There is a scene in the show Mad Men that captured perfectly just one of the tidal shifts that happened in the 1960's. The episode itself revolved around an ad the executives were trying to craft for Burger Chef, a now defunct food-chain that was based out of Indianapolis and that my mom actually worked for at one point. The big whigs at Burger Chef knew that they were up against tough odds. They had to spin the virtues of eating out without stepping on the still sacred cow of the American family dinner. You know: dad comes home from work to an immaculately clean kitchen with two well-behaving children already sitting at the table and the mom pleasantly pulling out a savory dish from the oven.
The ad team just can't get it. They're throwing ideas at the big board left and right, but nothing is sticking. But, then, in a stroke of midnight brilliance, it hits one of them. The Burger Chef dining room is the new American family table, or what the American family table is becoming: clean, diverse, efficient, easy. The episode closes with a perfectly framed scene of the three ad execs sitting inside one of Burger Chef's tables, and (as you can see below) the image is striking and inviting:
Looking at the image, you can see how it is an expression of the new American ideal, forming in its own way a type of "holy meal" experience. But, contrasted with da Vinci's "The Last Supper," there is no true center, except - perhaps - the exchange counter near the front. "Step forward," the pictures assures us. "Happiness and peace are readily available."
This was precisely what the ad execs were striving for, and they knew they had a winner. In post-war America, the "perfect American family-industry" had been working full bore for several years. It was churning out a myth families were seeking to uphold: order and perfection in the home, that put-together wife, two kids, and spotless kitchen. Reality, though, is impossible to escape, and the ad execs knew that in actuality a lot of homes were much more haggard and stressful places, and that the family dinner table (despite the best attempts to make it full of peace and love) were places of pain, frustration and stress. They offered an alternative, an escape.
Enter Burger Chef and its wonderful promise. Here was a place where you could come and get a meal in a kitchen you wouldn't have to clean. Here was a place where you could mix with other families, or even come by yourself. Here is a place where you could get shelter from the storms of work and home and have a minute of peace and family bonding together.
The market could provide everything.
Well, are those our only two options?
Are we left with either needing to maintain the edifice of perfection that we've got it all together at home OR with bypassing the family table (and family rhythms) all together in lieu of becoming consumers in an economy that tantalizingly offers us satisfaction and wholeness one purchase at a time?
Those are still the two options that many modern families feel today, especially in America.
There are significant cultural forces, much of it coming from more conservative Christian bodies, pushing for a return to family values, hoping to find a way back to that idyllic post-war America era. Much of the legislation being pushed through in many states (ours included) seems intent on making this happen.
That's one side.
The other side contains even stronger forces of the modern economy. They are the forces of the newer Burger Chef's that hint at a future where we really won't need any type of family. Modern ad execs have found even more creative ways to sell us on the idea that all of our real needs can be met by their latest product or service.
Both sides, though, come up short on what they promise. And, in fact, they are both presenting a false idol.
For those advocating for a return to the "American" or "biblical" family, they are offering a pseudo-family that refuses to take seriously the pressures upon current families and the shadow side of family.
In his most recent declaration, "The Joy of Love," Pope Francis does a great job of taking seriously the brokenness in our homes and the pressures our wider culture inflicts upon the domestic. In particular, he has this to say:
"Jesus himself was born into a modest family that soon had to flee to a foreign land. He visits the home of Peter, whose mother-in-law is ill (cf. Mk 1:30-31) and shows sympathy upon hearing of deaths in the homes of Jairus and Lazarus (cf. Mk 5:22-24, 35-43; Jn 11:1-44). He hears the desperate wailing of the widow of Nain for her dead son (cf. Lk 7:11-15) and heeds the plea of the father of an epileptic child in a small country town (cf. Mk 9:17-27). He goes to the homes of tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus (cf. Mt 9:9-13; Lk 19:1-10), and speaks to sinners like the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (cf. Lk 7:36-50).
"Jesus knows the anxieties and tensions experienced by families and he weaves them into his parables: children who leave home to seek adventure (cf. Lk 15:11-32), or who prove troublesome (Mt 21:28-31) or fall prey to violence (Mk 12:1-9). He is also sensitive to the embarrassment caused by the lack of wine at a wedding feast (Jn 2:1-10), the failure of guests to come to a banquet (Mt 22:1-10), and the anxiety of a poor family over the loss of a coin (Lk 15:8-10).
"In this brief review, we can see that the word of God is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering. For it shows them the goal of their journey, when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more” (Rev 21:4)."
True biblical families, as Pope Francis so rightly sees, are families that hurt and that face difficulties. True biblical families are not those who hold to some impossible standard of perfection. In fact, every single family in the Bible, Jesus' included, experienced both internal pain and external pressure. The pages of Scripture are much closer to the realities of the show Mad Men than they are to the show Andy Griffith.
There is no such thing as the perfect family. I've seen this reality first hand of late, and I know it to be true of my own family. To hold to this impossible standard only leaves people feeling crushed by religious mill-stones.
But, it's not just the church that is to blame. There is another idol of the perfect family emerging from our 21st-century, two-income, corporate world. Many today are chasing the myth of both partners being able to have productive careers, ample time for children, and lovely homes that are filled with the latest appliances and sleek edges, all while being able to pursue individual hobbies that can be placed on Instagram.
It is no wonder that many in our day long to throw off such unhelpful images and notions of "being family" and to find another way. Unfortunately, though, the other option, the Burger Chef option, elevates the individual to the place of highest honor. In the "global village" of the global marketplace, all that really matters is what matters to you. If the first threat is being suffocated by a type of false and overly sterilized idea of family, the second threat is to suggest that you don't need family at all, but we know this as the unfortunate and tragic experience of the prodigal son. Life removed from family and community is unsustainable.
The reality is that we do need family. But, what we need is a willingness to embrace the reality of family. What is more, we need the ability to practice love, to remain fully committed to the work of love, even and especially in the hardest place to practice that love: with brothers and sisters, with parents, with spouses.
Here again is where I'm finding Pope Francis' words about family to be so helpful, especially his insistence of us remembering that Jesus himself was a man born into a family. That meant, of course, he grew up within the reality of the pressures we all experience in our homes: the rivalries between brother and sister, the never-ending and never-easy daily demands of the home economy, the hard work of trying to remain both yourself while also honoring the covenant-promises to lay down your own life in pursuit of seeking what's best for your spouse.
Jesus, as family member, brought a love that was willing to sit in the pain, to strive to love even in spite of differences, and to - finally - look always forward in hope, knowing that the perfection of family is what all of creation is ultimately driving towards.
The ad execs were on to something, after all, with that Burger Chef ad. Although, it won't be in Burger Chef when all the tribes and tongues and nations truly come together to feast and enjoy life forever. That table is reserved for the Lamb of God, our beloved brother, and the one who sets the table for the meal.