Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction.
Popular sentiment may cast the American family as portrayed in the 1950s and early 1960s as a Platonic ideal. Children were precocious yet respectful of authority—enter Wally and Beaver Cleaver. Wives were the matriarchs of homes which were always in good order—enter June Cleaver. Husbands were dutiful providers who arrived home shortly after 5:00 p.m. to meet and greet their family members—enter Ward Cleaver. If one were to scratch the surface, however, something short of a Platonic ideal greets us. While the condition of the family is greatly in question at the dawn of this new millennium, the American family portrayed in the 1950s and early 1960s is more a product of human will than God’s design. In Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction, Amy Laura Hall, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University Divinity School, argues that this product of human will comes at a great price—the denial of the grace needed to conceive and cultivate a family. Although Hall offers little in terms of what qualities such a family should embody, her exploration of this great price is necessary reading for anyone concerned with the past, present, and future of the family.
Defining this exploration is the transparent quality of Hall’s writing style. One understands quickly that the argument she makes in this book is not simply an academic exercise, but an exercise of love for children and for parents. In the introduction to her book, Hall writes that “The stories of parents whose kids do not fit [this ideal] or who are considered woefully ‘at risk’ propelled me to write this book” (4). Underlying this concern is her pursuit of answers to questions concerning one’s commitment to his or her neighbor. The Platonic ideal of the American family may offer comfort to the few who are able to achieve it successfully (although achieving it and maintaining it may also come at a great price). However, most fall short. The larger culture from which such an understanding of the family emerges is one defined more by social Darwinism than the Gospel. Throughout her book Hall seeks to challenge the Church to preach the Gospel and to dismiss the message of social Darwinism that the Church has endorsed implicitly and even explicitly. Rightfully, she wants the Church to be a place that offers comfort and hospitality to all of God’s creation.
While Hall’s book is unique in many ways, she is not the first to register concerns with an understanding of the family defined by the message of social Darwinism. In particular, Hall notes that Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? (Clarendon Press, 1984) had a significant impact on the way she thought about procreation and the nature of the family. A more recent book which makes a related argument is Michael J. Sandel’s The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007). Despite the accessible quality of her work, the depth of the argument she is trying to make does not escape Hall. However, she is also able to detail how arguments to the contrary, arguments reflecting the aspirations of social Darwinism, not only are crafted but also packaged for mass consumption.
As a result, the bulk of Hall’s book is spent detailing how these arguments have found their way into various forms of mass media such as magazine articles and advertisements. This manner of representation allows Hall to bring the theological argument to light in ways that some may otherwise miss. One ironic addition Hall makes to each chapter is that she opens with a hymn designed to serve as a comparative reference point to the examples which follow. Her typical form of presentation then is to start by describing her given example in detail, often citing nuances that escape a passing glance. Then Hall follows up with an exploration of the theological significance of such an image or understanding. Beyond the nature of the argument she is seeking to make, reading Hall’s book is an excellent exercise in media analysis. In essence, after reading this book, one is unlikely to be able to view various forms of mass media without also asking about the larger significance of the images represented.
For example, the cover of Hall’s book is a Norman Rockwell image of a young married couple reviewing blueprints. The wife, in heels, hose, a dress, and an apron, sits in a floral print chair. Her husband, in a coat and tie, sits on the armrest of this chair. At their feet is a young girl, approximately two or three in age and wearing a dress and tights, who is building a castle with blocks. The most interesting facet of the picture is the haloed affect which encircles the young couple—comparable to what one might see in relation to the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ. Hall notes subsequently that while Rockwell “was capable of domestic realism,” here he offers “an image of the idealized young family building their own and the nation’s future” (233).
Rockwell’s image is but one of the hundred plus images that dot the pages of Hall’s book. These images are scattered across four chapters along with the introduction and the conclusion. The nature of these chapters is more topical than historical. Chapter 1 deals with the growing pressure on parents, particularly mothers, to marshal the finest resources science has to offer in an effort to establish a germ-free home. Chapter 2 deals with what Hall identifies as “scientific mothering” – particularly in relation to the rise of industries such as infant formula. Chapter 3 offers an analysis of the eugenics movement and the pressures placed upon parents to create the perfect child. Finally, chapter 4 details how advances in energy, particularly atomic energy, would also lead to advances for the nuclear family. Each chapter builds upon its predecessor in terms of how the American family came to be understood. In particular, one underlying subtext also uniting all four chapters is the way the Church, particularly the denominations which came to define mainline Protestantism, endorsed these aspirations either implicitly or explicitly. The Church, in essence, became a partner in the process of establishing a Platonic ideal of the American family as more a product of the human will than God’s grace.
As a result, the real strength of Hall’s book resides in her ability to bring to life in vivid detail the critique which she levels against a culture that views the ideal of the American family as a product of the human will. Hall does an extraordinary job of making this complex philosophical and theological argument. For example, she is able to come to terms with the understanding that “The norms encircling the liberal axis of individual autonomy cannot easily accommodate lives dedicated to the care of perpetually dependent individuals, or admit the intrinsic value of these individuals” (288-89). However, bringing this argument to life through the one hundred plus images present in Hall’s book creates the understanding that this dilemma is not merely academic in nature but one which strikes at the very core of lived Christianity. Few books, if any, can pose a challenge in such plain relief to the false dichotomy of theory and practice. Undoubtedly, Hall sees theology as a complex endeavor but also an endeavor which makes real demands upon how people order and exercise their lives.
Ironically, the enduring weakness inherent in her book is one that emerges from this very commitment. She deconstructs the Platonic ideal of the American family as a product of human will but does little, in comparison, to establish something in its place. The practice of media analysis calls into question the false dichotomy of theory and practice. However, Hall offers only scant details concerning an understanding where the family is viewed as a product of God’s grace. In mere quantitative terms, Halls spends over 360 pages deconstructing the established ideal of the family. In contrast, she spends only seventeen pages (her conclusion) offering an alternative. In fairness to Hall, the bulk of her book harbors echoes of what she believes Christians should come to appreciate in terms of the family. Her conclusion, however powerful, leaves one wanting more. She claims rightfully that being a parent is a risky endeavor encircled by “a story of daily patience and vulnerability” (399). Perhaps the details of such a story, by their very nature, cannot be penned in explicit terms. Regardless, the genius present in the rest of Hall’s book beckons her to try.
Despite its need to offer an understanding of the family as a product of God’s grace, Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction will prove to be necessary reading for anyone who thinks the Church has yet to offer its most faithful understanding of the family. Amy Laura Hall does a masterful job of deconstructing the established ideal of the family. As a result, she communicates clearly that theology is not simply an academic exercise but an exercise also definitive of lived Christianity. Hall’s work may not offer all that needs to be written in relation to the family. Regardless, she has cleared the space and charted a path for others to follow.