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The Open-Concept Family, AKA The Family Issue Opener and Table of Contents

As the Family Issue make its way from the printer to the post office, here’s a look at the opener, and a peek at what comes after! If you haven’t ordered a copy yet, you can do so here

You can’t talk about families without talking about the containers they come in. The home, especially in America, is the sanctum sanctorum of family life. No other non-living entity absorbs so much human ambition and longing, so much futzing and pruning, so much money and worry, and so much love. “Home” for you might be an efficiency apartment or a sprawling suburban ranch, but odds are the majority of your memories can be placed within the confines of those walls. You know the exact spot in the house where you got that phone call, or the spot where he used to read his newspaper, or the exact rung in the banister where everyone’s shirt gets snagged. “If these walls could talk …”

Walls can’t talk, though. And even if they could, walls definitely aren’t talking these days, since there really are no walls to speak of. Open concept houses, where nearly zero rooms are divided by walls, have become the way families imagine doing life together. When the kitchen, living room, dining room, and TV room are all one room, there’s the promise that you’re creating space that “allows the love to flow,” as the Scandinavians say. Fewer boundaries equals more family togetherness.

What realtors are starting to find, though, is that the aspirational notion of more family time has led to … more family time. The Boston Globe reported that this has led homeowners to face some harsh truths about their family lives, namely,

That you’re not a parent who wants the kids RIGHT THERE when you’re in the kitchen, your only alone time, or what used to be your only alone time. That you’re not a host relaxed enough to chat with guests while preparing a three-course meal. That you’re not Marie Kondo enough to keep every inch of what used to be three rooms clutter-free at all times.

Walls, in other words, were nice: For one, they hid the mountain of crap that inevitably flowed over from the other parts of our lives. But most importantly, they buffered us from the strange people who shared our DNA.

Unfortunately, walls or not, these strange people will always remain strange. Every home is its own molecular structure of dysfunction, a physical reminder that you are born under a larger umbrella organization. You have parents and (sometimes) siblings, who have names and stories and contexts that you may not want but are inseparably yours. There are certain codes of conduct, certain ways of communicating (or not communicating), certain predispositions to freckles or spicy foods or hand-eye clumsiness. For better or worse, this place is your first and often most influential institution of “professional development.” Weirdly, you never submitted your résumé to this office—you don’t know if you would’ve if you had the choice—but the job’s yours all the same. You are a born natural for it!

Still, despite the job description and the baggage it brings, the homes we live in tend to foster our fiercest loyalties and most deep-seated convictions. The oldest religion in the world is family. If the etymology of religion is “to tighten” or “to bind,” then it makes sense that the oldest established religion came not with cuneiform or pyramids, but with the family unit, where members have always been bound up together in collective mythologies and rituals. It continues today, as you watch old VHS home videos, as you obnoxiously rehash the same old jokes with the same lame punchline, as you comfortably fall back into familiar roles like a well-worn sofa.

In other words, no matter how far you fly, or with whom you create new families, you always take them with you, because to some degree, you are them. As the country singer Lori McKenna put it,

The tree grows where it’s planted / And that’s the fate of a fallen seed

No matter how many times I’ve denied it / The apple never falls far from the tree

As long as family therapists and professional helpers have been around, their work has centered on the damning determinism of the family unit, how the proverbial “sins of the father” really do, in fact, sprawl out in time. God’s family, as it is presented in the Bible, proves no different: All down the family line is a story of liars begetting murderers begetting drunks begetting liars again.

Which I guess makes Jesus’ ambivalence about the family enterprise less startling. But only slightly less. Living in a cultural (and theological) milieu that, much like today, prioritized family over all else, he denounced it as a powerful evasion, a way to wall off reality and revelation. Whenever a family caveat is thrown before him (“But Jesus, your mom is outside!” or “Wait Jesus, I need to bury my father!”) Jesus doubles down on the centrality of his own message: “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.”

Jesus is not anti-family so much as he is anti-walls, and the way he sees it, the four walls of a home are no different from the four walls of the temple—a safe haven from a cruel world, sure, but also a buffer zone from the true heart of God and a breeding ground for self-deception. I wonder whether his devastating prophecy about the temple could just as easily be levied on the family mythologies rehearsed in every family home: “Do you see these great buildings?” he says. “Not one stone (nay, not one “accent wall”) will be standing where it’s standing now.”

Ultimately, Jesus reminds us, even if our families love us and protect us, no rearing could ever have the generative power to make us whole or evade suffering. Every family, Ben Maddison writes in this issue, is cruciform in shape. In the end, our families point us to a need they cannot provide.

Jesus points us to the fragility of our walled-off holiest of holies, and to the only hope that our families have ever had. Look at the home you can’t keep clean, the mother-in-law you can’t tolerate, the daughter who won’t call, the spouse you’re losing to cancer. There is an endless array of reckonings awaiting all families. But as Christ stands within the four walls of your failed temple, and he stretches out his hands, he offers not only the compassion of a loving God, but the hope of a very real resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

There is no shortage of losses in families, both literally and figuratively. This also means that there is no limit to the stories in which God has done some of his own home restoration work. We’ve compiled a few of them here, in the hopes that they provide consolation and hope. We also have interviews with psychologist Harriet Lerner, education and parenting expert Alfie Kohn, and Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick. We’ve got essays about foster parents and surrogate parents, preacher families and estranged families. We talk about divorce, dogs, apologies, parenting advice, and the church’s incessant focus on families. And that’s not all.

So, brew yourself some tea, turn the page, and enjoy the remaining walls in your open concept home. By the time you reach the last page, we’ll have (hopefully) removed them all.

Click here to order your copy!

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