Beyond Family Values: A Call to Christian Virtue
A review of Cameron Lee's, "Beyond Family Values: A Call to Christian Virtue," by Dr. James Beck.
Beyond Family Values: A Call to Christian Virtue, by Cameron Lee. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.)
Some very good and fine features of life can serve us well and at the same time make life sticky. Honey is a good example. As tasty as it is, one never fails to get some stuck to fingers, palms, and clothing no matter how careful we are handling the sugary delight. “Family values” is another example. The phrase first entered mainstream American consciousness a few years ago when it was proffered as a litmus test for those politicians who were the good guys and gals (usually conservative if not also Christian) in contrast to the bad guys and gals (most often liberals and/or others unacceptable to evangelical sensibilities). The phrase quickly caught on and for a brief time attracted voter attention and approval. Soon, however, the phrase and the concepts it had originally represented became everyone’s favorite campaign theme. In the late 1990s it is very hard to find any politician, left or right, who does not liberally sprinkle stump speeches with the phrase, attaching to it any and all meanings that are convenient. “Family values” have become as American on the political scene as are Mom and apple pie. The demise of the usefulness of the phrase “family values” may be yet another example of the great risk involved in politicizing our Christianity or Christianizing our politics.
Yet the phrase and the concepts it originally signified are of great interest to those committed to a biblical lifestyle. Biblical Christians are committed to the importance of the family as a cornerstone of human society, and they are called as kingdom citizens to advocate biblical standards in all segments of the cultural landscape. So how do we deal with “family values”? Cameron Lee has provided us with a helpful guide through this issue, a guide that is both provocative and useful in understanding all of the issues involved.
In the first section of his book, Dr. Lee (an Associate Professor of Family Studies at Fuller’s Graduate School of Psychology) seeks to understand how the family values issue springs out of a unique twentieth century context. Lee argues, supported by some statistics gathered recently, that family values do indeed represent issues of concern to Americans as a whole and to evangelical Christians in particular. The author asserts that evangelical Christians are a subculture in the U.S.; that is, they share in the values of the culture as a whole but with different emphases. What are those differences? “(1) Christians are less willing to define same-sex arrangements as families, and (2) Christians place more stock in the importance of the marital union” (p. 30). Subsequent chapters document how our current American crisis in values is related to the history of the family in North America and to the rise of post-modern thought forms at the end of the second millennium after Christ. To make matters worse, evangelicals now speak with at least three different languages all at once:
I suggest that our contemporary American culture is dominated by three types of moral discourse, each imposing its own inherent logic: the language of individual rights, the language of the consumer market-place and the language of psychotherapy. Such is the case both inside and outside the church: the three languages become mingled in practice and in some case replace the biblical narratives as the functional moral logic of today’s Christians. (pp. 12-13)
Lee offers as proof of the above argument a fascinating chapter on our current culture of divorce. Evangelical Christians as well as our larger host culture all describe, defend, and denote divorce in moral terms that are representative of the consumer, therapeutic, and individualistic languages of our day.
The second half of Lee’s book is an apology for the pursuit of Christian virtue as a replacement quest for the family values strategy that may now have outlived its usefulness. Virtue may represent a better concept than value as evangelical Christians seek to make a contribution to the current moral debate that is gripping our nation. The book concludes with three chapters that explore in turn the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Dr. Lee’s book makes a valuable contribution to the current moral discussions in which we all must participate.
James R. Beck