Family as Salt and Light

The Christian faith has become increasingly implausible in the modern period. This has occurred due to the secularization of society particularly through the decline of the bidirectional influence of family and religion. The deterioration of the traditional family in our age and the current “modern social imaginary,” are reasons why it will be difficult for Christianity to flourish and will be even more challenging for individuals, including Christians, raised in this post-Christian, “family-less” society.

There have been numerous studies on the secularization of society in the modern West. However, many take these theories for granted and simply assume that religion and Christianity, more specifically, will face an inevitable death.[1] Some of the more conventional narratives of secularization predominantly include the impact of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, with their prized fruits of science, technology, and materialism.[2] While some truth exists in these explanations, Mary Eberstadt provides a different perspective on the secularization of the West, which she argues has been most influenced by the “Family Factor.”[3]

A common theory has been that “religious belief comes chronologically first for people, and that they then tailor their actions accordingly—including their personal decisions about family formation.”[4] Eberstadt challenges this causative assumption and provides compelling suggestions that there is a “double-helix” relationship between family and religion. She identifies that the Family Factor plays just as much of a role in people’s religious decisions. Sociologists have shown that decisions such as “whether to have [a family], whether to marry, how many children you will have” are all “strong predictors of how much time you do (or do not) spend in church”—the studies also show that unmarried people without children are less likely to attend church. [5] An interesting challenge to the unidirectional influence of religion on family decisions is the relation between religion and contraception. A common assumption has been that because of religious restrictions on the use of contraception, religious people have larger families. However, most of the religious modern world no longer has any restriction on the use of artificial contraception, and yet the data reveal that religious people continue to have larger families than the nonreligious.[6] Eberstadt makes another stunning correlation with the dramatic rise of postwar religiosity across the West that accompanied the more commonly known “demographic phenomenon, the baby boom.” As the studies and data suggest, the Family Factor and having more children may lead people to religion.[7]

The Family Factor has a significant impact on religiosity, as Eberstadt has shown, and thus trends have demonstrated that a decline of the family may have impacted the decline of Western Christianity.[8] For example, looking at the French provides circumstantial evidence in that “French religiosity did not decline in the absence of family decline,” but rather, “their spiral fates were historically joined.”[9] Another correlative trend that is often overlooked is how the Industrial Revolution had a direct impact on the family. “The one thing that all scholars will attest is that as a general demographic rule, urbanization leads to falling birthrates.”[10] The Industrial Revolution and the rise of urbanization had a detrimental effect on families, which in turn may have “made it harder for people to believe and practice their Christian faith.”[11] Further analysis has shown that the most irreligious parts of the West tend to have the “smallest/weakest/fewest natural families,” while the opposite also holds true, i.e. religious parts of the West tend to have stronger families.[12] These trends do not indicate, nor does Eberstadt argue, that family alone is the reason for religious decline. However, they do illuminate how much negative impact there has been on the family correlating to the gradual demise of Christianity in the West.

The impact of the secularization of society through the decline of family persists as an ongoing reason why Christianity has become increasingly implausible in the modern age. Fewer people are getting married, having children, and adhering to the traditional model of the natural family.[13] If the evidence and trends of recent history continue to hold true, the lack of families alone may drive less and less people to Christianity. Further complicating this matter is the growing acceptance of nontraditional or antitraditional families, making the plea toward a Judeo-Christian understanding of family more difficult to accept.[14] Not only this trend, but one does not have to look far to see the mere brokenness in the family structure even within Christian communities. The “mere proliferation of broken homes across the West poses one more problem of its own for receptivity to the Christian message.”[15] Eberstadt warns her readers, “It is in this way that broken and frayed homes not only interrupt the transmission of the Christian message: in some cases, they provide the emotional material for a whole new barrier wall to Christian belief.”[16]

It is evident that society has changed drastically over the past few centuries. There also has been a deeper subconscious transformation of how people in the modern age view their existence. This is not only in theory, as scholar Charles Taylor argues, but is an all-encompassing “social imaginary.”[17] The development of the “modern social imaginary” over centuries has produced a new way of thinking, believing, and behaving and is significant to this discussion because of the way it challenges “the descriptions of God’s providence and the order he has established among humans in the cosmos.”[18] The modern social imaginary has an all-pervasive effect not only affecting discussions among the elite or educated. It changes the mere definition of family itself, as previously discussed, what constitutes the public sphere, the weight of economic reality, the sovereignty of people, and even what fashion means in light of the authority of public opinion.[19] The modern social imaginary has created a new space for God to exist in the secular world, from the once public and enchanted world to the now private and immanent domain.[20] Thus, the traditional forms and expressions of Christianity will continually find it difficult to be a healthy conduit in the modern age for the good news of Jesus Christ and the whole biblical narrative.

All individuals—since that is the modus operandi for any person steeped in the moral order of the modern social imaginary—will find it difficult to have faith in a transcendent God and institutionalized religion. The challenge to believe and practice Christian faith is not just for the harmful distinction of a non-believer, but for the very people who identify as Christian. Faith or skepticism is no longer a simple polar dichotomy in the secular age. We exist in the “cross-pressure” of belief oscillating between “doubt and longing, faith and questioning,” illustrates James Smith.[21] Christians who belong to the modern social imaginary live in a personal tension when their social imaginary is confronted by the biblical narrative and find it unsettling. If they are able to overcome this personal tension, then they must face the public sphere at large and the risks associated with carrying one’s own cross.[22],[23]

The institutional church and the leaders teaching their community of individuals ought to reinforce the biblical narrative and combat the fictitious aspects of modern social existence,[24] reminding followers of Jesus Christ to be in, but not of the world.[25] Identifying and confronting what it means to be in the world, but not of it has many faces, yet one in particular that the church has failed to address is in regards to the family. Eberstadt explains, “In their efforts to reach out to individuals who wanted a softening of Christian doctrine, the churches inadvertently appear to have failed to protect their base: thriving families whose members would then go on to reproduce both literally and in the figurative sense of handing down their religion.”[26] The secular world that promoted “the legalization of divorce, the particularly momentous invention of modern contraception, the consequent increasing destigmatization of out-of-wedlock births,” was given even more support “by related changes in Protestant theology… that unwittingly amounted to more blows against an institution [i.e. the family] already being roundly battered.”[27] The modern individual continues to take a stronger foothold in this age and is less convinced of Christianity and religion as both the secular data and the Christian message preached dismiss—whether consciously or subconsciously—the significance of family.

Family has been an important factor in the history of Christianity, as discussed thus far. There is compelling evidence for the influence of family on religious decisions, and thus a decline of the family over recent centuries has accompanied the decline of Western Christianity. There has been a simultaneous growth of the modern social imaginary during this time and now is the primary lens that Western people imagine existence. The modern social imaginary has redefined the meaning of family itself and esteems the individual to new heights. It has impacted the message of the Western church to cater to these changes, since the very leaders and members of these communities live immersed in and in tension with this imaginary. As we traverse deeper into the ever-evolving modern social imaginary, perhaps a mere focus to become missional families will be enough of a witness as salt and light of the world.[28] Christian families or the lack thereof have been “no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” Perhaps families can be a light so that the world may see the good work of simply being a family and then people will be open to and welcome the Father who is in heaven, ultimately giving glory to God.[29]

[1] Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2013) Kindle Edition, 60.

[2] Ibid., see Chapter 2.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid., 91.

[5] Ibid., 93.

[6] Ibid., 100.

[7] Ibid., 122.

[8] Ibid., 108.

[9] Ibid., 110.

[10] Ibid., 117.

[11] Ibid., 115. Also see Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 45.

[12] Ibid., 118.

[13] Ibid., 169-172.

[14] Ibid., 163.

[15] Ibid., 177.

[16] Ibid., 163.

[17] For a full explanation on social imaginary, see Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), Chapter 2.

[18] Taylor, 5.

[19] Ibid., 151, 167. In light of recent events, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the modern social imaginary’s posture toward the power of economic reality, where we commonly find the significance and importance of saving human lives on par with the significance and importance of saving the economy.

[20] Ibid., 193.

[21] James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 14.

[22] Taylor, 182.

[23] Matthew 16:24 (ESV).

[24] Taylor, 183. “We regularly come across ways in which the modern social imaginaries, no longer defined as ideal types but as actually lived by this or that population, are full of ideological and false consciousness.”

[25] John 17:14-18.

[26] Eberstadt, 140 (emphasis added).

[27] Ibid., 168.

[28] Missional understood as and operating in participation with the mission of God. I expound upon this in my essay, “Hey Google, what is mission?” (essay, April 2020). Family as a vocation is “[not] just as a socioeconomic benefit, cultural nicety, or fear of being an idol, but as one expression in the participation of the mission of God, as a church and as a witness to the image of God, dwelling with creation and being a blessing to those around and all nations.” Lee, 10.

[29] Matt 5:13-16. Eberstadt laments, “How can that relationship between creature and Creator be understood when the very word ‘father’ may be associated more with negative than with positive characteristics?” Eberstadt, 176.