In her excellent book How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt argues that the sharp decline in religious belief (and the waning influence of the churches) in the Western world is related directly to the decline of the traditional family.
The Christian story itself is a story told through the prism of the family. Take away the prism, and the story makes less sense. We men and women, whether inside the churches or not, are only at the beginning of understanding how the fracturing of the natural family has in turn helped to fracture Christianity.
Citing a study conducted with over 1,400 children of divorced parents, Eberstadt excerpts an interview in which a young man, asked if God is like a parent, mush-mouths his way through a puzzled response and then gives up, admitting, “I’m drawing a blank. I’m just drawing a blank.”
Family illiteracy, Eberstadt says, “breeds religious illiteracy.”
In turn, increasing our scriptural literacy is one way for Christian communities to help their members understand and form families. Eberstadt’s book (which I mentioned in my previous column) has, in tandem with Helen Smith’s Men on Strike, reignited my admiration for the under-appreciated, underutilized Book of Tobit, which we are currently reading at daily Mass, and which is all about family, and the hope and healing that is drawn from the God-driven life force of familial love.
The book opens with the narrator, Tobit, describing his brief exile from Nineveh and then his blindness, which makes him feel so unmanned that he hectors his wife until a strain on his marriage leaves him woe-begotten enough to wish for death.
Meanwhile, in Media, a young woman named Sarah is also praying to die, for she has been married seven times, and each husband has been kidnapped and slain by a demon before the marriage could be consummated. When Tobit—blind and in need (and possibly depressed because he must live on his wife’s earnings)—remembers that he has funds on deposit in Media, he sends his son, Tobiah, to recover them. Like Polonius to Laertes, he sends his son off with a great deal of advice, and Tobiah leaves with a dog and (though he does not realize it) the archangel Raphael for traveling companions. While in Media Tobiah encounters Sarah; they marry. Thanks to the providential capture of a very useful fish, which Raphael has urged on him, Tobiah has the means to defeat the demon who so disrupted Sarah’s marriage bed, and to cure Tobit’s blindness. As the book closes we see a family not only restored but enlarged.
Tobit’s themes of exile and rejection, marital strife, separation anxiety, thwarted intimacy, and the wish for death make for a timely read in light of Smith’s and Eberstadt’s books, but in chapter ten of this story—populated by ordinary people experiencing feelings to which we moderns can easily relate—we find one of the most comprehensive descriptions of what marriage means to family and what family means to faith, and it is instruction we can stand to hear:
Raguel [Sarah's father] then promptly handed over to Tobiah his wife Sarah, together with half of all his property: male and female slaves, oxen and sheep, donkeys and camels, clothing, money, and household goods.
He saw them safely off. Embracing Tobiah, he said to him: “Farewell, son. Have a safe journey. May the Lord of heaven grant prosperity to you and to your wife Sarah. And may I see children of yours before I die!”
Then he said to his daughter Sarah, “My daughter, honor your father-in-law and your mother-in-law, because from now on they are as much your parents as the ones who brought you into the world. Go in peace, daughter; let me hear a good report about you as long as I live.” Finally he said goodbye to them and let them go.
Edna also said to Tobiah: “My child and beloved kinsman, may the Lord bring you back safely, and may I live long enough to see children of you and of my daughter Sarah before I die. Before the Lord, I entrust my daughter to your care. Never cause her grief all the days of your life. Go in peace, son. From now on I am your mother, and Sarah is your sister. Together may we all prosper throughout the days of our lives.” She kissed them both and saw them safely off.
This is as fundamental as “family literacy” gets and perhaps for some, an easier ideal to comprehend than the deep mystery of the Holy Family. In Tobit we see parents giving freely to their children; a husband charged to provide and to never make his wife unhappy; a wife encouraged to hold out her arms to new family and newer family—because the arms of women welcome family, enfold and nurture family, and finally send family forth. We see human people loving, sharing, blending two families into a cohesive whole that intends to keep on growing and keep on living, with the help of heaven. It begins with death, and burial, and both male and female characters wishing for death, but Tobit is an argument for life.
It is almost unread outside of the Catholic and Orthodox churches and not used enough, anywhere. A thorough examination of the short, entertaining and instructive Book of Tobit—and its utilization in marriage classes and nuptial liturgy—might be an effective treatment against the ills currently besetting our familial understanding.
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.