Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement
by Kathryn Joyce
Beacon Press, March 2009
272 pp., $25.95
It's a Monday night. Two back-to-back episodes of Jon & Kate Plus 8 are on TLC. Tomorrow night the network will run Kids by the Dozen at 7 p.m., followed by four episodes of 17 Kids and Counting during its 8-10 p.m. slot, followed in turn by another round of 17 Kids from 11 to midnight. After that — if you're still awake — you can catch a few more rounds of Jon & Kate.
Looks like someone at TLC thinks big families might just equal big bucks in its current programming lineup.
Tie all that in with the media flurry about Nadya Suleman, the single mother in California who gave birth to octuplets conceived by in vitro fertilization in January, bringing her total number of children to 14, and suddenly we have — a trend? A fad? What's with all the large families? Or perhaps the real question is, what's with all of us who are watching them?
Why are we so interested in large families? Families like the Gosselins (Jon & Kate), the Duggers (17 Kids), and the Sulemans are sparking heated discussions among observers, including Christians. Outsider interest in how many children a woman has is nothing new, yet among considerations of failing Social Security and environmental concerns, this interest seems to be intensifying toward apprehension, even alarm. Women of childbearing age are used to fielding questions from family, friends, and complete strangers about their fertility: How many children do you have? How many children do you want? But these questions pale in light of the larger, more philosophical question at their base: How many children should you have?
That simple question implicates wide-ranging issues, including contraception, fertility treatments, human sexuality, gender roles, the purpose of marriage and procreation — issues that, in short, touch at the very core of our identities. Perhaps that's one of the reasons we are so fascinated by larger families: we're not just interested in what life is like for them, we're also questioning the implications for our own lives.
Kathryn Joyce addresses issues such as these in her new book, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Joyce is specifically looking at the "Quiverfull" movement, whose origin is often credited to the 1985 publication of Mary Pride's The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality. Quiverfull adherents, along with other Christian families who eschew the name yet follow the principles, do not believe in using any form of birth control, including natural family planning, and for some, apparently, lactational amenorrhea, the suppression of ovulation that naturally results from breastfeeding. Simply put, as Joyce writes in her book, adherents believe in "babies, lots of them, for God." It's a movement that has drawn some attention as of late, including mention in a New York Times Fashion & Style article earlier this month.
In Quiverfull, Joyce turns a keen journalistic eye to the inner workings of the movement. She dedicates the first section of her book, entitled "Wives," to the concept of wifely submission, and makes the argument that it is the "antifeminist" practice of submission that paves the way for ideologies like Quiverfull to burgeon. From there, Joyce moves on to the heart of her book, "Mothers," and a discussion of the Quiverfull movement. It isn't a large movement; she writes, "The number of families who have committed themselves wholly to the Quiverfull path doesn't represent any pollster's idea of a key demographic." But their aims are nonetheless big. Quoting David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, "It would not be difficult, surely, for the devout to accomplish — in no more than a generation or two — a demographic revolution."
The idea of a demographic revolution comes paired with an idea that surfaces repeatedly throughout Joyce's book: preparation for war. Joyce's interviewees differ on whether this coming war is spiritual, cultural, literal — or all three — but the message remains the same: Quiverfull adherents are planning to win this war by sheer numbers, giving birth to and raising "arrows," their term for children. Joyce references a letter from Cathi Warren, originally written as a response to columnist David Brooks's opinion in The New York Times that mothers of many are too busy with their children to win any sort of culture war: "Raising a large family … was itself her 'battle station,' " observes Joyce about Warren, "as deliberately political an act as canvassing for conservative candidates, not to mention part of a long-term plan to win the culture war demographically."
Although several of the examples Joyce cites smack of the extreme (leaders who condone domestic violence, or blame repeated miscarriages on a woman's "witchcraft" left unrepented), many of the implied questions she raises in her book are insightful.
Writing about the growing trend of larger families on reality TV shows, she observes that the "theological underpinnings are glossed over to make room for the novel details of large family life." This observation seems a particularly important one for Christians: Are we interested in the theology of Quiverfull adherents, or do we just like watching the drama and entertainment that results? Can we look beyond the novelty factor — How many loads of laundry do you do each day? Where do you store all the gallons of milk? — and examine the questions of the soul hidden beneath the gloss of primetime television?
The criticisms against large families can be severe. Shmuley Boteach, father of nine, titled his recent Jerusalem Post article about his family size "The Criminal Act of Having Too Many Kids." But what do we make of Genesis 1:28 — be fruitful and multiply? It goes without saying that the Quiverfull interpretation of being fruitful isn't the only one; Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, writing for CT in 2001, states, "Fertility is not a command but a blessing that God gives to his creatures … to suggest that birth control is evil or perverse because it undermines God's sovereignty is to underestimate God's sovereignty and reject our responsibility to serve him wisely."
So who has the final say? The couple? The medical profession? Friends, family, society, the culture at large? Fertility is a highly personal matter — but one with both public and political ramifications that shouldn't be ignored. Perhaps the real virtue of both Joyce's book and the current media focus on large families is a call to reexamine our own beliefs and the biblical basis for what we practice in the realm of family planning. If the question is bigger than, "How many children should we have?" maybe, to invoke Francis Schaeffer and Charles Colson, a better question would be, "How then, how now, shall we live?" The issues Joyce's book raises are fundamental to our identity as human beings, and as Christians. Perhaps they could stand some reexamination.
Elrena Evans is co-editor of Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.
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More Christianity Today coverage of large families includes:
The Case for Kids | A defense of the large family by a 'six-time breeder.' By Leslie Leyland Fields (August 1, 2006)
Editorial: Fill an Empty Cradle | Falling birthrates demand new priorities for families. (November 1, 2004)
Make Love and Babies | The contraceptive mentality says children are something to be avoided. We're not buying it. By Sam and Bethany Torode (November 9, 2001)