Rebecca McLaughlin, in her book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, made an observation that inspires my article today. I make references to many people, often the same people over and over again, who inspire my thoughts. I am indebted to the many serious Christian thinkers who have plowed ground that make it easy for me to walk the paths after them.
About a third of the way into the ninth chapter (Isn’t Christianity Homophobic?), she talks about loneliness and singles in the church. She strikes some real gold – some nuggets lost in our modern culture. I’m afraid that we have developed traditions over the years in the west that have plowed under values that once informed the early church.
A tradition of rugged individualism and self determination that is, perhaps, unrivaled anywhere in the world, is inbred into our American culture. Our suburban lifestyle is uniquely American, with our manicured lawns separated from our neighbors by fences and hedges. These are, perhaps, the gentrified vestiges of the farmstead claims staked by American pioneers against world, enemies and neighbors alike.
We circle the wagons today around the family unit, which has increasingly come under “attack” from secular constructs of village-raised children and re-imagined, more inclusive family structures to fit changing societal mores. These things changes have caused conservatives and Christians to double down on the traditional, American family construct.
Traditional, though, is normative, and norms change. Not more than 150 years ago families looked different than they do today. In fact, they looked a little more like the modern family than the average person might realize.
From not long after the first generations of New World immigrants came ashore, families and communities of families began to migrate, drifting south, west and sometimes north, clearing areas for homesteads. The ever changing family compositions can be traced from one decennial census to the next. Not may households remained static from one census to another.
My father, who researches genealogies, shines some historical light on the norms of the frontier movement in writing books about those migrations. From census to census to census, the story is told.
Family units were ever changing in combination of husbands, wives, children (both minors and adults). Family often included a grandparent, niece or nephew, neighbor or border. Children were born; children died; children moved away and moved back. Spouses died. They we replaced by new spouses or neighbors who helped with the children and then became spouses… or not.
One of the main challenges of doing genealogical research through the 19th Century is in determining the relationships of all the people in those from one decennial census to another and tracing the changes from decade to decade.
The Industrial Revolution began to change the composition of family units into more static and defined structures that eventually became the “traditional” American family.
What we assume to be the traditional family unit today is of relatively recent vintage. The Little House on the Prairie is more of a sentimental, re-imagining of the way it was than history. Even then, we get a hint of the interdependence of community that was much more intimate than our anemic sense of community today. This is true even with greater distance separating homesteads than a thin veil of fences and hedges distinguishing suburban lots.
The distance that separates people in modern western life, however, might as well be miles. We live as if we don’t need our neighbors, and we largely don’t even know them. Those fences and hedges might as be walls.
In that sense, the observation that McLaughlin makes reveals the back-filled soil of modern western culture that covers an ancient value that has been plowed under in the process of all those years of western development.