Feminism, Singleness, and the Idol of the Nuclear Family


Every now and then a post seems to erupt in the Godblogosphere. The latest is Denny Burk’s “A Sad Tale of Feminism Gone to Seed.” As they say, read the whole thing.

The gist of the Burk post is that feminism sold author Elizabeth Wurtzel (of Prozac Nation fame) a trunkload of hooey that resulted in the life she now decries in a New York Magazine article. Some of that lament:

It had all gone wrong. At long last, I had found myself vulnerable to the worst of New York City, because at 44 my life was not so different from the way it was at 24. Stubbornly and proudly, emphatically and pathetically, I had refused to grow up, and so I was becoming one of those people who refuses to grow up—one of the city’s Lost Boys. I was still subletting in Greenwich Village, instead of owning in Brooklyn Heights. I had loved everything about Yale Law School—especially the part where I graduated at 40—but I spent my life savings on an abiding interest, which is a lot to invest in curiosity. By never marrying, I ended up never divorcing, but I also failed to accumulate that brocade of civility and padlock of security—kids you do or don’t want, Tiffany silver you never use—that makes life complete. Convention serves a purpose: It gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis. If you don’t have the imposition of family to remind you of what is at stake, something else will. I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years.

I was amazed to discover that, according to The Atlantic, women still can’t have it all. Bah! Humbug! Women who have it all should try having nothing: I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present. I do have a royalty account, some decent skills, and, apparently, a lot of human capital. But because of choices I have made, wisely and idiotically, because I had principles or because I was crazy, I have no assets and no family. I have had the same friends since college, although as time has gone on, the daily nature of those relationships has changed, such that it is not daily at all. But then how many lost connections make up a life? There is my best friend from law school, too busy with her toddler; the people with whom I spent New Year’s in a Negril bungalow not so long ago, all lost to me now; every man who was the love of my life, just for today; roommates, officemates, classmates: For everyone who is near, there are others who are far gone.

Burk then adds his commentary:

Wurtzel famously has a knack for finding the dark side of everything. Certainly here she has found the dark side of feminism. There is a price to pay when one trades her birthright for a mess of pottage. The trap of feminism is that so few modern people can see it for the mess of pottage that it is. Even Wurtzel misses it, though she feels deeply the pain of it.

I do not believe feminism is to blame for all women who find themselves single. Nor do I think that feminism alone accounts for all the moral pathologies on display in Wurtzel’s article. But I do believe that feminism has provided the social context for women to be congratulated by the culture for sad choices that they make.

The comments on Burk’s site reveal that he went back and tempered the statement shown above to reduce some of the vitriol ladled out against feminism. Honestly, I wouldn’t backpedal. I think the brand of feminism that arose out of the 1960s has been at the root of a whole score of societal downturns and downright evils, many of which feminists themselves are only now—reluctantly—acknowledging.

But here’s my problem with Burk’s feminist straw man. I’ve known just as many Christian singles who have shared with me the same lament as Wurtzel’s, even down to the specifics.

Burk says the source of Wurtzel’s problem is feminism. But what is the source of the problem for Christian singles who are generational peers of Wurtzel’s? Can we still blame feminism? Or is the Church in the West somehow failing to address some lack in its vision?

I’ll be honest here. I have a strong aversion to pundits who like to throw stones at the glass house of “the bad guy” but who refuse to acknowledge the transparency and fragility of their own domicile. For some Christians, feminism is about as easy a target for stones as exists. Woo, how brave we are at mocking it!

Are we we doing anything about our own glass house, though? And if not, why expend energy to toss rocks at someone else’s house when we should be addressing our own inadequacies?

Here’s the fundamental problem in the Church in the West that leads to a similar lament among Christian peers of Wurtzel…

Wurtzel’s lament isn’t just about bad personal choices. In large part, it’s about broken community.

If you haven’t noticed, the Church in the West has not been stellar at combating breakdowns in societal structure and building up vital community. If anything, we’ve taken the majority of our energy and plowed it back into trying to shore up the nuclear family.

While building strong nuclear families is certainly a noble cause, could it be a case of the good being the enemy of the best?

A few comments by Jesus about family—and Gospel priorities:

And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
—Luke 18:28-30 ESV

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
—Mark 3:31-35 ESV

And elsewhere it is noted:

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.
—1 Corinthians 7:8 ESV

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
—1 Corinthians 7:32-35 ESV

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
—Isaiah 56:3-5 ESV

The problem is that we don’t really believe or practice any of those verses.

If I were the keynote speaker at a Christian conference on marriage and family and said that I believe that the proper order of importance in my life, from most important to less important, is

  1. God
  2. Spouse
  3. My children

I would get a hearty round of Amens.

But if I said that I believe that this order and the words above from Jesus and other Bible authors say that I must also consider the following prioritized order

  1. Family of God
  2. My nuclear family

I would predict dead silence. Or close to it.

We simply don’t want to give Family of God the place it deserves. We’re not only averse to putting it before nuclear family, we’re not even sure it should rank as number two. Number one is completely out.

Is it any wonder then that single people “of a certain age” feel like the crazy aunt locked in the church attic? God may think differently, but we like our “eunuchs” to remain dry trees.

A man over 50 years of age visits your church. He seems devout, perhaps a bit too much so, and he talks about loving God, perhaps a bit too much. But for all his talk of love, he is unmarried and seems to want to stay that way. And while he is a great preacher, he dresses a bit frumpy and doesn’t seem to care for his personal appearance the way you think he should. He unnerves you because you can’t figure him out. You wonder about motives. Why is he single? What’s the story there? Really, he was never married? You begin to wonder about how safe your kids are around that man.

What if I told you that this was the Apostle Paul?

A lot of sincere Christian singles feel that same scorn in the Church. They know people are asking questions about them. They not only have to own up to their own decisions about life and whether or not they’ve made the right decisions, Single, white, female, alone by herselfbut they have the married folks in the church second-guessing their decisions too. It’s a burden that Christian singles bear that their non-Christian counterparts may not always deal with. Which only makes it tougher.

Because we may have our priorities wrong with the Family of God and nuclear family, we can’t get community right. And singles are usually the first to suffer for that inability. Our communities not only prove to be unfulfilling to marrieds with children (who counter the lack by retreating further into their nuclear family), but those failed attempts at community let down singles even more. Single Christians suffer the same lament as Wurtzel of wondering where everyone went in their lives, and how is it that they get left out of whatever dregs of community exist? And why is it that when THEY go looking for some kind of human interaction to fill that void, and THEY make a mistake with handling it, THEY get singled out for righteous scorn?

Really, Church, just what are we offering better to singles with regard to community than what the broken world offers?

Denny Burk ends his article:

He did not make us unisex. He did not make us genderless humanoids with no direction for our intimate lives. He made us male and female. And for those to whom it has been given, He made us to give ourselves away to years of finding stale Cheerios in every hidden crevice of the minivan, to seasons of graduations and of anniversaries and of empty nests, to gray years with the love of your life who is your best friend, to lifetimes of covenant love.

Feminism is the killer of that dream, even though precious few seem to notice.

Note the odd pairing of and for those to whom it has been given with that dream. That’s the classic marriage/singleness dichotomy of Evangelicalism on display. We tell singles that their calling is a wonderful one, yet the married life is the real dream.

Here’s reality: Feminism should not be the killer of that dream. Jesus should be. And Evangelicals need to stop pushing one option as a “dream” and another as a “calling,” because when you come to Jesus, all bets about dream fulfillment are off. That idol should go away. And boy, have we made an idol of the nuclear family.

But the dream/idol talk persists because there’s not really much of anything else for people, at least when it comes to community, because we have yet to figure out how real Christian community works. Especially for those who are single. Which is why their lament sounds an awful lot like Wurtzel’s.

And we can’t easily blame that on feminism, now can we?

22 thoughts on “Feminism, Singleness, and the Idol of the Nuclear Family

  1. Wow! What a terrific and shocking post. Any practical suggestions for Christians who want to break the idols and make community work regardless of marital status?

    • slw,

      I’m not even sure where to start except to say that our employment determines where and how we live. Changing community starts with the triad of Work/Location/Lifestyle. Put Time in there as the fourth dimension. Rethink all of them. Then add community to the mix. Because you can’t change community unless you rethink the way we work, how we follow work to where we live, and what our life looks like with those other two in play.

      Breaking the idol of nuclear family begins with humility and extends to your children knowing that they are not the focus of your life. Nor should they be the focus of their own lives. Kids today get repeatedly hit with the opposite message, and the Church only tends to reinforce that, from nursery through youth group. And if kids believe that they aren’t the focus, they have a reinforcing strength that helps you believe you aren’t the focus either, lest you come off as the dreaded hypocrite.

      Start with that.

      • I’m not too sure much can be done with your first paragraph of your response. It seems to encompass decisions made far outside the realm of the body. Are you advocating communal living?

        The second paragraph is definitely within grasp however. I agree with the principle. Christian families tend to revolve around the kids, resulting in them growing up thinking the world revolves around them. That certainly isn’t preparing them for a life of godliness and service. I often hear such a stilted view of parenthood then applied metaphorically to God to describe how he fawns over us.

        • slw,

          My childhood was basically from 1962 to 1980. I see almost no 1:1 comparisons between the way I was raised in that era (the expectations of parents and their involvement in planning their children’s lives) and the craziness I witness today. What is expected of parents and kids today is just insane, and it’s ruining our society. Everything is ramped up to a fever pitch, and honestly, I can’t compete at that level anymore. And yet people try, then they make it worse for the rest of us.

          As to my first paragraph, I’m open to any solutions, no matter how oddball they may seem. What we have now simply is not working, and it’s simultaneously destroying discipleship in this country.

          • Chuck

            Have you ever read the essay “The Kindergarchy” by Joseph Epstein? He comments on the difference between the way he was raised, probably in the 40s, and the child-centred childrearing of today. I was raised in the 70s and 80s but in many ways my upbringing has a more in common with his than with today’s generation. I think you’d find it interesting and sometimes amusing.

  2. Your writing is a refreshing antidote to the overly politicized writings of many of my fellow Christians. The lack of community is HUGE. I’m so glad to see someone writing about this. Eleanor Rigby existed before feminism, right? 😉

    • Michelle,

      Not a single one of my small groups meets anymore. Getting a group of four couples together is a nightmare. How did it become like this? Nowadays, it seems like much of my interaction is on Facebook, a poor, poor substitute. 🙁

  3. William Floyd

    Very good article. The things which you raise in this post are things which are things I’ve never heard anyone else ever address before. Walking out what you speak of calls for a lot of sacrifice, but is so rewarding.

  4. Kristen

    Thank you for this, Dan. As a 32-year-old single woman, I can relate. In my church, nearly all of the small groups are for couples only, with the exception of the group I started nearly eight years ago. (That group consists of mostly couples now, but remains open to anyone.) It seems that there are fewer singles in our church, possibly because of this?

  5. bobp

    Read down Wurtzel’s essay and she states that women supported by men are prostitutes.


    I know that functional love includes a fair amount of falsity, or no one would get through morning coffee, and integrity is mostly a heroic excuse to avoid the negotiating table.

    With non-apolegetic statements like that why does she lament her life is a mess?

    I don’t see feminism as crumbling even though I totally agree with the assessment you gave it.

    Divorce in the church as prevalent as the secular world as my former pastor and his wife of 3 years divorced recently and you say we the church have made the nuclear family an idol?

    It’d be a step forward.

  6. A friend sent me this link I was was shocked at how much wisdom is dripping from it. Asking questions about our employment is crucial. I came up in mulitcultural churches that were committed to local ministry. I still am in this type of church. I am grateful that there are those who chose to live close to the church (1st tier). I am in the 2nd tier of those who live within 15 minutes of the church. We practice this concept of community from an Anabaptist perspective. What I am most grateful for is that we not only have multiethnicity, we have socio-economic diversity which can be hard to achieve in Philly. Even with this, I am still pondering, how do we go further. Good analysis.

  7. Helen Rudinsky

    For me the biggest hinderance to getting married was the magical thinking “faith” stuff. I am a baby boomer who went off to do mission work with a group called Youth With A Mission in the 1980s in my 20s. I was told if I seek first the Kingdom of God, everything would be added to me. So did thousands of other women. We are all single. Everything I have wanted in life has passed me by.
    Now I see God works normatively, respecting the laws of the universe, gravity, law of numbers, etc During my mom’s generation, everyone she knew got married, that was 1940s and 1950s. There were a lot of single men coming from Europe. Up until 1968 there were more men than women in the US. It was rare for a woman not to marry. Now most of the women I know are single. Men are becoming gay, dying in wars, marrying women from third world countries. Women do not have a pool of good men. Especially the ones who are dedicated, devout Christians. I am not married for these reasons: I am a christian, well educated (3 masters degrees) and a go-getter. I don’t see any other christian females with these traits married, they are all single. So it can’t just be me, I see it in all the christian churches, organizations, etc. I believe God loves me but he works in normative ways, the law of numbers is that the numbers are just not there for educated, dedicated christian women. Especially as we get older, but even in my 20s in missions, there were few men, just women.

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