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?

The Christian Singles Mess


The man-childTim Challies posted on Facebook this quote from a book by Richard Phillips:

“One of the biggest problems in the church today is the failure of young adult men to value and pursue marriage.”

That quote really bothered me, honestly. It seems like the typical male-bashing that is so prevalent today: If something is wrong, blame men.

It takes two to tango, though, so I can’t see why the blame must always fall on men for the state of dating today.

I’ve been married since 1996, so I can’t say that I am totally up on every aspect of the Christian single scene circa 2010, but still, I can’t believe it has changed THAT much since my single days. So when I read quotes like the one from Phillips, I just have to wonder if people see the same mess I did.

When I was single…

It was almost always the woman who broke things off in a relationship. I knew a lot of single Christian guys, and they were typically the dumpee, not the dumper. These were good guys, too. They WANTED to get married. It’s just that their girlfriends didn’t—at least not to them. So just who is putting off marriage here?

While both sexes have “lists,” the lists of desirable qualities in a mate that women kept seemed to be more unrealistic than the lists of men. What made this more glaring was that as single women aged, their lists got shorter, while men’s lists tended to stay the same. So which sex is making dating harder?

I dated about a half-dozen women before I met my wife. Twice, women I dated gave me the “you’re too nice” break-up speech—only to have those two later date men who hit them. Worse, they couldn’t bring themselves to break it off with their abusers. I pray that a third of women out there are not dumping nice guys in favor of bad boys, but my experience says otherwise. What kind of message is that sending to men who are “nice”?

A man’s income is a bigger factor than single Christian women care to admit. Plenty of good, caring, honest men don’t make six figures. I’ve seen too many cases of women dropping the “poor” nice guy in favor of the loaded playboy. The outcome is self-fulfilling. So which sex is succumbing to questionable motives?

This is not a post to bash single women. Still, all the culpability for the mess out there can’t be dumped solely at the feet of men.

It’s true that we seem awash in Man-Child Syndrome, with men acting like teenagers into their 30s. But at the same time, thanks to the inevitable outcomes of radical feminism, we’ve also developed this almost predatory female who wants to compete as a man in those elements of life we’ve always associated with manhood. Can anyone claim that THAT’S an improvement for women?

Here’s the even worse problem: quotes like those from Richard Phillips. Why? Because the fixes are not those most Christians are willing to examine. We can complain all we want about the state of male-female relationships today, but the fixes do not amount to telling one sex or the other to get their collective acts together. The problems run deeper.

Here’s an example:

Today, young men must compete for jobs against young women. But the playing field is not level. Every study I have seen in the last few years shows that companies prefer to hire women. Men are also cowed by the threat of sexual harassment lawsuits. Having been in several workplaces where a male coworker was sued for sexual harassment, I can tell you that the effect is chilling, even on those men who would never consider saying or doing anything deemed harassment. I remember commenting to a woman I worked with that I thought she had a great fashion sense and was a smart dresser; she responded, “And just what do you mean by that?” Her response taught me that it was better to not talk to her at all.

This adds up in the lives of men. It amplifies the so-called Battle of the Sexes, a battle that didn’t exist prior to the 1960s and the rise of radical feminism. As men are most often the loser in this battle, this contributes to the Man-Child Syndrome.

I also believe that the way we prepare young people for the work world today exacerbates the problems. Beyond men and women competing for the same jobs, we use college as an excuse for job prep. We throw young people into a largely unsupervised college environment, expect them to put off marriage for four years, expect them them put off marriage for more years after graduation while they “establish their careers” (and justify the massive costs of a college education), and then we wonder why dating and mating is a giant mess.

Yet what Christian leader out there today is willing to question the way we work, earn money, and get an education? Instead, we find a convenient whipping boy, the man-child, and tell him to act like a man—when our entire system is geared for preventing him from doing so.

As I see it, the problems are systemic and difficult, which is why it’s easier for Christians to simply ignore them as we pursue our careers and gather for ourselves the only thing that seems to matter in life:  money. Telling men to act like men doesn’t get us anywhere unless we’re prepared to make the changes necessary to mold them into our professed ideal. And those changes may mean revising every aspect of our society and culture.

I wrote about my suggestions for how we Christians can address the issue of singleness in the Church in Singleness: Radical Answers for a Harsh Reality. I also talked about how we Christians are not seeing the bigger picture in dating and mating in The Truth About Women (and Men).

I wish more Christians were willing to look hard at masculinity and femininity breakdowns in our society today and pose genuine solutions that challenge the way we live. If we don’t, how can we expect different outcomes?

Stay-at-Home Dads (or “Guys the Church Would Like to Forget Exist”)


Just this last week, the following was posted to a few Christian blogs:

Probably if everyone in the United States circa 1960 had known that taking modest steps in the direction of feminism would, in fact, lead during their lifetimes to the legalization of sodomy, to gay men marrying each other, to a small but growing number of fathers staying home to take care of the kids, to legal abortions, etc., etc., etc. the public would have overwhelmingly rejected those early steps. But the poo-pooers won the day, the people did not believe, and now majorities support most of those developments….
—Matt Yglesias—“Slippery Slopes

Sodomy. Homosexual marriage. Legal abortion. Stay-at-home dads.

In the Church in America, it is not hard to see how many—particularly of the Evangelical persuasion— are up in arms about the moral slide of this country. But when I read something like this, it hurts me. A lot. Dad with kidsThat’s because I find myself lumped in with women who murder their unborn children, with men who lust after other men, with people who seek to mock God’s great gift of heterosexual marriage.

You see, I’m a stay-at-home dad.

In the four years that I have been in this role, the one thing I have learned is that Evangelicals find stay-at-home dads to be that chunk of indigestible gristle that wedges in the back of the throat. Now while I don’t need for them to come right out and say this to my face, the position taken by so many Evangelicals is the literal “death by a thousand cuts” when it comes to stay-at-home dads. If every stay-at-home dad would simply vanish overnight, I think most Evangelicals would breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Open up any Christian book that discusses the American family and you see this:

  • Dad works a high-paying job outside the home as the sole breadwinner. He continues this till the day he retires from the firm with the solid-gold pocketwatch.
  • Mom stays at home with the three to four children and homeschools them until the last one gets pushed out of the nest at age eighteen.

These are the two gold standards by which Evangelical families are judged for their conformity to a Scriptural mandate for the home. Any variance from this and the wrath of God is incurred.

I know this is the case because I read. Plus, any casual glance at the bestselling books on How to Have the Perfect Christian Family will tell us that this is the measure by which Christ judges us from His Bema Seat. Never have I seen an Evangelical Christian book or magazine that ascribes to this model even once consider stay-at-home dads except to brand them a breech of the natural order and anathema in the Church. As Mr. Yglesias points out (whether intended or not), a family with a stay-at-home dad can easily be equated to a household with two same-sex parents.

I also know the trouble caused by the existence of stay-at-home dads because I’ve been a Christian for almost thirty years. I’ve seen how families are treated when they don’t perfectly hew to the Evangelical family model. The judgment is passed (“As a family, you get an ‘F'”) and the arms come out to keep your perverted family at a safe distance.

This plays out in many ways. My son cannot come over to another house for playtime if the other child’s at-home parent is a woman. Wouldn’t be seemly for her to be seen with an “unknown man” coming into her home while her husband is away. I can understand that to a point, though it paints the at-home dad as a sex machine that will seduce any female he manages to get alone.

As an at-home dad, I’m not welcome into “parenting group” activities with at-home moms. In one such group that I was investigating, it was made all too clear that by my presence I was ruining the moms’ chance to catch up on daily gossip. How clear? One of the moms came up to me and told me that right to my face. Now she didn’t call it gossip (gossip is a sin, you know), but I’m not stupid. I recognized what I was hearing.

Whenever the Church devises mid-week events for parents, the at-home dad gets a sinking feeling because “parent” is not really the word they intend, unless the sole definition of “parent” is “mother of the children.” Simply showing up for such an event throws the organizers into chaos.

Now you would think that Evangelicals would be overjoyed that a family chooses to have one parent at home raising the children. You would think that they would celebrate the fact that some families have chosen to abandon the dual-income rat race that is afflicting so many families. You would think. But you would be wrong, dead wrong, if you think that the Church would be happy if the parent staying at home happens to have a penis.

One of my favorite foils here at Cerulean Sanctum is Focus on the Family. Seeing that I am a conservative Christian would make you think I hold Focus on the Family in high regard. Yet one of the reasons I find the whole organization to be less than stellar is their unwillingness to admit that the cultural forces that are tearing the family apart are not necessarily the ones they think are causing the problems. FotF’s blindered look at Christianity and culture finds them upholding many of the cultural anomalies that are responsible for the outcomes they decry.

Case in point: feminism is an easy target. A much harder target is the Industrial Revolution. In Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, he discusses how prior to the industrial revolution, almost EVERY dad was a stay-at-home dad. But then so was every mom. In fact, the economy revolved around the home. FotF, on the other hand, seems to lean to dad being locked up in a cubicle all day at Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe. Likewise, almost every book I’ve read about being a perfect Christian dad makes dad out to not only be the captain of his household, but a captain of industry as well—even if this means the family never sees dad because he’s slaving away for fifty hours a week or out being Steve, the Road Warrior. I’ve never heard an Evangelical organization similar to Focus on the Family question whether the work world we have created as a result of the Industrial Revolution is hurting our families.

Many men are stay-at-home dads because of mitigating business factors that Evangelicals refuse to address or address in totally anti-Christian ways. For instance, I was recently given some links to Christian businessmen networks. On one of the online forums I read a message by a Christian business leader talking about how “Christian excellence” requires him to fire all his IT people and move his IT operations offshore. He believed such a move was God’s will. However, nothing seemed to register in him that perhaps a little less profit could be had and that he could keep the employees he already has in an action that is far closer to the heart of the Gospel than what he’s claiming as God’s will. His downsizing move creates a hardship for the fired male employee who must come to grips that his career is drying up and that his family might be more stable if mom became the breadwinner (because she’s less likely to be fired in a downsizing move by her company in her field of college study.) The fallout of this is that the Christian business owner just created the very Evangelical headache—a stay-at-home dad— that every Christian family bestseller on the shelf of the local Christian bookstore insists must not exist lest the sky fall and dogs and cats start living together in violation of the created order.

In other words, if Evangelicals don’t like stay-at-home dads, then just what are they doing to ensure that work world issues are addressed that prevent families from having to consider that option? Truthfully, the answer is that they simply don’t care about preventing the “problem” of stay-at-home dads at all, preferring to attribute their blighted existence to evils of feminism rather than the natural fallout of the Industrial Revolution and the very worst aspects of capitalism gone to greedy selfishness. It is far easier to point a finger toward the at-home dad than to do something about ensuring work for all men who truly want to be the breadwinners in their family (even if that is not necessarily God’s perfect design.) Nor is anything being done to restore the work of fathers and mothers back to the home, just like in the days when this country was founded. As much as parachurch Christian organizations like Focus on the Family idolize America of that day, they make no mad rush to take on that particular aspect of the economy of that day and bring it into today’s homes.

So yes, I am a stay-at-home dad. To all the Christians out there who express concern about the fact that I exist in that role, I say, put your money where your mouth is and stop crucifying me on the cross of your righteous indignation.

Or is that a little too harsh?