With the expansion of economic freedom and the resulting prosperity, we’ve reached an unprecedented position of personal empowerment and vocational choice. This is a welcome development, and it can be seized for good in any number of ways. But it also comes with its own risks and temptations.
As with any surface-level “freedom,” unless we seek God first and neighbor second, our action will quickly be steered by pleasure, pride, pursuit of power, or plain old personal preference — leading to shackles that may be looser, but remain shackles nonetheless. Such illusions are nothing new, and lurk no matter what the sphere of our stewardship. But if modernity has wielded a tangible, visible blow to one area in particular, it’s that of the family.
Over the last few decades, marriage has increasingly been misunderstood, and our misaligned approaches to business, education, and politics haven’t helped. Rather than a basic starting point, a foundation of a flourishing society, the family has become just another optional perk in the worship of narrow self-fulfillment.
“Oh that? It’s not for me. Not now.”
As a result, marriage is increasingly seen as a mere contractual arrangement, a 50-50 partnership for the purposes of personal pleasure rather than duty and sacrifice. In turn, culture and family have “evolved” accordingly. Fewer and fewer people are getting married, and those who do are doing so later and later and having fewer and fewer kids, if any at all. Divorce is routine. The basic definition of marriage is constantly questioned.
What does this mean for the rest of society? What does the erosion and the continued implosion of this core institution mean for the other important spheres that we increasingly prioritize before it?
Many shrug at such developments, to be sure, even as others go so far as to view it as a sign of “progress.” Folks are now “liberated” to pursue their own “dreams,” they’ll say, empowered to “live life!” before (or without ever) “tying themselves down.”
Surely some are called to abstain or delay compared to the standard metrics of the past. But when we look at the reasons for these changes, people are far more likely to point to their pocketbooks than their prayer closets. When we go further, observing God’s design for the family from the beginning, we begin to see that such widespread shifts in both attitudes and action mean that something is a bit more amiss than we realize. Is God really guiding all or most of humanity in this brave new direction — to “reach for our dreams” in business, education, and art without first realizing some of the sacrificial stuff of which dreams are made?
In their new book, Marriage Is: How Marriage Transforms Society and Cultivates Human Flourishing, Eric Teetsel and Andrew Walker point at this very problem, offering a compelling definition and defense of the Christian family in response. Arguing that the family, properly understood, is foundational for a flourishing society, they warn that we ought not be so passive to the current shifts and pressures to such a vital institution.
The book touches on a range of arguments, but one of its key strengths is its consistent challenge to the current status quo (as outlined above). “It used to be that marriage was understood as the beginning of family, and family the foundation of society,” they write. Now, however, our priorities are shifting, and we are becoming ever more comfortable and complacent with basing our personal visions and decisions about family in what we want for ourselves. “While enjoying and appreciating the benefits of the world we inherited, we ought not turn a blind eye to the costs,” they remind us.
Marriage is a central part of the human story, they continue, and the God-man story, at that. We have become obsessed with carefully constructing our man-made missions to save the world, when we often forget that God gave many of us a clue to all this from the very moment we entered the world. Through our own mother and father, through the nurture we find in what Herman Bavinck calls the “school of love,” we all have a glimpse at one of civilization’s core transformative forces. And yet, by the time modernity teases us with college plans, career aspirations, and bloated materialistic priorities, how quick we are to forget.
We toss it aside as something that only comes after we’ve done x, y, or z, rather than as something we may need to do before all of that. And our story — one that ought to stretch before and beyond our earthly exile — suffers in turn. Teetsel and Walker focus an entire chapter on this element of “story,” outlining where things went off course, and how predictable the new “script” has become.
The economic and technological prosperity of the last two hundred years has reduced the incentives to have large families. Fewer families rely on agriculture, the infant mortality rate is down while life expectancy is up, and government social programs like Social Security and Medicare reduce the responsibility younger generations have for their elders. Changing views about women’s role in society and increasing opportunity for work outside the home, coupled with the explosion in forms and access to reliable contraception, further edited the historic script. Economic opportunity and the sudden availability of leisure time for the masses attributed to the rise of individualism and materialism.
In succeeding generations, many have failed to teach children the role marriage plays as a civil institution, surrendered the virtue of abstinence before marriage, questioned the necessary contributions of moms and dads, bailed on marriages that ceased to provide them with their shallow sense of happiness, and viewed children as the ultimate accessory to round out an otherwise full life.
This is evident everywhere, but we see it increasingly driven and promoted by the educated and affluent, or those who hope to be so:
As young, smart, and talented entrepreneurs flock to [urban] hubs to be a part of the action, they exchange their former priorities for new norms. This life script looks very different: graduate from college, obtain an unpaid internship at the most prestigious firm in your field, go to graduate school, rent a room in a house with five or six peers, date for fun and practice for eventual marriage, climb the professional ladder, get married, get a dog, work for 5 to 10 years to establish financial stability, then—once everything else is in place—have a child….
This is the new normal for educated, affluent Americans in major urban centers, where a lifestyle of self-centeredness and materialism dominates at the expense of marriage, family, prudence, and responsibility…
University of Virginia sociologist Bradley Wilcox and colleagues succinctly summarizes this data, explaining that where marriage was once seen as a cornerstone in life, the Millennial generation understands marriage as a capstone once professional, financial, and other personal goals have been achieved. Millennials believe they can live happily ever after after they have gotten other things squared away.
To be clear, the takeaway here isn’t that we should malign people’s dreams and personal aspirations. Quite the contrary. This isn’t just about marriage and kids, but ties back to that original concern. This is about a debasement of and a distraction from our most basic allegiances and priorities.
We as a society have lost a sense of what it means to be truly successful in terms of both tangible and transcendent permanence. We have lost a sense of what it means to be joyful vs. passively content. We have lost what it means to build a life that supports and furthers and contributes to not only our own temporary whims and hedonistic impulses, but to the flourishing of humanity and, for Christians, the Gospel.
“God is doing something through marriage,” Teetsel and Walker write. “He’s continuing humanity. He’s providing an institution for humanity that allows for it to take care of itself. While marriage will not save you, God has a plan to.”
We must not allow the family to be diminished as a “capstone” to personal achievement. God designed it as a “cornerstone” for true human freedom — an anchor and foundation from which those who are called to marry and have children will find increased fulfillment and vocational clarity, not less.
As Evan Koons writes in his letter on the Economy of Love:
“We learn our nature of love not in grand gestures to save the world, but in the normal, everyday struggle to love, to encourage, to bless those beside us. In family, our character is formed and given to the world.”