Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“From Meddling to Preaching” first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Touchstone.
From Meddling to Preaching
Three Ways to Expose the Partly Natural Family by David Mills
When a pastor says something in a sermon that you do not like, goes the old joke, he has “gone from preaching to meddling.” He has stopped telling pleasant and comforting stories (or enjoyably convicting stories about the sins you don’t commit) and started interfering with your life.
Many traditional Christians and cultural conservatives love what the family scholar Allan Carlson has called “the Natural Family” as a theory, because Americans love anything “natural.” It seems more direct, more genuine, more authentic, untainted by commerce and calculation. And it has its political uses: They love to appeal to Nature to argue that homosexuality is unnatural.
But they do not respond so favorably to other appeals to Natural Law, ones that meddle with their own lives. They like things “natural,” but they do not like the Natural Family as a way of life.
You go from preaching to meddling when, for example, you assert that the Natural Family has a “quiverful” of children; that it requires a permanent, unbreakable bond between the husband and wife; or that it is marked by what are called “sex roles.” This is too much nature, it is nature untempered by technology and culture, as if you were asking people to go naked in the winter or hunt and kill their own food and eat it raw.
You will, for example, see some very conservative people stiffen and scowl when you say, as Allan Carlson (a contributing editor of Touchstone) and Paul Mero do in their book The Natural Family: A Manifesto, that “the calling of each girl is to become wife and mother,” and that “everything that a woman does is mediated by her aptness for motherhood.” That seems to some of us built into the nature of things (and to have a parallel for men, as the writers note), but to many conservatives it meddles in their lifestyle choices.
Even conservative Americans, religious and not, seem to understand marriage as secular Americans do, defining it as a contract based on affection and mutual satisfaction; believing that you may design your marriage in almost any way you like; assuming that sexual activity without consequences (that is, children) is a human right; thinking that they must as a matter of duty pursue an ideal of the good life that requires spending too much money to have more than one or two children; and feeling that they must create perfect children, which is a burden when you have one and very hard when you have many, especially when “perfect” is defined in worldly terms.
I remember, many years ago, sitting with an older friend, a serious and wise Christian, on the back porch of her family’s enormous Victorian house, looking across their large beautiful green lawn (I think one of the gardeners was planting bulbs as we sat there) to their small private forest. I had parked our little Honda in the driveway next to their big BMW, and we were having tea on a very fine silver and china tea set. We started talking about children and she said, “I wish we could have afforded to have more than two children.” I didn’t know what to say.
These people, who represent the great mass of American Christians, and Americans in general, and I suspect Canadians and Europeans in general, do not really believe that marriage is governed by external, objective ends, that it has a nature. They do believe that it is governed by certain rules, especially faithfulness to your husband or wife (until you feel you must leave your spouse), and these they call “family values.”
The rules are mainly negative, not positive, telling us what not to do but not telling us what to do, perhaps because that would raise the question of ends and thus of a higher, more demanding definition of marriage. “Do this” implies “to reach this ideal.” “Don’t do this” implies only that the action will hurt you.
They do not see that marriage has a nature, that it is something given to us that we cannot change. Or else, if I am being unfair to them, they do not see very clearly or completely what is the nature of marriage. They understand the family in a conservative sense, as what middle-class religious Americans already do, but no more. In other words, they believe in the Partly Natural Family.
As far as I can tell, few people really believe in the Natural Family. That makes writing about it and about related matters very difficult—difficult, that is, if you want to move minds and hearts and not simply take a position in the culture war. I have three suggestions, developed in my work as a writer and editor, for helping your readers to see it, and to see it as a whole, and perhaps begin to love it. (What I suggest here applies to teaching and preaching and even common conversation as well.)
The first is to begin with the readers’ beliefs and show how the reasons for these beliefs lead to other beliefs they do not find as attractive. Begin with the moral law they know—the nature they know—and show how it leads to the moral law and nature they do not know. Use the parts of the Natural Family they affirm to show them the truth of the parts they do not affirm.
Let me give one example, from an editorial we published a few years ago titled “The roots of Roe v. Wade,” referring to the decision of the Supreme Court that legalized abortion on demand in America. The writer, Patrick Henry Reardon, began with abortion, which traditional Christians oppose almost unanimously, and tied it to the contraceptive mentality, which many of them hold. And hold with no idea at all that there is any problem with it.
The editorial noted that “our current culture . . . has largely stopped thinking of children as gifts from God and first fruits of the future.” After explaining this, it continued by arguing “that children are now being aborted in the flesh, because they have already been, in large measure, aborted from the mind.”
You see how the writer moved from abortion to its root in the contraceptive mentality (and the argument is more developed in the editorial than the selection I’ve given here), so that the person who now accepts that mentality might come to question it.
You can do the same with homosexuality, which most conservative Americans dislike very much. By dealing with it as sexual activity without procreation, you can help some people reconsider their belief in the goodness of married sexual activity with the possibility of procreation removed. You can move them to ask what these God-given organs are for, a question that can lead them to a higher view of procreation and of the imperative to “be fruitful and multiply” than they had before.
The Beneficial Family
My second suggestion is to speak as much as possible about the demonstrated social benefits of the Natural Family. You want to drive into your readers’ minds the idea that this is the way things are. You want them to realize that this is not a matter of personal preference or choice or values, but of recognizing the way the universe works. You want them to see that the Natural Family is real and the Partly Natural Family somewhat unreal.
Too much contemporary talk about the family is very abstract and general. It does not help anyone see the reality of the family and its effectiveness in real life. It is the rhetoric of people simply stating what they believe already, at a level of generality unhelpful even to them.
And worse, because this talk is so abstract and general, it has been adopted and used very effectively by the advocates of the Unnatural Family. If we say that marriage is necessary to social health, or needed to direct and restrain sexuality for a person’s own good, they will agree and declare that this is the reason society needs to legalize same-sex marriage. If we say, “The two-parent family is crucial to a child’s development,” they will say “Yes it is, absolutely, and that is why society needs to let same-sex couples marry and let them adopt children.”
The best data show that the Natural Family more effectively provides simple human happiness, and we have to keep telling people this till they see it themselves. Unfortunately, even the average American Christian will not always listen to his pastor when he speaks of the Natural Family (if he does, and few do), but he may listen to the sociologists.
There is a great amount of evidence for the effectiveness of the Natural Family in promoting human happiness (some of it presented in Touchstone’s news section). The permanence of the marital bond, for example, makes everyone—husbands, wives, children, neighbors—happier. Three examples will suggest the effects.
The positive effect of a father’s involvement with his adolescent children is two or three times higher when he lives with them than when he doesn’t. And marriage increases the number of fathers who are this involved in their children’s lives, as fewer than one-fifth of fathers who don’t live with their children are involved enough to have this effect.
The data make the negative effect of rejecting the marital bond just as clear. Although common-law spouses make up only 13 percent of “spousal relationships,” they suffer 40 percent of spousal violence, for example. The reason, the experts say, is that couples are most violent to each other when their sexual relationship is breaking up, and these pseudo-marriages break up, or come close to breaking up, much more often than do real marriages.
And just as I was writing this came a Washington Post story quoting a Harvard psychologist who had studied whether having choices makes people happier. “Given the choice, people like to keep their options open,” the story noted, “but it was people who made irrevocable choices early on who ended up happier.”
The psychologist said the finding prompted him to go home and propose to the woman he was living with. “I always thought love causes marriage, but my data said marriage causes love. When you lock yourself in something you cannot get out of, you will find ways to be happier. . . . I do love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend, and they are the same person.”
I could easily go on for many pages with more evidence from the social sciences for the practical value of Christian teaching, a practical value that suggests it comes to us from outside. This evidence may teach the discerning that the teachings whose value they do not see may be equally wise and effective, and to incline their hearts to take it as revelation.
When even Christians do not always see the “cash value” of obeying when the pastor proclaims the biblical teaching, we need to give them secular evidence of the wisdom of divine law. “This is what you get when you try to live by the ideal the Natural Family presents and this is what you lose when you don’t” may convince when “Thus saith the Lord” does not.
Speaking of the Family
My third suggestion is to work to protect and purify the language by which people speak of the family. The secularist mind dominant in Western academia and media naturally creates its own language, and because we hear this new language so often from the major mediators of public discourse, the rest of us naturally start using it.
The particular danger I am thinking of is the idea that we make reality and therefore can choose the definition of “Family” we like best. The philosophy we call “subjectivism” or “postmodernism” or “relativism” has formed the language even advocates of the Natural Family use, which means that without meaning to, we undermine our case by the way we speak.
This we should not do, because to lose a vocabulary is to lose our ability to speak directly and clearly of the thing itself, and to some extent (greater than we think) to see it as clearly as we ought. As C. S. Lewis noted,
Replacing old words with new ones is a particularly subtle way of killing the old words. People have an instinct for reality, corrupt as the instinct is, and will in some way see and articulate the realities for which they have no words. What exactly happens when we lose a word but still in some way recognize the reality is an interesting question. Many bad things. Our instinct for reality isn’t that good.
It is especially bad when the reality is one we wish to avoid, like the Natural Family with all its restrictions and duties. We are happier, being fallen creatures, with language that directs us to what I have called the Partly Natural Family, if not, in some cases, to the Unnatural Family.
Let me give three examples of the new language. My first is the cherished term “family values.” Most cultural conservatives use it all the time. A “value” in popular usage is something to which I choose to give importance, but which you may just as reasonably think worthless. I value this, you value that, and who’s the judge between us?
As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has written, the word carries
When we speak of “family values,” we imply that the Natural Family is simply the kind of family we value, while someone else may value another very different one. It is a matter of preference or taste or personal need, not anything that might be objectively defended, not anything that is, because an expression of the natural law and natural order, a good thing for everyone.
As Himmelfarb suggests, we should speak of virtue instead. We should also speak of what makes the good father and mother, the good son and daughter, of duty, calling, vocation, discipline, sacrifice, and all those things that make the good or natural family.
For example, President Bush has spoken of the family as the place “where values are forged,” as if they were created there. This was offered, by a White House official speaking at the World Congress of Families, as an example of his commitment to the family, and I suppose it was, but it was not well put.
The president would have spoken more clearly and powerfully had he said something like “the place where children learn the virtues,” or “where father and mother teach them right from wrong,” or “where they are shown the beauty of the Good.” That kind of talk is more direct, specific, and compelling than any talk of “values.” It would have expressed a much higher view of the family.
A second example is the popular term “sex roles.” A role, as the word is used in public discourse, is something you choose, something you put on and take off, something that is not real. When you play a role, you are an actor who will go back to being himself when the play is over. I can play Hamlet or Luke Skywalker, but I am not a Danish prince or a Jedi knight.
Your sex is not a role, but part of who you are. It determines much of what you can do and are called to do. A man does not play a male the way he might play Hamlet, for he is a male. And because he is a male, he can and must do some things and cannot and must not do others. He must marry a woman, if he marries, not another male. If he marries, he must give himself up for his wife the way Christ gave himself for the Church, and if he does not marry, he must still live this kind of sacrificial life wherever he finds himself.
The term “sex roles” obscures if not eliminates this understanding of “male and female he created them.” We ought to use instead of “sex roles” words that name the sexual realities. Words like “fatherhood” and “motherhood,” “husband” and “wife,” “son” and “daughter,” “man” and “woman.” We ought to use instead of “roles” words that name our essential and eternal calling as men and women, words like “capacities” and “duties” and “gifts” and “vocation.” These words are more direct, specific, concrete, more likely to help someone become what he was created to be than the relativistic “sex roles.”
My last example is the now almost universal replacement (even in Christian publications) of the word “sex” with “gender.” “Sex” refers to male and female, and it is a word almost impossible to use without thinking of the real differences between men and women.
“Gender” is a useful word to refer to masculine and feminine, especially as partly cultural creations, but its popular use erases the difference between the sexes. “Gender” is said to be “fluid,” often indefinite and defined only as a moveable point on a spectrum, culturally determined, and to some extent (depending on the political cause being advanced) left to the individual to choose for himself. One scholar I once heard declared that there were only two sexes but five genders.
One might say that the reader can distinguish “gender” in the sense of sex from “gender” in the sense of identity, but I don’t think this true, as a whole and over the long run. The loss of the word “sex” leads to the loss of a clear vision of the nature of the sexes. And why, when we can make the distinction by using two different words, should we use just one?
We should speak always of “sex” when we mean male and female. We should remind our readers that sex is given and fixed, a matter of chromosomes and body parts, that each of us is male or female and therefore has certain sex-specific capacities and duties and gifts.
Those called to writing, teaching, and preaching must work hard to move the average man from his belief in the Partly Natural Family to belief in the more difficult but infinitely more rewarding Natural Family. The needed creativity in argument and discernment of language requires much work, and the help of those who have the gifts for it.
The Partly Natural Family looks so good—it is, after all, a compromise between the ideal and the world, which claims to offer the best of both without the costs of either—that many people will not easily abandon it and will not thank us for our attempts to move them to something more natural. We take up the difficult task of promoting the Natural Family because we want them to be happy and to enjoy all the joys and pleasures this world provides, and by following their vocation in this world as closely as they can to prepare themselves for the next.
The Natural Family is published by Spence Publishing. The editorial quoted is from the January/February 2003 issue of Touchstone and can be found at http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-01-003-e. The quote from C. S. Lewis is taken from his “The Death of Words,” in On Stories.
For more on “sex” and “gender,” see Paul Mankowski’s “Jesus, Son of Humankind?” in the October 2001 issue and Robert Young’s “The Gay Invention” in the December 2005 issue. Both are available on the online archive (http://touchstonemag.com/archives/authors.php).
David Mills , former editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream and columnist for several Catholic publications. His last book is Discovering Mary. He and his family attend St. Joseph's Church in Corapolis, PA.
“From Meddling to Preaching” first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
This page and all site content © 2015 by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved. Please send comments, suggestions, and bad link reports to firstname.lastname@example.org.