Making a Home for the Heart

For anyone who parents, works with families, wonders about the nature of the spiritual life and its connection to families, cares about learning, or teaches others in any of these areas, The Power of God at Home: Nurturing Our Children in Love and Grace comes as a welcome relief and pleasure, even inspiration. As J. Bradley Wigger makes clear from the outset, this is not another “how to” book that inadvertently instills in the reader feelings of guilt or inadequacy due to everything that parents do not know, are not doing right, or do not have time to do.

Rather than offer a “technology of parenting” narrowly understood, Wigger takes a giant step backwards to recall the universe of meaning, mystery, and wonder that surrounds and infuses the messiness of family life. He reminds readers that home life is “one of the most important teachers in children’s life,” a perspective congruent with earlier points in Protestant history when the home was seen as the “cradle of faith” and “a little seminary.” However, the focus here is not adding more to do at home or in church, but instead helping parents recognize the teaching they are already engaged in and hence paying attention to the sacred already in their midst.

Wigger makes effective, explicit use of his experience as a conga drum player in Chapter 8, but he also employs this experience throughout the book, though more subtly. For the rhythm that unifies the wide range of material covered here is the underlying drumbeat of the educational principle that “learning involves seeing a particular part in relation to a greater whole.” As he explains, “the background in a picture affects the foreground; a musical composition affects each note; words take on meaning by their contexts, letters by their words . . . Learning happens by paying attention to the relationship between the parts and wholes, and the result is meaning.” Theologically, understanding the self is dependent on seeing it as a part of the larger whole of God’s creation. Wigger shows how the breadth and depth of the Bible, our primary resource for “picking up God’s rhythms,” points to this whole.

In order to help us see where the parts of the biblical narrative fit into the larger sacred story, Wigger humbly, but boldly, suggests a frame in which to place the particular biblical families and their stories and, in turn, those of our own families and homes. His rubric for the biblical drama as a whole is the three-fold movement of “Place–Displacement–Home” that he believes recurs several times in both testaments, beginning with the sequence of Creation–Flood–Canaan. While he acknowledges that no single motif can fully capture the vast diversity of genres that comprise the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, he makes a fascinating case for the way this pattern illuminates an underlying biblical unity that can be overlooked by focusing on only the parts.

For example, Wigger shows how the particular story of Abraham and Sarah and their courageous journey to Canaan relates to the larger backdrop of the “first family” of Adam and Eve and the awe-filled story of Creation. He goes on to posit that this vast, sacred beginning of the biblical drama sets the stage for contemporary family dramas as well. The goodness of creation enables us to live out an earthy spirituality, to claim the creative potential of the more mundane tasks of parenting, and to see the sacred possibilities of our own particular homes. Viewed through the telescopic lens of Scripture, family expands in meaning to something more than the nuclear; it embraces generations far into the past and future and is defined by something more than blood or legal relationships. Similarly, the meaning of home gains deeper meaning when juxtaposed with biblical allusions of home. No longer a term for just property, home becomes “the foundation for our relationship to creation itself,” evoking images of the promised land, of freedom gained, of paradise. The connections made throughout this sojourn through the Bible are expansive and refreshing and will take the reader some time to digest fully.

In a centerpiece chapter, Wigger expounds on what it means to see through the eyes of faith. Drawing upon theologians such as Rudolph Otto, Gabriel Marcel, Abraham Heschel, and Craig Dykstra, he contrasts a “world of technology” with a “world of faith.” While technology has an appreciated place in our society, it remains only a part, but it is at risk of becoming the whole. As Wigger warns in vivid terms, a technological mindset can result in “contemporary cataracts” that distort our vision of life. Without necessarily realizing it, we end up placing nearly an ultimate value on phenomena like smooth-functioning systems, efficient output, problem-solving abilities, and ever-greater rates of consumption. This results in an over-emphasis on control, management, and advertisement-bred dissatisfaction. As this mindset takes over, meaning shrinks and reality flattens.

Such a preoccupation stands in contrast with the depth perception embedded in a world of faith. According to Wigger, faith reveals meaning and “urges ever-deepening ways of seeing reality, deepens our sensitivity to life–engages us more fully.” It awakens all our senses and allows us to see the invisible at work in the visible. Faith-filled education involves learning to see through the eyes of “radical amazement,” to apprehend a world brimming with “wonder, mystery, and holiness.” How refreshing to place these rich, resonant theological concepts in the foreground when discussing learning, home, and the family.

Wigger is not naive, however, about the power of home as being all grace and light. He is careful to acknowledge that where this kind of power and meaning exists, tragically so do threats to this meaning and distortions of power; “families can curse children as well as bless them.” In his discussion of sin, Wigger makes the insights of contemporary theologian Edward Farley accessible and enlightening to readers. Being created in God’s image means that we are free and open to possibilities, welcome relationship and love, and possess the capacity to create. The good news is that these three qualities work together to generate life. However, tragically, this very openness leaves human beings vulnerable to the three accompanying distortions of escapism, idolatry, and manipulation. Continuing to follow Farley’s lead, Wigger goes on to explore the ways that awareness of our finitude results in a level of insecurity that leads to fear of loss, death, etc. Here he invokes Tillich’s “courage to be” as the power to live in spite of potentially crippling and distorting insecurity. This gift of faith allows us to know God as the ultimate power of love and frees us to live for rather than against one another.

J. Bradley Wigger’s The Power of God at Home: Nurturing Our Children in Love and Grace was the first book published in publisher Jossey-Bass’ s new “Family and Faith” series, which is described in the first page of each volume as being devoted to exploring the relationship between the spiritual life and our closest human relationships. From one generation to the next, faith and families are deeply intertwined in powerful ways. Faith puts all of life, including family life, in such a large perspective that it invites the gratitude, wonder, and hope so badly needed in the middle of the complexities and struggles of existence. On the other hand, faith becomes real only as it lives through concrete human relationships. Religion needs families and communities where the generations gather together and share and celebrate what it means to love God and to love others. At their best, faith and families are immersed in grace, and this series hopes to be a resource for those seeking to make love real in their families, congregations, and communities.Other books so far in this noteworthy series (with more to come) include:

Diana R. Garland, Sacred Stories of Ordinary Families: Living
the Faith in Daily Life
(2003).

Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood from a Christian Perspective (2003).

Wendy M. Wright, Seasons of a Family’s Life: Cultivating the Contemplative Spirit at Home (2003).

–CJC

It is difficult to convey in a review the fresh ways that Wigger enlivens this richly textured theological perspective with stories from his own family life and those of others. The narrative style and his own clear prose, make for a level of easy reading that beguiles the reader into encountering the Holy in one’s own family and congregational life. Any references cited are discussed in annotated endnotes at the back of the book. The resources are inclusive and ecumenical in spirit, ranging from the philosophical and theological to the devotional and literary. They alone are worth the price of the book.

Having established an expansive and generative context of meaning through the use of scripture, stories, and theological discourse in the preceding chapters, Wigger concludes the book with some specific suggestions for how families and congregations can deepen their appreciation of what they are already doing and enhance it through increased intentionality. Wigger lifts up the joy that comes through the practice of our faith. Using the paradigm of congregational worship, he shows how activities in family life embody elements of worship. These include how reading words together at bedtime parallels reading the Word, how sharing meals participates in communion, how bathing can be a form of baptism, etc. At the close of the book, Wigger provides thoughtful and evocative discussion questions that can be used at home or in church settings.

All in all this is a very special book. Written from the heart with seeming simplicity, it draws from and points to complexity and ideas that can stretch the mind, spark the imagination, and deepen faith. Throughout The Power of God at Home, Wigger moves deftly back and forth between the trees of particular family stories and the forest of the sacred story that is witnessed to in the whole of Scripture. He writes as a practical theologian in the best sense, grounded in his discipline of Christian education and making connections among multiple disciplines. Wigger articulates an earthy spiritual learning that stays true to the messiness of daily life and to the abundance of meaning that infuses God’s good, if imperfect, Creation. It provides wise, hopeful, and empowering accompaniment to any family or congregational member’s adventure in faith.

Carol J. Cook is assistant professor of pastoral care and counseling at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.