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Mary Eberstadt
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Mary Eberstadt

Family first

Books | Author argues that strong families can prevent a broken church

Issue: "Rejecting religious liberty," June 15, 2013

“The Great Crossover” is upon us, reports the National Marriage Project: The median age at which women first give birth, 25.7 years, now falls below the median age at first marriage, 26.5. That’s because 48 percent of all first births now come outside the comforting bounds of a two-parent family. One reason for this crossover is clearly declining faith in the cross—fewer people believe what God teaches about marriage—but will the decline in family formation lead to a further decline in religious belief? 

That’s what Mary Eberstadt argues in How the West Really Lost God (Templeton Press, 2013). She flips the conventional wisdom—first religious decline, then family decline—and argues that family formation increases religious involvement but unformed or broken families lead to a broken church. She puts her thesis in italics: “Something about living in families makes people more receptive to religiosity and the Christian creed.”

On the way to defending her thesis, Eberstadt examines the theory that historians have exaggerated past religiosity and finds it wanting: Maybe so, although Rodney Stark has proffered evidence that churchgoing has increased rather than declined over the centuries. She scoffs at the idea that “the unprecedented prosperity of modern times” has led more people to worship Mammon rather than God: Maybe so, although the Old Testament points to the pattern in ancient Israel of more stuff leading to less interest in God.

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The main event, though, is Eberstadt’s search for evidence to support her family-first thesis. She speculates that parents see their children as wonderfully created, and “it is too intense for many parents to believe that the life before them has a cold, finite end.” She writes about “the selfless care of an ailing family member, the financial sacrifices made for those whose adulthood one may never live to see—even the incredible human feat of staying married for a long time.” Those examples of dying to self, she argues, make the Christian emphasis on doing that seem good and right. 

That’s true, as are many other points Eberstadt makes. But she leaves out the most crucial point: what God is doing. The teaching that women “will be saved through childbearing” is one of the most difficult in all of Scripture, but if Eberstadt’s thesis is correct, God uses childbearing and raising, within families, to draw women—and men—to Himself. Both women and men learn that they are not the center of the world, that they belong to their spouses and to God. Self-focus is the chief obstacle to God-focus, and when family trumps self, the road to transformation providentially becomes open.

Rousing lambs

Some are typecasting The Lamb’s Agenda by Samuel Rodriguez (Thomas Nelson, 2013) as a Latino uprising, and that’s inevitable because Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference—but Christians of many ethnicities should read it. Rodriguez takes on “lukewarm Christians” who “accommodate their beliefs to the dictates of the state” and calls for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit rather than “another bailout, stimulus package, or new political movement.”

In so doing he is specific about our political and cultural problems. For example, he describes one result of internet pornography: “Ordinary young men are losing interest in ordinary young women. Many of them are no longer looking for girls who would be good wives and mothers. They are looking for girls who would be good performers, real or otherwise.”

Rodriguez lays out a lamb’s agenda that transcends the agendas of both donkeys and elephants. He’s sound in his analysis of church-state relationships: “I have no problem if Uncle Sam comes to the church and recognizes that faith-based groups execute ministries to the poor and hurting in a more constructive and holistic manner than government ever can. … I find it entirely contrary to the spirit of the Bible for a faith-based group to approach government and beg for funding.” —M.O.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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