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?

Singleness: Radical Answers for a Harsh Reality


SinglenessIf you are single, this message is for you. If you’re married, this message is for you. I believe that we all need to confront the state of single life today in Christian people, both as marrieds and as singles. We must examine the messages we’re sending and what we can do as a Church to make life more fulfilling for young people confronting singleness.

What I want to say to you singles is hard to hear, but it needs to be said up front. The truth is that we’ve let you down. Worse still, the solutions to the problems you face won’t be resolved in your generation. The hope, though, is that you’ll be the ones who help the Church do a better job managing this issue in the generations that come after you.

Everyone is single at some point. I was single till I was 33. In a sex-soaked culture that perpetually whispers lies about the true nature of sex, that’s almost an eternity to be single. My body may have made it to my wedding night in one piece, but what our pornographic culture did to my mind is shameful. I think most Christian men know what I mean.

I understand how hard it is to block out the siren call of a pornographic culture like ours. Singles are sent an unending stream of lustful thoughts by the American entertainment culture, the mainstream media, and even our schools and universities. Where we Christians have let singles down in the Church is that we send a purity message that is almost impossible to bear in a society hellbent on countering every word of it. We’ve laid upon the shoulders of today’s singles a very heavy cross.

As I mentioned in several of my posts, including the recent “The Problem of Porn,” if Christians are to be all God desires us to be we’ve got to start thinking counter-culturally. Many of the problems we face today are ingrained in the very fiber of our culture and we Christians have bought into that culture without understanding the consequences of our actions. If we’re to lighten the heavy cross we’ve put on the backs of single Christians, we’ve got to start radically thinking outside the box.

Many of the most intractable issues in addressing singleness are bound up in several other problems that are in themselves difficult to unwind. But Christ is Victor and I believe that if we’re honest and carefully unpack these problems, start talking about them, and most of all praying to see God’s way, perhaps the next generation will be spared what today’s singles must bear. That way of preparation is highly involved, so please bear with me in what may seem like the completely off-subject reasoning that follows.

One of the principle lies we’ve bought into is the way we think about a young person’s life after high school. Our society has made college mandatory, but I believe that a day is soon coming when college costs will be beyond what Christian parents can reasonably handle (especially if those parents acknowledge that they need to slow down their hectic lives and consider work that keeps them near home, even if it makes less money.) It’s not unreasonable to think that a college education at a good school will soon run a quarter million dollars for four years. With our culture now claiming that graduate school is a virtual necessity in the global economy, education costs become even more prohibitive.

I mentioned in my post on pornography that six-year olds have become burnouts due to parents filling their schedules to ensure the kids will get into the best schools by having a “schooling résumé” loaded with one expensive, esoteric learning or sports experience after another. Pollster George Barna has even found that Christian parents care more about their children’s educational futures than they do that their children know Jesus deeply and intimately. This simply cannot continue.

We Christians need to start talking about alternatives to college and grad school. We need to consider setting up trade schools and intensive apprenticeship programs (like those in some European nations) that will teach our children highly desirable skills, especially for jobs that cannot easily be taken outside the United States. We also must find a way to keep our children from assuming the survival of the fittest mentality that permeates today’s work environment.

We must own up to the reality that colleges today, even Christian ones, have become little more than a means to cheap, commitment-less sex with a degree on top. If high school is hard to get through in one piece, then college is impossible. I went to a Christian college; parents, it is no safety net.

There was a tiny chapel on my campus where I would pray. It wasn’t particularly popular, so I was usually alone at the time of day I would frequent it. On the altar of that chapel was a student prayer journal. I used to pray for the students who left requests. The primary request was for God to forgive a student who had sinned sexually while enrolled at the college. (The second most requested prayer played into that: young women who were ashamed of torturing themselves through various eating disorders in order to supposedly stay desirable to the men on campus.)

At secular universities, the situation is even more dire. Hookups—commitment-less sexual encounters with acquaintances and virtual strangers—are now the norm for most collegians. Anymore, almost no one makes it out of college a virgin, even the Christian kids who take abstinence pledges.

One reason for this failure is we parents from the day our kids are born have done a terrible job instilling in them a complete Christian worldview. Not just a moral code, but an ability to rationally think like real Christians. In our culture, Darwinian worldviews dominate, even among Christians. We’re living every day in survival of the fittest mode. And because we are repeatedly told that we’re little more than accidents of nature, especially by college professors, we begin to think that our morality is based on fairy tales. Given that we already believe that education is more important than faith in Christ, as Barna noted, it’s a short trip to this kind of pitiful reasoning.

And so the solution begins:

  • We need to train our children in a comprehensive Christian worldview.
  • We need to start developing alternative means of post-secondary education.

But these two are not enough. Truth is, people are simply waiting too long to marry. Part of this is because Christians are caught up in the materialism of our times; we look identical to the perishing world around us, especially in America. Finding alternative means of living, alternative Christian communities that reduce the need for every family to duplicate the goods of every other family, can provide us with ways to step off the treadmill and start living less as rugged individuals and more like the Body of Christ. Learning to live with less and to be more dependent on each other will help us weather the tough times that may be coming for those who claim the name of Christ. (For a more developed view on this, I’ve blogged extensively here.)

The expectation that a young person will wade through the sexual minefield of college, then spend several years as a single while building up a career, is an increasing difficult burden for unmarried Christians struggling in our pornographic culture. The apostle Paul said that it is better to marry than to burn, yet we expect young Christians to spend almost ten years (on average today) on fire before they finally settle down. Is it any wonder that they fail in this, or that sexually transmitted diseases afflict half the people in this country—and almost as many in the Christian community? Who would wish that on their child?

I believe that long before young people graduate from high school, we older Christians should work harder to bring couples together at an earlier age. If the expectation of being away at college is removed, this becomes possible. If we consider doing more to help young people pick suitable mates, they could be married even while they are working in the alternative trade schooling and apprenticeship programs we are developing. Yes, this flies in the face of how our culture tells people they must find a mate, but I believe that young people will see through the cultural lies if we build in them a proper world view. If we set an expectation that young teens get teaching in our churches on what it means to be married, setup “manhood” and “womanhood” classes and restore traditional rites of passage within the church, and start setting a foundation and expectation of maturity at a younger age, we can make this possible.

  • We need to prepare our children to live with less.
  • We need to teach our children what true community living is and build those communities.
  • We need to train our children to conduct themselves in a mature, godly, marriageable manner at a younger age.

Key to this is the acknowledgment that our generation is responsible for the generation that comes after us. To my generation I say, It’s time to grow up and look beyond ourselves. If people in our churches look only after their own kids, none of this will work. I believe that each man and each woman in a church must not only ensure the spiritual growth and maturity of his or her own children, but the children of every other family in the church. (Even nature teaches us this truth; herd animals will gang together to encircle and protect the young against predators, even those young that are not physically their own.) I can’t ignore my church neighbor’s child. Nor can you. Sadly, we in the church have spent too much time living out our rugged individualism to care about this crucial truth. We look at the troublesome young people in our churches and say, “Someone else’s problem.” We couldn’t be more wrong.

I believe that if we start developing these five areas

  1. Training our children in a comprehensive Christian worldview.
  2. Developing alternative means of post-secondary education.
  3. Preparing our children to live with less.
  4. Teaching our children what true community living is and building those communities.
  5. Training our children to conduct themselves in a mature, godly, marriageable manner at a younger age.

we can make headway against the poisonous sexual lies of our culture and stem the relational heartache that afflicts too many of our kids. Even for the already married, these life changes would eventually cut our divorce rates, too.

If these sound like radical ideas, they are. But radical ideas are needed. The current solutions we’ve erected simply do not work; we’re literally handing our children unprepared into the hands of the Enemy.

To today’s singles I can only say hang in there. I walked the same, difficult path you’re now on because no one in my era was willing to face the truth. I know how rough it is out there. Singleness is a gift and most people don’t possess it in our culture, so it’s hard being single today. (If you want to write me, I will pray for you and read your stories.) It may sound simplistic, but stay true to the Lord. Find folks who are willing to make you a part of their family. Watch how they live and learn from them. Don’t let Christian singles groups be your only outlet for godly relationships. Maybe even stay away from them altogether if they only cause you more problems. Ask the Lord to make you a desirable marriage partner and be willing to listen to Him when he tells you things you may not want to hear about yourself, especially concerning what you may need to alter in your life. Keep yourself busy, for idle hands are the devil’s tools. Devote this time to the Lord while you have it; when you eventually have a family of your own, you won’t have the the kinds of opportunities to serve Him that you have now. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day; don’t worry about tomorrow. And if you’re spending all your time looking for a mate, stop; God has a way of surprising you with a mate when when you cease your earnest searching and let Him be in charge of this part of your life. Most of all, singles, lend us your time, your stories and your hard-learned lessons in the area of sexual purity so we can help the next generation avoid all the hell you and I have been needlessly put through.

I had hoped to develop more on this, but I’ve already gone too long. Thanks for staying with me. Let me know what you think and let’s see if we can make this a reality.

God bless you all.