One of my friends recently asked for my thoughts about a short essay on the family written by a Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Since the thing was a batch of miscellaneous comments, none very profound, I didn’t quite know how to respond, but a couple of things are worth mentioning.
The Bishop needlessly wonders about what constitutes a family. In English, the notion of a family has always been fluid, and there is nothing new – or interesting — in what the Bishop says about the matter. Some early examples of the use of the word show “family” to be vague — as it still is today: “The servants of a house or establishment; a household,” 1400; “The retinue of a noble or grandee,” 1548; “The body of persons who life in one home, including parents , children, servants, etc.” 1545, and so on right up to the present.
The Bishop’s sources for the piece were the Southern humorist, Roy Blount, Jr., David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the NY Times (a sheepdog among wolves), the TV show Cheers, some unnamed sources that allegedly claimed that since WWII, “family” means nuclear family, and, oh, yes! – Jesus, whom a Bishop ought to mention at some time or other.
The Bishop is not alone in attempting to do theology by analyzing words and/or concepts: several contemporary theologians now think such analysis is cool. It is not cool because it is a secular undertaking. He also, like so many of our contemporary religious leaders, gives more weight to current events, pop culture, sociology, psychology, anthropology, secular history, etc. than to the three-thousand-year- old Judaeo-Christian tradition. He does, in his obligatory mention of Jesus, cite that often mis-construed Bible verse, a favorite of the present crop of theological innovators, namely, Jesus’ oracle that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. But from the Bishop’s point of view in his slur about “family” values: “People who touted ‘family’ values sought to alarm us with the supposed threats [my italics] to the nuclear family. That often was code. The alarmists [my italics] simply didn’t approve of the kind of families [my italics again] being created”. The Bishop seems to misunderstand what Jesus meant by loving your neighbor as yourself. Jesus didn’t mean that “love” is to include sex outside the traditional marriage of one man and one woman, and He repeatedly berated adulterers and fornicators to make clear to everybody what he did mean. If the Lord meant for our love to include all sorts of sex, it would seem to follow that He meant to encourage auto eroticism in “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” which is absurd.