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The family is the foundation of culture. This is not a bromide of the Christian right, but plain fact, as every anthropologist will tell you. Families associate with groups of families, forming networks of social interdependence as families make a living, socialize children, and protect themselves. The family and the culture are supposed to work hand-in-hand.
But today, in the twenty-first century West, we are struggling through a cultural dysfunction of almost unparalleled magnitude. The culture and the family are now in conflict, to the detriment of both.
Cultural artifacts are set against the family. According to anthropologists, the artifacts of a culture — its art, stories, music, and other creations — serve to communicate and to reinforce that culture’s values. By these means, the elders teach the children the ways of the culture. Eventually, the young people learn what they need to know and are initiated into adulthood, whereupon they can start families of their own.
But today, families are put in the strange position of having to protect their children from their own culture.
Our culture’s art, stories, music, and other creations tend to undermine what parents are trying to teach their children, rather than reinforce them. Our culture’s artifacts — television, movies, and video games — often glamorize immorality. The world they project often has nothing to do with family, being mostly about the adventures of single people. When the entertainment media does deign to show families, they are often presented in a negative light (with husbands and wives yelling at each other and yearning to be single; with buffoon fathers and smothering mothers; with misunderstood children who are wiser than their parents).
And, in the oddest anthropological phenomenon of all, our cultural artifacts are shaped not by adults but by children. Teenagers set our cultural fashions. In every other culture, elders determine the fashions, make the music, and tell the stories. With us, adolescent children make the culture.
Of course, children cannot afford recording studios or Hollywood sound stages. Adults still manufacture and sell the artifacts. But they gear television and movies to the taste of adolescents, with little effort to form them into adults. And our popular music is entirely the province of teenagers, who are the performers and trend-setters. The result is that our adult culture is infantilized. Adults try to be like children, instead of vice versa, as is the case in normal cultures. All of this is, of course, pathetic, ridiculous, and embarrassing to actual children.
Sex is set against the family. God designed sex in order to create families. A man and a woman are drawn to each other, and they marry. By means of their sexual union, they engender children. Sex is supposed to be a family value.
But today, our culture presents sex completely out of the context of the family. Sex is not reserved for marriage. Most of the many portrayals of sex in our cultural artifacts are specifically outside marriage.
And from those portrayals, one would never dream that sex exists to engender children. In practice, “getting pregnant” is an unfortunate side effect of sexual pleasure, to be medicated against. If the woman wants the child, of course, that is fine, but if not — since in our culture, the choice of the will determines everything — the child is killed.
When sex is disassociated from marriage and from having children — from the family — the pleasure is all that remains. And it becomes difficult for many people to see what is wrong with whatever gives a person sexual pleasure. If sex is disconnected with marriage and having children, why not have sex with someone you are not married to? Or with someone of your own gender? Or with yourself?
Work is set against the family. The Reformers spoke of the “three estates,” the three institutions God established: the family, the church, and the state. We, in turn, have callings — or vocations — in each of these realms, where we are to love and serve our different neighbors and live out our Christian faith.
When we think of “vocation” today, we often immediately think of the particular work we do. But the word “economics” originally referred to “the management of a household.” For the Reformers, the various callings that constitute economic activity fell under the estate of the family.
In our work, we make a living for ourselves and our families. Our vocations are not a matter of our own self-fulfillment or self-aggrandizement, but for the sake of our neighbors: the customers we serve and the family-members we are supporting.
But today, work is thought of as being about the self. Our work isolates us rather than brings us into service to our culture and especially to our families. Thus, we often neglect our families in favor of our work. When fathers are so busy at work — or commuting back and forth — that they spend less than five minutes a day with their children, as is common today, their callings are seriously out of whack.
Broken marriages, unparented children, pornography, abortion, and most of our other “culture war” issues are family problems. Building strong families is the key to putting the culture back together.