Arm Chair Anthropology

Mike Breen
January 24, 2020

What the emerging culture says about family and community as I watch the big and little screens

It was a few days after Christmas 1991, my wife Sally and our young family and I left Brixton, at the time a poor inner-city community in London, and moved to Little Rock Arkansas. We would spend the next 2 1/2 years there recovering from the rigors of urban ministry.

Everything was quite different, abundance rather than scarcity defined everything. I remember being amazed to discover that there were 500 television channels. In England we had recently got our fourth channel and most people seemed to think that was too many. Sally was so intimidated that she only watched The Weather Channel for weeks!

Once we got used to it all one of the TV shows that we really loved was 'Home Improvement'. "Tim the tool man Taylor!", was the announcement we all waited to hear. What fun it was to see this typical family attempting to live out the American dream.  

As I look back and reflect it was as though that show represented the last hurrah for the Baby Boomers, they realized that their nuclear families – 50% of which broke down through divorce – were in jeopardy and would need some extra effort if they were ever to recover. The American nuclear family needed some 'Home Improvement'.  Of course this observation was not restricted to the culture in general but was also very evident in the Christian subculture. The church-based version of this emphasis seemed to be 'Focus on the Family' although the 'Small Group' movement did as much as anything to propagate the belief that nuclear family size groups were all we needed to enjoy a sense of community.

By the time we left America to return to Sheffield in England Generation X had grown in influence and was beginning to dominate the media. 'Friends' perfectly expressed the mores of this emerging generation. Here was a generation that had decided that their parents emphasis on the nuclear family was no longer tenable. The new cornerstone of society could only be found in relationships that were  'made' rather than  'given'. Friendships were much more reliable than the familial relationships that caused so much pain.

Deconstruction, a mainstay of the newly embraced postmodern life, became the drumbeat of Generation X and could be seen in many of its cultural artifacts from the social dynamics of 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld' to the ecclesiology of the Emerging Church. The need for community could be distilled and expressed in relationships that were chosen and built around our aspirations and ideals rather given through heritage and tradition.

By 2004 Sally and the kids and I were back in America having enjoyed a great time of blessing and breakthrough in Sheffield England. In general television in America was very much as we had left it –  "500 channels and nothing to watch". But a change was beginning to emerge in the way that sitcoms and dramas were designed and presented.  

As we arrived Gen X were still hanging out in coffee shops and bars, 'Will and Grace' and later 'How I Met Your Mother' were great examples of this, but soon there was 'Modern Family', an extended family made up of blends and mixtures of people as broad and varied as society itself. Here there appeared to be a desire to maintain the old as well as embrace the new, the Millennials had begun to influence media and they had a different perspective to Generation X or the Baby Boomers. Our flexing and shifting culture– reflected in in our mass media – was beginning to reimagine the world built around an  'extended family' even a 'family on mission'.

Lately I have been fascinated by the popularity of 'The Walking Dead'. Here is a self-described extended family made of blood and non-blood relationships that can only survive in a perilous world if it works together. Parents are no longer seen as threats, more as flawed mentors and heroes. And children no longer compete for affection rather they collaborate for common goals.

The dystopian world of 'The Walking Dead', 'The Hunger Games' or 'Divergent' may be overdone, but the Millennials genuinely fear that the overconsumption of the Boomers and the inactivity of Gen X – who in the words of John Mayer are 'waiting on the world to change" – have left them with a starkly uncertain future. Even the most cursory glance at television and cinema would suggest that Millennials believe that only heroes and heroic families can meet the challenge of the coming day.

Wherever they can the emerging generation is seeking the succor and security of the extended family. From missional communities to homesteading and from families on mission to blended families the emerging generation is showing a distinct desire to shake loose the rampant consumerism and deconstructionism of the past and move towards a reconstruction of the extended family – using the human materials and relational tools from the past and the present.

Where do these observations and reflections lead me?

They tell me that those of us who are seeking to build our lives around the principles of Family on Mission and Missional Communities are pushing on an open door with the millennial generation. We are lifting up something they are longing to see, we are doing something they are already deeply committed to emulating. And so I'm very encouraged.

But what about you, what do you see? Do you see different artifacts in our culture that suggest other insights, other nuances? I'd love to hear about them.

Previously Published Jan 22nd 2020 @3dmpublishing

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