What's wrong with this picture?
On its face: absolutely nothing. A beautiful American family
standing on their lawn. This is, note for note, the American
ideal if not The American Dream. On its face, it’s everything
we’ve been programmed to seek and to prize in our lifetime. It
is the baseline for Pax Americana: a house, 2.5 children. It is
what all of us, in Christian ministry, tend to use as our
baseline standard of “normal:” something to be desired, a goal
to be reached, a benchmark for happiness, normalcy and human
existence. So, what’s wrong with it?
Well, first and foremost, it’s not biblical. The American Dream is not the biblical model. The problem with most Christian ministry today is a corruption of doctrine by culture. The American Dream is a cultural norm. It is not what the bible teaches. It looks nothing whatsoever like the personal example of Jesus Christ.
There is no biblical record of Jesus having been married. There is speculation that Paul may have once been married, but was a widower. These are the two dominant New Testament models. Neither of them lived The American Dream. Neither had a house, a dog, 2.5 kids. This is not our biblical model. The American dream is to take on enormous debt with college loans, a mortgage, car note, credit cards, and the unfathomable expensive of child rearing, and to subjugate your passion, your goals, your dreams and inspiration to the incessant demands of your children. There is no biblical model for this. Rather, the biblical model is men (and, arguably, women) walking away from all of those things to follow Jesus.
The biblical model was Jesus and Paul, unmarried, owning nothing, living lives of total commitment to God. In constant motion, focused and surrendered to God’s will. There is no biblical model of them tripping over plastic Big Wheels left in the driveway. Jesus never married. Paul preached singleness and chastity. In our Black Church thing, both men would be suspected of being gay. I am routinely chastised for not having a mortgage. For being immature because, at my advanced age, I don’t have a family. I am constantly being accused of being gay. These are people confusing culture with doctrine. They are holding me up to the baseline standard of the American Gothic while not understanding the biblical model set before us. The biblical model is both men were persecuted and martyred. They lived lives of nomadic austerity. They lived and breathed that which they were passionate about. Why do we reinforce this false doctrine of The American Dream?
This is largely the consequence of bad pastoring. Most pastors I know (and virtually all of my friends are pastors) simply perpetuate the traditions they’ve known all of their lives. I’ve known very few pastors who depart from that path or break new ground or stop, even momentarily, to evaluate what they do or why they do it. This is their baseline norm and this is what they preach: buy a house. Get married. They counsel from that perspective, and this baseline standard inhabits the congregational mindset to the point of casting suspicion upon anyone not conforming to it.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the American Gothic, if that’s what you want and if that is what will make you fulfilled. I’m just saying the American Dream has no biblical model. This guy in the picture is weighted down with enormous debt and burdens, when he could be living a much simpler and less inundated existence. The woman in the picture cannot put God first. God comes in, at best, third behind her husband and children—that is the biblical commandment. But, Paul argues, there is no commandment to get yourself into that bondage in the first place. And “bondage” is precisely how Paul describes what we see in this American ideal. [I Corinthians 7:32-35]
Debt, materialism, emotional conflicts: none of this is modeled in the New Testament.
Paul, in fact, warns against this.
The Regular Life
I don’t know who these people are. They don’t look phony enough
to be stock art so I am going to assume, for the moment, that
this is an actual family. And, as actual families do, they’re
lying to us, posing for The Great American Family Photo out on
the lawn. But, look closer: he looks miserable. She looks like
she’s aware yet in denial of his misery. They both seem to be
masking. Mind you, I'm just indulging a little cruel speculation
with this picture. For all I know, these folks are fine, happy
and fulfilled. But I doubt it. Three kids is a big expense, and they’re standing on
the lawn of a house that’s got to be expensive to pay for and
maintain. They’re looking at three college tuitions and hundreds
of pairs of shoes. The wife appears to have totally given
herself over to
Mommy Disease. She’s not even trying anymore, there’s too
many Hostess Ding Dongs around the house. She doesn’t look like
his lover, and his body language lacks intimacy with her. She is
moving toward him, which is probably what she does in the
relationship, ignoring the fact he has emotionally checked out.
He looks trapped, perhaps surrendered to Stockholm Syndrome.
Surrounded by people he indeed loves, but, with a wife and three
daughters, he has likely been completely stripped of his
manhood. I’d be surprised if there was anything even remotely
masculine inside that house. She looks like she’s masking
depression and fear: he’s emotionally slipping away from her and
she knows it but has decided, as many women do, to not see what
is obviously going on between them. She is completely lost
inside her Mommy And Me and Later Gator snow globe of
self-deception, having lost herself years ago. She’s no longer
Stephanie or Jane or Hillary. She is Mommy. She wears Big
Drawers and routinely brushes her hair back because she doesn’t
have time, energy, or incentive to look like someone anyone
would want to have sex with. Meanwhile, he has sacrificed his
best years and laid down his manhood, and this is his reward:
impossible bills, little or no sex, and a life completely taken
over by his children. They’re smiling but, look at this guy’s
face. What have I done with my life?!? Kill me. Kill me, now.
Nothing here is intended to suggest the American family or this idealized American Gothic isn’t a worthy goal or even an important core institution for the American people or God’s people. What I’m saying is, it has no biblical foundation or model. I’m saying, presuming this vision to be our baseline for human existence is not biblical. But this model has been so institutionalized through our culture, that, every institution, from the church to the schools to the legislatures, courts, prisons, and social service agencies, all operate to one degree or another from the perspective that this American Gothic is the baseline standard for American if not human existence. All of these institutions exert pressure upon each of us to conform to this ideal and to ostracize or even punish those who do not. This is the root cause of homophobia, racism, sexism—fear and distrust of persons who do not fit the allegory of The American Dream. If this picture had two daddies in it, for example, many people would be repulsed and reviled. Or a black mommy and white daddy. Or a single mommy—many would consider that an aberration. Or the family posing in front of a government housing project or mobile home. Such images elicit an emotional response varying from pity to loathing. Why? Because we’ve all been fed this steady diet of Mommy, Daddy, the kids, the dog, the Chevy, and the house, so much so that we are made to feel like failures should we not achieve such things and deviants should we choose not to desire them.
This has been my distraction, lately. As ministers, what is our purpose? To help people, obviously. But, help them do what? Help them achieve this? Or, having achieved this, help them work through their obvious issues? Is this our purpose, to counsel and support people, to encourage them toward “regular” lives? What is a “regular” life? What’s that mean, anyway? Why do we want it? If a “regular” life is so fulfilling, why are divorce rates so high? And, if we don’t pursue this, if we choose singleness instead, what does that path have in store for us?
Christopher J. Priest
23 September 2012
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