October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 10, 2004
TOJ: North American Evangelicals have heartily embraced reproductive technology in order to have our own biological families. What thoughts do you have on how to educate the evangelical community about the difference between being pro-family and supporting reproductive technology?
ALH: One way to educate evangelical Christians about reproductive technology is to consider, historically, how the nuclear family became in North America a symbol of the responsible, pure family. That occurs largely during the atomic era, during the 50’s. With the return of soldiers and the creation of new suburbs, you have this sense that what is truly “the family” is two parents — and by in large the standard became two parents with only two, possibly three, children. Mainline as well as Evangelical Protestants bought into that image as the icon for the best family. There are examples of this in posters that were distributed in the late 40’s and early 50’s by social hygiene organizations seeking to promote this vision of the comparatively independent and isolated family.
When you gain such historical perspective, you can ask a new set of questions. Is the independent, nuclear family the only biblically sound depiction? You can go further to ask whether this is even the primary Biblical depiction of the family. Back up into Scripture and try to think through how, especially in the New Testament, Christ re-configures the Roman family. The primary image of the family in Jesus’ words (as well as in Paul’s words) is the Church. It’s through baptism we are made heirs according to the promise. We are not foundationally related through blood ties genetically, but through blood ties Eucharistically. Through Christ, through Christ’s blood, we are made one, and Paul refers to this both baptismally and Eucharistically. It is through Christ’s blood that we are made one family.
When you look at those images alongside a nuclear family that is all genetically related and fairly isolated, even from grandparents, the difference is salient. That image of the nuclear family, the four individuals – mom, dad, son, and daughter – alongside the image of the Eucharistic family, I think it calls into question our somewhat obsessive pursuit of our “own children” who will fit neatly into the Midwestern suburb.
TOJ: So stemming out of the 50’s there was an elevation of the nuclear family above, at least as a Christian culture, the church…
ALH: Well it is complicated. It is not as if prior to the 1950’s you have the ideal, more biblical family. You don’t have a very biblically sound version of the family in Christian history, period. BUT, you get a particular kind of warping of the family that continues today, and that is, the warping of the family as being almost exclusively about genetic and biological ties and about being primarily about the immediate, relatively small, and efficient family of four.
TOJ: Recently in Sojourners there was an article about the pro-life movement and the failure of both democrats and republicans to live up to their so-called commitment to the sanctity of life. The article generalized that Democrats don’t support pre-natal life and Republicans don’t after the womb. One could infer from that that Evangelicals would be guilty of not supporting a culture of life after the birth of a child in regards to their approach to health care and the death penalty. Do you agree with that assessment and where do you see Evangelicals needing to more fully embrace a pro-life ethic?
ALH: Well this gets tricky, doesn’t it, because I know Republican Evangelicals who spend a great deal of time caring for other people’s children — who spend a great deal of time teaching Sunday school. I know many conservative Evangelicals who are trying to be more than (pardon me) just “thousand points of light,” and who actually try to create churches that are havens, not only for children who look like their own but other children who are neglected. I have watched Republican Evangelicals actually live up to their own rhetoric that this task of hospitality shouldn’t be primarily the responsibility of the government, but instead the responsibility of churches, communities, and neighborhoods. I’ve watched some really live up to the rhetoric, so I am hesitant to say that Republican evangelicals don’t live up to the pro-life rhetoric, because I’ve watched some very clearly do so.
However (a BIG however) this administration, the Bush administration, has been woefully inadequate in keeping up the most basic of social structures that churches and these communities rely on to do a pretty decent job on some of the most basic services like public education. While I’ve watched individual Evangelical churches and individual Evangelicals who vote republican really try to make a difference for children in need, I do deem this administration to be woefully inadequate. They have not provided a safety net for those tasks and people who churches cannot meet.
I also think, that there are liberal Evangelicals who work tirelessly in public schools and in the private sector. I do deem some liberal Protestants to be woefully inadequate in the task of testifying against selective abortion, against late term abortions, against the way individual women are choosing against birth and life. I think liberal Evangelicals need to be more courageous in calling not only their Republican counterparts to task, but also in calling to task those on the left who have accepted the inevitability of a culture of death.
TOJ: You mentioned this a bit already, but where do you think Bush has engaged this holistic pro-life approach well. How do you feel Bush has engaged this debate, where do you think Bush has fulfilled his claims of being pro-life and where has he not done that well?
ALH: I think he has fulfilled what he is trying to do, well let’s see, I’m trying to be charitable. I should admit that I am a yellow-dog Democrat and I’m afraid I’m finding myself voting for a yellow dog this year for president. You’re really putting me to the test on it (laughs).
But I do think that Bush has been responsible, in a way that I don’t find Kerry responsible in the least, in questioning the medical industrial complex. Bush has really pushed that we can’t have unfettered research on incipient life and still be an at least minimally moral society. It seems to me that, with embryonic stem cell research, we are becoming more and more predatory on the most vulnerable forms of life. Bush has held that line against many pro-market Republicans who are very frustrated with his position on this. He is going to lose votes over stem cell research. Arguably, he is going to lose as many as he will win over stem cell research. And he has made that a real matter of conscience, and I’m impressed, I’m genuinely impressed with his take on that.
At the same time, I think on the flip side he could argue as well that those who are the most powerful and the most privileged in our society should give sacrificially. We shouldn’t be using incipient human life, the most vulnerable in our culture, for gain, but neither should we allow the most powerful in our nation not to give sacrificially. And he has cut taxes to those who are the most powerful in a way that takes funding away from programs like Head Start, the kinds of programs in public schools that help children with disabilities, as well as the basic health initiatives that really rely on not just charitable but also federal funding in order to function. I think that has been a tactic, to try and force the private sector to deal with problems of poverty and health. I think he’s using the poorest as leverage in a way that is not consistent with a culture of life.
TOJ: In an article you wrote on the cheesy comedy, Cheaper by the Dozen, you quoted a critic saying basically the parents in the movie are un-believable because they are educated and successful and also have 12 kids. Given the fact that there are many children who need parents in the world, how are we to “procreate responsibly?” It feels like there is a tension there that many people need help navigating?
ALH: The whole term responsible parenthood is also historical, and that comes up around the 20’s and 30’s with the American Eugenics movement, which tried to forge a distinction between responsible and appropriate family forms, and irresponsible families. The argument went that with too many children one couldn’t provide for them in a way that would be responsible. There was also a great deal of anti-Catholicism and blatant racism and classism going on, especially by the time you get to the 50’s with this. So you have this kind of climb of the middle class trying to prove itself as responsible. You get them limiting the number of their children more and more, so they can provide more material goods for their children, send more of them to college, and by and large fit the mold.
And one thing I’ve had people ask me, is OK, you’re critical of reproductive technology to try and have your own children, but also you want to call into question the meticulous timing of children that goes on with more and more effective kinds of birth control. And yes, what I see as consistent with both of those efforts, both birth control (at least the way birth control is used by white dominant Americans in our culture) and reproductive technology is the sense that reproduction is something that one must control in order to fashion a family that will fit with one’s expectations. With the onset of especially effective forms of birth control (there were ineffective forms prior and they didn’t really matter that much for how we thought about the family), and reproductive technology, you have this ever-more efficient quest of controlling one’s form of family. I think this has warped the way we think about incipient life, the way we think about the gift of life, that parenting has become so much a task.
I mean, we have become Pelagian in how we think about the gift of life. It is something that we must control, navigate, and adhere to in order to craft a family that will fit in with economic demands that will fit in with cultural expectations. Evangelicals have to ask ourselves “Why?” What are the norms by which we are trying to adhere when we are seeking a particular kind of family? I suspect many of us are at least influenced by the images in the media. You know, “baby gap kids,” “better homes and gardens,” as we are influenced by a scriptural witness to the gratuity of life.
TOJ: Is it wrong then to even have the approach that I shouldn’t have as many kids because then I could then be more hospitable toward those children who need good parents, who need resources…?
ALH: So are you asking should you use contraception and adopt children? Or use contraception so you could give more money to your church and tithe?
TOJ: Well I guess I am asking both of those things, but those both seem somewhat a-moral now that they have been articulated…
ALH: (laughs) Well it’s not that those questions are obscene, but even as you ask such questions to be troubled by them, I think is to be asking the right sorts of questions. When you ask as you also simultaneously think, “ah is that the right question to ask”… that’s the right question to ask. To ask whether or not that is the right question to ask is already doing so much more than most young couples are doing when they are thinking about having children. What they’re thinking about when they are having children is crafted not by their faith but by the book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. They’re going to stick with all the rules in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, because What to Expect When You’re Expecting tells you that if you adhere to these rules you will have a child of the promise. That’s why their little tiny section at the back of the book about the unexpected, or unanticipated child with disabilities comes as such a jarring little section. Up until that point you have been reading that if you do all of these things right, you will not have the “dreaded” child, the child that is unexpected.
So what you usually have couples doing is buying these books and trying to anticipate all that they can do so that they can have a beautiful and flourishing child by all the definitions that we perceive in our society to describe a beautiful and flourishing child. That will continue your beautiful image of your flourishing beautiful family. And so even to ask questions about what images one has in view for having children goes a long way towards being more faithful. Just asking questions, why, why do you want to have kids? What do we have children for? A Mennonite colleague asked that right to my face at a conference — that we need to ask what children are for. He explained to the group that, in the Mennonite tradition, children are born for martyrdom. (And at that point I was thinking, that’s why you’re a Mennonite and I’m not.) But, to even say that, to witness that in the Mennonite tradition you have children so that they can bring witness in a cruciform way to Christ’s love, that’s a whole different set of questions than the questions mainline Evangelicals usually ask.
TOJ: The question of, “what are children for”, is this idea to have a perfect child, and to have the child in a very controlled way, to give this child everything that he or she needs and to give the child every advantage possible… is there kind of an approach to children in this country that seems Savior-esque, with this objectification does there also come a kind of idolatry of children?
ALH: Yeah, it’s a pretty surreal, Gnostic idolatry though. You get this image of a kind of disembodied child that you want. Look at the Ann Geddes pictures, an image of a child as pumpkin, or a child as flower: the baby as the commodity you get to consume or pluck and put in your vase, VERSUS, the kind of images you have with Norman Rockwell. Almost all of his images of children are children with skinned knees, are of the chaos of kids — I think about the one with the boys running and trying to pull up their pants, they’ve been swimming in the water hole with their dog. The images of children that he depicts are children with other children, who are showing signs of mess, which children inevitably are. Versus, with Ann Geddes, her images are so popular, I mean all sorts of well-meaning lovely church ladies on a regular basis put up Ann Geddes posters and calendars and use those images. And what they are is a kind of really dangerous idolatry, because you’re idolizing a kind of purely platonic form of “baby,” the “baby” one can fashion according to one’s own desires, the “baby” as consumable. And notice that those babies never have a sign of food on themselves; if you know anything about toddlers they are constantly covered in food. These pictures are children that do not consume; these are babies that we consume. And those icons of childhood are indicative of a dominant culture in America that sees children as a way to accessorize and fulfill one’s own life, rather than as interruptions into our own hopes, dreams, and goals.
Children should ideally re-calibrate our lives and instead we are seeking children that we can calibrate in order to fit into our hopes and dreams. That is part of why you have pre-natal testing and selective abortions, even among Evangelical Christians, you have a real interest in sex selection and gender selection even among Evangelical Christians because they have an image of what their family will look like, of what their child will look like. And there is a whole arsenal of tools now in medicine to use to craft a child that will most fit. Very blessedly, the child who comes will never be a child that will adjust accordingly and be perfect in a way that you were hoping. Blessedly, even if we end up cloning someday, that child will resist merely being an image of what we want. And in that resistance I think there will be hope.
TOJ: In your interview that was published in Christianity Today in July, you mentioned that the crux of the technical issues about IVF and ESCR are more “upstream” You also mention that having genetic children and being fertile is given elevated status to caring for those who are the “least of these” and those children who need to be tended to. Where do you think Christ speaks most aptly to this problem of the objectification of the family?
ALH: Oh the banquet, no question, last Sunday our church read the banquet passage in Luke. No question that would be the one I would refer to. When we’re going to have a banquet, what more characterizes the kind of ideal family gathering than the family dinner? If we’re going to have a family dinner, who are we going to invite, are we going to invite only those that fit? Or, are we going to invite the children that don’t fit… whether they be children who come from us biologically, the extra child that we didn’t anticipate or plan and who snuck through our ever more efficient contraception we’re using. Or are we going to invite only those who fit? I think that is a great passage for parents to dwell on.
Actually, to go even further “upstream,” I think that’s a great passage with which couples may start. This is something that my students get more riled up about than any other topic that I bring up. I swear, in some ways, abortion and homosexuality are less contentious among my students than the issue of what kind of wedding to have, what kind of wedding banquet to plan. The way that young Protestant couples plan their weddings bodes very ill for the kind of family they are hoping to become. You watch what a wedding is often about these days — it is about displaying one’s wealth to those one is eager to impress. If you think instead about the scriptural wedding itself, about being the open banquet that one hopes one’s marriage will be, I think weddings would look a lot different than they do. I think they would be on a Sunday morning service where everyone is invited. I think they would look more like a potluck than the kind of catered extravagances toward which even the middle class is climbing. I think the image of the banquet where the blind and the lame are invited, and those who cannot repay us, that image would be one in which to start a marriage.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.