As we look around at the pandemonium that characterizes the circus maximus of our once-great culture, there are few things as striking as the large number of what we might call “disconnected pockets of sanity,” otherwise known as nuclear families. And the fact that they are disconnected means that the sanity is illusory. When it comes to fundamental cultural issues, there is no such thing as neutrality—but, as many commentators have pointed out, a large number of Christians in the West have been culturally neutered.
Many have blamed individualism for all of this, saying that, when it comes to confrontations with the monolithic state, individualistic autonomy has been made the sole locus of resistance, and, consequently, that resistance has been completely outmaneuvered. A consuming loyalty to the state will only be effectively countered by healthier loyalties, and loyalty to a regimen mei is, of course, not up to the task. I once spoke with a non-Christian libertarian who did not believe that Christians were doing their share in the fight against statism. In our debate, we agreed that the central engine driving the propagation of statism was the government school system, and, in the course of our discussion, I asked him how many private schools libertarians had established, compared to the number of private academies that have been built by Christians. A hearty dislike of statist encroachments on me does not a civilization make.
The growing Christian education movement—however heartening it is as a starting point—does not indicate that we have worked out all our problems, which stem not just from individualism but from fragmentation. We are potsherds contending with the potsherds of the earth (Isaiah 45:9). While this is certainly better than contending with the Potter, we remain, nonetheless, fragmented bits of pottery trying to hold water. We have hidden our fragmented status from ourselves and have come to believe that larger potsherds are not shattered like the smaller ones.
Many conservative Christians reject strict individualism, which is evidenced by their intact and thriving families or their connection to tightly knit local churches. Consequently, they assume that, because they are immediately surrounded by people they love and are committed to, they are not guilty of individualism. But although they do not go through life as detached individuals, they do go through life as members of detached families and as members of detached churches. This problem requires a more accurate name: I suggest independency.
Our fragmented independency can manifest itself at different levels. Individuals can exhibit it, as can families and churches. In conservative Protestant circles, there has been a strong resurgence in emphasis on the family—which has been wonderful—but many unhealthy assumptions are manifested along with this. One clear tendency has been to absolutize the family as the beginning, middle, and end of all cultural endeavors. The result is a new “individualism,” with the family now serving as an overgrown individual. Thus, not only do we have the healthy return of such practices as homeschooling, but we also find such less-praiseworthy observances as home medicine, home churches, and home brain surgery in the garage. A milder form of this is found in the attempt to return to the “nuclear family” of the Eisenhower years. But a return to the middle-class values of Ozzie and Harriet, and a vast tract of suburbia with little pink houses for you and me, with each father (who knows best) mowing his own lawn, will not build or sustain a civilization, either. These families will all be detached from one another when it comes to the permanent things, and, thus, their similarities will either be superficial—they all have green garden hoses—or their substantive coherence will be found in the fact that each receives a 1099. They do not connect with one another in any way that challenges the hegemony of the state. In many ways, the growth of the state in our country has been the result not so much of tyrannical scheming as of nature abhorring a vacuum. Because individuals, families, and churches have abandoned their divinely ordained roles, which naturally restrain many statist encroachments, nature has simply taken its course.
In the face of state encroachments, we now find that we have no single voice that can speak to the magistrate about what he is doing. Rather than recognize our own dogmatic commitment to fragmentation as the culprit, we organize ourselves according to accepted statist procedures. And this is how we have arrived at the spectacle of families and churches lobbying for “traditional values” in Washington, D.C., in the same manner as Big Tobacco, the gun lobby, N.O.W., trial lawyers, and pharmaceutical companies. Our central government does not know how to respond to the Church of Jesus Christ (never having had the pleasure of an introduction), but it does know how to play any lobbying organization like a fiddle. That is why, when traditionalists head off to Washington to try to lobby for what they think is a conservative agenda, they always find themselves with their shirts pulled over their heads and their socks rolled down.
The elevation of independency to the status of a virtue is our greatest difficulty, because it is so largely unrecognized. And when it is recognized, it is considered our strength, not our central weakness. Families that are intact but free-floating are incapable of building true communities with the worship of God at the center.
And this is why we must learn to repent of our virtues. If we refuse, then we will continue to embrace the “virtue” of independency, blissfully unaware of the fact that our nostalgic views of a bygone healthy America simply represent earlier stages of the disease. Descrying familial vice is easy. Current advocates emphasize the internal connectedness of the family, and, as far as this goes, it is understandable. They are almost always right about the facts of the case: Divorce does scramble the kids, infidelity does destroy marriages, child neglect is exquisite cruelty, and so on. But such things only explain why individual families fall apart. They cannot explain why intact families are so easily ignored when they speak to the problem.
We need to replace our ideal of the atomistic nuclear family with a new appreciation for the molecular family. The family was designed by God to function in this fashion, and when this design is honored, the molecules can become quite complex—and strong. In contrast, today’s family is thought of in atomistic terms, even by self-described conservatives. But a town full of atomistic families, regardless of how “healthy” each individual family is, will have all the cultural solidity and structure of a bean bag. A church full of atomistic families will come to see those families as expendable and interchangeable tithing units. Those churches, in turn, have no accountability to speak of with regard to the broader Church and are happy to keep their status as conventicles and schism shops.
Genuine Christian culture depends upon molecular complexity, which, in turn, depends upon families that are willing to give up atomistic autonomy. This surrender of autonomy, this godly submission, is routinely opposed by conservatives as the first step down the slippery slope toward tyranny and despotism, collectivism and blue helmets, not to mention blue ruin. And so we are left with happy, intact nuclear families that are little more than Federal Reserve note-spreading leisure units, Winnebago included. Or we find more radical homeschooling families out in the woods, refusing to allow their federal massa to dictate the content of their curriculum but also refusing to live in genuine community with neighbors or to submit themselves to the authority of an orthodox church.
Molecular complexity cannot exist unless Christians accept the restraints that every culture imposes on the details of everyday life. If we do not submit to the restraints offered by our neighbors, our parents, lifetimes lived in one place, our maternal uncles two blocks away, our minister, the baptismal font, our fellow parishioners, the Lord’s Table, the churchyard where we long to be buried, and our grandchildren at the dinner table, then we will likely be bound by those imposed by the DEA, the EPA, and the IRS. It is not whether we will accept cultural restraints, but which restraints we will accept.
The culture of modernity treats all its governed units as interchangeable parts of a machine. We have compromised with the culture of modernity by thinking of ourselves in the same way. In Living Machines, E. Michael Jones shows how our buildings have been designed with this interchangeability in mind. Every inhabitant of every cubicle with a Dilbert cartoon posted on one of his walls has probably thought about this, perhaps daily. In the older order of Christendom, young men would join a regiment along with other boys with whom they had grown up and go to war under the command of a man they had known all their lives. Today, they join the service, are thrown into a randomization process overseen by the Pentagon, and wind up in the 82nd Airborne—but it could just as easily have been somewhere else. Our children go to college and get a certain number of credit hours from a sociology professor, credits which are interchangeable with the sociology credit hours being dispensed by somebody else—anybody else. All our rock bands parade the same interchangeable, alienated schtick, which is why they all have names like Rage Against the Machine. An Eddie Bauer store in a mall in Seattle looks suspiciously like an Eddie Bauer store in Des Moines. Everything is interchangeable, and we are a civilization of unitarian dullards.
The genius of true Christian culture is that, in it, nothing is interchangeable. Wives are not interchangeable, which is why we marry for life. Neighborhoods are not interchangeable, nor churches, nor grandparents, nor local histories. The more we connect with those around us, and the longer we do so, the more likely it is that we will develop a true cultural resistance to the encroachments of the state. We have not done this, so far, because we have been trying to fight the culture wars without any culture. This is as problematic as trying to engage in tank warfare without tanks. What we thought was the culture we were defending was actually a set of traditionalist consumer preferences, which means nothing more than the fact that Amazon.com does not suggest that you buy pornographic books based on your past purchases.
These conservative consumer patterns are not cultural because they neglect the center of all true human culture—the Incarnation—which summons us to be rooted in the particular. We need to meditate on the fact that we refer to Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God has a hometown. One woman is His Mother, and all other women are not. With the deepest reverence, we must admit that the Son of God has two particular hands and ten particular toes. And with the arrival of this glory, all the abstract systems of Hellenism came tumbling to the ground. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Among the many other things the Incarnation brings to us, should it not teach us to “dwell among us” as well?
Families, of course, should be internally healthy. Husbands should support and honor their wives, wives should respect and support their husbands, parents should nurture their children, and children should obey and love their parents. Although this is a first step, not an end in itself, it is still a necessary first step. We cannot make a good omelet with rotten eggs. But assuming the eggs to be good, what then? As we consider our strategic situation, I would suggest that families consider their “molecular connections” in two principal areas: The first has to do with the household and the Church, and the second involves life outside of the sanctuary.
All life necessarily centers on worship, and that which is central in any life is that which is being worshiped, whether the true God or idols. It is the duty of Christians to see to it that the Triune God, not the various petty baals of modernity, is the object of our worship. This means finding a church that is not trying to attract religious consumers with a thumping worship band. It means rejecting the deathly irrelevance of those churches that lust after contemporary relevance. As C.S. Lewis put it, all that is not eternal is eternally out of date. It means remembering the objectivity of baptism. America’s Christian culture has been anabaptist for two centuries, which has meant that the Church is thought of as a volunteer organization—and this is the root of ecclesiastical independency. I say this knowing that many of my Baptist brethren have been great in the Kingdom of Heaven; for all that, however, our nagging cultural dislocations remain. Everyone who is baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is a member of the Covenant, and such things should be cheerfully imposed on our children. (My wife and I “imposed” all sorts of things on our children—their last name, their American citizenship, their faith in Jesus Christ, and dinner, among others.) Baptism is not a badge indicating that the recipient is a member of God’s volunteer corps, but a sign that a person is a member of God’s people. And finally, churches with cultural integrity will hold fast to the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon. These were the creeds that were fashioned in the Church’s last great controversy with polytheistic multiculturalism, and they contain great wisdom.
The second area of practical response concerns family choices about schools for their children, jobs and vocation, towns to live in, and so forth. We should try to resist bopping around the country to take a new job every two years, in order to move up the career ladder. And we should reject job opportunities that would bring our families to a community where the worship of God is deficient, corrupt, or nonexistent. Children should be brought up in such a way that they would assume that they will live and die in the same town where their grandchildren will also live and die.
Despite all these problems, I remain optimistic. It is still possible to return to what Chesterton called the “old patriotism of the parish.” Optimism, however, is not the same thing as wishing, and until some of these issues come together in our families, towns, and churches, we will continue to have the cultural vitality of a dead cow in the Rio Grande.