The thing about The Young Ones, the cult British comedy from the 1980s, is that it aged badly. Nearly forty years on from the squalor of Thatcher, the program doesn’t fly. I used to guffaw at the antics of Rick, Vyvyan, Neil and Mike. But it would raise barely a chuckle today.
The Young Ones became middle aged. Rik Mayall, who played Rik, died in 2014. The last great thing Ade Edmondson (Vyvyan) did, was the audio version of an actual ageless classic, Green Eggs and Ham.
I don’t think Kevin de Young’s solution to the culture wars is going to age well either. De Young has recently written that he believes Christian families should have plenty of young ones, or in his case, de Young ones, as one strategy to take back the culture.
In It’s Time for New Culture War Strategy, de Young posits a demographic plan for countering the corrosive progressive agenda running rings around traditional Christian culture. He assesses the seriousness of the task and the failure of conservatives to put a dent in the progressive armour in any arena, be it legal, political or cultural.
Now de Young is not saying we should all head for the hills and settle in compounds. He’s all for political engagement, even if conservatives are not winning the culture war. And he’s no Federal Visionist patriarchy bloke either.
But it’s true. Demographics, if not reshaping the secular/religious narrative in the West, is putting up roadblocks at least. To the horror of many a secular progressive, migrants stubbornly refuse to see the allure of the transient baubles a post-religious world offers. And religious people have far more children than non-religious people do.
In effect de Young is saying that Western Christians, so long following the downward demographic trend of the godless, need to take a procreation leaf from this book:
Here’s a culture war strategy conservative Christians should get behind: have more children and disciple them like crazy. Strongly consider having more children than you think you can handle.
Now de Young puts all sorts of caveats on his call, so there’s nuance there. He is not sounding a retreat to the compound, where we can wear double denim and churn our own butter. He states:
Some people take Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option to mean a wholesale retreat from the public square. That’s not the way of faithfulness. We must continue to make the case for Christian convictions and continue to be involved in politics, in higher education, in the media, and wherever else we can be a “faithful presence.”
And he acknowledges that not every family can or should have more children than they think they can handle. But those are caveats, not concerns as such.
He goes on to say:
The future belongs to the fecund. It’s time for happy warriors who seek to “renew the city” and “win the culture war” by investing in their local church, focusing on the family, and bringing the kingdom to bear on the world, one baby at a time.
There have been some good responses to this, including this from the excellent Stephen Kneale, who observes:
… our children are more likely to become believers if we bring them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, but we all know there is no straight line here. If there is no direct correlation, it feels a theologically flawed approach to attempt to win the culture wars this way.
Let me point out one flaw in this statement of de Young’s. And I say this as someone who shares his concern about the culture wars, as well as some of the remedial work needing done to address it.
Fact: if you have more children than you can handle, then you will be the crazy one. Your own discipleship will be up for grabs.
As a pastor I watch as tired parents crawl to church (maybe), crawl to work, crawl to social events, crawl into bed, while their burgeoning progeny move from crawl to walk.
And then they’re supposed to rinse and repeat five or six times? There are a few super mums (and it is the mums) who can handle this pressure, but very few. There are seven years between our daughter and our son, for a reason! Our daughter slept badly for years, so guess what? So did we. Parents with four or so children surface for air about fifteen years later. In these fast-paced times our role in church is often simply to help them survive those years.
Stephen Kneale observes:
… it does feel a little inappropriate for a dude who probably won’t be doing the bulk of childcare, to a load of other blokes who won’t be doing most of it either, that they should have more children than they can handle. I mean, that’s alright for us isn’t it! My wife and I are well aware I could handle more children than her because the brunt of that doesn’t fall on me – neither bearing them nor caring for them!
Let me add something else in here. Only having two children ourselves has enabled my wife to tackle the culture wars head on. She has managed to secure her Masters in Clinical Psychology and for fifteen years has dealt with the fall out of the sexual revolution on a daily basis.
With precious few theologically astute clinicians around, (and the therapeutic world is culture war front line), she is providing a crucial service. And those burnt out Christian women with lots of kids, and occasionally a pastor husband? She sees them too!
We Do Not Stand Apart From the Culture
The other thing of course is that we do not stand apart from the culture. We swim in it. It shapes us and draws us in. Unless you’re going to live in a commune with your six children, then the daily round of school, plays, dance, soccer, tutoring, dental appointments, and all the rest that makes up the modern Western family, is going to pull you into its vortex.
You and your increasing brood are already being catechised by a Monday to Saturday discipleship program par excellence, especially if you don’t keep a tight rein on the extra-curricular activities that offer a vision of the good life devoid of Jesus. The hard edge of the culture war is less likely to hollow out your family than its soft edge is.
And of course, the fact that our churches are made up of (or ought to be made up of) singles, celibate same sex attracted people, widows, childless couples for one reason or another, also means that discipleship fuel has to be meted out accordingly. Yet what is the squeakiest wheel in our church culture at the moment? It’s the kids ministry wheel, right?
Parents turn up at church, and rather than ask you what your stance is on end times, they want to know what your church can offer their children. To which your answer should be “The opportunity to have godly parents“.
None of this is to say that Kevin de Young’s article is getting it all wrong, because I resonate with much of it. Christians are having more children than their neighbours, well wealthy Christians are at least. Wealthy pagans don’t have so many kids, but not all non-Christians fit the middle class category of 1.2 children.
Secular lower socio-economic families are having way more kids than even the Christians are. They’re having them younger, out of wedlock, and more often. Someone else is on to our numbers game, and they’re not thinking “How can we shape the culture wars?”
Yet, as I said, religious people (in general, not simply Christians) have more children because their hopes for the future are not confined to this what the material world can offer. And the fact that religious people – and lower socio-economic families – are often scorned by urban secularists should not put us off having more children than the average if we wish to.
The Wrong Type of Children For the Wrong Type of War
My biggest beef with Kevin’s article, however, is that it’s the right strategy for the culture war. But the wrong strategy for the spiritual war. He risks calling for the wrong type of children because he risks focusing on the wrong war. And it’s war that I share his concerns over, yet I am not sure the solution is as demographically driven as he thinks.
For example, the gay community is a creative minority that, because it had people who championed it from the centre of the culture, moved to a position of great influence. No amount of massaging the percentages will make the gay community anything but a small minority. And clearly one of their cultural strategies doesn’t seem to be five or six kids for every gay couple.
So de Young acknowledges, and Stephen Kneale also points it out, having children and discipling them won’t make them Christian. And we’ve all seen that.
The Bible doesn’t promise us that our children of the flesh will be children of the spirit. And not to put too fine a point on it, the children of the flesh could be well adept at fighting the culture war in such a way that conservatism wins, without them ever having to become children of the spirit. We could end up with Christendom without Christ, a conservative version of the Kingdom without the king, so beloved of progressives.
The beginning of John’s Gospel surely deals with this:
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The carnal (flesh) children of the covenant were busying fighting the culture war with Rome. Jesus sidesteps this and brings new birth to Samaritans, lepers and Syrophoenician women. Now the culture wars has a spiritual force behind it, but we need to address the problem at the root, not merely the fruit.
This reality is emphasised by Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:
For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh (carnal) but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
Paul is convinced it is the gospel message, because it is a spiritual message, that will bring about true transformation, and will in fact destroy the culture war tactics of “arguments and lofty opinions”.
Perhaps we could reframe Kevin de Young’s declaration:
Here’s a culture war strategy conservative Christians should get behind: have more SPIRITUAL children and disciple them like crazy. Strongly consider having more SPIRITUAL children than you think you can handle.
In other words, don’t simply focus on quantity of children, but quality. The church is the place that the gospel does the spiritual work of discipling spiritual children like crazy. The next ten years are the years to get our churches in order, without neglecting the spiritual welfare of our families. In fact getting our churches in order will help us not to neglect their spiritual welfare.
But it’s the gospel proclamation that is the means by which God deigns for children of the flesh to become children of the spirit! No amount of children who are dressed up identically for church on a Sunday and can play three musical instruments will do it.
The church is already full of brothers and sisters – brothers and sisters in Christ -, and many of them don’t fit that category! And the church has room for more such brothers and sisters. That sibling language so infuses the New Testament that we simply skip over it now.
If the culture war is merely a front for a deeper, ongoing spiritual war, then it would be simplistic to think that having more brothers and sisters in the flesh would solve the problem systemically.
I get the caveats. I get that Kevin de Young believes that it’s all about discipleship in the context of church. But let’s not wriggle off the hook of the most shocking, breath-taking and astonishing reality of the gospel: That God has made us – who were not a family unit and were indeed strangers to each other – into one family of which He is Father.
The true solution – the one attested to in Scripture – is to bring the kingdom to bear on the world one spiritual baby at a time.
I don’t want us to be sidetracked by a culture war stance, or sidelined by pushing out more babies than families can handle. It’s the task of the church family to bringing about true cultural transformation.
Imagine a church life in which increasing the number of spiritual brothers and sisters were the goal. And then increasing their love for their spiritual siblings through costly service and forgiveness.
Imagine a church life where families with one or two kids, had the time and energy left over to introduce those children on a weekly basis to a different brother or sister over a meal, a brother or sister who usually eats alone, or worse, eats at a hostile table. Imagine what that would say to the world and its culture wars.
Imagine onlookers being aghast at how church “carnal” families operate within the context of church “spiritual” families. Imagine those without families in the community being jealous enough to join because they see the way the motherless, the childless, and the just plain weird, are given a seat at the spiritual family table.
Imagine how amazing it would be for non-Christians to see how such brothers and sisters give of their time, their money, their love, their training and admonition to each other, even though they are not blood related.
Imagine a church life that breaks the rules of modern family life and shares – at cost – its blessings with those who are “merely” spiritual family members is winning the war behind the culture war. And in doing so, dismantling that war too. Imagine discipling and disciplining each other with the honesty that flesh family members do, instead of doing the polite “keep your distance” thing.
Before they nailed Jesus, Jesus nailed the carnal family tribal tendency with these words in Matthew 12:
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers[a] stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.
The future does indeed belong to the fecund, but the eschatological future belongs to the spiritually fecund. For as Revelation 7 reminds us, the Sunday School roll-call of Israel’s tribes looks better than it sounds:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.
Sounds pretty spiritually fecund to me.