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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

"More Than Words" (Erin Wathen)

TITLE: More than Words: 10 Values for the Modern Family
AUTHOR: Erin Wathen
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, (176 pages).

What are family values? Before you attempt to answer that, think again. Is it a traditional or postmodern interpretation? Does it depend on which generation you come from? What kind of family are we talking about? These questions must be answered before we start talking about 'family values.' Our world has changed. With faith matters increasingly becoming politicized, even this popular phrase has become a battleground of opinions and political positions. Some would say that the traditional Christian interpretation is increasingly tainted with homophobia, misogyny, bigotry, and so on. Others lament that family has become meaningless in a relativistic world, absentee parents, and broken relationships. In a way, everybody have their own sense of ranking which value is more important. Behind this ranking belies a person's presupposition. So I decide to find out where this author is coming from. Concerned with how public opinion are increasingly negative about the phrase 'family values,' Erin Wathen begins with an attitude of understanding and learning. She writes:
"In this book, we’ll explore the language of a better way; a more life-giving way; a way that leaves room for creativity, for questions, for imperfection, and for a much broader view of what it means to be 'family.'"

Wathen seeks to move away from fundamentalist perceptions that have often become associated with "family" or "values." Put the two together and we have a formula for backlash and criticisms. It's time to change these perceptions. This can be done when we re-examine ten ways that promote inclusiveness and essential virtues to strengthen the family. We do not need more arguments, skepticism, or sarcasm around the subject of family. Every family already has their own challenges. At the least, we can embark upon a constructive effort to rebuild and renew families. Wathen shows us the ten ways to be inclusive and effective. In our world, 'love' is not only an overused word, it can also mean all kinds of things to different people. Compassion is a better world as it is essentially love in action. It bypasses judgmentalism and fear. It nurtures passion in the young. Instead of just talking about love, compassion essentially puts a face to love. This is a crucial first step to get away from the stigma of traditional vs progressive forms of family definition. Compassion cuts through all of these differentiations to let our actions do the talking. On Abundance, we learn about how gratitude and generosity are generally accepted virtues. People can be generous only when they are secure in a certain abundance. What really strikes home is our common attitude of presuming we lack something. Be it time, sleep, money, or anything, we tend to look at the negative side of things as a default. It informs us that abundance is more about our attitude and our inner condition. Abundance is contentment in action. Sabbath is about restoration of relationships, with ourselves and others. It is about making time to see the more important things in life. Learning to spend a day without an agenda is a much needed relief in this scheduled-driven and activity-packed world. The natural progression of a good Sabbath rest is Non-Violence and Joy. Non-violence is more often spoken rather than practiced. Wathen puts a finger on a common behaviour as follows: "We are tired of 'praying for peace' and 'sending our condolences.' .... We are tired of words and we are tired of carnage." It's another way of saying: "Enough is enough! Let's put non-violence into action." Peace is a state of being, not simply an act. We can lobby for the abolishment of death as capital punishment. We can turn the other cheek. I am floored by the story of Diaz who turns a knife-point robbery into a conversational moment over dinner! It's that feel-good story of how the practice of non-violence turns violence on its head, and to usher in the meaning of Jesus' teaching of peace and goodwill to all. As the popular saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack/Jill a dull boy/girl. We need joy to live on in spite of the troubles that will come from time to time. Bringing joy and hope to those who need it is perhaps one of the best ministry moments ever. Families that create joy also testify of Jesus. This alone could be very attractive. Other values include Justice; Community; Forgiveness; and Authenticity. Interestingly, the author comes back to square one

So What?
Using the term "modern family" to distance herself from the increasingly controversial term "family values," Wathen hopes to give start fresh without being bogged down by negative perceptions of the importance of values; family; and Christian love. She is well aware that Christianity, especially evangelicalism is increasingly being tarnished by accusations of homophobic; judgmental; misogynistic; exclusive; etc. Throughout the book, there is a consistent framework of beginning any virtue first at home before applying it to the community around us. As the saying goes, charity begins at home. The "Around the Table" discussion questions make this book a good resource for interaction. This book is strongly geared toward action. The title of the book is a call for us to go beyond mere words toward putting those words to practical use. Values are important but as long as they are not acted upon, their usefulness remains limited.

Wathen is prepared to be criticized for her openness toward certain communities often ostracised by vocal personalities in the Christian world. That is why she qualifies herself with statements like: "Some elements of this book will invite a visceral, negative reaction from certain corners of the faith community." What elements I wonder? I believe it is the way she counters the conventional ways of approaching family. For instance, many people think that Jesus' way of turning the other cheek is impractical. Yet, Wathen shows us otherwise, and that it is still extremely useful. The chapter on Equality is another example. Look at Josh Duggars' fall from grace. After being endorsed for a form of "family values" that are "wholesome" and "traditional," the scandal rips apart the fragile and artificial image of a family-next-door. No family is perfect. They are only made perfect by polished media briefings and witty camera angles. The way we treat non-traditional unions is also controversial. Learning to deal with conflict is another of those important family values we need. Not only must we learn to show love, we need also to practice tough love.

Over all, this book is a modern paraphrasing of the biblical counterculture nature. It forces us to take another look at our own values. As long as we are open and humble, we have hope in our homes and in our communities. We cannot isolate ourselves and our families into our individual cocoons. We need not only to be neighbourly, we must have a larger vision of what family means. The goal is this. If living these family values becomes second nature to us, we are well on our way to changing the world, one family and one community at a time.

Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor at Saint Andrew Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and writes the popular blog Irreverin on the Patheos network.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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