Category Archive: Family

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March 12, 2014

The Family Table

Category: Family,History :: Link :: Print

We take it for granted, perhaps, that families ought to eat together.  The rule may be more honored in the breach than in the observance these days, but it still seems to be understood as the norm.  But it certainly wasn’t always that way.  The family meal wasn’t a feature of Roman society.

Wives and children were not necessarily excluded from every meal, but their involvement — if they were involved at all — was certainly secondary.  Keith Bradley explains:

The overriding impression … which the sources leave — the prevailing ideology one might say — is that no matter whether modest or elaborate, dinner was a meal about which the individual male made an individual decision — to entertain, to eat alone, to respond to an invitation — in a world in which ties of amicitia and hospitium were paramount.  Other household members, wives for example, responded to such decisions as appropriate.  Dinner was not a meal at which the company of family members was automatically and invariably assumed essential or even desirable.  Within innumerable elite households, therefore, many wives and children must have eaten completely apart, in time and place, from their husbands and fathers, and from one another … and when husbands, wives and children did dine together, they did so in ways that continually reinscribed the subordination of the two latter to the former (“The Roman Family at Dinner,” in Inge Nielsen and Hanne Sigismund Nielsen, Meals in a Social Context: Aspects of the Communal Meal in the Hellenistic and Roman World [Aarhus University Press, 1998], 49).

As he puts it elsewhere, “The fact is that for the Roman family at dinner, there was no common table” (48).  Hanne Sigismund Nielsen agrees: “It is … evident from the literature that meals with spouses and children were of no importance or at least of minor importance….  There is no evidence that the common meal of parents and children played any role at all in constituting them as a family group, a nuclear family in our sense of the word” (“Roman Children at Mealtimes,” 58, 59).

As with mothers nursing their own children instead of giving them to wet nurses (see here), the family meal appears to be another fruit of the gospel in Roman society.  Augustine writes about Psalm 127 (“Like newly planted olives your sons sit around the table”), one passage in Scripture where we see the idea of the family together at a meal.  Nielsen says,  “In his commentaries on the Psalms of David, Augustine makes mention of the family dinner table even though this is not referred to in the text on which he is commenting” (62).

Nielsen sums up his findings: “In pagan Latin literature it is difficult to find any mention of children at mealtimes.  Children begin to be mentioned in early Christian literature, and it was not before that time that the ideal of the parents and children unit became established and cherished” (63).


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Posted by John Barach @ 3:02 pm | Discuss (0)

Nutrix Natorum

Category: Family,History :: Link :: Print

In Imperial Rome, mothers rarely breastfed their own children.  According to Hanne Sigismund Nielsen,

The persons mainly responsible for infants and minor children in Imperial Rome were their wet-nurses.  There is reason to believe that most children of almost all status groups spent more than the two first years of their life with their nurse (“Roman Children at Mealtimes,” in Inge Nielsen and Hanne Sigismund Nielsen, Meals in a Social Context: Aspects of the Communal Meal in the Hellenistic and Roman World [Aarhus University Press, 1998], 66n30).

Among Christians, however, Nielsen claims, things changed.  Augustine “mentions the fact that mothers nursed their children themselves.”  In his commentary on Psalm 130, Augustine says that “a mother feeds her infant child with her own milk which is nothing but meat and bread from the dinner table changed in the mother’s body to a substance more suitable for an infant than meat and bread” (62).  In his Sermon 117, he says something similar: “Was there no food on the table?  Yes, but the infant was not able to share it with the others.  So what does the mother do?” (cited 62).  The family is eating together — something that is itself a huge change from typical Roman culture! — and the mother nurses her child so that the child can share in the family meal.

Nielsen cites an epigram from Rome in which

a Christian woman, Turtura, is commemorated by her husband.  He describes her as deo serviens, unice fidei, amica pacis, castis moribus ornata, communis fidelibus amicis, familiae grata, nutrix natorum et numquam amara marito (“serving God, being of unique faith, a friend of peace, embellished with chastity, unpretentious towards all the faithful, agreeable to her household.  She nursed her own children and was never unpleasant to her husband”) (62).

In short, it appears that as the gospel took hold on Roman society Christian mothers began to nurse their own babies instead of giving them to wet nurses to feed and raise.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:41 pm | Discuss (1)
June 2, 2011

If We Loved Children

Category: Education,Family :: Link :: Print

If we loved children, we would have a few.  If we had them, we would want them as children, and would love the wonder with which they behold the world, and would hope that some of it might open our own eyes a little.  We would love their games, and would want to play them once in a while, stirring in ourselves those memories of play that no one regrets, and that are almost the only things an old man can look back on with complete satisfaction.  We would want children tagging along after us, or if not, then only because we would understand that they had better things to do. — Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, xii.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:33 pm | Discuss (1)
May 12, 2011

Husbands and Home

Category: Family :: Link :: Print

Husbands should try to make home happy and holy.  It is an ill bird that fouls its own nest, a bad man who makes his home wretched.  Our house ought to be a little church, with holiness to the Lord over the door, but it ought never to be a prison where there is plenty of rule and order, but little love and no pleasure.  Married life is not all sugar, but grace in the heart will keep away most of the sours.  Godliness and love can make a man, like a bird in a hedge, sing among thorns and briars, and set others to singing too.

It should be the husband’s pleasure to please his wife, and the wife’s care to care for her husband.  He is kind to himself who is kind to his wife.  I am afraid some men live by the rule of self, and when that is the case, home happiness is a mere sham.  When husbands and wives are well yoked, how light their load becomes!  It is not every couple that is such a pair, and more’s the pity.  In a true home all the strife is who can do the most to make the family happy. — C. H. Spurgeon, John Ploughman’s Talk, pp. 79-80.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:50 pm | Discuss (1)
May 10, 2011

Child-Centered or God-Centered?

Category: Family :: Link :: Print

I was thinking some more last night about the two family models that Lou Priolo presents in his The Heart of Anger: the child-centered family and the God-centered family.   Right now, my wife spends most of her day (and night) with our two-month old daughter.  A lot of that time, she’s holding her and if she isn’t, then I am.  Our schedule is shaped to a large degree by the needs of that little girl.  I can’t simply walk into the room where my wife is and start talking to her or I’ll wake the baby.

Does that make us a “child-centered family”?  Certainly, a lot of our life centers on that one little child and her needs take precedence to our own needs or wants.  Maybe we do run afoul of some of Priolo’s warnings: a child-centered home, he says, is one in which the children are allowed to “dictate family schedule (including meal times, bedtimes, etc.” and to “take precedence over the needs of the spouse” (24).

“Now, hold on,” you might say.  “You’re talking about a little baby.  Of course, a baby has lots of needs that take up time.  Babies wake up crying, and so we adapt our sleeping schedule to deal with them.  But if your daughter were a teenager — or even a younger child — and still shaped your schedule the way you described, there would be a problem!”

True.  But notice that we’ve suddenly introduced time into the discussion, and along with time, maturation.  We expect that a baby will take up more time.  We expect that a child with Down’s Syndrome will have needs that shape a parent’s schedule significantly.  But we expect that most of our children will grow up over time and become increasingly mature.  What would be appropriate when a child is a baby wouldn’t be appropriate when that child is fifteen.

But Priolo’s presentation of the two models includes a subtle shift.  When he talks about the child-centered home, is says that it’s a home in which “children are allowed to commit the following indiscretions” (24), and then follows his list.  But when he talks about the God-centered home, his presentation isn’t exactly parallel.  He doesn’t say that a God-centered home is a home in which “children are allowed to…”  Rather, he says that a God-centered home is one in which “children are taught the following” (27).  And the list of what they’re being taught includes things like obeying cheerfully the very first time they’re told to do something.

Now it seems obvious to me that a home in which children are being taught something is not the same thing as a home in which children always do the right thing.  One might be teaching children to obey cheerfully the first time they’re told to do something and yet have a home in which children have to be told more than once to pick up their toys or put on their underwear before their pants or stop poking the baby.  And that’s not necessarily because the children are rebellious or wicked.  A lot of it is because children are immature.

It would be possible, I submit, for a parent to read Priolo’s two lists and think, “Oh, dear.  The first list seems a lot more like our house.  The children do dominate the schedule a lot of the time.  I have to tell my children again and again and again to shut the door of the house when they come in, and they still leave it wide open and stare blankly at me when I tell them to close it.  I must have a child-centered home.”

Not necessarily.  It’s entirely possible that such a parent has a home in which he’s  still teaching his children and training them toward maturity.  You can have a home in which X happens and have it be, at the very same time, a home in which you’re teaching children not to do X.

Some of what Priolo describes as being taught in a God-centered home will be taught over and over again throughout all the years the child is in your home.  Take esteeming others as more important than yourself.  I agree with Priolo that a God-centered home ought to teach children to do that (though I’d want to stress that the best way to teach that is to model it as parents by putting your children ahead of yourselves), but that’s a lesson you’ll need to continue to learn even when you’re old and gray, I suspect.  As your children mature, you ought to see more and more of this sort of thing in their behavior, but you shouldn’t conclude that your home isn’t properly God-centered if your five year old thinks primarily of herself and not of others.  She’s five.  You’re how old and still selfish sometimes?  Keep working on it.

So Priolo’s two models, helpful as they may be, aren’t exactly parallel: the one list includes what children are “allowed” to do, while the other list focuses on what they’re being “taught” to do.  The first list describes behavior one might see in the home, while the second list describes the behavior one would like to see.

We should pay attention to the word “teach” in connection with Priolo’s description of the God-centered home.  Teaching takes time.  It involves growth, progress, setbacks, maturation.  You may not take a snapshot of a home and conclude that it isn’t God-centered because it doesn’t exemplify everything on Priolo’s list.  Rather, you need a motion picture instead of a snapshot: What are the parents working on?  What are they trying to teach?

But we should also pay attention to the word “allowed” in connection with Priolo’s description of the child-centered home.  I think it means not only that the children do the stuff he lists but also that they do so without the parents trying to change that behavior.  But what sort of change is in view?  The change that happens as a child moves from being a baby that needs holding for most of the day to being a toddler who runs around on his own?  Or does Priolo have in mind something more like chastisement?

By using the word “allowed,” is Priolo indicating that the behavior he lists should be prohibited (and that a child who violates the prohibition ought to be disciplined for doing so)?  If so, then it seems to me that he hasn’t taken maturation and time into account.  My baby daughter doesn’t need to be prohibited from dominating our schedule; she needs to grow up, and she will in due time.  Likewise, some of the other behavior that Priolo lists (e.g., interrupting parents) may not be necessarily sinful but may simply be immature.

So in a God-centered (but not parent-centered) home, a lot of stuff might happen that looks “child-centered,” especially when the children are younger.  Little children dominate parental schedules.  Little children tend to think of themselves first.  Little children who are bursting with their own thoughts interrupt parents and aren’t spanked for doing so, so that it might appear to an outside viewer as if the home “allows” children to interrupt.  But the parent who has learned wisdom from God knows that the solution isn’t always prohibition, let alone the sort of prohibition that leads to chastisement if it’s violated.  Much of the time, the solution is patient training toward maturity over time.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:03 am | Discuss (2)
May 9, 2011

Parent-Centered Homes

Category: Family :: Link :: Print

Recently, I’ve been reading Lou Priolo’s The Heart of Anger: Practical Help for the Prevention and Cure of Anger in Children.  Before I go any further, let me say that I haven’t finished the book yet, so whatever I write here is preliminary, and that I’ve gleaned quite a bit of wisdom from the book and especially from the chapter about how parents provoke their children to anger.

What struck me, though, in the first chapter was this: Priolo presents two family models, inviting you to determine which one best matches your family.

The first one is the “Child-Centered Home.”  In this home, children are allowed to interrupt adults, use manipulation to get their way, dictate the family schedule, demand excessive time and attention, escape consequences of their sins, be coddled (rather than disciplined) out of a bad mood, and so forth.   Priolo writes: “A child-centered home is one in which a child believes and is allowed to behave as though the entire household, parents, siblings, and even pets exist for one purpose — to please him” (24).

The second one is the “God-Centered Home.”  In this home, “everyone is committed to pleasing and serving God.  God’s desires are exalted over everyone else’s” (27).  This home, as Priolo presents it, doesn’t permit the sort of behavior the child-centered home allows.  Instead, the children are taught to joyfully serve others, obey parents the first time and do so cheerfully, adapt to the parents’ schedule, and so on.

Here’s what jumped out at me.  You might expect that the opposite of a child-centered home would be a parent-centered home, but Priolo spends no time at all on that possible family model.  Given that the section on the God-centered home starts with a discussion of how the husband-wife relationship is the primary and permanent relationship in the home and the parent-child relationship is secondary and temporary, it might be that Priolo means to identify parent-centered with God-centered.  Or perhaps he hadn’t thought about that as a possibility or, for some reason, didn’t want to discuss it.

Be that as it may, it does seem to me that it’s easy for parents to mistake a parent-centered home for a God-centered home.  Take, for instance, what Priolo says about schedules.  In a child-centered home, he says, the child determines the schedule, whereas in a God-centered home the child fits his schedule into his parents’ schedule.  Now there’s a certain sense in which that’s correct.  On Sunday morning, the God-centered family is going to go to church and the children need to fit their schedule into the family’s plans.

But I can also imagine a home that is parent-centered and not God-centered.  In this home, the parents get to do whatever they want whenever they want and the children must adapt to the parents’ schedule.  If Dad is reading his book, his daughter must never ever ask him a question or request that he read to her or make a sound in his presence.  If Mom and Dad have put the children to bed, the children must never ask for a glass of water.  Mom and Dad want time to themselves and the children’s requests are seen as sinful attempts to dominate the family schedule.

In this home, Mom and Dad want the children to learn to be self-sacrificing and to regard others as more important than themselves, and the way they’re attempting to instill these traits is by making the children go without and by making sure they know that Mom and Dad are the more important than they are and act accordingly.  Or, to put it another way, Mom and Dad act like tyrants in the name of teaching biblical virtues to their children.  Their home is centered on themselves and their needs and their desires, not on their children and not on God.

Priolo may be right that a child-centered home can lead to anger on the part of children.  But surely a parent-centered home can too.  Priolo knows this.  His second chapter focuses on ways parents provoke their children, including not making time to listen to them.  But it would have been good if he had indicated that the home should neither be child-dominated nor parent-dominated but rather be submissive to God, who wants parents to regard their children as more important than themselves.  Parents who follow that model may, in fact, look “child-centered” a lot of the time.  But they’re laying the foundation for their children to follow their example.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:59 pm | Discuss (2)
November 23, 2010

“But Of Course!”

Category: Family,Marriage,Theology :: Link :: Print

In his introduction to a collection of essays presented to Charles Williams, albeit after his unexpected death, C. S. Lewis writes about the pessimistic side of Williams:

He also said that when young people came to us with their troubles and discontents, the worst thing we could do was to tell them that they were not so unhappy as they thought.  Our reply ought rather to begin, “But of course….”  For young people usually are unhappy, and the plain truth is often the greatest relief we can give them.  The world is painful in any case: but it is quite unbearable if everyone gives us the idea that we are meant to be liking it.  Half the trouble is over when that monstrous demand is withdrawn.  What is unforgivable if judged as a hotel may be very tolerable as a reformatory” (Essays Presented to Charles Williams, xii-xiii).

I should add that Lewis goes on to say

But that was only one side of him.  This scepticism and pessimism were the expression of his feelings.  High above them, overarching them like a sky, were the things he believed, and they were wholly optimistic.  They did not negate the feelings; they mocked them (xiii).

But I am interested in particular in the first quotation and I invite your discussion.  On the one hand, it seems to me wrong to think that we are not meant to enjoy life.  I even try to teach my children to like foods that they currently don’t, precisely because I want to increase their enjoyment of their mother’s (and others’) cooking and so enrich their lives.  We don’t want our children moping around, nor do we want to mope around ourselves, and so we try to learn to enjoy the chores and tasks we have to do.

But on the other hand, I also see what Lewis (and behind him Williams) means. Consider marriage.  If we give the impression that marriage is simply something to enjoy, then we are not preparing people well for marriage.  Marriage is often a joy and a pleasure and a delight, but it is also often work. If you focus on your happiness, you’re going to be disappointed.  But if you understand that in every marriage there is going to be a certain amount of drudgery, of chores you’d rather not do, of times when you’re called upon to serve when you’d rather not, of times of unhappiness — and recognizing that might go a long way toward helping couples deal with those times.  In this connection, I refer you to Lewis’s own excellent essay “The Sermon and the Lunch,” which should be required reading for couples and for their pastors.

But on the third hand … do we really want to say that this world is a reformatory and tolerable as such?  That makes it sound as if one day, we’ll be released, when in fact isn’t it the case that our calling is not to wait around and hope to escape to heaven (when the work on us is done) but rather to heavenize the world, to imprint the pattern of heaven on the world, to pray and work so that God’s name is hallowed, His kingdom comes, and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven?  And if that’s the goal, then “reformatory” isn’t really the right view of the world, is it?

Now … discuss amongst yourselves.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:03 pm | Discuss (2)
November 1, 2010

One Step Behind

Category: Education,Family :: Link :: Print

Many men live one step behind life’s events.  They try to to learn to work after they get a job.  They seek a class for husbands after they are struggling in their marriage.  They read about fatherhood after their children rebel.  A good education prepares a young man for his future situations before they come.

Education and going to school are not necessarily the same thing.  You may attend the best college, graduate with highest honors, and still remain uneducated.  Even if you have a degree, you are uneducated if you are not ready for the coming events in your life.  The American educational system expects each student to spend about sixteen years becoming “educated” to get a successful job.  Earning money and job security are often the goals.  When students get their college degrees they are told, and often think, they are educated.  They may be fit for a job; however, if they remain unfit for the majority of life’s situations they remain uneducated.  Life is much more than having a job. — Bob Schultz, Boyhood and Beyond, 66.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:10 pm | Discuss (2)
October 5, 2010


Category: Ethics,Family,Marriage :: Link :: Print

I’m currently reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.  It’s not at all a good book, for several reasons, which I won’t go into here, though it is helpful in making very clear the direction McLaren is going on a number of issues  — though McLaren still seems to present himself as more interested in questions than answers and often fails to come straight out and say what he thinks the church ought to believe and teach and practice.

But in spite of the serious problems I have with McLaren’s books, starting with his approach to Scripture, I almost always find something worth thinking about in them somewhere and this was no exception.  His seventeenth chapter is entitled “Can We Find a Way to Address Human Sexuality?”, and most of it deals with homosexuality and calls for (well, McLaren doesn’t often “call for” things so much as suggest or imply them) greater openness to homosexuals, less emphasis on heterosexual marriage, and so forth.

But in the midst of this discussion, the gist of which I do not agree with, he talks about how “being a human being at this time in history makes it all the more difficult to navigate our sexual lives.  The opportunities for promiscuity may never have been greater, and the supports for chastity and fidelity have seldom if ever been weaker” (187).

I wonder if that’s really so.  I suspect that there has been little support for chastity and fidelity and great incentive for promiscuity in many pagan societies.   Be that as it may, McLaren goes on to provide a helpful list of various “realities” that we ought to consider when thinking about today’s bent toward promiscuity:

We’ve moved from villages where “everyone knows your name” and where nearly everyone is committed to the same moral standards to cities where we’re all virtually anonymous and where anything goes.  So sex and community are less connected than ever before.

We’re the first human beings to have low-cost, readily available birth control, making sex and pregnancy less connected than ever before.

We’re the first humans to have condoms and antibiotics readily available, making sex and disease less connected than ever before.

We’ve created an economic system that increasingly requires both men and women to work outside the home, in company with members of the opposite sex, thus increasing the possibilities for extramarital attractions to develop and become sexual.

We’ve created an economic system that rewards education and punishes early marriage, pushing the average age of marriage higher and higher.  As a result, we’ve put the biological peak for sex and reproduction further out of sync with the cultural norms for marriage than ever before.

Meanwhile, a number of factors are bringing the average age of puberty lower and lower, leaving more years than ever during which sexually mature people are likely to be single and therefore likely to engage in sex outside of marriage.

The Internet has made pornography ubiquitous, the advertising industry continuously exploits on-screen sex to sell everything from hamburgers to lawn mowers, and the entertainment industry uses sex to sell movies, books, TV shows, magazines, and related products and services.  As a result, sexual stimulation has become increasingly virtualized and universalized.

The print, on-screen, and online ubiquity of “perfect” bodies in “virtual reality” — partially or fully exposed, often cosmetically and digitally enhanced — can create images of sexual perfection copared to which nearly all actual partners will disappoint, thus increasing sexual tension in actual relationships.

The combination of poverty, unemployment, and life in refugee camps or slums puts millions of people together with literally nothing to do, day after day, increasing the likelihood of casual sexual contact among people without the resources to raise the children they conceive (187-188).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:28 pm | Discuss (0)
August 6, 2010

Humility & Play

Category: Family :: Link :: Print

In a previous blog entry, I discussed mainly the things I didn’t care for in Keri Wyatt Kent’s Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity.  I was struck, however, by something she said in a chapter on playing.  She’s speaking of the importance of humility:

But how do we cultivate humility?  It’s not easy in our culture, which lauds individual opinions and accomplishments, which teaches that self-esteem and self-confidence are of the highest value.  But I believe playfulness is a path to humility….

Play stretches our ability to be a fool, to engage in that which has no purpose other than simple joy.  Play forces us to loosen our grip on our ambition for a while; it trains us, almost subversively … in humility.  We often want to avoid the risk involved with being silly (159).

Children, of course, don’t mind being silly.  After we have supper and read the Bible and pray, my children leap off their chairs and do their silly dance, while Moriah and I laugh.  It would be possible for me to join them, though I usually don’t, but I can assure you that I wouldn’t be likely to if you were having supper with us.  In fact, I suspect that a lot of (sober) adults don’t dance or even try to dance because they are afraid of looking foolish.  “I don’t know how to do it very well,” we say, and so we don’t try.  But “I don’t know how to do it very well” has never stopped my daughter from dancing.

Perhaps Kent is correct in suggesting that we adults ought to play more with our children, to forget ourselves and our sense of our importance and dignity and enter fully into their play, and thereby learn humility from our children.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:41 pm | Discuss (0)
August 5, 2010

Sabbath for Me

Category: Ethics,Family :: Link :: Print

This morning, I finished reading Keri Wyatt Kent’s Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity.  I read it because I was interested in any suggestions she might make for making Sunday a restful and enjoyable day, but also because I was interested in seeing her approach to and defense of a Sabbath.

She talks a bit about the Fourth Commandment, though she stresses that she doesn’t want to fall into legalism and often seems to equate rules with legalism, which would surely be strange in other areas of life, wouldn’t it?  “‘Thou shalt not murder’ gives us a good impetus to avoid taking other people’s lives.  But we don’t want to get bogged down in all sorts of rules, such as ‘Don’t pull the trigger when the gun is pointing at your wife.’  We don’t want to be legalistic.”  Why are modern evangelicals so scared of commandments?

Most of her book, in fact, seems to me to ground a practice of “Sabbath-keeping” in the benefits such a practice has for us and for our families.  I suspect that’s an approach that many books on Sabbath take these days (as opposed to older books that grounded Sabbath keeping primarily on God’s command).  So she talks about the dangers that come from a lack of rest, the way in which even a workout coach tells you that your muscles have to work and then rest again and again to grow strong, how taking a day to rest can empower you for the week to come, and so forth.  A lot of that is good and true, but I wonder about this whole approach.

Sometimes you find the same approach taken in defenses of other things that Scripture requires.  For instance, when asked to justify “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” a Christian might go on to say that God knew, when He gave the commandment, all the bad consequences of such behavior.  Fornication and adultery lead to all sorts of misery.  They damage us and they damage other people, for generations to come.  The implication is that God decided to forbid such behavior because He knew that it would be bad for us or for others.

But it is God who so rules the world that there are such consequences — and not just consequences, but outright judgments.  Imagine telling a child that he shouldn’t backtalk.  “Why not?” the child asks.  “Well,” you say. “I’m telling you this for your own good.  Backtalking leads to all sorts of bad consequences.”  “Like what?”  “Well, like a sore bottom.”  “Wait a minute,” the child might respond.  “If I have a sore bottom as a consequence of backtalking, that’s only because you’re going to spank me.  How about this?  I backtalk and you don’t spank me.  Now is it okay to backtalk?”

It’s not as if God is locked into a certain world He doesn’t control, a world in which fornication automatically hurts people, so that the best He can do is warn people not to commit fornication because of those consequences.  The consequences don’t just happen; they happen because He sends them.  He rules things so that there are consequences.  He could have done otherwise, but He doesn’t want to.

And so, when He forbids something or commands something else, He doesn’t do so because He foresees that the one behavior will lead to misery and the other to happiness.  It is not the consequences that make adultery evil; adultery would be evil even if there were no consequences.  And there are consequences only because of He so rules that there will be.

So with the Fourth Word.  God didn’t command His people to “remember the Sabbath” because He knew that if He didn’t they’d get all tuckered out.  After all, God Himself “Sabbathed” on the seventh day of creation, and it wasn’t because He needed a break from His hard work.  Nor did Adam, who had been around for a little less than a day at that point and hadn’t done any real work yet.  That Sabbath wasn’t about catching your breath after a hard week’s work; it was about drawing near to God at the center of the world to say “Thank you” and to be nourished by Him before going to work.

If we want to defend “Sabbath keeping” today, we need to present a biblical argument, not a pragmatic one.  If we replace “Do it because God says to” (which requires us to discuss whether Sabbath keeping really is required in the New Testament and if it is, in what form and what the divinely mandated rules for Sabbath keeping are — the very topics you don’t find in Kent’s book) with “Do it because it’s good for you,” don’t we end up making the Sabbath — or any other obligation we defend that way — really about ourselves and our own sense of personal fulfillment?  It’s good to go to church and take part in the service, this book says, but sometimes you might end up skipping church if your son has soccer — that is, if you’ve determined something else is just as or even more fulfilling for yourself than church would be today.  And then who really is the authority in our lives?

I’ll add quickly that I have a couple more beefs with this book.  First, it’s disconcerting to me to hear Eugene Peterson’s The Message quoted as if it is Scripture. No, Jesus did not say, “Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest” (Matt. 11:28, cited on p. 9).  Nor did He says, “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions” (Mt. 6:33, cited on p. 201).

Second, I’m not a fan of Rob Bell’s approach to Scripture, which seems to find new meanings by drawing on (likely post-AD 70) rabbinic interpretations or … from who knows where?  For instance, it simply isn’t the case that (as Kent cites Bell as saying) the name YHWH is “actually four Hebrew vowels” (200).   Those are consonants.  It isn’t the case that “the name was so sacred, it was actually unpronounceable” (200).  True, the Jews stopped pronouncing the name, but we have no reason to think that it wasn’t pronounced by Moses or David or Malachi or any of the Jews in the Old Testament.  The failure to pronounce the name wasn’t a matter of obedience or because it was really too sacred to say.  God taught Israel to say it.  And where in the world does Bell get the idea that “the name of God … is the sound of breathing” (200)?

Third, several times in this book, Kent cites Jewish writers, as if the Jewish understanding of the Torah is really the correct one.  In the light of the things Jesus says about the Pharisees and their traditions and understanding that Judaism after AD 70 was quite different from anything Moses taught, I find this approach generally unhelpful.  Of course, the rabbis may shed light on Scripture as they expound it.  But I don’t assume that an interpretation is correct because it’s a Jewish interpretation.

That said, there are some suggestions for making Sunday a special day in your home, which Christian families might benefit from, as well as some practical tips on rest throughout the week.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:47 pm | Discuss (0)
June 8, 2009

Fantasy Virtue

Category: Family,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

In the second issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, there is an interview with the British mystery writer P. D. James.  The interviewer, Ken Myers, asks James why evil characters are easier to depict than good characters.

James responds by saying that evil characters are often more dramatic.  They commit dramatic crimes, such as murder.  Virtuous characters, on the other hand, are often less dramatic.  A man may have courage in dramatic situations: the man who runs into a burning building to rescue a child.  But most often, courage is expressed in small, undramatic situations and in ways that no one else might notice: the woman who bravely faces a day in which she must carry out a number of duties in spite of ongoing terrible pain.

What James says about virtue resonates with something I’ve noticed recently myself.  Paul tells husbands to love their wives, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25).  Husbands are to model themselves after Christ, giving themselves, pouring themselves out, laying down their lives for their wives.

But more than once, when I’ve said that, I’ve received a certain response.  A man will begin talking about how he would be willing, should the need arise, to give his life for his wife.  If, say, they were out somewhere and someone held them up at gunpoint, he would be willing to die so that his wife could get away.  He would be willing, in other words, to do some dramatic act of self-sacrifice to rescue his wife should the need arise.

What strikes me is how common this response is and how unrealistic it really is.  For some reason, it seems to me, we have a tendency to romanticize virtue, to dream of dramatic acts of virtue, to fantasize about being dramatically virtuous, and then to feel good about our willingness to perform such acts if they were ever to be required of us.  Our fantasies allow us to feel virtuous without actually having to act virtously.

In fact, we are not likely to be called to risk our lives for our wives in such dramatic ways.   What is far more likely to happen is that our wives are going to want us to do the dishes or help clean the house or take out the trash or play with the children or sit and talk when we would rather not be bothered.

“Oh, sure,” we say.  “I would lay down my life for my wife, if someone broke into my house and threatened us.”  We pretend we’re willing to do the great thing.  But all the while, we’re not willing to do the little thing, to pour out our lives for our wives when all they require is a bit of time and attention.  We would rather fantasize about being dramatically Christ-like than actually get up, turn off the TV, and serve our wives.

Service seems too undramatic, too ordinary, too humdrum, too much to ask of such virtuous people as we dream ourselves to be.  And so we affirm Paul’s words about self-giving love, romanticize them by fantasizing about virtually impossible situations in which we could obey them, and … fail to heed them at all in the real situations in which we live.

As P. J. O’Rourke put it, “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”

Posted by John Barach @ 4:03 pm | Discuss (0)

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