Even though COVID-19 has slowed life down a bit over the last 18 months, today’s family is still humming along at warp speed.
Constantly trying to set our children up for the highest level of success has left families feeling a bit weathered and worn. Even the traditional family meal has been reduced to throwing something in the microwave and spending less than five minutes together at the dining room table. Such a scrambled approach to life is working to our culture’s detriment rather than its benefit.
In his latest book, Take Back Your Family: From the Tyrants of Burnout, Busyness, Individualism, and the Nuclear Ideal, New York Times bestselling author Jefferson Bethke has conducted extensive research on the matter and diagnoses what he sees as the cause to this increasing problem facing family life. Relying on time-tested principles found in the Bible, Bethke lays out a clear path that will hopefully aid families to return to what God intended them to be.
I recently spoke to the affable and thoughtful Bethke about what is wrong with the nuclear family as we know it in 2021, the role that the Industrial Revolution played and continues to play in the modern family’s decline, and various ways to build families that are unified around a model of what God originally designed.
For the sake of our conversation today, how would you define nuclear family?
Essentially the nuclear family is this idea that didn’t really exist before the 1950s. It existed in the sense of technically it existed. But it didn’t exist in the sense of how people use the word family. There is kind of this post-World War II boom, where family actually shrank to being nothing more than two parents and two kids. It’s the stereotype of two parents, two kids, a white picket fence, and a dog. The antithesis I talk about in the book is a multi-generational family team on mission or what David Brooks and some researchers call a “corporate family”. The family before 1950, most people didn’t think of two parents and two kids. Most people thought of 17 people, comprised of three or four generations. An aunt and uncle, usually a couple employees, usually a couple of people buzzing around the outskirts of the economics of the home. So, that’s kind of where I start in the book, which is a fun place to start.
So, with that said, what is wrong with the nuclear family as we know it here in 2021?
Good question. I would say two things. I would say one, based on that juxtaposition I just mentioned, the reason we started defining it like that it is actually inherently based in consumption and consumerism. When you used to think of family being 17 people, that was because that family was kind of a legacy oriented team doing something. They were either blacksmiths, bread makers, or something similar. So, the family had to be larger for the mission given to them. But once we have the Industrial Revolution, we have the World War II post-war economic boom, and all these other things. We primarily centered family around what it made us feel like … entertainment consumption, et cetera. So, then the family could be smaller because it was actually the only purpose of it. The focus is not to go on mission or do things together. It was actually just to make us all feel good, safe, and secure. The nuclear family tends to center on consumption. What we call the Biblical model of family tends to center on contribution.
The second thing is based on something David Brooks wrote about in an Atlantic Monthly article about the nuclear family a couple of years ago. He says it’s actually also not sustainable for anyone who’s not rich. The nuclear family is a very fragile model where if anything happens to anyone in the equation, the family crumbles. There’s no safety net. The safety net a hundred years ago was the web of relationships … the aunts, the uncles, the grandmas and the grandpas. And so now, it’s such a fragile asset that really only wealthy people can afford it, afford to have the family that we are all trying to envision.
What was the inspiration or the catalyst for you to write Take Back Your Family?
To me, I think the biggest way to say it is God has a lot bigger vision for a lot of us. The nuclear family has a small vision. It’s fine in the sense of it’s not necessarily against. It is God’s design for parents and kids but it’s small. God wants us to believe in a multi-generational mission, something that outlasts us. I always find this fascinating when you read Scripture and when God wanted to name His own identity to the people of Israel, He didn’t say I’m God the just, I’m God the loving, or I’m God the merciful. He said His actual name. He tied it to His name. I’m the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So, He himself made His identity, as one with a multi-generational family. This is kind of crazy. So, that’s the main reason I wanted to take this topic on. I think that God has a lot more for us. God has a lot bigger vision for all of our families. God has a lot bigger dreams for our families. And a lot of us are kind of playing too small.
In reading your book I came across something that fascinated me. That is, the Industrial Revolution which took place from 1760 to 1840 is still having implications on life as we know it today. What role did the Industrial Revolution play in our current family culture?
The reason it’s still affecting us today is because it almost became a spirit that infects everything. The Industrial Revolution was based on this idea of mass efficiency, mass scalability, while also fracturing, splintering and disintegrating the family. We want dad to leave that house. And we want him to now come to a factory, away from his family for 10 hours a day. And we want him to do a certain behavior that leads to the most scale and the most efficiency. In other words, turn this knob 5,000 times every single day on the assembly line.
So, disintegration, splintering, efficiency, scalability, commodification, all these values that the Industrial Revolution made prominent, we’re not really a super Industrial Revolution culture anymore. We’re a little bit more of a tech and information culture now. As author Wendell Berry notes, the spirit of that is still undergirding everything that’s ever come after it. So, that’s a very fascinating way to look at it and think about it as well. But that also brings encouragement to the solution. Sometimes when I speak at an event, or when people read the book or read other stuff like this, I’m going so heavy on the critique and the research that people are like, “What’s the hope? We can’t all just open a family farm.” And it’s like, no one’s asking you to open up a family farm because there’s a little bit of this ship that has sailed. We can’t go backwards. The spirit of the Industrial Revolution is in everything. The answer isn’t just to open up a farm. The answer is to have the spirit of what is called an agrarian nature. A lot of us don’t have to change our jobs or change our lives. It’s more about coming to it with more of that agrarian spirit instead of that industrialized spirit. That’s the difference.
The family as we know it has morphed and changed so much over the last century and beyond. Is there a way to build families that are unified around a model of what God originally intended families to be? If so, what does that look like?
When you go back to the very first page of Scripture, you see what God’s answer was the first problem He faced. The first problem He faced was the rest of the earth didn’t look like Eden. He created this beautiful garden. It was ordered. It was beautiful. It was awesome. But the rest of the world didn’t look like that. It was kind of like a microcosm or a prototype. And He commissioned the first humans. He didn’t need them, but He created them and then commissioned them to make the rest of the world look like that garden. He did that to bring order and beauty out of chaos to the rest of the world as His divine representatives.
So, that was the problem. God needed to make the rest of the world look like Eden. And how did He solve that? If that was our problem, we would probably create a business, create an app, create a nonprofit, or we’d get a board of directors. Our number one answer to making the rest of the world look like that would probably not be a family. But that was God’s first answer. God’s first answer to do that was male plus female. So, family and team. Then it was, hey, it’s going to be a really big job. So, have a bunch of babies. Be fruitful and multiply. So, then it was multi-generational. That was the mission … go subdue the earth. From page one, we see God’s design for blessing the world. It was a multi-generational family team on mission. And that’s the design that He still calls us into. That takes a lot of work. That takes decades to build because that’s what it is. It’s a longer play. It’s a longer project. But leaning into that and what it looks like to be a team, not just a collection of individuals, is a big difference.
Ultimately, what do you see as the solution to what I will call the disintegrating family?
The one thing thing I talk about in the book is you have to start living like a family team. So, that’s the job. You have to stop acting like a collection of individuals and start living like a team. Each chapter of my book is kind of like a tip. One thing I talk about with a lot of people is we’re not really guessing on what teams are like. We have them all over. Sports and business would be the two easiest ones to note. This is a metaphor, but every team has a uniform. Every team plays a champ. Every team goes for a championship. Every team has a mission. Every team has coaches. Every team has traditions. Every team has culture. When you start thinking about it like that, then it starts clicking into place. That’s what my family needs right now. Businesses and sports teams are still really good examples because they have that shared mission. But the minute we subverted our actual families based on consumption instead of mission, that was why it was so detrimental. Now, we can’t even understand the concept because we just think it’s about filling ourselves. A lot of the values that are in family is just a place for them to feel really safe and secure. No businesses or sports teams ever say that’s their value system. Those are values in the sense of their byproducts. If it’s a healthy flourishing team, then yes, you’ll feel safe. You’ll feel secure and you’ll have your needs met. But no one actually says that’s why we exist. But yet that’s why everyone says families exist because we’ve subverted it to be only about consuming and self-actualization. That is the big difference.
After people have read, Take Back Your Family, what would you like your readers take away from the experience? What’s your greatest hope for the book?
I think my greatest hope is I would love to see people feel encouraged and equipped. First of all, I think a lot of times people feel like the tools that they’re finding out there aren’t actually delivering what they’re hoping for. And second, that they would kind of have this spark of fire lit in them. This is going to be a multi-year, multi-decade project, but hopefully it is this spark never dies.
Watch a Video Trailer for Take Back Your Family: