This morning I went along to a seminar organised by the think-tank Ekklesia at which Deirdre Good spoke about her book Jesus' family values. Good is Professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary in New York City.
Her thesis is that 'family' is a theme that does not occur in the New Testament. The Greek term 'oikos', meaning household does, and it is uncritically rendered family in some translations. In doing this, the church is excluding from Christian community those who come from non-nuclear families.
Dr. Good's work is at one level a hermeneutical enterprise; she argues that we approach the Bible as an authoritative text, but that we read it in dialogue with our own experience, including our own experience of families. If we come to the text with Victorian notions of nuclear family, then we see that understanding mirrored back in an interpretation that appears to affirm the nuclear family. She charges the the US religious right, and especially James Dobson's Focus on the Family organisation, of making this mistake when they declare biblical mandate for the two-parent marriage-based family as the foundation of society.
Critics could declare that Good is open to the same mistake, seeing her own experience of non-nuclear families being mirrored back in her reading of the text. However her hermeneutical work reveals aspects of the texts that are in tension with a reading that asumes the nuclear family is normative. Biblical households are rather more diverse than that. One example she gave is "...an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you..." (Mt 2:13 NRSV). This phraseology (which is repeated several times in subsequent verses) places a subtle distance between Joseph and the mother and child; they are not to be construed as a nuclear family unit, despite many examples of Christian art that depict them in this way.
The second part of her project is to use her reading of the text to evaluate understandings of the family in the north american context, and call for churches to support a greater diversity of family structures.
One comment that she made about the privatisation of family spaces particularly intrigued me; she said that in each of the gospels that recount the woman coming into the dinner party, no-one tries to expel her on the grounds that this is a private meal to which she isn't invited. Good concludes that the room is in some sense public space, or, at least, that our understanding of a home being private space cannot be applied to the first century jewish household uncritically. This got me thinking; in British society, single people, divorcees and others who live in non-nuclear households are often excluded from any experience of family by the necessity of living alone. Often this is due to architectural necessity; our housing makes sharp demarcation between public and private spaces, with little or no middle ground in which a degree of shared living can be experienced. Most blocks of flats consist of corridors off which are private flats behind locked doors, and offer no social, communal space. One way in which churches could affirm the validity of non-nuclear households would be to support the building of apartments which provide a measure of communal space for people to live alongside one another. I recall that Tom Sine called for just these kinds of housing projects in his book Mustard seed vs. McWorld, and for very similar reasons. Architecture is a text which is shaped by the way we live, but which also plays an important role in determining the way we live.