Last night, quite a large group from our church met at the Fredericton Cineplex for a screening of Irreplaceable, a documentary on the meaning of family and threats that face families within our culture. While it’s presented as a global investigation, it’s really more of a personal reflection by its director and host, Tim Sisarich, on the western family. Sisarich is from New Zealand, so he has an appealing accent and lends the movie a bit of a cross-cultural feel, but this is a movie from and for our largely North American experience of the family. Irreplaceable isn’t here to open a window family customs and challenges in the eastern or developing world, despite what the trailer might lead us to expect. For the western viewers who will be its prime audience, though, this movie’s questions strike a chord.
Irreplaceable is a Focus on the Family product. It’s been criticized for its advocacy of a traditional understanding of family. One Ohio theatre apparently faced enough of a protest that they cancelled their scheduled screening. Whatever you read about it, this movie isn’t an attack, and it doesn’t teach hate and intolerance. It merely seeks to highlight the ongoing place and value of the nuclear family, especially for the lives of children.
Yes, it takes a position. Yes, it presents Mom-Dad-Kids as the basic family unit. But it does so positively, not negatively. It is more concerned with holding up a model that is often devalued in our culture than with tearing anyone down. There are moments when you might expect it to turn into a critique of other family models, but it doesn’t.
What it does critique is absentee fatherhood. What it does critique is sex without commitment. What it does critique is the widespread perception that marriage isn’t meant to last. It does all of these things with sincerity and heart, and it’s hard not to reflect on your own experience of family while watching it. Those who grew up without a dad will hear a voice of understanding. Those who are part of a healthy marriage, or were raised in a house with one, will find reasons to be thankful. All of us will be sobered to consider the impact of a “hook-up” culture of sex on the next generation. In all these areas, Irreplaceable makes its point well.
However, as a Focus on the Family project, there is the possibility of over-praising family at the expense of God. Of course, set over against the family brokenness that is pervasive in our culture, Irreplaceable is entirely commendable. This movie’s makers desire to see harmony in the home, advocating for the real love and security that comes from communicating openly and taking the time to work through difficulties to reach new places of health and wholeness. But set over against some of the New Testament’s (and Jesus’ own) words warning against valuing family as an end in itself (Matthew 10:37, Mark 3:31-35), it sometimes misses the mark.
The crucial question for me is this: Is God here to help the family? Or is family here to help us know God? To elaborate: Do we view God as the servant who wants to help us find a happy family life? Or is family the servant, functioning as the primary context out of which we are enabled by God to learn and grow in faithfulness to Jesus Christ?
In other words, what is the main goal? Is the main goal to have thriving families, or to be faithful followers of the Lord?
If we see our main goal as the family, my worry is that God becomes an add-on who might help you bring your family to a better place, but if your family can function well enough without focusing on God, God can be set aside until he’s needed again.
But if God is the goal, our family life will assume its proper place, as we see in each other (mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children) a daily opportunity to grow to love the other in the same way that Christ has brought God’s love to us.
If I’m completely honest, I fear that Focus on the Family often makes family the main goal, and then points people to God as one who can help their family thrive. Within the wider culture, their witness to the value of the family is good. But the good can sometimes keep us from the best. For some portions of Irreplaceable, I felt that they didn’t quite manage to avoid this danger.
Happily, however, there were at least two powerful stories near the conclusion of the movie in which Irreplaceable got the emphasis exactly right. In one, a couple spoke about how their firstborn son’s Down Syndrome taught them to value people not for what they can do but for who they are. They talked of learning from him that God can use what seem like limitations to subvert our view of success and to bring his grace into the lives of others. This sounds like nothing if not the apostle Paul’s central message of the power of the cross of Jesus.
In the other story, a man with a foster care ministry told how he and his wife adopted a 15 year old boy who had been through 26 previous foster families. He had asked them to adopt him. They prayed about it and finally did adopt him, only for him to run away shortly after in search of his birth family. The father spoke of his desperate desire for his son to return, a longing that stayed strong through years following his departure. In this pain he learned something of the longing of the father of the prodigal in Jesus’ parable. This man continues to work in care for children without families. He has decided to go where there is suffering, recalling Paul’s words in Philippians 3 about knowing Christ through sharing his suffering. In the lives of this extended family—these suffering children—he continues to learn Jesus’ suffering.
Irreplaceable challenges all of us to look at the care and energy we give to our life in the family. It encourages us to look at ourselves as always in need of God’s grace as we do this work. It’s a challenge we’d do well to respond to. Through it all, I would point to these two stories in particular as the most important reminder: our families, with their trials and sufferings, misplaced expectations and shattered hopes, are tools God is using to teach us his love, to draw us closer to him, and to demonstrate to the world what his grace looks like. He’s training us for service in his wider family of all believers, and our experiences in our own family serve as a school for all our other work for him. Our families, like our whole lives, are intended for the glory of God. If pleasing him is our aim, we’ll find ourselves with plenty of motivation to do our best, to offer ourselves to the spouse and children with whom we share our life in daily service, dedication, and especially Christ-like sacrificial love.