Religious conservatives are going to hate David Brooks’s assertion that the nuclear family has had its day. Don’t confuse a defence of the nuclear family, he argues in a piece for The Atlantic, with a defence of families in general. Families come in a variety of shapes and sizes. And have looked very different at different times. That conservatives — and religious conservatives in particular, and American religious conservatives above all — came to believe that the only sort of family worth defending is the nuclear option of Mum and Dad and 2.4 children, is part of the reason they have locked themselves into a losing position.
Having little historical imagination, the moral majority movement of the Eighties fetishised this very particular notion of the family — one that only flourished within some very particular economic conditions during the post-war period. But this iteration was only a blip during the long transition from large, extended kinship groups to the ‘chosen’, ‘blended’ family that begun to emerge within the gay community at precisely same the time Jerry Falwell and Ronald Regan were insisting that nuclear was the only proper way for families to be. For these two reactionaries, the nuclear family was the all-American redoubt against the twin threats of communism and homosexuality. The family was nuclear not just in the sense of being a nucleus, but also, as the premier expression of resistance to the nuclear threat of Communism. Family, God and country became “the holy trinity of American traditionalism”.
It is rather awkward for Christian conservatives, then, that among the most difficult to conscript into this cosy celebration of the bounded little family unit is Jesus of Nazareth himself. For again and again, throughout the Gospel accounts of his life and teaching, Jesus is portrayed as a thorough-going enemy of the exclusively narrow biological unit. Let one example stand for many:
“While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12. 46-50)
One way of telling the story of the Biblical narrative about the family is as an arc that begins with the association of family life – and particularly procreation – with patriotic duty, and then gradually subjects this position to ever increasing scepticism. For a fledgling community intent on nation building, the production of children was essential to communal survival. Thus the suspicion of all those who do not contribute to the expansion of the population – eunuchs, homosexuals, unfertile “barren” women. The problem here is not about sex, it’s about children. This is what modern sex-obsessed conservatives miss about the argument that is going on within the pages of the Bible. The charge against homosexuality is not that people shouldn’t have sex this way, the charge is a lack of patriotism.
But even this gets challenged and broken down. Consider the following from Isaiah, 56:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters”
This is radical stuff. Keeping Sabbath is “better than sons and daughters”. And Isaiah is Jesus’s favourite book of the Hebrew scriptures — he quotes from it more than any other text. Jesus’s “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” line is a clear extension of this tradition. He takes it beyond anything even Isaiah could have imagined. Membership of this new family is not premised on biological kinship but on baptism — water is thicker than blood.
It is very peculiar how religious conservatives have sought to construct an apologia for the nuclear family from the Bible. Broadly speaking, the Old Testament is perfectly relaxed about its heroes having multiple wives — Solomon had 700 of them. In contrast, the heroes of the New Testament are mostly single men, with little interest in the domestic duties and pleasures of a settled family life. St Paul even advised that it was “good for a man not to marry” (1 Corinthians, 7). To say the least, it is very hard work indeed to try and find a secure theological model of the nuclear family within the pages of Holy Scripture.
Nuclear family, no; but family, yes. The final passage of Brooks piece is a stirring cri de coeur for a return to something both “new and ancient”:
“We’ve left behind the nuclear-family paradigm of 1955. For most people it’s not coming back. Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged families, in ways that are new and ancient at the same time. This is a significant opportunity, a chance to thicken and broaden family relationships, a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms. For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin.
It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.”
My first thought, as I read it, was of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, with a dozen single men sat around a large table at one of the decisive moments of the Christian story. It was on this occasion that Jesus invited his followers to “do this in remembrance of me” — an invitation that over two billion of us regularly respond to by gathering around the Eucharistic table in a recreation of that founding meal.
Those who share this meal together describe each other as family. It is, to use the sociological jargon, a fictive kinship — in so far as it is not grounded in a biological connection, but a chosen identity. If there is such a thing as a Christian family, it is this. A place where, at best, “adults and children live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms”. Gay and straight, rich and poor, black and white — this is the ultimate extended family.
Yes, like the nuclear family, this family has also been thinned out by the community dissolving properties of contemporary capitalism. But as a model, it is far more deeply rooted in the Christian witness than the nuclear family ever has been. Which makes the church’s continued obsession with policing the biological mechanics of love-making so thoroughly depressing.
For what Brooks reminds us is that if we compare and contrast the moral majority nuclear family position with the forged families that sprung up within the gay community in the Eighties — often forms of collective solidarity and mutual care in response to the darkness of AIDS — it is the forged family that more closely resembles the sort of arrangement that Jesus was calling his followers into.
Throughout Christian history, whether it be the big table of the monastic refectory, the Eucharistic table (yes, an altar too) set as the central focus of the church, or even the big table of parish lunch clubs, it is who you eat with (and not so much who you sleep with) that defines the religious family. The blindness of many religious conservatives is to have set the small little Ikea table of the nuclear family against that of the large, inclusive table of the extended family, with always space for one more seat.
Yes, fidelity and faithfulness are important in all family structures. But when Jesus said do this in remembrance of me, he really didn’t have in mind a stay-at-home Mum in a flowery apron providing meatloaf for the table and only straight sex in the bedroom.