I am not my own: a defense of children

I experienced one of the happiest moments of my life when I held my oldest child for the first time. The tears of joy and the dizzy raptures of that hour keenly remind me of a surrender I made that day. Like my wedding day, my identity and my vocation as a Christian man became linked to another. Seven years of parenting (four!) children has shaped in me an introspective sensitivity to an existential pressure point of the soul- a pressure point shared by many in our culture today.

The Ethics of Autonomy and Self Determinacy

Popular culture is awash with a wave generating from the twentieth-century sexual revolution and existentialist movements. A supreme value of this cultural milieu lies in the need for the individual to overcome any obstacles to authenticity. At all costs, I must be true to who I really am. We’re familiar with examples of communities that have taken up the Disneyesque challenge of pushing all peoples to self-determinacy and actualization. The recent cultural constructs of same sex marriage and transgenderism stand out as recent success stories.

More socially conservative communities are not immune to the existential quest to be true to oneself against all social constraints. In online college courses, I’ve interacted with a number of disillusioned ‘labor workers’ and retail clerks and accountants and stay at home moms- all who have left houses and lands to discover their true identities as counselors, physical therapists, and teachers.

Where are our Children?

IMG_20151028_142332808

I alluded earlier to a pressure point that parenting has brought to my awareness.  Marriage and parenting have profoundly shaped my responses to my inner existentialist self. When faced with disillusionment about my life choices in this cultural narrative of self-determinacy, I need to be reminded that I simply do not have the authority to recreate myself. In many respects, core components of my identity are received, not created. My children serve as a steady reminder that I am not my own.

Perhaps this is one reason why children are valued so little today. Our culture’s story of complete autonomy will only work at the expense of others. We cannot all live as though we are the most important realities in our universe. Children will cramp your style. We cannot live our lives chasing, with abandon, our wildest ambitions while committing equally to being faithful spouses and parents. The family is an institution we submit to, not to lose our identity in a morass of diapers and grocery bills, but to help us find ourselves, truly.

The Culprit and the Remedy

The Romantics probably would have disagreed, but I think our culture’s assimilation of existentially minded Romanticism has pushed children to the margins of our cultural anthropology. Here’s my question for the middle-aged man looking to recreate himself in the merciless forge of the commercially driven university: how will your children actualize their dreams for what the good life looks like, when the best portions of your life are spent on you? Gone is the Pauline sentiment that the parents ought to store up for their children and not the children for the parents.

But the Romantics didn’t leave us without aid. What if we could find joy, meaning, and peace by pursuing the happiness and completion of those who have been entrusted to us? Wordsworth mused on the blessed pleasures that stem from a mature and sober realization that we can find life more beautiful and satisfying by experiencing it through the happiness of those we love. We can test this daily by searching to find our joy in the happiness of the beloved. The idea has some antiquity behind it. In all honesty, the children make it easy for us. No humans on earth are as willing to trust and as quick to forgive.

 

A Tale of Three Options (Or More)- Piper On Christian Cultural Engagement

John Piper recently wrote an excellent piece on Christian cultural engagement that you need to read. As we’ve encountered rapid cultural change in the recent decades (especially so in the last few years), Christian writers have taken up the task of formulating various cultural-engagement proposals for the church to consider. Piper lists a few in his article: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, the Wilberforce Option by Peter Wehrner and Michael Gerson, and the Dr. King Option by Gabriel Salguero. Now we just need the Jesus Option, the Paul Option, and the Al Gore Option (for the climate change devotees) to round everything out.

st_benedict_blog_icon

I’m familiar with Dreher and Piper, but I look forward to reading more about these other frameworks.

Cultures change, so I imagine their responses to the church will as well. The church may be more weird in some cultures than others. These options are exploring the tensions that are presenting themselves as the church is striving to be balanced and faithful in its creation of and engagement with culture. If you’ve come across any books, sites, or articles that have helped you practically with these issues please feel free to share for the other readers’ benefit.

What is striking and paradoxical in 1 Peter is the mandate that Christians are to be both out of step with their culture, and compelling in the culture. We are to be weird and winsome. ~ John Piper

Putting Flesh on the Reading Skeleton

In my last post I argued for the necessity of communal reading, specifically, reading aloud together as a family. The discussion of this practice naturally leads to questions about the reading life in general. I don’t, however, want to give the impression that the reading aloud that we do as a family should constitute the entirety of our reading. This will only be a single tool in our arsenal, and I plan to briefly suggest others to give a fuller perspective about what the Christian reading life can be like.

To assist us in filling out the picture of our reading lives, we need to ask ourselves about our goals. This doesn’t have to be a overwhelming question, but it can make you ask why you do a lot of things that you do. This is why the choices of where we direct our attention are pivotal. In the day of the smartphone and the television, if you are not intentional about reading, exercising, praying, etc. you will have something else presented forced to your attention for consideration. Technology, for better or worse has presented us with this difficulty. Why do you want to read?

While you’re wrestling with some of your objectives there, let me throw out additional options to enable the reading life to grow in a way that will help you accomplish your goals.

  • Reading aloud together- Again, I discussed this last time, so review the post if you haven’t seen it here.
  • Discussion about what you’re reading- My wife and I have reading tastes that can be quite disparate sometimes, but we still have a good time telling each other about what we’re reading and why we think its important (or not!). In some respects, we’ve both come around on some subjects, and they’ve gradually made their way to our ‘reading together’ list.
  • Audiobooks- This topic deserves many posts, though it would fall outside the scope of this blog. Jessica Manuel, English prof and blogger has written up several pieces on audio books and reading in general to get you started. The important thing to see here is that you can squeeze in this kind of ‘reading’ in many places and situations. Check out Jessica’s post. I highly recommend it.
  • Individual reading- This is undoubtedly where the meat of your reading life will reside. Privately, you can read books to entertain, inform, or challenge you. You will need to spend time sorting out why you want to be reading and planning how you are going to get there.

I’m aware that much more can be said here about the various ways in which we get the reading accomplished that we would like to. I can’t say enough how helpful a planning session can be for organizing your reading life into the kind of shape that suits your responsibilities and life situation. We will not drift into accomplishing these goals; let us take a long term view on shaping ourselves and our families with our reading. Let me know your thoughts on this post! Our reading lives can look very different so I would love to hear from you about what works and what doesn’t. If you’d like to receive regular updates to this blog, simply subscribe below.

Read Aloud- Your Family Will Never Be The Same

I’ll never forget the road-trip that my wife took along Cheaper by the Dozen and read it aloud to me as we rode. Admittedly a random choice for a book, but here’s the neat thing about that trip. In retrospect, I can see that the experience of sharing that book aloud together changed our lives. Overstatement? Perhaps. For us, though, it was a starting point- a place where we committed together to doing something differently. You see, we had tried reading books aloud before, but it was always a mental strain for me to listen to a book being read. Yet we worked at it. Years later, we are road-trip reading warriors. In fact, it’s not uncommon for us to sneak a book into the car for our twenty minute commute to church.

IMG_20150808_131852911

We’ve since incorporated the practice of reading aloud into the lives of our children. What do we stand to gain by beginning a life-long quest of reading aloud together, whether in the car or at home, with kids or without? How will this practice change the life of the family?

  • Reading aloud together gives the family cultural points of reference. What happens when the cultural participation of the parents and the children is so disparate that they can no longer understand one another? We begin talking past one another.  There is a great story that I wish I could find the source for, that wonderfully illustrates this. It begins with an older fish addressing two younger fish: “Good morning! How’s the water?” As the two younger fish continue along, one says to the other: “Okay, what on earth is water?” It’s easy for us to assume that culture is understood when it needs to be taught. Possessing common points of reference from the great books of history is a starting point to interacting with rapidly changing culture. Cultural symbols can’t be properly translated when there is no understood baseline. Don’t understand your child’s world? Help them create one you can share for a lifetime.
  • Reading aloud together brings discipled focus to the essential cultural roots of humanity. I know there is a certain irony to a young guy pontificating about the spirit of the age. However, can’t we all tell by direct introspection that the families of our social situation are fragmented in their relationships, distracted in their focus? Reading together can instill the heart habits of a communal unity of attention, the forgotten experience of saying with another: “Look at this! Isn’t it great?” What will we, as a couple, as a family, attend to together in the years to come? Through reading aloud to one another, we have the privilege to nurture and train ourselves. Whether we’re reading John’s gospel or The Lord of the Rings, we can choose timeless material that has truly culture-altering narratives, narratives which embody God’s character and purpose in our world.

The underlying ethics of attention are of the utmost importance. As Matthew Crawford has argued, “Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to- that is, what to value.” Let us choose this day what will hold our attention. In doing so, we are creating culture by choosing what will structure the minds and hearts of our families. Better to do this than to be squeezed into the arbitrary mold of the cultural moment.

Walk before you run

Cheaper by the Dozen may seem like an unusual place for us to begin, but we probably would never have gotten things off the ground without reading something that we were interested in and that was easy on the ear. What experiences have you had reading aloud with family? What additional motivations would you suggest? Comments are welcome. Encouraged!