Idolatry of the Family

Jesus didn’t die on a God-forsaken cross to preserve your horn-rimmed vision of 1950s Americana. He did not go through hell and back to secure the keys to an exclusive gated community. And he didn’t suffer lacerations so that your nuclear family could be photographed beside the tulips in matching shiny egg-white shoes.

Jesus had a family. They were his scraggly followers. Yes, he had flesh-and-blood siblings, but they thought big brother was a fake and that mom must have been crazy for buying into all of his religious ranting. They told him to shut up, so Jesus ignored and disregarded them. As he was gurgling his last bloody breath at Golgotha, he wheezed to John—“the disciple whom Jesus loved”—that Mary was to be his mother and he, her son.

Jesus never married. He liked weddings, though, and he even tended bar at a reception once. But getting hitched to a comely woman wasn’t his top priority. He preferred rather to camp with fetid fishermen and smarmy tax collectors after late nights in seedy locations with tattooed sluts and nicotine-stained sinners.

Jesus refused to suffer know-it-alls. The politicians and the preachers (Sadducees and Pharisees, respectively) were always trying to string him up or to capture an unflattering sound bite that would trend on Twitter or loop all night on the news ticker. He called them slithering serpents and gussied-up graves. He stared them square in their seminary-trained eyes and called them haughty imposters. Their rules, he said, were a cheap ruse to distract themselves and everyone around them from the gleaming, glaring truth: that for all of their knowledge about God, they didn’t know God.

God made marriage to be sure. But he made it as a sign, not a club. The story of marriage in the Bible is splotchy and confusing. After Abram had pawned off his wife Sarai a couple of times, Sarai returned the favor by shopping her husband’s harem to find him a fertile lover. Old blind Isaac was duped by his clear-eyed wife. Jacob had two wives and a mess of problems. David had plenty of wives, but he would kill for that bathing beauty, Bathsheba. Ezekiel was told not to shed a tear for his dead wife, and Hosea was commanded to marry a hooker. Peter dropped his nets—and his wife—and wandered down the road with Jesus. My point here is that, while marriage is depicted in scripture as a beautiful, sacramental gift of God, it’s more complicated than that. So before you sound off about the Bible endorsing a unilateral pro-marriage and pro-family agenda, I would recommend paying closer attention on your next fly-by.

“Family” is the euphemistic code du jour for “Evangelical Christian.” “Focus on the Evangelical Christian” and the “American Evangelical Christian Association” didn’t have the same zing to them as their familiar twins. The watchword for these organizations is the preservation of  “traditional family values,” which are, in a nutshell, white American family values from a period of 1939 to 1964. The family values constituency longs for a return to the virginal time before the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, John Lennon, and Rock Hudson made the world a more complicated place.

When I read the Bible, I get the distinct sense that Jesus wasn’t interested in saving the nuclear family from a windy onslaught of liberal opinions. I rather get the impression that he was concerned with diving headfirst into the unvarnished messiness of the human condition and saving us—as individuals, as families, as communities, as people—from our own unhinged self-absorption and festering lovelessness.

The world is a mess because we are a mess. We are a mess because I am a mess. I am a mess because my heart is a mess. And the heart condition of each of us is the heart of the issue. Any other agenda, any other moralistic totem or golden calf half-truth, any political platform or religious soapbox should receive our careful scrutiny. Because an idol carved in the shape of a smiling family is still an idol.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.

Comments

  1. Rodney TindallNo Gravatar says:

    This is exactly what that guy who has been trying to figure a way to leave his family and responsibilities behind was wanting to read.  Good job, bucko.
    Revelation 3:16

  2. benponderNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you, Mr. Tindall. I haven’t been called “bucko” in awhile. That is a curious slant on the scriptural call of Jesus, especially with the enigmatic “lukewarm Christian” reference in your signature verse. I am curious if you would say that Peter was leaving “his family and his responsibilities behind” or that he was being lukewarm.   

  3. Right on Ben. And it’s not just ” white American family values from a period of 1939 to 1964.”, it’s Western European, white American family values. And this shrinking majority is so certain that our culture is superior to all other groups, we rend our garments and lament the downfall of civilization any time our cultural norms are challenged by “the other”.

  4. Thank you for writing an article which articulates exactly what I have been feeling for years. Now…I have something I can point to for those who believe the fundamentalist lies.

  5. Interesting perspective…and extremely well-written.

  6. instead of railing at the mess in other people’s hearts and lives and owning and even wallowing in your own, why not take Paul’s words to heart and become an example to believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity?

  7. Marcy ThomasNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Ben– Beautifully written and right on target. I first heard the term “Idolatry of the Family” while at Vanderbilt Divinity School and it resonated then and still does. This is a truth worth proclaiming. But I’ve never heard a sermon on it (!). Well done.

  8. “… that he was concerned with diving headfirst into the unvarnished messiness of the
    human condition and saving us—as individuals, as families, as communities, as people—from our own unhinged self-absorption and festering lovelessness.”

    KA-BOOM!

    That is the truth of the matter. If we could just get off our high-horses and stop being so cotton-pickin’ religious, then we could see that truth about ourselves and we realize that we don’t need a tune-up…we need to be killed…and raised again.

    Thanks so much.

    – theoldadam.com

  9. Kristy WesNo Gravatar says:

    Awesome.

  10. Whaa… are you kidding, Jackson? Just in case you’re not, here goes: Why not focus on Jesus instead of Paul? Try to live like Jesus, not Paul? What a concept! I suspect the author (who’s post is awesome, BTW) is railing in the mess because he is simply living…held by Jesus…knowing he is unworthy, yes, but loved, adopted, forgiven, filled, sometimes angry-or-joyful-or-spiteful-or-giving…not concerned about being an example but just being loved by God and showing His love as a human BE-ing…

  11. If I hear one more person say, insinuate, or imply that the church is the modern day Pharisee, I am going to start turning over tables. This has always made my hair stand up on end. One reason it has always bothered me was that the Pharisees hated Jesus. They tried to trap him. They wanted nothing to do with him. They were empty on the inside and covered in ceremony. Enter believers…..Imperfect? Definitely. Hypocritical? At times. Faithless?more than once . Confused by ceremony? Too often. But empty inside? No. Way. Real Christians? The ones that confess Jesus as their Lord and savior? The Holy Spirit resides in them. They are, no, we are, the BRIDE of Christ. Hallelujah! Undeserved? Completely. But true. And how does Jesus talk to His bride? Are these people really saying (they are because I heard them) that Jesus would turn to his undeserving bride and call her a whitewashed tomb? Is that the picture of a loving husband that my earthly husband is to imitate when he loves me as Christ loves the church? A thousand times no. When I see how my savior talk to the churches, it humbles me, it convicts me. We are His. We are bought by his blood, filled with His spirit. Open to correction. False prophets, now if you want to compare them to Pharisees I would agree with all that is in me. Scripture has some strong words for them. But Jesus’ bride? Be careful how you talk about her.

  12. benponderNo Gravatar says:

    Lauren, that is a very articulate and passionate statement. Thanks for reading and commenting. I wonder, though, if your position removes the possibility of prophecy (in the general Biblical sense of Spirit-led truth-telling)? I think of Jeremiah or Amos or John the Baptist or so many others in scripture who had very harsh-but-true things to say to the people of God. I’m not putting myself in that camp at all, but I’m concerned that a theology that only allows us to dote on Jesus’ bride forbids us from telling her that she sometimes has a big booger in her nose.

  13. Of course not. My position embraces 2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; I simply take issue with the in vogue use of calling Christians Pharisees. I think it is caustic and woefully inaccurate for the reasons I previously listed. Again, John the Baptist was talking to Christ haters which is a huge distinction that is being swept under the rug as an unimportant side note. Thanks for your response. 🙂

  14. Someone once told me that if Jesus came today, the Church would crucify him just like the Jews did. It’s harsh, but I think that’s what we are supposed to get out of the Scriptural account of Jesus’ life. The Pharisees were the equivalent of the modern established church, no matter how you cut it. They were the standard of righteousness. And they were the ones whom Jesus offended most. It’s supposed to be humbling. And it really is supposed to make you look inside yourself to see where the pride might be hiding inside your own spirit. “Search me, O God, and know my heart… See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Ps 139).

  15. Refreshing, truly refreshing! This article was like being offered an ice cold mojito by a Bedouin on camelback, after walking all day in a parched desert. Thank you Mr Ben Ponder for being a well-thought communicator and timely sage. Your ability to articulate the truth in a relevant and meaningful way is most encouraging. And your words of wisdom speak louder than a thousand splendid sermons.

  16. In the same way I believe you are reading between the lines of scripture I am tempted to read between the lines of your article to figure out your positions and understand your implications. Reading between the lines isn’t always destructive, but it should be understood to be subjective and speculative. As I read this article, feeling caricatured as what you rail against, I am tempted to caricature you. Caricatures, like speculations, can either be helpful or destructive, based upon their proximity to truth. How can I, as a seminary bound aspiring preacher, not feel wrongfully caricatured by you? Perhaps we disagree on a few points of theology, perhaps non-essentials, secondary or tertiary points, but there is an objective focal point, which is the Word of God, as Lauren Chastain stated in her response. That is the neutral ground where these kind of discussions must take place. If opponents can’t meet on this ground then no real progress can be made and all such arguments become irrelevant. Certainly marriages in the Bible are messy, but when the difference between the descriptive and the didactic is in focus, they messiness is greatly reduced. I could go on with my disagreements but the problem is that I don’t know what you’re driving at. Perhaps if I could know specifically who or what you are reacting against I would join you, but I can’t know that so I am forced to imagine who or what you are reacting against and I end up placing myself there. It gets terribly messy. The only way around it is plain speaking, but plain speaking makes for uninteresting writing. If your article was a list of statements about your beliefs on marriage, the nature of prophecy, the details of Jesus’ life and the lives of the disciples not many would read it, it would also fail to make the point you are trying to make. As it is I’m forced to interpret your meaning, and interpretation is impossible without ancillary information. Maybe I’m wrong and I’m sure no one who read this article will care what I think, but if you read this I hope you can see my point of view at least. I also hope you can feel my weariness and humility in what I’ve written, and my desire to understand and to be understood.

Trackbacks

  1. […] article worth reading is by Ben Ponder, editor-at-large of Media Rostra webzine. Entitled “Idolatry of the Family“, it touches on some of the same points Ben Witherington makes, albeit with a slightly more […]

  2. […] Ponder on the Idolatry of the Family: “Jesus didn’t die on a God-forsaken cross to preserve your horn-rimmed vision of 1950s […]

  3. […] recommend taking the time to read the article in full Idolatry of the Family. A couple of bits that really popped for me are quoted […]

  4. […] was a moderately scathing critique of idolatry of the family in American Evangelical Christianity and when I read it I found myself […]

  5. […] recently came across a great, succinct article about the idolatry of the family. The poetry of the style adds to the punch. These first two paragraphs say it so well: Jesus […]

  6. […] itself over time.  Many would argue that it’s strongest supporters harken to a post-war 1950′s model of traditional family which is only sixty years old.  Our written histories tell tales of women, children, slaves being […]