More Than Words: 10 Values for the Modern Family
I began reading Erin Wathen’s family spirituality book, More Than Words, on a plane flight across the country, overhearing a conservative Christian college student try to evangelize her seatmate. She talked a lot about “proof” for God, Truth and right and wrong, why post-modernism was bad, going on mission trips, and her large family. I then finished the book while parked next to a car with a pro-life bumper sticker.
More Than Words, a short but illuminating book, prompted me to think about what “family values” are and what they should be, in dialogue with Scripture, experience, and community. Wathen, author of the popular blog Irreverin on the Patheos Progressive network, and senior pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church in Kansas City, enters the current discussion on “family values” from a particularly progressive, or Christian left, angle. Wathen proposes that progressive churches and individuals do have family values, which she names as compassion, abundance, Sabbath, nonviolence, joy, justice, community, forgiveness, equality, and authenticity. Wathen elevates values based in inclusive love and hope that enable deepened connections with family, faith communities, and our neighbors. She contrasts these values with what she names as conservative “family values”—exclusion/racism, bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, and violence (2).
This is much to laud in this book. Wathen is clearly a talented pastor, a wise parent, and an honest and introspective Jesus-follower. She navigates beautifully the fine line of protecting her children and husband’s privacy, while offering us insights from her family life. She is transparent about her own failings without wallowing or navel-gazing. As a parent of a toddler, I was encouraged and convicted by her son’s insight to his impatient parent, “Mommy, you are forgetting that we have all the time that we need.”
Her discussion on the difference between justice and mercy was profound and provocative as she discussed learning about the concept of environmental racism, which she then explained with the example of poisoned water in Flint, Michigan. She writes, “Mercy is giving water to thirsty people; justice is ensuring that all people have access to clean water. The work of mercy and justice often live and work alongside each other. But the act of service does not transform the deeper reality; the work of justice does” (95).
The chapter on Forgiveness is almost worth the price of the book itself. Her insights in this chapter are particularly helpful for people moving out of fundamentalist or conservative spaces that no longer serve them well, or for anyone facing abusive relationships. She writes, “Forgiveness is a matter of the Spirit. Sometimes you forgive and move forward, together; sometimes, you forgive and move on, in new freedom. God does not ask us to stay in places where we’re being hurt” (119). Always attending to the pastoral, Wathen is willing to engage her own privilege and positionality in regard to implicit racism in herself, her community, and her world. Wathen has a keen facility to use brief anecdotes to illuminate theological reflection.
The work is well organized with clear, engaging writing and excellent discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Each chapter addresses a value and provides a section on practicing the value at home, then a section on practicing the value in community. She concludes with the value in Scripture and Around the Table: Questions for Discussion. This short and readable book would make an excellent discussion book for a progressive family spirituality group (like one my family is a part of at our local Episcopal church) or book club. It would work equally well for a couple to read together in their own home. Kids older than 10 or 12 probably could engage with the questions, or parents could use it as a jumping off ground for family devotionals.
I would recommend the book heartily to any parent who would self-identify as “progressive” or Christian left, but my recommendation would come a little more guarded to those who self-define as conservative. While Wathen says she hopes her book could “provide some common ground” she laments the “us versus them” distinction of progressive and non-progressive Christians, this book is written squarely for the (self-defined) progressive audience. I sent this review and a chapter of the book to a friend that Wathen would likely describe as conservative (though she actually wouldn’t use it herself) and she said that she could ignore some of her comments in order to glean insights from her book, but that others might find it too difficult to see themselves described in such negative light.
Additionally, I found myself wishing there was more space to unpack the scriptural witness and interact more with authors who have engaged with the values Wathen encourages, such as Bryan Stevenson on justice, Ivone Gebara on ecofeminism and the environment, or Roberto Goizueta on acompañamiento and community. While the book worked to address racism and white privilege, I believe it would have been enriched through engagement with pastors, teachers, and scholars of color, and the lived experiences of low income and/or non-white families. While I enjoyed the book immensely, I frequently wished there was space for her to go a little deeper. Reading the book prompted me to read a number of her blog pieces, to better understand her theology. I encourage potential readers of More Than Words to read Wathen’s piece, for an introduction to Wathen’s theological foundations. Wathen writes, “For me, church is about community, comfort, belonging and–at least a little–the ritual of shared and embodied story.” If readers connect with Wathen’s desire to learn how to live out the words of Jesus in a progressive community, then More Than Words is a book worth reading, discussing, and applying to family and community life.
Emily Zimbrick-Rogers is a qualitative researcher investigating the lived religion of women and a writer of non-fiction and fiction. Christians for Biblical Equality published her case study of evangelical women theologians, and she recently published “Of God and Women: The Evolution in L’Engle’s Biblical Reimaginings,” a chapter in Dimensions of Madeleine L’Engle, edited by Suzanne Bray. She preaches and teaches in her local Episcopal church. Her writing and research can be found at emilyzimbrickrogers.com.