had not advanced to today’s degree of functionality.  Now the range of available birth control options means that men and women can enjoy the benefits of sex without the responsibility of family.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary cites an article from Salon entitled “To Breed or not to Breed.”  Among the contributions to the article were several whose decision of childlessness was motivated by a different set of goals:

One woman wrote that parenthood just isn’t a part of her plan, regardless of cultural expectations to the contrary. Motherhood just doesn’t fit her self-image or her schedule. “I compete in triathlons; my husband practices martial arts; we both have fulfilling careers; we travel the world … we enjoy family and friends; we have a fun, intimate relationship.”

For others, the bottom line is simply financial. One woman asked: “What would the return be on the investment? Are there any laws that would require my children to pay for my nursing home when I am old? Are they going to be a sufficient hedge against poverty and loneliness?” A return on investment?[2]

Lest you assume that Mohler cites the most extreme examples, we might look at some data coming to us from the United Kingdom.  A recent poll found “that women’s top priority in life was to travel the world while living in another country was third on the list.  Getting married fell in fourth behind these aims…Meanwhile, getting married was also not a main concern for men…It came in ninth in their top ten to do list behind more rock and roll dreams to ‘drive an F1 car’ and ‘record an album.’” [3]

Obviously, this isn’t to suggest that there are never times or seasons when a married couple should delay children or even place limits on their total number.  Nor is this an argument against the selective use of contraceptives.  But we must recognize that God’s design for joy within traditional families can be subverted when we look for satisfaction in attaining our own personal hopes and dreams.

CARE FOR NON-TRADITIONAL SYSTEMS

But what about men and women who have no choice?  It’s easy to talk about “traditional marriage” as if it’s the only game in town, and that if we don’t have one we need only hitch up our bootstraps and get right with God.  I can personally name countless individuals—men as well as women—who exist in circumstances that fall outside the lines of “traditional family.”  Their spiritual integrity doesn’t always match the brokenness existing in their marriages and their families.  And still others may experience things beyond anyone’s direct control: infertility, widowhood, becoming orphaned through the loss of one’s parents.

While we would label the deliberate childlessness above as an emblem of the “iWorld”—the focus on the individual—we would suggest that many other circumstances reflect a broken system that we must learn to trust Christ in the midst of.  The Bible is hardly silent on this issue, either:

“Just as God is the God of the orphans and the widows, God’s heart goes out in a special way to single parents who shoulder the load of being both mother and father to a child or several children.  The Bible portrays God as the defender of the fatherless (Deut. 10:18; 27:19; Pss 10:18; 82:3), as their sustainer and helper (Pss 10:14; 146:9), and as their father (Ps 68:5).”[4]

The gospel offers us a standard to uphold, but the gospel also promises us that God’s plans and God’s care are far greater than we can fathom or invent.  Even as we gather around family tables in seasons such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, we are reminded of the incredible gift of family even as we feel the twinge of pain at the burden of family—or even lack thereof.  God gives us grace for both circumstances.  If “blood is thicker than water,” then the love of the Savior reveals a love that flows deeper still.

[1] Jonathan Chait, “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy is On Your Screen,” New York Magazine,  http://nymag.com/news/features/chait-liberal-movies-tv-2012-8/index2.html

 

[2] Albert Mohler, “Deliberate Childlessness: Moral Rebellion with a New Face,” October 13, 2013, http://www.albertmohler.com/2003/10/13/deliberate-childlessness-moral-rebellion-with-a-new-face-4/

[3] Lucy Waterflow, “There Goes the Bride…Women say they would rather travel the world than get married,” The Daily Mail,  May 4, 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2139482/There-goes-bride-Women-say-travel-world-married.htm

[4] Andreas Kostenberger, God, Marriage, and Family God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, p. 142

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