- The point I’m trying to get across to couples in premarital counseling is that they actually don’t know yet what to vow...What they’re committing to are a whole series of life directions that they can’t anticipate. Tweet This
- Sometimes people will want to eliminate any sense of risk when it comes to adoption. And what I say to them is no child is predictable and without risks. Tweet This
When asked about the title of his latest book, The Storm-Tossed Family, Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has pointed out that family can be both "the source of life-giving blessing but also of excruciating terror, often all at the same time.” Dr. Moore, who, along with his wife Maria, is raising five boys, knows firsthand about the highs and lows of family life. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Moore about his new book, including why he describes family life as “humiliating,” why he frowns on couples writing their own wedding vows, and how becoming an adoptive parent reshaped his understanding of family. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Alysse ElHage: In The Storm-Tossed Family, you describe family life as “humiliating." You write, “As part of a family, it is almost impossible to maintain the image of ourselves we so carefully construct for the world, and for our own sense of meaning. Perhaps you, like me, have looked at all your family failures and wondered, ‘Why does this have to be this hard?’” That’s a question that has often crossed my mind regarding both raising a family and just being a part of one—why is it so hard and why does it hurt so much and cause so much harm when we fail in our families or when our families fail us?
Russell Moore: Well, I think that family has a unique way of getting through all our structures of self-protection, and we live in a time where so much is about image and about winning on the basis of how we define winning. And that illusion is, frankly, impossible to maintain. When you’re dealing with people in that close of a relationship, and especially in a family relationship where we’re so dependent upon one another, it’s impossible to keep those illusions up. And so I find a lot of times, people think that they’re failing in terms of their family relationships because of the humiliation of it. You can’t treat family relationships the way that you would an algorithm or a work project. It doesn’t work that way. And so people sometimes think they’re failing, when actually they’re just living in family and learning to love.
You can’t treat family relationships the way that you would an algorithm or a work project. And so people sometimes think they’re failing, when actually they’re just living in family and learning to love.
Alysse ElHage: You share very openly in the book about your honeymoon, which was basically a disaster compared to what you expected. And you point out that as a society, we idealize not only the honeymoon but the wedding and marriage in general. And we see this even in how Hollywood portrays marriage. Why is it dangerous to idealize our marriages? And would you say this might be one reason why many young people are putting off marriage today?
Russell Moore: It definitely is. One of the things I’ve noticed when I talk to people who are delaying marriage is they’re in a cohabitation situation. When I ask them why, at first, I was expecting a low view of marriage. And sometimes you will [see that]. In my evangelical Christian context, many times people will say, "Well, the reason that marriage rates are as low as they are is that people don’t think that marriage matters." [But] I’ve actually found in talking to people that I rarely come across that sort of attitude of “marriage is just a piece of paper, we don’t need it.” Instead, what I find is a really high view of marriage that assumes that everything should be in order, and that the marriage itself should happen after the struggle, and after all the ambiguities and mysteries of life—that marriage happens when you know that this person is your soul mate, and when you know that the marriage is going to be idyllic.
That doesn’t apply to anyone. And so I think one of the reasons that we see weddings often costing inordinate amounts of money, being huge productions in a given community, really, I think has less to do with our expectations about weddings and more to do with our expectations about marriage. The marriage itself is seen as a kind of production that has to be maintained. And, of course, that’s not what any marriage is, and that’s not what happens. So often I find that when those really high expectations disappoint, and they always do, people conclude, “Well, what I’m missing is the kind of marriage that I’m meant for which would meet those expectations.” And they either simmer in disappointment or they leave. And I think that leads to a great deal of misery.
Alysse ElHage: Since we are on the topic of marriage, in the book, you explain that when you do a wedding, you do not allow couples to write their own vows, and you get a lot of pushback for this from some couples. Why not let couples write their own vows—what is it about the age-old wedding vows that are so important?
Russell Moore: Well, I think there’s an assumption behind the mentality of writing one’s own vows that is really dangerous to a marriage. And the assumption is that the wedding is a celebration of the couple’s love. So, in the wedding, the couple will construct and articulate how they feel about each other, which I think has very little to do with what a wedding ceremony should be about. A wedding ceremony is about the making of vows and about a community pledging to help a couple in keeping their vows and to hold them accountable for those vows. That’s why there are so many aspects of a North American wedding that are almost vestigial organs that point back to a previous time but that don’t really make much sense on their own. For instance, in many weddings, the officiant will still ask if there is anyone who can show just cause why this couple should not be joined together let him speak now or forever hold his peace. No one expects anyone to say anything at that point, and any time that we can even imagine it, it’s out of a romantic comedy in which an old boyfriend or girlfriend stands up and says, “I still love you,” and the wedding comes apart that way. But the reason that that part of the older ceremony is there is because it’s a reminder to the gathered community: you have a responsibility to help this couple and to walk with this couple in [their] marriage. So the point that I’m trying to get across to couples in premarital counseling is that they actually don’t know yet what to vow. Because the feelings that they have for each other right now are good and important, but what they’re committing to are a whole series of life directions that they can’t anticipate at all. And those are built into the traditions of the community.
Alysse ElHage: Related to the idea of community support for marriage, what is the responsibility of the church toward the marriages in their midst? And beyond the church doors, does the church have a responsibility and a role in facilitating the health of marriage and family life for those in the broader community?
Russell Moore: Well, the church has a responsibility for pointing to the goodness of marriage, but there’s a different sort of responsibility when it comes to the outside world as opposed to those on the inside. So, we bear witness to the goodness of marriage to all people. As a Christian, I believe that marriage is a creation structure, so it’s not only for people who are Christians or who are religious but for all people. And so I would want to say that to anyone.
Love brings with it the possibility of hurt, and of risk, but also joy.
But there’s a unique responsibility that comes within the [church] community to bear one another’s burdens. I think that starts with really clear and coherent teaching on marriage that both points to the joys and goodness of marriage and shatters those impossible idealizations. And then, it comes into place with congregations that are willing to care for people as they’re going through difficulties in marriage. I’ve seen congregations do this really well with, among other things, mentoring programs where a married couple who’ve been married to each other for many decades will then mentor a young couple that’s starting to go through some difficulty. And in many of those cases, 90% of it has to do with simply reassuring the younger couple that these sorts of struggles are normal. And so it’s not a time to panic. It’s a time to love each other and to work through it.
Alysse ElHage: You have children through both adoption and through birth. How has the process of adopting a child into your family, and all the struggles and joys that come with that process, shaped your understanding of family and your experience of family life, perhaps even in ways you did not expect?
Russell Moore: I wrote a book, Adopted for Life, that really came out of my own struggles when we were faced with adoption. We went through years of infertility and miscarriages, and my wife said to me, “I think the Lord might be leading us to adopt.” And I found that I was very reluctant, even though I had been, at the policy level, an advocate for adoption for years. I was really reluctant. And I located that reluctance in an idea that adoption was somehow not quite real, and also in a sense of fear, a sense of unpredictability when it comes to children who maybe have experienced trauma. What I found, as I worked through that, is that my assumptions about adoption were wrong. They were pointing me to other problems that I was having in terms of the way that I saw myself, the way I saw family, and the way I saw the church, for that matter. And so it really caused me to understand [being] “adopted” not as an adjective, but as a past-tense verb. So, sometimes people will ask, “Which ones are the adopted children, and which ones are the biological children?" And the truth is we generally do not think in those terms in terms of status within the family. Of course, we know who was adopted, and there are unique challenges and struggles that come with it that have to be kept in mind. But in terms of status, that is not the case. And so what I found, as someone who was teaching and preaching an evangelical doctrine of adoption and about how people come into the family of God, I was actually misunderstanding that. That showed up in the way that I was approaching adoption. So that is one part of it.
The other part of it is, I spend a lot of time asking people within evangelical churches to consider how God would have them minister to orphaned children and their families. That does not necessarily entail adoption. I do not believe that everybody is called to adoption, and I do not think everyone is equipped for adoption. We are all called to, as the Bible puts it, care for widows and orphans in their distress. But that can show up in a variety of ways. So often, when I am counseling with people who are considering adoption, I will look for a sense of risk aversion. Sometimes people will want to eliminate any sense of risk when it comes to adoption. And what I have to say to them is no child is predictable and without risks. No love relationship is predictable and without risk. So I will often say to couples, “If you want a family that does not bring with it the possibility of having one’s heart broken, then do not adopt, do not have children biologically, do not date, do not have friendships, and just live in an insulated, protective cover." [Because] love brings with it the possibility of hurt, and of risk, but also along with it, joy.
*Photo credit: Courtesy of ERLC