At least three responses to the disintegration of community prove to be false hopes. First, some families become self-contained units. They attempt to meet every need internally. They develop their own ideology, strive for economic self-sufficiency, and become deeply enmeshed. The self-contained family is an unrealistic ideal that is doomed to fail in modern society. It is also inconsistent with Jesus’s definition of family (Mark 3:31–35).
Out of necessity, other families in modern society are turning to extrafamilial institutions for the care of dependent members. Many of these families are fractured units that do not have the resources needed to provide adequate care for children, the elderly, or the disabled. In other instances, the stress on individualism and personal self-fulfillment prevents family members from actively assuming caretaking responsibilities. They ignore the fact that the quality of care that large institutions can give needy people rarely measures up to the New Testament standard of koinonia (fellowship, community).
The third response has been the development of alternative family forms. It is true that family forms must change in response to modernity; to think otherwise is to accept the traditional American family as the biblical ideal, instead of merely one among several equally justifiable cultural alternatives. Christians must be aware, however, that, as a result of modernity’s secularizing influence, many alternative forms tend to suit the demands of individual self-fulfillment. Alternative forms need to be evaluated in terms of scriptural authority as well as in terms of whether they suit the best interest of individuals, family, and society.
The emergence of genetic technologies such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, external gestation, and cloning makes it possible for one person or any combination of persons to form a family for a newborn child. Any use of genetic technology must be based on a covenant commitment to have children. The continued development and
application of genetic technology in reproductive efforts must also be assessed vis-à-vis their effect on the communal aspects of family life.
Dominance of Commodities THE PROB LEM
A major effect of the dominance of commodities has been to change the family from the basic unit of production to the basic unit of consumption. It is rare to find family members together for the purpose of producing; it is equally rare to find family members together for any purpose other than consuming. The world of work and family life are separated; this is, as we have seen, one of the symptoms of the fragmentation of consciousness.
Another effect of the dominance of commodities is that the ability to acquire them is the chief determinant of the worth of individuals and families. Others gauge us by our success in the marketplace, and we gauge ourselves by how much money we earn relative to others. In many instances, a raise is needed more to build self-esteem than to meet financial obligations.
There have been various responses to the dominance of commodities in modern society. Some have argued that true equality for housewives can be achieved only by the state paying a wage for their work or to assess the market value of their housework in terms of the money earned by their husbands. Although we do not negate marital equality as a biblical ideal, we believe that even this less radical suggestion is a compromise with the view that marriage is based on social exchange, both partners seeking to gain more from the relationship than they give up. We do not deny that this is the basis for many modern marriages; we believe, however, that it flies in the face of the biblical ideal of mutual submissiveness.
Some families wrongly believe that they can create a sense of community solely through consumption—for example, by watching television or going to a movie together. We do not deny that some activities of this nature can play a small role in producing a sense of community; we do deny, however, the naive assumption that the family that consumes together blooms together.
The role of technology for the family of the future is mixed. While the family has benefited from a breakdown of rigid work/family spheres, the almost constant contact with work and other outside influences plays a large,
negative role in the family. As we write this, technology has enabled us to continue working on this manuscript during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020; this ability to work remotely has been a blessing. However, the availability of work almost 24/7 has the potential to erode the boundaries between family time and work time, thus increasing work and family conflict. The positive coping methods families develop, as well as the negative effects of being isolated for more than a year, remain to be seen. Technology has played both a positive and negative role.
Another false hope is the phenomenon of careerism. Careerism, whether only one or both spouses are involved, falsely equates individual worth with career success. Careers, like money, can detract from the establishment and maintenance of intimate relationships within the family and society as a whole.
This modern age has brought about important changes that have made life easier for most people; yet consciousness is fragmented, communication is overly complex, the traditional community has broken down, and there is an obsession with commodities. The family is in a wretched predicament, since most attempts made to ameliorate the situation have proved to be false hopes. In the closing chapter, we consider the impact of postmodernity and the further erosion of biblical family values. We conclude with a call for purposeful change built on biblical principles.
Creating a Family-Friendly Society
In the previous chapter, we considered the social environment of the contemporary family. By examining the effect of modernity on the family, we gained an understanding of why it is difficult to live according to biblical ideals. What is needed is a positive environment that strengthens family life.
In this chapter, we propose ideas for creating a healthy environment for family life. Fundamental changes must be made in two general areas: (1) families must make a determined response to modernity; and (2) community and societal structures must incorporate the biblical ideals of koinonia and shalom.
Inadequate Responses to Modernity Modernity has greatly challenged and changed the family. We cannot simply succumb to the march of progress by adjusting the family lifestyle in accordance with innovations introduced into society. Rather, the challenges —fragmentation of consciousness, complexity of communication, disintegration of community, and dominance of commodities—make it imperative that we develop fresh insights into creating a positive environment in which the family can give glory to God and through their relationships show evidence of the salvation and freedom offered in Christ Jesus. This redemption, which enables us to meet the challenges of modernity, was purchased at a great cost and requires a thoughtful response.
It is important to keep in mind that redemption is an unfolding creative work of God in the lives of individuals, families, and societies. We need release from our bondage to commodities, which in turn will make reconstruction of community possible, which will provide an arena for
revitalization of communication, which will eventually lead to reintegration of consciousness.
In contemplating the restoration of the family, we must have a general acquaintance with previous attempts that have proven to be false hopes. One general category consists of reactionary endeavors to return the family to an idealized past. These efforts are based on twin fallacies: (1) that the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a golden age of family life; and (2) that the traditional patriarchal family represents the biblical ideal for society today. This approach ignores the complexity of the issues. Its attempts to reconstitute the past overlook the dominance of commodities, the disintegration of community, the complexity of communication, and the fragmentation of consciousness. Instead of stumbling into the pitfall of idealizing a particular cultural and temporal form of the family, we must recognize the forces of modernity and respond creatively. We must move beyond traditional and modern views of family life.
Postmodern thinking represents a second category of response. Rejecting both a return to the family of an idealized past and the certainty of modernist thinking, this approach embraces the potential good and usefulness of a variety of alternative family forms. Postmodernity represents a radical response to the excessive emphasis on rationalism found in modernity and sees truth as what is in the eye of the beholder—that is, what one experiences. Postmodernity can be a useful corrective to the certainties of modernity, which promote human reason as the basis for a universal human morality. However, in its extreme form, postmodernity also has the potential to undermine family values and structures because it takes an all-inclusive point of view.
Postmodernists do not regard the general laws of nature as grounds for accepting or rejecting ideas. Viewing reality as multilayered, they believe there are many ways of knowing, many flavors of truth. Although the Christian perspective is acknowledged as one possible view, many others are considered equally acceptable. Postmodernism sees danger in accepting one truth or morality over the myriad of other options; to do so is regarded as restrictive and intolerant. Ironically, this is in itself a restrictive and intolerant position (Lee 2004). That is, the perspective of the “truth-teller” takes precedence over the objective truth that is being told. It stands in contrast to a Christian worldview that focuses on continued compliance with God’s revelation.
Herman Bavinck (2019) captures the sentiment: Worldviews are fluid and adapting. Worldviews are constantly being confronted with the truth that God created the world with a definite goal and purpose. Humans need to reflect and adapt their worldviews to this purpose, that God has intentionally created the cosmos for his benefit and glory. God’s purpose in creation is most clearly revealed in Scripture. This emphasis on worldviews means that we are constantly in an evaluative process: To what does my worldview conform? How do I conform my worldview to Christianity and postmodernity, especially when there are points of tension between the two? Christians acknowledge their limited ability to know the truth perfectly; however, there is an objective truth outside the perspective of the perceiver. Christians are continually trying to conform to this truth. This means that worldviews are fluid and adapting in more fully apprehending God’s truth.
A strict postmodernist view leaves little ground on which to evaluate the morality of one family form or process over against another, since all alternatives are equally acceptable. The problem, of course, is that postmodernism cannot adequately respond to the number of abusive and harmful family systems that we know exist. We must stand for a morality that keeps the best interests of all family members in mind and recognizes the potential for evil as well as good in the various systems.
While modernity seeks to assess family life on the basis of scientific and naturalistic assumptions, postmodernity embraces every cultural form of family life. To avoid the modernist pitfall of idealizing a particular cultural and temporal form of the family, postmodernity goes to another extreme and dashes any hopes of finding criteria to assess family morality.
We, as Christians, uphold a reality. We must, then, have a good understanding of both modern and postmodern thinking so that we can rightly evaluate their benefits and hazards. To embrace modernity or postmodernity uncritically leaves one in the position of choosing human perspectives over God’s perspective. We believe that Christians must recognize the positive and the negative forces of both modernity and postmodernity and then formulate a biblically based response.