I recently heard Kevin DeYoung mention that he likes listening to thinkers whose worldview overlaps with his but who have different areas of focus from him. I know what he means. Listening to someone I already agree with 99% of the time can be edifying and good, but it’s not always stimulating and stretching. I enjoy listening to people who make me think about things differently and see familiar things in a new light.
This brings me to Jeremy Pryor, a thinker and author whose work has helped me think through issues related to family, fatherhood, finances, and more. Jeremy leads a ministry called Family Teams along with his wife April and their friends Jefferson & Alyssa Bethke. He also has a Substack and a podcast. I reached out to him and he agreed to answer some questions. Below is a transcript of that conversation. I hope it’s as enjoyable and thought-provoking for you as it was for me.
Note that the transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
P.C.: I first encountered you while listening to a podcast for Christian fathers called “Dad Tired.” I was intrigued by the way you described the family in terms of a multi-generational family team. Can you briefly trace your own journey from growing up in secular Seattle, to living in Israel, to how you understand the family now?
J.P.: Growing up in a particular culture — in my case the West Coast of the US — I only tended to see one expression or philosophy of family. That experience brought me to a place where I felt that family was a failed experiment, or at least had gone badly off the rails. At the time I didn’t suspect that the ideas we had around family were the cause of the problem, rather it just seemed like there was something so predictably broken between men and women. I saw how sin affected everything and a part of me wondered if the fundamental design was not that good.
So while I was excited about being married, I was really not excited about having kids or starting a family. Doing youth ministry at the time, I saw a lot of people who were just devastated by broken families. Many of my friends were opting out, not wanting to have kids, and some of them not even wanting to get married. These kinds of intuitions about family resonated with me personally and culturally although I struggled to reconcile them with my understanding of the Bible’s teaching.
It was from that context that I went to Israel to study abroad for a semester in my early 20’s. And there I kept seeing a certain scene play out — from the initial airplane flight to the streets of Jerusalem — and that scene was simply lots of men with children. That looked so weird to me, coming from Seattle. It was such an extreme contrast.
I remember clearly one day I saw a group of men pushing strollers with all these kids in tow and that was the moment where I started asking, “What are these guys believing about children and family that’s different from what I believe?” As I got deeper into that conversation with the men of that culture, the clear difference was that they saw family as a totally different thing than I did. Their idea of family was founded on Abraham’s vision of what the family was.
In Genesis Abraham is repeatedly crying out for descendants. Nothing is more important to him than his identity as a father. And that’s never contradicted or rebuked by God. Also, God renames him from Abram to Abraham; from ‘Exalted Father’ to ‘Father of Many Nations.’ This idea of father was a foundational element of Jewish culture, and part of the foundational idea of how God was going to use this patriarch and his descendants to bring salvation to the world.
I’d always believed all of that as part of the Biblical story but it previously had zero impact on my idea of family. It just seemed a primitive relic of that culture. Now it’s always a difficult thing when studying the Bible to discern which elements are cultural and which are instructive. To be clear, I don’t see anything particularly prescriptive about how Abraham saw family. But this Abrahamic view of the family served as a clue as to why our two cultures — my Western one and the Jewish one — were so radically different.
The fathers I encountered in Israel embraced Abraham’s vision of the family, understanding it the same way he did 5000 years ago. On the other hand, I was one of plenty of modern men on the West Coast of the US who were Christians but who had never even considered that this ancient paradigm could have an impact on the way we viewed the family. So that started this whole thread of thinking: Are we missing something in the West, and even within the Church?
P.C.: Personal identity is a central issue in the lives of teenagers and young people today in a way that many of us didn’t expect even ten or fifteen years ago. I’m always looking for thinkers who can help shed light on this phenomenon. I’ve really appreciated the work of Carl Trueman and Mary Eberstadt in this regard. But I heard something on one of your podcasts that stopped me in my tracks. It was in the context of reflecting on your teenage daughter’s experience of attending a public High School. Here’s what you said:
“Nobody gets their identity from inside themselves. And so what we’ve decided, by giving our kids hyper-independence, is we’ve handed their identity over to their peers. It wasn’t handing it over to themselves [like we thought]. We said to their peers: ‘Hey you guys, in all of your wisdom at 15 or 16 years old, why don’t you tell my kids who they are because it’s offensive for me to tell my kids who they are.’ I know them, I’ve raised them, I know their multi-generational family background, I know the values we’ve raised them with, but who am I to tell my kids who they are? Obviously this 15-year old that they’re meeting for the first time, who’s in some kind of social hierarchy game against my child, is the best one to help my child discover their identity.”
That description of the dynamics at play in a typical high school social setting resonated with me as right on the mark. Can you expand on this identity dilemma, its causes and cures? And is there a link to the social contexts in these peer-dominant spaces like High School?
J.P.: Well I think it starts by understanding that we have a word for people who can construct a completely individual identity that other people have no ability to impact: We call them psychopaths. If you can just construct your own identity that is totally impervious to other people and their feedback, that’s a sign of a personality disorder. The fact is you will be impacted by other people. Identity is something that is constructed through exploration with other people, and through relationships with other people. This is so clear. When people lie on their deathbeds, the only thing people care about is their relational identities — their family and close friends. The problem for our secular culture is that it cannot admit this reality about identity because it attacks and thwarts its greatest idol: individual autonomy and self-determination.
We’ve basically said that individualism is our primary value, that we worship the individual. This creates a total blindness as to the kind of situation we’re putting our children into when we send them out into the world without an identity, in order to go find who they are in themselves. That’s not how this works. I think as Christians we have to be really aware that this is actually an extremely dangerous thing to do to children. We have this myth that they’re going to go out and basically figure out, “Well I guess I’m a good football player, or piano player, or good at this or that,” and we elevate all those identities as being actually who you are. It’s like how we ask children what they want to be when they grow up when what we mean by that is “what kind of work do you want to do?” That’s a crazy idea. Most people live in the center of extremely meaningful relationships and they see their identity through those meaningful relationships.
Going back to something I said earlier, part of the problem with the breakdown of the family is that it’s then the last place we want to go for identity. If people grow up in really broken families, then if they were to rely on their toxic mother or father, or deeply abusive family of origin to find their identity at any level, then it would be unhealthy. They do have to find a way to somehow overcome that. Given the fact that this has been created because their mothers and fathers likely did the same thing, this vicious cycle is only getting worse and worse.
So we need to take a step back and ask, “Okay how can we heal this problem?” And the gospel has all the resources needed to heal these identity problems. But one of the challenges with the gospel’s answer to the identity problem is that it’s all situated in familial language. I learn who I am in Christ through my understanding of sonship and his fatherhood towards me. I understand my relationship with Jesus because he’s like a brother, and in the church we are like a family. So the family was designed, I think, just like Paul said about marriage, to provide a framework for us to fully understand and live into the gospel identities that we have in Christ. But when the family is destroyed, those reference points are lost or distorted, and that’s a huge challenge.
P.C.: You talk about disintegration a lot — this alienation between the family, the home, and work. How does today compare to what we see in Scripture and in history? And then what does it look like to start to re-integrate family and work?
J.P.: Well historically people tended to live a much more integrated life. They worked with their family, often across generations, and they were stewarding assets as a family. At the start of the 20th century 70% of Americans lived on farms, and even the ones that didn’t tended to work in trades and own small businesses. This was the ambition of the lower classes even in old European cultures where there was an aristocracy that made it basically impossible. And this desire is what drove a lot of the immigration to the new world.
We now have a different ambition as a culture, which goes back to one of the earlier questions. We primarily see work as a way to find our individual identity, as opposed to a means of providing for and working with our family. But if we can learn to see work as a nested element under fatherhood, then that will mean a very different relationship to our work.
One of the things we come across all the time at Family Teams is fathers in their 20’s and 30’s who for the first time have a new value: “I want to work in a way that integrates my new family and in a way where that integration is going to increase over time.” Thankfully there are all kinds of amazing work paths that can make that possible, and we live in one of the best times — maybe in history — for that kind of thinking. We’re seeing families get financially free in 5 to 10 years and starting to build assets. In the past it could take generations of work to establish that.
It comes down to whether work is a subset of family or the dominant individual identity. I’m not sure we understand how different those two perspectives are. Everything shifts when I see work as a subset of family: everything I do to gain income for my family is something that my family’s involved in, even though it might disintegrate me to a certain degree. We should not allow the disintegration that was part of the industrial revolution to seep into our values, as if it was something ideal.
P.C.: Within the Christian community we sometimes hear about the danger of making an idol of the family. What are your thoughts on this? Can this happen? How do we know if it has?
J.P.: I think this was the dominant idol that Jesus was wrestling with in the 1st century. That was a time when the family was hyper-strong, much stronger than the individual. So it became a big problem when people converted. We see this today in the Middle-East and in other traditional cultures. When you talk to Jews or Muslims about Christ, their first reaction is often something like, “What is my family going to think? I can’t accept Christ — it would be a betrayal to my family, my parents, my grandparents, to my ancestors, my tribe, my ethnic identity.” Jesus challenges that head on and says that if the gospel conflicts with your family, then you must follow him.
The way to preach the gospel in any culture is to go after the dominant idol, creating a fork in the road between Jesus and that dominant idol. In our culture I would say that is primarily individualism — it’s all about me. So yes, family can absolutely be an idol, and there are some cultures where it is an idol, but I don’t think that’s as big of a problem in our culture. The sovereign self is the idol we tend to worship in our culture and the one that needs to be constantly confronted. Still, it’s possible for families to fall into the trap of making itself the end goal, and therefore an idol.
At Family Teams we have a framework that we use to help Christian families think through some of these issues. We lay out three possibilities: 1. Are you doing family and mission as disintegrated pieces, each in their own separate spheres? 2. Are you doing family as mission, where you think that raising a great family is fulfilling the great commission and everything else the NT calls us to? Or 3. Are you a family on mission, in which the family is a vehicle through which we express our identities and our mission in the kingdom. I really think this third approach is how you guard against making an idol of family.