Friday, May 24, 2019

Russell Moore's The Storm-Tossed Family

Russell Moore's The Storm-Tossed Family is a good book-- the sort that is either:
A.) nothing earth-shaking, but a nice/solid review and reminder-- if you're familiar with a Christian/biblical worldview on family; or
B.) really effective with good insights-- if you haven't already done/heard that.

For me, the book is in category A, so it's been difficult to get motivated to write a review. But the book is worth reading, especially for Category B'ers, so let's give it a go!

As Moore explains in his opening, the title comes from a phrase he likes within a song he dislikes. He cites the Biblical use of storm as metaphor, noting their blessings and curses in agriculture. Storms also allow us to "lose all of our illusions of control". (2) Of course, this can lead to despair and idolatry-- or faith and hope. "Storms should be no surprise. They need not panic us, nor need they destroy us." (3) How we respond to the inevitable storms of life-- since God sends the rain on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45)-- will define and mark us, will reveal our character to ourselves and others. 

This is true of difficulties throughout the Christian life, but especially with family. Family is a "life-giving blessing but also of excruciating terror, often all at the same time...[it can be] filled with joy but will always make us vulnerable to pain...Nothing can show you that you are loved and that you belong like family-- and nothing can strips away your crafted pretensions and comforting illusions like family." (3) "Family is awesome. Family is terrible. As Christians, we already have a category for that. The cross shows us how we can find beauty and brokenness, justice and mercy, peace and wrath, all in the same place. The pattern of our life is crucified glory-- this is as true for our lives in our families as in everything else." (13)

His grounding in the Cross leads Moore to a punchline that carries water throughout: "The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home." (5) At times, his references to nail and cross seem formulaic and forced; other times, he nails it. (The same can be said about "spiritual warfare"-- with references that range from poignant to tired.) He is careful to make sure that readers don't mistake his Cross references for saccharine: "I don't mean shorthand for Christian principles or 'family values'...I mean the tangled mess of a murder scene outside the gates of Jerusalem." (12)

Two later references/applications to the cross caught my eye: "The cross makes it clear that evil is real, and calls for judgment of God. The cross also makes it clear that none of us need be undone ultimately by what has been done to us, or sometimes even worse, by what we have done to others." (242) 

And Moore recalls the John Stott story about the necessity of the Cross to Christian belief and making sense of suffering in this world: "in a world of such could one believe in a God who was agnostic of all of that?" Stott considered Buddha-- "arms crossed, eyes closed, softly smiling". Then he looked at the cross and decided "That is the God for me!...At the cross, Jesus aligned himself with those who are abused and maligned and powerless and ashamed. He stood with us, or hanged with us, there...Jesus is not distant from your pain; he is crucified by it-- with it and with you." (256)

Life has a way of humbling us-- perhaps esp. in parenting. Moore: "Family discloses sooner or later that we are not the experts we think we are." (17) Tonia and I joke with people that if all of our kids were like X, we'd be writing parenting books; if all of our kids were like Z, we'd go crazy. "One of the reasons parents are sometimes frustrated with their children is that the children are not mere copies of their parents, with the same tendencies, hopes, aspirations, and interests." (205) But the fact is that all children present challenges-- some more obvious; some more subtle. And the fact is that even if one or the other is "easier", it's only in part connected to what we do as parents. 

Moore notes the two primary parenting mistakes-- giving little attention to boundaries or keeping "the boundaries restrictive, infantilizing the child-- before noting the irony that parental failure here is often "rooted in peer pressure" from other parents (234).

I've often talked about how Tonia and I are playing for the long-run with our kids and not aiming for conformity as a top goal. Moore echoes this: "The end goal is not that our children will behave better. In fact, a well-behaved person is sometimes the closest to hell. If a person learns to cower in front of whomever seems most powerful at the moment, well, the devil seems quite powerful in this time-between-the-times...The goal of our parenting is not compliance-- children who learn to yield to a stronger power...We want children who love the kingdom God is promising, and who kick back against the occupying force of this present darkness." (238-239). 

I'm interested by the sort of people who choose not to have kids (by pregnancy or adoption)-- and then beyond that, the sort of people they become (or don't become) because they don't have kids. "Children and family are one way (though not the only way) that God awakens people to the world outside themselves." (50) Well, to a bigger world, but also to a more profound sense of our sinfulness, God's love and grace, etc. "Children often remodel their parents' lives in fundamental ways, from their marriages and vocations to their habits and hobbies, and even their own sense of self." (204) 

Quoting Buechner, "What man and woman, if they ever gave serious thought to what having children inevitably involves, would ever have them? Yet what man and woman, once having had them and loved them, would ever want it otherwise?" (209) As Moore notes, "Indeed, love for one's children without pain would be as unrecognizable as a resurrected Christ without nail scars." (210)

Family is important, but it must be held in balance with other priorities, and ultimately, with the Cross. "We need practical wisdom on the family. The Bible gives it to us. We need to know how to honor our parents without being enmeshed with them. We need to know how to honor marriage without idolizing it. We need to know how to discipline the next generation in a way that is neither harsh nor negligent..." (19-20)

In contrast, many Christians (particularly of a more conservative bent) are tempted to pursue a "prosperity gospel" of sorts. "The kingdom is first; the family is not." (49) "Jesus did not make the family as important as his culture did. Ironically enough, this is how Jesus saved the family." (55)

In Ch. 5, Moore gets to the ideals, the limitations, and the failures of the church as family. This reminded me of Wesley Hill's book on singles and friendship

In Ch. 8, Moore turns to sexuality-- with our penchant to deify or trivialize it, to find it disgusting or to idolize it. Instead, we are to see it as "crucially important" (127) and a "goodness" to be "affirmed" in its place (128). "Monogamy and fidelity don't restrict sexual freedom; they fuel it." (130) "Neither can a sexual tryst ever substitute for the one-flesh union. A Christian vision of life is one of genuine living sacrifice, not a series of self-absorbed transactions." (133) 

"Sexuality is a perpetual reminder that there's something within us that is quite beyond our control. Yes, we can control the expression of our sexual desires...but the desire itself seems to come out of nowhere." (127) And sex is connected to pro-creation but far more than that. "But sexual union in Scripture is never a utilitarian chore one merely performs in order to reproduce." (129) 

And then this on the sexual ethics of Jesus: "Some would wave away too much talk of sexual immorality by dismissing it as the priorities of the OT or of Paul, not of Jesus...[but] Jesus affirmed the Word of God (Mt 5:17-18)...[and] was, if anything, stronger on sexual immorality than the OT or the NT epistles (Mt 5:27-30)." (134-135) 

Moore has a few good lines about "nominal, cultural Christianity", including equating it to "asking someone...if he or she is a patriot" (161). And he has a great line on the prevalent use of Jeremiah 29:11. The verse is often read out of its context as a type of prosperity gospel: “Anyone who could find this sort of message in the prophet Jeremiah has never read any verse of Jeremiah above or below this one. The book of Jeremiah is all about God disrupting his people’s plans and upending their dreams…” (200-201)

Moore discusses the importance of discipleship and empowering the laity, especially the next generation. Failure to do so can come from wanting to avoid work and trouble (from cultivating new leadership vs. just leading yourself). Too often, the church is "a vehicle of nostalgia rather than mission. But without new life, it will die with its members." (204) Another mistake, on the other end of the spectrum, is "to abandon our elderly long before they are incapacitated." (281)

All of this reminds me of Eugene Peterson's great quote on Biblical family which I'll excerpt here (h/t: Kyle): 

The search of Scripture turns up one rather surprising truth: There are no exemplary families. Not a single family is portrayed in Scripture in such a way so as to evoke admiration in us. There are many family stories, there is considerable ref­erence to family life, and there is sound counsel to guide the growth of families, but not a single model family for anyone to look up to in either awe or envy...The biblical material consistently portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell group, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemptionafter the manner of William Faulkner’s plots in Yoknapatawpha County.


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