Squeezed - A Review

Even before the Great Recession and the slow climb out of it, many people expressed angst over their economic situation. As long as I can remember, and likely for all of human history, most people have expressed a sense that they can’t get ahead and that true financial stability is just out of reach. One thing that has shifted in the last few generations, however, is that people have argued that having a family is financially out of reach because of their current economic situation.

A desire for economic stability is leading many young people to delay marriage until their late 20s or early 30s. Then, once couples do get married, they often decide to wait to have children “until they can afford it.” The frequent, repeated news articles that tell people it costs a quarter million dollars or more to raise a child tend to entrench such arguments.

In her recent book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, Alissa Quart attempts to make these arguments in a book length format. She uses a journalistic-style, with supporting statistics interwoven with sympathetic anecdotes to make her case. The style itself is useful for convincing either (a) non-critical readers or (b) those already convinced. For those skeptical that centralized government solutions like UBI are the best solution for people’s feelings of dis-ease, the content of Quart’s book tends to make quite the opposite case that Quart intends.

There are certainly problems within our current economic system. Some of the cases that Quart outlines help to show what those problems are. For example, the injustice of our broken immigration system is evident in Chapter 5 of Squeezed and, in some ways, represents reality. However, what Quart actually shows is that consumerism is a miserable disease and that, in general, life would get a whole lot better for people if they turned off their televisions, got off the internet, and focused on living the life they can afford and loving the people around them.

A couple of the stories Quart highlights show the main problems with Americans that keep them from feeling they can afford a family are (a) a lack of permanent commitment in marriage and (b) covetousness.

The Damage of Impermanent Marriages

Quart begins the book with her own story. She and her husband were freelance writers living in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City when they had their first child. She describes the burden of paying $1,500 for the medical care she and her daughter incurred during delivery. Subsequently, they experienced “financial vertigo” because, “We first hired a nearly full-time sitter and most of my own take-home earnings as an editor went directly to her. Eventually, my earnings also flowed to my daughter’s cheerfully boho day care . . .” (pg. 3). The financial pressure they felt was primarily self-induced fear of “tumbling out of [their] class position.” (pg. 4) Contributing to this is the apparent sense that one must maintain one’s career even if it is financially unwise to do so.

Though it is not clearly defined, “middle class” in this book appears to be defined as living above your means without fear of financial repercussions. So, for Quart, it was essential for her to be able to fund a nanny so she could retain professional pride and independence from her husband, no matter what the financial burden or social cost to her offspring.

There are several cases throughout this volume that illustrate that fear of being left or getting divorced is what drives a lot of the financial pressure on her subjects. In other words, when a spouse fears that his or her marriage is impermanent and the spouse and their income may disappear at any moment, then there is terrific pressure to maintain a career at any and all costs. Quart does not identify this fear explicitly, but it is an obvious undercurrent throughout the book for those with eyes to see it. This is why the supposed 70% gender pay gap is so insidious in the eyes of many progressives.

If couples both valued and were committed to the permanence of marriage, much of the angst that Quart describes about finding suitable and cost-effective child care would diminish.

Covetousness

The other major problem illustrated by this book is not injustice, but covetousness. This is apparent in Quart’s story again, as she requires a personal baby sitter and then “boho daycare” for her child.

A more striking example of the problem of economic myopia and covetousness is documented in Chapter 2. Quart describes a case of “modest oppression” of a couple who made a combined household income of “around $160,000” as the department chair at a college (wife) and a part-time music composer, director of a music organization, and church organist (husband). Even given the high cost of living in New York City, it is hard to describe a couple making north of $150K as being oppressed in meaningful sense. Apparent in Quart’s description is that their unhappiness was largely due to the existence of people that appeared to be more comfortable and have fewer financial worries. Absent from Quart’s telling of their story is the idea that they might consider making different decisions (e.g., having the husband stay at home with the kids) that might alleviate the problem and result in better outcomes for everyone.

Similarly, in the same chapter Quart tells the story of an adjunct professor whose PhD was in avant garde poetry. She has a disabled son, conceived in a fling with a member of an indie rock group. There are multiple commendable aspects of the story: the adjunct was willing to work hard and she was committed first to not killing her child in utero and then to seeking proper care for him. The covetousness in this story is apparent because the adjunct believed herself to be entitled to the career of her choice––that is to be fully supported through adjuncting––because she had chosen to get an advanced degree in a particular field. There is some hope in this story because the chapter closes noting that Bolin had decided to pursue more regular employment.

Quart’s telling of these stories is intended to illicit the response that there is obvious injustice in the struggle of both of these families. However, it is clear to the casual reader that the greater portion of the financial distress in both these situations is a desire for something that is just out of reach: the idealized existence as a career advancing professional in the exact job one desires. The underlying assumption is that the world owes everyone their personally preferred lifestyle and existence. As long as people base their happiness on hanging on to social positions that are just above their income level or seeking the perfect working situation, their covetousness is destined to enhance their unhappiness.

Positives of the Book

The general premise of Squeezed is flawed, but there is value in the book.

First, there are multiple anecdotes that illustrate how significant the family and community are for financial stability. Though Quart does not draw the conclusion (instead calling for government intervention at nearly every level), it is apparent that stronger nuclear families and mediating institutions like the local church are essential to the flourishing of society. In many of the examples Quart provides, the reader can see how a strong connection to a local congregation that is functioning as the body of Christ could alleviate a great deal of stress.

Second, as noted above, the permanence of marriage tends to alleviate a lot of cost and stress. Both spouses need not pursue their careers full-bore if they trust each other to remain around. Additionally, the cost of living can be substantially reduced when both parents and children live together in the same house.

Third, in Chapter Ten, Quart highlights the work that television (or other versions of video entertainment) does in making people believe they are not well-off. Supposed “middle-class” families in SitComs are really incredibly rich. Everything on the set is in perfect condition, no one is really struggling for money, etc. The old puzzle about how the characters in Friends were able to live such apparently lavish lives in New York City is still a real phenomenon. Part of the work of the Church, then, should be to disabuse people of the fantasies of contemporary entertainment.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this is a popular-level book that will tend to convince the already convinced that a bigger government is needed to fix supposed injustices in the economy. What it really highlights is that much of our ongoing social misery is self-induced. If we readjust our expectations toward reality and focus on enjoying the relative wonders most of us experience on a daily basis, our satisfaction in life is bound to be enhanced.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

"Where Are We Going?" not "Where Are We Now?"

Sometimes at conferences or even in sermons, it’s the throwaway lines that pack the most punch.

In a discussion on the nature of social justice, particularly how it has been reinterpreted and changed from its original purpose, Michael Novak made an interesting comment.

He said, “When people’s life expectancy was only into their 20’s, ‘Til death do us part’ meant something significantly different than it does now.”

In one sense this is untrue, because at the heart of it, the marriage vow has always been a lifelong commitment. There was always an intended permanence. However, at the next level in the comment, which is where I think Novak intended the audience to go, there is a meaty truth worth chewing on.

Commitment to marriage for life is something different when you only expect to live for another decade than it is if you expect to live for another sixty years. Or, rather, the nature of what is being committed to is different.

Without deconstructing marriage in this discussion, which others are doing apart quickly and violently enough, it is worth considering if some of the unraveling of marriages within the church isn’t due to a slow change in teaching about the significance of marriage.

In other words, it is one thing to commit to live with someone you don’t get along with for a decade. It is another thing to commit to deal with another person’s idiosyncrasies for three times the time you’ve been alive. I'm not sure the teaching of the church on marriage kept up with the reality of life.

The way you think about marriage, enter into marriage, and live as a married person changes based on that expectation. The difference is much like the way you pack for a weekend getaway instead of a two week vacation. There is a lot more preparation for one than the other.

Pulling back from the specific issue of marriage, this brings up the way the Church uses data and adapts the way she teaches to the changing world around her. The doctrines do not change, but the way they are expressed certainly must to keep up with the changing landscape.

This is where, as a smart aleck young evangelical, I am tempted to point out how the Church is always reactionary. But, I am part of that reaction, continually lagging behind the culture hoping to find a way to communicate within it.

When the Church, which includes me, fails to find new ways to apply old truths, we leave people to fill in the gaps on their own. God is good and Scripture accessible, but sometimes the result of such independent development isn’t good.

Instead of reading into the sign of the times, looking for where we are right now, we need to be looking for where we are going. We may be wrong, but only if we lead people to think about a way forward can we hope to have them adequately prepared for today.

Image used by CC license: http://ow.ly/OvOcL Thinking....[Explored] Ricardo Cuppini

Eight Twenty Eight - A Love Story

I started following the story of Ian and Larissa Murphy a few years ago when John Piper's ministry, Desiring God, allowed them to guest blog and used their story to illustrate the concepts behind his helpful book, This Momentary Marriage.

If the Murphy's story isn't emotionally moving to you, then you have a heart of stone. It was amazing to see the story in brief several years ago, but their recent book Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn't Give Up retells the story in greater depth. This is a story of love that transcends romantic love, moving to the level of self sacrifice that is a testament to the power of God working in the hearts of believers.

Ian and Larissa went to college together. They fell in love. Soon they were going to get engaged. However, their pedestrian romance took a sudden and dramatic turn when Ian was in a horrific car accident. 

For weeks after the accident, no one was certain Ian would live. If he did survive, he would be left with severe brain damage and be physically handicapped for life.

Most normal women in their early twenties would have mourned the loss and eventually moved on. This story tells of Larissa not giving up, but clinging to her love of Ian and the hope of his recovery. It also talks about the work of an entire community in supporting Ian's family and Larissa and helping them cope and eventually overcome.

Ian will never make a full recovery in this life. Although there has been some recovery of physical and mental capacities, the trauma of that accident will forever impact how Ian lives. He will always require special care. By choosing to marry Ian, Larissa made a life-long commitment to serve someone in difficult and sometimes humiliating ways.

This makes the decision of a talented, educated young woman to stay and marry a man that will require significant, life-long care astounding.

Ian recovered significantly before they got married. Though he was not the same as he was before the accident, this books provides accounts that show he was really there, behind the handicap. Still, the self-sacrifice is amazing.

I am certain their marriage isn't perfect. None are. Larissa and Ian give some hints to places they have failed, though they don't talk about all the struggles in detail. This is fine, since knowing all of the dirt wouldn't make this story any more authentic. At its core, this is a story of an agape love imperfectly manifested, but about as well as can be done in this earth.

This book was an encouragement to read. God is working through and perhaps especially because of Ian's accident. God is also working through Larissa's response.

Take the time to read this book. It is worth the investment, but have a box of tissues nearby.

Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn't Give Up
$12.17
By Larissa Murphy, Ian Murphy

Note: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher, but there was no requirement of a positive review. The analysis above is entirely my own.

Singleness and the Christian

Given that approximately 64% of households in the United States in 2012 were headed by unmarried adults,[1] a failure to address singleness would be a mistake. In fact, a failure to address singleness has been a significantly overlooked issue among conservative Christians that is only in recent years beginning to be addressed more thoroughly.[2]

 No One is Married in Heaven

 In an attempt to trip Jesus up and pit him against the Pharisees, the Sadducees asked Jesus about resurrection and marriage:

 23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”

29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Matt 22:23–30)

So marriage is a vital institution, but it is contained to this earth. There is no marriage in heaven. As much as I love my wife and will love her more when we both live in the new heavens and earth, we won’t be married then.

Singleness is a Vocation for Some

Marriage is something that is limited to our time here on earth. And Paul makes clear that some people would do well to be single:

 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Cor 7:6–9)

25 Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. (1 Cor 7:25–28)

 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32–35)

A few things we can take away from Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 7:

1.      Getting married or staying single is not a sin, so this clearly falls under God’s will of direction.

2.      There are benefits to being single and benefits to being married. These should be weighed in the decision.

3.      All people are called to lived chastely; single people are called to abstain from sex. Purity falls under God’s will of desire.

 Another point to consider in the evaluation of singleness as a vocation is that Jesus–very God living as perfect man–was unmarried. He never sinned. He lived a perfect life. He fulfilled God’s will in every action and demeanor. He was single.

Ultimately, then, choosing to be single or to marry will follow a similar decision making process to choosing a career or choosing a spouse.

[1] Jonathan Vespa, Jamie M. Lewis, and Rose M. Kreider, America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012 (Washington, DC: US Census Bureau, 2013), 3.

[2] See, for example: Andreas Kostenberger and David Jones, Marriage and the Family: Biblical Essentials (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012). Chapter 5 is focused on singleness. See also: John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2009). Chapters 9 and 10 discuss singleness.

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Another helpful resource from the ERLC's recent conference on this subject:

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Cover photo credit: http://ow.ly/ENoP7 (Licensed under Creative Commons.)

The Myth of "The One"

One of the greatest marriage-destroying myths in the world today is the idea that there is one person that is perfectly compatible with us. In non-Christian circles, this takes the form of looking for romantic attachment that is entirely fulfilling and without conflict. Christians try to baptize this concept by searching for “The One” that God has for them, as if God has a secret matrix of relationships with a single possible combination.

Both of these ideas are wrong. Both are harmful to society and to individuals. We should seek to eradicate the idea of “The One” from our worldview. In the end, everyone will be happier if we aren't looking for something that doesn't exist.

Non-Christians and “The One”

In his book, True Sexual Morality, Daniel Heimbach describes a counterfeit approach to sex as romantic sexual morality. He writes:

“Romantic sexual morality so glorifies the importance of sentimental affection in sexual relationships that sex is justified based on feelings alone. It says couples have only to decide if they are in love, and if they are, then sex is moral whatever else might be the case.” (255)

He goes on,

“In romantic morality, marriage does not legitimize expressing romantic affection with sex; rather, expressing romantic affection with sex legitimizes marriage. Romantics think marriage is a good way to express feelings; but if feelings fade, then sex is bad and the marriage is over.” (258)

At its root, the idea that there is one person in the world with whom we are perfectly compatible relies on this concept of romantic sexual morality: It is moral to do anything for love, and marriage is the way to show the recognition that their partner is “The One.”

However, feelings fade, conflict happens, and the happiness wanes sometimes ending in divorce.

Even before divorce, though, if feelings for another person arise and they appear to be a new “The One,” the old relationship becomes wrong and the relationship with the new “The One” becomes right.

In reality, romantic emotions are an important part of marriage, but they do not define morality and they are not the substance of marriage. Emotions come and go. Keeping promises faithfully helps build stronger families and ultimately a stronger society.

When adults follow romantic emotions to search for “The One” there is often a trail of broken families and broken hearts.

Christians and “The One”

The Christian version of this myth usually involves less extra-marital sex. However, it is still destructive to people’s happiness.

The basic version of “The One” myth goes something like this:

1.      God has a special plan for your life.

2.      This special plan includes every detail and every decision, including who you marry.

3.      If you choose wisely, things will go well because God is pleased; if you make a mistake, God will be disappointed and you will not be happy.

The vision here is of God in his throne room with a chart on the wall. Person A connects to Person B. They are “The One” for each other. Person C and Person D are each “The One” for each other.

However, due to Person A being 10 minutes late to Chem 6A on the first day of class, Person C and Person B end up sitting next to each other, going to lunch, and the rest is history. Now Person B is married to Person C and Persons A and D are left without their “The One.” Thus, God’s plans are thwarted, he is displeased, and everyone is unhappy.

There are a few problems with this:

1.      By this logic, it may be the right thing for B and C to get a divorce so that the proper couples, A–B and C–D can be formed. However, divorce is not consistent with the relationship between Christ and the Church, which is how Paul depicts it in Ephesians 5. This is not a good option.

 2.      This puts too much stress on people who are considering marriage. It makes them think there is a secret will of God they need to decode. This is not taught in Scripture. There are some basic qualifications for the appropriateness of marriage, but finding “The One” is certainly not one of them.

 3.      This vision of God is paltry. He isn’t sitting in heaven hoping we get things right, with the outcome dependent on our daily choices. No, the victory has been won, Christ is risen, the new heavens and new earth are coming and he knows the date of delivery. Our choice of spouse will not send God’s plan into a tailspin.

Ultimately, marriage is about being holy not being romantic. It should reflect mutual submission, humility, and faithfulness, much like Christ’s relationship with us.

This means that we will be faithful to our spouses even when we are frustrated. This means we will continue to perform loving actions for our spouse even when romantic feelings are absent. This means we will pursue joy in God even when we don’t feel “in love” with our spouses.

In the end there is greater fulfillment to be found in faithfulness and enduring love than in chasing romance. This is true for Christians and for non-Christians.

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This is exactly the sort of perspective we want to avoid: