Hillsdale,MI. David the King ordered the beautiful Bathsheba to come to him because he could.    He also could have her husband killed, and sent the letter that condemned Uriah the Hittite to death in Uriah’s own hand, because David knew that this honorable man would not violate the King’s instructions.  David also knew that Joab would carry out his order to put Uriah in death’s way because Joab honored the King and knew that Israel could not survive without him.

David’s sin was not just a matter of sin.  You or I may bed another man’s wife and get away with it, and even repent, as David did.  But he did a spectacular adultery.  He disordered the family of God, and that disordered the commonweal.  It disordered the Eternal Israel.  Once the covenant is broken in its most primary place, well, stuff happens.

David was lazy, and didn’t go out to war that springtime as kings were supposed to do, so he had time to look down on Bathsheba’s naked charms.  His laziness carried over into his “parenting skills,” so he sort of sluffed off his son Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar, and didn’t notice that Absalom got really pissed off.  Absalom bided his time but eventually killed his half-brother Amnon, and then made a cautious and brilliant plan to kick his father out of office.

David almost lost Israel.  If it hadn’t been for the loyal Joab being willing to cut up Absalom (who was caught in a tree by his hubris over his pretty hair) against orders and then tell David that his pity party over his oldest son’s death was a moral insult to the covenant, the whole David story would be irrelevant to our civilization.  As it is, the David story, the most powerful novel in the history of literature, tells us almost everything we need to know about what we now, as reductionists, call “civil society.”

The story tells us first of all that if we neglect or dishonor or treat badly or disrespect our parents and wives and children, or fail to love them except with sentimental emotional ejaculations (“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!) our neighborhoods and kingdoms will come apart.

The first and most important item on the FPR agenda is to find ways to encourage, revive, strengthen, support, protect, and defend family life.  Insofar as we lack the will to do this, and insofar as we look to government to do this, we’d sure better hope to find a few Joabs out there.

The question isn’t what a family is, everybody knows what a family is.  Once upon a time the United States refused to let the Mormon kingdom of Utah into the union for over three decades because Utah would not conform to that simple understanding.  Nowadays we recreate the created order and think we can define what is beyond our power to define, which is as hilarious a notion as holding international conferences on managing the planet.  Instead of Joabed we get Franked, and Gored.

What is the alternative to living together in families?  Robert Frost said that the family is the place, if you have to go there, has to take you in.  The government has to take you in, but only 1) if you are a member of a big enough group to vote folks into office or 2) if it has enough money taken from somebody else that it can afford to take you in.  Monasteries would take you in, but in their traditional configurations that would last only one generation, because not much procreation is going on.  Propose another institution.  Not one works, not one in history, except one you can dream up that is dependent on a Star Trek view of the world.

Why even bring this up?  Nope, before you are tempted to use the H-word or any other word, know that my own family has had its share of difficulties: unplanned pregnancy, infidelity, divorce, homosexuality, alcoholism, insanity; name it, we’ve had it.  Our Willsons, and I won’t embarrass the many other names in our extended family; but we and the others like us, are the only reason we still have what remains of a republic, because we know that overcoming the difficulties is what keeps neighborhoods and even “The Eternal Israel” together.

I commend to you Paul Newman’s movie, “Nobody’s Fool.”  Richard Russo’s novel, from which the movie was developed, is nihilistic, funny, but ugly; the movie, in this one instance, is far better.  Newman’s character discovers, in painful and violent and raunchy and tender ways that he holds the whole town of Bath, New York, together, to his total amazement, because he is a grandfather.  Well, other things, too.

This is serious, my friends on the Porch.  Can somebody give me an example, in all that we know about human history, of a decent, ordered, prosperous social order that did not depend on decent and ordered families?  Republics are particularly vulnerable to ordered and disordered family life.  John Adams once wrote that republics depended on virtue, that virtue depended on families, and that families depended on the virtue of their women.  “Therefore, my friends, look to your wives and daughters for the future of our republic.”

This, by the way, is a Christmas story.

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  1. Willson,

    Luke 23:28-31 has at least a partial explanation, however refracted. How this pagan arrived at such understanding is a story for another day.
    Merry Christmas from my “colorful” family to yours!

  2. John,
    It is always a pleasure to meet one who has the good sense to agree with me.
    Have often thought about, & on more than one occasion, preached about the David story.
    Further grist for your evidentiary mill: Whenever the Bible describes a culture ripe for judgment, family breakdown is a prominent feature–before the flood, Sodom & Gommorah, Israel descended to sacrificing children, Romans 1, 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (note “disobedient to parents” amid all the “bad” sins).
    Having ministered in the same small town all my adult life, I have seen the ugly fruit of abandoning family done God’s way. I pray that you have success in planting the truth you articulate in the young minds you seek to educate.

  3. What about the Church? You say the monastery is a one generation thing, but of course that’s simply not true. The church grows supernaturally, not biologically. And the church is the place that should welcome and love all people. Does it always do that well? No, of course not. But then again, neither does the family. If this really is a Christmas story, then we need to conclude, based on the teaching of the one who was born on Christmas, that the only truly eternal institution is the church. The family is a (wonderful) shadow of the eternal community.

  4. Sabin: Good point. It is an answer of sorts. Or a dagger in the heart.

    Hitchcock: Couldn’t agree more, but we unfortunately have to live lives that are not under the constant protection of the Church in the most intimate, practical, physical way. God became man in a family, and lived in a family for about three decades, and obeyed His earthly parents, and gave us the model for how we all should live. Church, family, community are the institutions where we exist. Family has been under vicious and very well thought out attack for about a hundred years now by progressives of all kinds, and must be the first line of defense of the decentcons.

    Have a happy new year and blessed Epiphany, all my new and old friends on the Porch!

  5. Why do we “have to live lives that are not under the constant protection of the Church in the most intimate, practical, physical way”? Why is the family always our default position? Yes, Jesus grew up in a family, but he did not live in a family in the way you’re describing during his recorded adult years. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to not do so, and to call his disciples to not do so. The life of Christians as recorded in Acts also seems to indicate that the Church was their most basic community, not the family. I have no desire to degrade the family, but a “focus on the family” as the way of preserving all that is good and decent does not strike me as biblical. It might be good politics, but it’s not good theology.

  6. Hitchcock,
    You are either wrong or just being contentious. Do I have to go all through the Annunciation and the dreams of Joseph and the flight to Egypt and the Anna and Simeon and the Passover when Jesus came home to be obedient, and the wedding at Cana? Jesus became man in a family, and lived in a family, and pronounced us as family. I’m not political, and you’re not being biblical. Not being argumentative here, just wondering where you want to go with this? Are you wanting to argue that Jesus would be OK with divorce, state-run care centers, abortion, gay marriage, etc.?

  7. No, you don’t have to go through Jesus’ childhood to demonstrate that Jesus lived much of his life in a family, because I’ve already conceded that point. Nor am I trying to argue that Jesus would be in favor of abortions or divorce or any other such nonsense. I don’t think any reasonable person would see such an argument in my last posts. All I’m trying to say is that American Christians have gotten their priorities wrong. The family is a wonderful institution created by God. It should be treated with respect and love. However, the Church (not the family) is the primary, foundational, and eternal community for a Christian. The New Testament is clear about that. (See Matt. 10:34-39; Matt 12:46-50; Matt. 19:29; Mark 3:31-35; Mark 10:28-31; Luke 14:25-26; Luke 20:34-38; I Cor. 7:8-40. To these passages I would add the substantial evidence that Jesus chose to live his adult life outside of the normal family structure of the time.) American Christians’ obsession with the family (“It’s the family, stupid!” and “The first and most important item on the FPR agenda is to find ways to encourage, revive, strengthen, support, protect, and defend family life.” ) is my concern. Biblically speaking, the family is not the end-all or be-all of Christian life and discipleship. The reason I keep responding here is not because I want to degrade the family, but because this issue is central to our understanding of who God has called us to be – members of our own family or members of his family? One has to take precedence over the other and therefore one must define the other. I contend that the Church takes precedence, and therefore the Church defines the family, not vice versa. When the Church comes first, the ethos of “protect the American family at all costs, this is our first and most important commitment” is called into question in some very serious ways.

    I wasn’t being sarcastic when I said that perhaps a “focus on the family” approach is good politics. But theologically, a focus on the family at the expense of, or the deprioritizing of, the Church, is wrong. If all you were doing was calling for a new commitment to family, I wouldn’t have any real issues with your essaay. However, in your original post you stated that monasteries don’t work because they can’t reproduce themselves naturally, and in your last response, you said that of course you agreed with me, but unfortunately, such an idea doesn’t really work in our day-to-day existence. Both of these statements imply that the Church is a sort of pie-in-the-sky idea that we like to affirm in theory (or in theology) but practically (or politically) speaking, it’s up to us (and our reproductive systems) to keep the world safe and decent. In other words, both of these statements prioritize the family over the Church. That’s the issue I’m concerned with. If I’ve misread your statements, please tell me what you really meant. The question in my last response was a request that you clarify your position, not an attempt to be contentious.

  8. Ok, I get it. Disagreement is labeled as either nitpicking, contentiousness, wrongness, or aligning oneself with the far left. Questions are left unanswered. Counter-arguments are ignored. Good to know how things work around here.

  9. No, please read what I said in the original post. I will not be proof-texted. No suggestion of Left or Right, just want you to address what I said and not what you want me to have said. If you want to get into a biblical argument I can do that very well, but don’t try to change the context. If you think that God did not come to us in a family we really, really have nothing to talk about. If you want to make a good case for something else, then don’t even suggest that I “prioritize” anything over the Church–which, by the way, you don’t define. I’m a Catholic, and know what the Church is. And don’t ever, ever accuse me of ignoring reasonable arguments. I’ve been teaching for 48 years.
    Now, having talked rather sternly, I want you to sit back for a few minutes and consider what our disagreement might be. I am not an unreasonable man, but since you are the one questioning me, you must clarify the issues.
    And, having also said that, I would really like to know what you mean by “reproductive systems.” That’s a pretty generic term, which could refer to almost any control-mechanism, all of which have proven not to work for any of God’s creatures.
    Best, and I mean it, John

  10. Thanks for the resume and the “stern” talking to.

    You asked your readers to propose an alternative to the family. I did so: the Church. I provided biblical arguments (not prooftexts) to show why I think the Church is the more foundational institution for a Christian than the family and why this is, theologically, an important issue to discuss. You did not respond to these arguments, but rather called me wrong, contentious, and a nitpicker. That’s the discussion to date. I’m happy to respond to your questions about the definition of the Church or the meaning of “reproductive systems” (although I thought that one was pretty obvious), but would appreciate it if you would respond to my questions and ideas, which were also meant in the spirit of genuine discussion.

    P.S. I’ve now twice conceded (happily) the point that God the Son became incarnate as a child in a family. I’m not sure why this keeps coming up.

  11. I take Hitchcock’s reply to be quite “serious.” Perhaps the issue can be resolved thusly: the family is the foundational expression of God’s plan for social living, while the Church is the ultimate expression. Jesus himself teaches us that the Church supercedes the family, even while it nurtures and draws upon it. Think, for example, of the young Jesus in the temple in Luke 2, or his expression regarding his “true” family in Luke 8, or his teaching concerning the divisive nature of his words in Matthew 10, where Christ promises “to make a man’s enemies those of his own household.” The Church has long taught that the family is a model for ecclesial life, not the other way around, intending that the Church should be the fullest expression of human community. I think Christian teaching is quite clear that the Church has a higher claim on our loyalties than does the family – a hard teaching that becomes difficult to live when dealing with brokenness within families, as we have all had to do.

    Part of the issue here might be that one can coordinate the goods of family life rather seamlessly with the demands of a liberal democracy, but one cannot do this easily with the Church, or at least as easily (there being a substantive range of Christian opinion on this question). As such, if one is talking about the primacy of a social institution purely in terms of its functionality in a democratic order, the family would naturally be the point of focus. But if one wants to discuss social organization in terms of complete human flourishing, then the Church ought to be the locus of attention, in no small part precisely because of its “voluntary” nature. The family might be the place where the theological virtues are nourished, but the Church is the place where they are expressed. My inclusion in the family is not an act of faith, but being a member of a Church is an act of faith. That families require expressions of hope and love, which manifest themselves among husband and wife in procreative acts (and thus the refusal to procreate reflects the vices of sloth, despair, and stinginess), they remain a germ of what we find in the Church. That the Church itself, as a social order, encourages and perhaps requires the formation of well-ordered families in no way suggests the primacy of the latter.

  12. Hopefully Mr. Polet’s comments will throw a little light on the discussion. I especially appreciated this line: “Part of the issue here might be that one can coordinate the goods of family life rather seamlessly with the demands of a liberal democracy, but one cannot do this easily with the Church, or at least as easily.” This is very much my concern. When we focus on the family, it is so easy for us to slide right into our liberal democracy. But maybe that’s not such a good idea. Maybe we need to feel a little more clearly the fact that as Christians we belong to a different regime, a different kingdom. Shifting our focus to the Church as our primary community will not hurt our own families, but it will change them in significant ways. They will no longer be private, they will no longer be “ours,” and they will no longer by our first priority.

  13. There is an important division here that is clarified in critical ways by the following story:

    “A story about Radbod, Duke of the Frisians, is appended to the Life of St. Wulfhramn, and dated c.720. The pagan Radbod, on his way into the baptismal tank, stopped: and asked of the holy Bishop Wulfhramn, binding him by oaths on the name of the Lord, whether he could guarantee that the number of Kings and Princes and nobles of the Frisian race would be greater in heaven, if he [Radbod] believed and was baptized, than in Tartarean damnation. To which Bishop Wulfhramn replied Noli errare, inclyte Princeps, “make no mistake, famous prince. The number of his elect is known to the Lord. For your predecessors as princes of the Frisian race, who died without the sacrament of baptism, are certain to have received the sentence of damnation. But he who shall believe from now on and be baptized, will live happily ever after with Christ.” Haec audiens Dux incredulus (he had reached the font by then, so they say) took his foot out of the holy font and said he could not do without the society of his predecessors, the princes of the Frisians, to live in heaven with a scattering of wretches; for he found it harder to offer assent to the new teachings than to remain with those which he had followed for a long time with the whole Frisian race.”

    From a noted essay among anglo-saxonists/old style english and germanic philologists, by Tom Shippey, holder of the Tolkien chair at Leeds and a Tolkien expert.

    The Church has a real problem with tribal, traditional societies, and those societies have a real problem with the Church. That’s what is really going on here. And I will state again my proposed solution, drawn I think from the best of the temporal Church’s long struggle to be in the world, which is Christianity’s deal with paganism.


  14. The following snippets come from this discussion:


    Elegy for Father Jape, Along Old Route 24

    In particular soil, dark Kansas soil,
    a man and his wife will husband Jape’s corpse,
    layer it low among husks and cobs. Oils
    from his reddened face will, in their due course,
    become a part of the fall mud. His head
    amidst a field of rotted pumpkin shells
    will find its home at last. The happy dead
    he always preferred to the happy hells
    of the living and the glib. “Te Deum
    Laudamus” the crows will sing as they pluck
    out his hair and leave his eyes. Like Adam,
    he gets to see the fall and all its muck.
    To save the world, he learns, at last, he must
    conserve one fertile place, become its dust.

    – David Wright

    There is something pre-Christian (Solomonic), of course, about the desire to sleep with one’s fathers. The question is, is it anti-Christian? Has anyone given thought or treatment to the way Paul’s doctrine of the ressurection of the body would have been profoundly upsetting to ancient death-rites and notions of peace after death, etc. Think Theodin or King David sleeping with their fathers or the Elysian Fields. Even Hebrews’ invocation of the “great cloud of witnesses” seems vaguely pagan or pre-Christian. This great shift must have a lot to teach us about “fellowship” and “identity,” etc., for the living and the dead. I need to re-read the Gorgias, but I bet there is some interesting insight there as well.

    Interestingly, this dove-tails with the discussion of whether “circle-of-life” or Wendell Berry-esque death rites and fertility schemes as amatuerly articulated in Avatar raise the spector of anti-Christian “pantheism” or not.

    Generational continuity of ANY kind is vauguely pagan and anti-Christian. As is any oral tradition or personal local history a threat to any universal textualist tradition.

  15. Well, as a person of Frisian heritage (both of my parents are immigrants from the Holy Land), I’m inclined to believe that the immanent superiority of the Frisian race will be reflected eternally. Nonetheless, I recognize this impulse as heterodox in the extreme, for eternity makes little account of the accidents of birth. What we cannot “do without” in heaven is, as C.S. Lewis has demonstrated, often a failure of imagination or a benighted interest on our part.

  16. Sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore these fine responses, but I had to leave my rocking chair on the Porch for a few days to help get my granddaughter married and thus start another little church, another little bastion against the creeping tyranny of the state.

    Perhaps I both overstated and understated my case. Although I have been called “the chief of the tribe” by observers of my family many times, the tribe has no meaning outside the Church. And in fact, the Christian tribes have always stood foursquare against tyranny. If they tend toward a vague paganism I’ll live with that paradox rather than it opposite.

    I agree with you–but again, my point is more limited and yet larger. Here is a piece by my friend Tracy Mehan, published today, that may help explain what I apparently didn’t explain very well.


    The family, like the Church, is antecedent to politics (as our so-called “founders” understood”), and in terms of living in a world based on republican self-government is the first line of defense against tyranny; more reliable even than the rule of law.

    Does this clear anything up? I take your view to be quite Augustinian, but I’m willing to live with that paradox, too.

  17. >>If they tend toward a vague paganism I’ll live with that paradox rather than it opposite.

    John, I agree with this entirely and, in fact, have argued regularly one step further–that the temporal Church must make such concessions to the pre-Christian state of the world in service of the higher, eternal goods it proposes.

    See the subsection called “The Regulative Function of the Sermon on the Mount”



  18. I think our differences are crystallizing. You see the the family as a little church, whereas I see the church and family as two distinct entities which may overlap but very often do not. Because of this, my view is that family and church are very often in competition with each other, and that the biblical mandate is that Christians always put the church first, even when that competition is not obviously manifesting itself.

    I also would not agree with the understanding of the Sermon on the Mount as having a regulative function. This suggested section of reading states that “following the sermon to the letter would in each individual case inevitably entail social and economic disaster and probably lead to an early death.” I don’t disagree with this conclusion, but I do disagree with the conclusion that this is a bad thing for Christians. Isn’t this a pretty good description of the lives of each of the apostles after Pentecost? The section suggests that the “swing towards the eschatological demands [of the Sermon] can go too far.” We can have too much obedience to the demands of the Kingdom and its King? The coming of the Kingdom will put an end to the kingdoms of this world. Our participation in that coming before its climax in the return of Christ may very well cost us our lives (and our economic or social situation). I think that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about and calling us to. But an over-spiritualization of the family makes it easy to think that can’t possibly be what he really means.

  19. OK, Hitchcock, “crystallizing” is a very interesting way to put it. First, in calling the family “a little church” I am just using the term the Church uses; it’s not opinion, it’s the opinion of the Church for many centuries. The family is the “first and best teacher of the faith,” the discipleship of men and women begins in the home, the first principle of subsidiarity is the social centrality of the family. Second, you have twice mentioned the lives of the apostles after Pentecost (about which we actually know quite little, and quite a lot); their silly misinterpretation of the Holy Spirit’s will in living as communists for a short while reminds one of the same silly attempt by Pilgrims in the early Christian diaspora on this continent. They had to return to family life to make the cult work. Granted, and you are very right on this point, the City of Man is not the City of God. There is a wonderful part of George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II where he describes a Polish woman putting on a one woman play for the Holy Father, imagining the woman that Augustine had to abandon to follow his call to Jesus and the Church. JPII was profoundly moved, knowing that from some early time in his life he knew his life was not his. The call of the Holy Spirit precedes even that which precedes the state. Few of us, however, are so named; the rest of us are given the great honor of living in families, and insofar as families are under attack by the secular culture of death we are bound to preserve, protect and defend. Third, having absolutely no idea when the Kingdom is coming (isn’t it already here?), do we live as atomic individuals at the mercy of tyrants or ourselves (usually both) or do we live in families and neighborhoods as the Church directs? Again, I’m willing to live with the paradox. Thank you for the challenge.

  20. “Their silly misinterpretation of the Holy Spirit’s will in living as communists for a short while” Wow. I can see this conversation’s gone as far as it can. Thanks for the fun!

  21. Part of me is tempted to agree with Max Weber, that when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount we either take it completely seriously or not at all. But I think we must resist such temptations. Clearly the church in the wake of Pentecost was largely defined by its imminent eschatological expectations. For such persons, attendance to the demands of family or political life are hardly considerations at all. They are a people who are waiting. But as time passed the church had to adjust to its persistence in the world, making more “mundane” reflections necessary. If the church were to live the life of holiness as outlined in the gospels, it would soon cease to exist. The “consilia evangelica” is rightly thought to apply to the lives of those who have a religious vocation, but not to everyone. Some are called to holiness, all to righteousness. This distinction allowed for the flowering of Christian families and other Christian institutions. Thos, as John says, are antecedent to government, and the primary task of government is to preserve, not only individuals, but those institutions as well.

  22. Jeff, I think Voegelin was right when he wrote, “…where the character of the gospel as an answer has been so badly obscured by its hardening into self-contained doctrine that the raising of the question to which it is meant as an answer can be suspect as a “non-Christian attitude.”

    You write, “The “consilia evangelica” is rightly thought to apply to the lives of those who have a religious vocation, but not to everyone. Some are called to holiness, all to righteousness.”
    My wife, with blood squirting out of her eyes, has located these scriptures that contradict your assertion: Lev. 19:2; 1 Thes. 4-1-11; Is. 35:8; 1 Peter 1: 13-25. All of these scriptures concern the idea of “personal holiness,” and you should know that there are a myriad of additional verses available regarding the subject.
    I intend to continue the conversation over at Prof. Willson’s “It’s the Family Stupid”, so sometime this evening visit that one.

  23. “If the church were to live the life of holiness as outlined in the gospels, it would soon cease to exist.”

    I think we’re really missing the point that the church is a supernatural institution that exists by supernatural powers (and thus its contrast to the family). This is what I meant when I said we (and our reproductive systems) do not make the church work or exist. The idea that Christians living out the life described in the gospels would be detrimental to the church is bizarre. When the Bible says that God is doing something new, I think we need to take that (dare I say?) literally. He’s not just tweaking the system we’ve already got going.

  24. Let me just gently say, again, that the essay is not about supernatural things. It is about what holds a decent polity together. Of course the Church subsumes the family; it also puts its moral and eternal stamp on the family to keep the commonwealth together, and to love and energize each new generation into the holy city. But imagine a world in which the state determines, defines, controls what a family is. There is much evidence that a social order cannot withstand, for example, a rate of illegitimacy much over 25%. We are past that now even in the white population. This is an immediate crisis, and won’t get better until people like us recognize it and try to do something about it. The moral outrage of abortion and all its tentacles, which soon will extend into the population of the older people, can only in the end be stopped by a spiritual awakening. In the meantime those who put family matters in third or fourth place behind the economy or foreign policy and whatever else are inviting disaster. The most successful progressive war of the last century was against the family. Will we face that terrible fact?

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