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The Storm-Tossed Family and the Question of Idolatry

April 8, 2019
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Russell Moore’s book The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home does not make for a straightforward book review.

That’s in part because of the book’s structure and content. Each chapter could work as a standalone article. And when he gets to the issues of the day – issues of sexuality, marriage, man and woman – Moore stands in line with the historic church and the teaching of Scripture. Not much to quibble with there.

The difficulty in reviewing is also due to the way it’s written. Each chapter combines personal anecdotes, beautiful writing, illuminating takes on familiar Scripture passages and theological truths, and reflections on each issue that are convicting, clarifying, and, at times, moving. And in all of it, Moore couches the conversation in terms of spiritual warfare and, as the subtitle suggests, brings everything beneath the cross’s shadow. If you’ve read one of Moore’s previous books or are familiar with him as a speaker, you’ll recognize all of these as characteristics of his style. But because the book is more theological and cultural reflection and less systematic argument or how-to manual, the quibbles there are few, too.

Moore’s ability to weave all of these features together make the book an enjoyable read. Many of the chapters, in addition to articulating faithful positions on the issues, will fuel a love for Christ, for his church, and for our families. If you want a book to give you tips for a better marriage or secrets on keeping your kids from going wayward, The Storm-Tossed Family won’t scratch that itch (although helpful advice certainly appears in the book). But if you want to have your vision adjusted to see the mystery of marriage and the eschatological import of parenting, then grab this book and get reading. You’ll enjoy the experience.

Christianity Today seems to agree, as the magazine handed The Story-Tossed Family its 2019 book of the year award.

So, what do we do with the book besides encourage you to read it?

The Idolatry Question

Reading the book got me thinking about the conversation surrounding the so-called “idolatry of the family.” Moore is not attempting to resolve that conversation, but he contributes to it.

“The old serpent seeks, in every generation, to disrupt the peace of the marriage covenant, of the integrity of the sexual union, of the parent/child bond, of the unity of the church as the household of God. These are organic icons of the mystery of Christ…That’s why the demonic powers rage in fury against the family order.” (31)

When the “idolatry of the family” discussion resurfaced a few months ago, it struck me that people who address it are often aiming at different targets. One article by a like-minded writer claimed that no, we are not making an idol of the family. That’s fine. But the claim was then substantiated by statistics depicting the way Americans are not reproducing, and by the existence of “professional travelers” and people who idealize a perpetual lack of commitment and responsibility. These things are troubling, and I understand there are Christians who have bought into this way of thinking. But the question is not whether our society is making an idol of the family; the answer to that question is, “you’re kidding, right?”

Christians can agree that the family’s importance is revealed by the breadth of attempts to undermine and redefine it. And churches can agree that the call to light up the darkness involves honoring marital faithfulness and godly parenting. If the unbelieving world thinks evangelicals talk too much about the family, my response would be the same as it is toward those who think evangelicals should stop talking about sexuality: we’re not the ones who started the whirlwind of obsession and change. We’re talking because we’re trying to conserve something.

But if the question, “are we making an idol of the family” identifies the “we” as “evangelicals,” then it’s a different question. As with most broadly sweeping questions, though, the answer is closer to “maybe” and “sometimes” than “yes” or “no.”

Ditch #1

“A church that focuses on the family is in line with the Bible, but a church that puts families first is not.” (51)

There are evangelicals, I’m sure, who elevate an intact family and a quiver full of kids to the status of a requirement of the Christian life. For those who have, they need to remember that if justification by faith didn’t require circumcision in the first century, then it doesn’t require marriage and children in the twenty-first. And I know there are those who talk as though single Christians are not yet fully actualized people. People who think that way need to read 1 Corinthians 7 and reconsider. And I’m sure there are churches that, in response to the cultural dumpster fire around them, overemphasize the family. It’s hard to blame them. But, as Moore says, “Family is a blessing, yes. But family is only a blessing if family is not first.”

Why is this the case? Because the family is not the most important thing about us or our churches. Moore writes: “If we receive family as a gift, and not as the singular defining feature of our lives, then we are free to love our families as they are, not as idealized extensions of ourselves…If we seek first the kingdom, we are better able to seek the welfare of our families.”

Moore’s claim here is not some bizarre post-familial agenda, as some have posited. He’s saying that family – like every other thing that isn’t God – serves its purpose when kept in its place.

Ditch #2

“Being a part of a family – whatever the part, and whatever the family – is essential to our flourishing as people.” (19)

On the other side, there are those who avoid the life of obligation that family brings because they have drunk too deeply from the wells of autonomy, individual expressivism, and Instagram. Those people need to remember that it is those who give themselves away who find themselves full and satisfied, that joy is found in the joy of our beloved. Moore agrees: “Family shows you…that the only way you can gain your life is to lay it down, that the only way you can win is to lose.” There are few ways to lay your life down like for family.

So, have evangelicals made the family an idol? I’m sure some have, and some haven’t. Satisfying, I know.

The Way

“Those who neglect their family responsibilities and those who deify them end up in the same place, at giving up.” (21)

“One can leave home and never speak to one’s relatives again, make the opposite of all their religious, political, and career choices – and still see one’s father’s eyes in the mirror or hear oneself saying the sort of thing one’s mother used to say.” (39)

The way forward is to acknowledge the reality that we are all familial creatures. The family is the unavoidable context in which we all live, whether that context is defined by our family’s absence, its dominance, or somewhere in between. At its best, it is a source of blessings innumerable. And it is creation’s foundational institution. This only makes sense: the creation’s maker and sustainer are known by the familial titles of Father and Son.

And yet, the family is not the institution for which Christ died. And, unlike the church, it will not retain its structure into eternity. Family holds things together in this age, but not so in the age to come. The healthiest, most faithful families are those that know their name comes from the Father, and those that find identity not just in their family’s tree, but in Calvary’s.

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