A family gathered around the table together for a meal. Note the absence of television and the home cooked food. Both the mother and father have cups of tea or coffee, a silent indication of adulthood. This kind of scene was nearly universal within living memory. Today, a regular family meal around a table involving interaction, fellowship and the practice of table courtesies is now so much a rarity as to be noteworthy when it does occur.
Family life for many people has radically degraded over the past half-century:
Recently I completed a seminar on the mental health problems faced by today’s adolescents and their families. One of the things that interested me was the insight offered by our facilitator. She was an experienced psychologist who trained in the years shortly after field began to really explode in many directions in the 1960’s.
As such, she was in a position to comment on the way things had changed over nearly a fifty year stretch of her professional life. Like many older psychologists, she believed that family life – and especially childhood and adolescence – had grown tragically complex over this time frame. Issues that are now commonplace were once rarities.
It is impossible to convey to a casual reader the feeling I took away from those 16 hours of instruction. The statistics were shocking. The stories that were shared were heartbreaking. Stories about broken families, dysfunction, mental illness, and all the other issues that are sandwiched in between, like unemployment and poverty make one realise that we live in a hurting world that is far, far from the straight path of our Creator.
A number of things were powerfully reinforced to me:
1.) Welfare services and government intervention only address the tip of the iceberg: It is a comfortable, middle-class delusion that massive welfare spending addresses the constellation of suffering of the poor or the dysfunctional. It does not. In fact, welfare only brings relief to a very small percentage of people. The majority of people with family problems or with, (say), mild psychosis, fall through the gaps.
This means many more people are suffering than we often realise. In fact, quite ordinary people just like ourselves who do not look noticeably different, may well be living in their own personal hell in their family life. Something to think about when you next brush shoulders with strangers in the supermarket.
Partially, this is the result of the great difficulty in collecting any reliable data about family or mental dysfunction. Any data that does exist is almost always drawn from a self-selecting sample, and there are strong biases in the system that prevent other data from being reported. For instance, coroners are extremely reluctant to ascribe a death to suicide unless there is such overwhelming evidence it is impossible to come to any other conclusion. This means that the number of suicides that are reported in the official figures are without a doubt greatly underestimated. In fact, any apparent suicidal death in which there is the slightest shred of doubt will not be counted as a suicide.
What the inadequacy of the figures means is that our society is more sick than even government figures will tell us. Amidst dramatic prosperity and material wealth in our society, there lurks a broken, sinful, wretched mankind, robed in the darkness that attends those who are far from God.
2.) Family is destiny:
If ever there was evidence that forsaking God’s design and purpose for marriage produces social decay and disharmony, then the current state of our society would be Exhibit A. When marriage is properly observed as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for mutual support, love, and the nurture of children, it produces functional and generally happy offspring. It is the very foundation of human flourishing.
The extreme acceleration of divorce over the last few decades was noted by a number of attendees at the conference. I paid careful attention their comments chiefly because of what they told me about the moral changes that are fast unfolding around us in a way that is not always evident. One woman, who was probably not much older than I am, made the following observation:
When I was at school, I never heard about divorce. Well, maybe there was one or two. But it was hushed up and kept behind closed doors. It wasn’t talked about. But now it seems that partners get divorced at the drop of a hat. If they have some conflict with each other they just get a divorce. And then six months later they’ve found a new partner. And then you end up with families where there are all sorts of relationships, with children belonging to this partner and not to that one, and so on.
Divorce and changing partners has become so prevalent that it is earned its own label: serial monogamy. Furthermore, as families become more blended, marriage is increasingly being reserved for a point long after the consummation of the union. In fact, long after the production of children and long after the couple have settled down into home together. I have been at weddings where the children of the couple are the bridesmaids. In times past this would have been an utter impossibility, both definitively and legally.
So great is the dysfunction among families that I am beginning to understand the flat truth that no society can prosper when the family unit has broken down. I used to think John MacArthur was somewhat exaggerating by putting it so bluntly, but I have certainly changed my mind on that score.
Bad family situations produce deeply traumatised children. These children will frequently go on to develop depression or to commit suicide (which is the leading killer of young males in my country – even more so than motor car accidents). Many will self-medicate their pain through the use of alcohol and drugs, which leads to a life of criminality. But this criminality is not just “someone else’s problem”, which can be a comforting narrative that once may even have been true. Not anymore. For as the number of young criminals increases, the likelihood of everybody’s life being touched in some way by that criminality also increases.
It almost goes without saying that these sorts of children seldom receive a meaningful education. How can anyone learn if they eat dinner at McDonald’s every night in the presence of a parent who is high on heroin or methamphetamine? How can anyone think about homework when the safest place after school is out of the home and on the streets? The offspring of dysfunctional families are unable to learn and ready themselves for the future. Therefore the number of skilled and capable people entering the workforce also diminishes, necessitating ever escalating welfare budgets to care for them.
In addition, these children tend to live reckless lives themselves. They smoke, drink, and take drugs. When they try to establish their own families, they have no example from which to draw of loving, wise discipline of children or even the operation of a home. There are Youtube videos teaching people how to make beds, for instance, since these skills are no longer routinely conveyed from generation to generation within the family home. It goes without saying that these parents often lack the social graces to deal with others in a way that will contribute to a peaceful life. Additionally, egotism and arrogance and contempt for authority are ingrained since these young parents had no such respect for the primal authority figure in everyone’s life: their parents.
It has become very clear to me, as I have looked at the evidence and the information provided by professionals in the field, that if you want to sabotage a society and plunge it into lawlessness, indulgence, a perpetually dangerous “party” atmosphere, into poverty, into a valueless wasteland dotted with the mirage of tacky entertainment, and to actually change society into a machine for producing sad and sick human beings, there can be no better way of achieving this than by destroying the family.
The prevalence of divorce; the glorification of the singles life; the celebration of sexual unions that are by definition sterile; the cheapness with which people enter marriage (unprepared and unfortified by the Christian instruction on the sacredness of the union); and the lack of the sacred in daily life – of prayer, church attendance, communion, daily devotional reading, the practice of walking in good works in “which God foreordained that we should walk” all results in a world that is truly broken.
Parish life. It still exists in some places around the world. The parish organisational unit has some advantages over the congregational model, since it compels a community of believers together based on location. Thus local Christian families bonded through the Church; learning the Gospel of Christ. This was transmitted to their children, and reinforced through community events like this where different families and generations would come together and interact as Christians, neighbours, and friends.
What It Once Was:
It is all light years from what our society was not so long ago, when families were headed by husbands and wives who were adults both in body and in mind, prepared for marriage by a long process of training in which the qualities of stable family life with its routines and patterns were modelled by their own parents and grandparents.
They entered marriage “soberly, advisedly” as the prayer book puts it. They embarked on this sacred undertaking seriously in the full knowledge that divorce was either impossible or extremely hard to obtain. There was no artificial nonsense about marriage being a great “adventure”, which is a description that is custom-designed for an age fearful of humdrum realities; for a time period that celebrates excitement at the expense even of peace and routine. Neither was marriage about Disneyesque notions of romantic love that never faded, but rather about two people supporting and caring for each other and working together in their respective spheres to raise their children.
Mothers occupied the home life; fathers went to work. The Pauline concept of the headship of the father was unquestioned.
Parents disciplined their children because it was God’s will. They also disciplined their children for the sake of the family honour as much as from the fear that their children would grow up in some crooked habit. Ideas of virtue and nobility, that put our time to shame, were accepted by everyone as necessary imports into a child’s mind and heart while it was still young. Even class snobbishness – as it is maligned today – actually contained a kernel of Christian values, for parents were desperately concerned to keep their children from degraded patterns of life, and to live with the greatest amount of dignity possible.
Children were taught respect. Disrespect was seen as a social evil that, ultimately, threatened everyone. And most assuredly it does. We live in a society that has decided to dispense with the experience and wisdom of our forebears (enjoined upon us by God) and now indulges rampant disrespect for property and for people. The corrupting effect of this disrespect is visible on every bus shelter, every subway, every alleyway. It is visible in the portable public urinals set up in the centre of London to try to prevent party-goers from urinating or vomiting on the streets. It is visible on the acceptance of psychologists of adolescence being an age of rebellion, even declaring this “normal” and “healthy”. If this is so, then previous generations must have been dreadfully abnormal, producing teenagers that were productive and respectful.
There was a time when open discourtesy and contempt for authority would have been seen as a nightmare scenario worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the not-so-distant past, children learned respect first for the authority of their parents, for God, and then for their teachers, priests, ministers, the police, the King or Queen, and so on. In 2016, the vast majority of children learn respect for very few of these authorities.
No society can long survive an era where authority is hated, despised, received with suspicion, and rebelled against openly. No society can long endure when comedians and cultural agents actually celebrate naked defiance. Our society endures because of the residue of respect that remains from the past, and from the handfuls of people in the present who manifest continuity with the lived experience of those who went before us, and exhibit this in their values and their approach to life.
In the rear-view mirror of history, the 1950’s – so frequently derided as an age of frustration, of “white picket fences”, and patriarchy – begins to seem infinitely more civilised than the society that is evolving around us.