More Than Words (Erin Wathen) -- A Review

MORE THAN WORDS: 10 Values for the Modern Family. By Erin Wathen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 173 pages.

MORE THAN WORDS: 10 Values for the Modern Family. By Erin Wathen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 173 pages.

There is a lot of talk across the land about family values. More often than not, the “family values” that certain groups in society wish to restore look a lot like a return to the 1950s. Now, I enjoy watching re-runs of Leave It to Beaver, but do we really want to return to the day of June Cleaver, in her dress and pearls, mopping up after Beaver and his friends. Often these "values" amount to little more than a return to the way things were in the 1950s, when June Cleaver wore a dress and pearls as she mopped the floor after Beaver and his friends. Unfortunately, many of the so-called “family values” that are being offered up by advocates are tinged with bigotry, homophobia, sexism, and misogynism. Are these really the values we want for our families in the 21st century?

 In More than Words, Disciples of Christ pastor Erin Wathen, takes up the idea of family values, which, as she notes, progressive Christians tend to shy away from. In fact, she suggests that because of the way in which family values are portrayed, many progressives are steering clear of any talk of family. She writes: We don’t want to exclude those whose homes don’t fit in the box of a traditional, nuclear family, and we certainly don’t want to be associated with ‘those Christians.’ The ones who say that God called all women to be homemakers, that the gays are going to burn in hell, and that we should all homeschool our children to keep them away from the scary science books.” (p. 2). While she doesn’t want to get sucked down that “rabbit hole” but she doesn’t want to abandon the conversation about family (whatever its configuration).

It is with these concerns in mind, that Wathen offers up her vision of family values that speaks out of her own experience of family and faith to the 21st century realities. Wathen writes from the perspective of one who serves as Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church, a middle-sized congregation situated in suburban Kansas City. She admits her own privilege as a white, straight, cisgender, suburban, married mother of two. The only thing that separates her from standing at the top of the social ladder is her gender. This confession is important because the book is rooted in her own experience with family. She understands that not all families are the same, and that she is blessed by her life-situation. With that confession in mind, recognizing her privilege, she dives into ten values, which she believes reflects her understanding of the Christian faith.

What are these ten values? Wathen lifts up the values of compassion, abundance (the root of gratitude and generosity), Sabbath, nonviolence, joy, justice, community, forgiveness, equality, and authenticity. Each of these values is explored in some depth, utilizing Wathen's own experience in family, in church, and in community. She also brings scripture into play. Hers is a progressive vision, tempered with the realization that she is a product of her suburban environment.

In each chapter, she starts with stories of her own experience with family, such as the opening chapter on compassion, which she shares about the challenges of being compassionate in the car-line at school, when someone cuts in front of her in the line. She’s not very loving at that moment, but it gives her the opportunity to discuss the challenges and opportunities of being compassionate. The first level of discussion is practicing the value at home, and in the case of compassion, she suggests that “the best way to nurture the value of compassion is to encourage our children in that which they already love” (p. 9). In this case it’s her daughter’s decision to be vegetarian because of her love of animals. Then she moves to community, and in this case, she writes about a kid-friendly non-profit that her neighbors created to provide an opportunity for young children to learn to help others. Finally, she brings in scripture, and in this case, it’s the parable of the prodigal son. She concludes that “perhaps the best, most important ministry we can do—as parents, and as Church—is to raise compassionate children. In daily, intentional ways, we impart this value to the kids in our circles: not just as a spark of verbal wisdom, but as a truth that they know in the core of their being” (p. 17). Each chapter goes in much the same way. Each chapter also includes questions for discussion (around the table).

            I can’t deal with each of the ten, but this gives an idea of how the book proceeds. I should note, however, the chapter on “abundance,” because I think this is an area that especially suburban, middle class families need to deal with. She notes that this is about more than talking about money or teaching about giving to/through the Church, though both are important. It is about learning to say “enough” when the world around us is telling us we need more. There is a bit of Brueggemann in this chapter!  For those who are clergy, the section on practicing abundance in community will be helpful as she talks about narrative budgets, and the importance of learning to tell the right stories about giving, ones that deal with mission and not just bills (I plan to share this section with my stewardship people!) So, it goes. Each value explored in depth, with suggestions as to live out these values.  

This is an excellent book. It speaks to a felt need of our day, as young families seek to navigate a complicated world in which there are many competing values, including materialism, consumerism, and the ever-present need to succeed in life. Things are different today than there were in previous generations. Families tend to look different today, and even the ones, like Wathen’s, which are pretty traditional, there are differences. In her case, it is her vocation that has taken precedence in determining location. Being clergy always makes family life a bit more complicated (ask any clergy spouse or clergy child). So, this book is well worth exploring. In fact, I wish Wathen had written it when Cheryl and I were first parents (that would have been difficult, because she isn’t that much older than my son!). While I enjoy re-runs of Leave it to Beaver, I’m in no hurry to return to the 1950s. I’m not ready to embrace “family values” that prescribe roles or acceptable family formations. I am ready, however, to embrace family values like compassion, community, forgiveness, and equality. These are values worthy of celebrating and implementing as we experience family in all its dimensions in the 21st century.  


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