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God's Babies

God's Babies: Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America

John McKeown
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Open Book Publishers
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    God's Babies
    Book Description:

    The human population's annual total consumption is not sustainable by one planet. This unprecedented situation calls for a reformation in religious cultures that promote a large ideal family size. Many observers assume that Christianity is inevitably part of this problem because it promotes "family values" and statistically, in America and elsewhere, has a higher birthrate than nonreligious people. This book explores diverse ideas about human reproduction in the church past and present. It investigates an extreme fringe of U.S. Protestantism, including the Quiverfull movement, that use Old Testament "fruitful" verses to support natalist ideas explicitly promoting higher fecundity. It also challenges the claim by some natalists that Martin Luther in the 16th century advocated similar ideas. This book argues that natalism is inappropriate as a Christian application of Scripture, especially since rich populations’ total footprints are detrimental to biodiversity and to human welfare. It explores the ancient cultural context of the Bible verses quoted by natalists. Challenging the assumption that religion normally promotes fecundity, the book finds surprising exceptions among early Christians (with a special focus on Saint Augustine) since they advocated spiritual fecundity in preference to biological fecundity. Finally the book uses a hermeneutic lens derived from Genesis 1, and prioritising the modern problem of biodiversity, to provide ecological interpretations of the Bible's "fruitful" verses.

    eISBN: 978-1-78374-054-3
    Subjects: Religion, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    David Clough

    UN projections indicate that the global human population is likely to increase by nearly 50% in the first half of the 21st century, from 6 billion to 9 billion (United Nations 2004). This staggering and unprecedented growth deserves much greater attention from Christian ethicists and the church at large. A concern for the welfare both of human beings and other creatures provides good reasons to think that Christians should give strong support to measures that would result in a slowing of this projected growth, notwithstanding concerns about reproductive liberty and the ethics of contraception. In this book, however, John McKeown...

  5. 1. Natalism: A Popular Use of the Bible
    (pp. 1-30)

    Diverse interpretations and applications of particular Bible verses have shaped American Christian ideas about a religious duty to reproduce biologically, and concepts of ideal family size. This book compares historical and contemporary Christian receptions of Old Testament verses that speak about human fecundity. The receptors initially capturing my attention were Protestant Evangelicals advocating larger family size (an ideology that I call “natalism”) in contemporary America. Having found over a dozen popular books from that genre I observed that the verses cited most often are “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28), and the verses from Psalm 127 quoted...

  6. 2. Protestant Natalism in the U.S.
    (pp. 31-76)

    History can be divided into periods before and after the decline of premature death, and especially the collapse of infant mortality. In the pre-modern period a community’s survival required on average at least five successful births from each woman (Livi Bacci 156). Given that some experienced infertility, and that many mothers died prematurely (often as a result of childbirth), the remainder had to bear rather more. I will treat separately the attitudes toward fertility of three stakeholders: parents, national rulers, and religious leaders. For parents, especially fathers, the benefit of numerous offspring was obvious: for agricultural labour, domestic service, and...

  7. 3. Martin Luther: Forerunner of Natalism?
    (pp. 77-108)

    Martin Luther is the most important figure in the 16th century change in attitudes toward marriage and childbearing in western Christianity.¹ Although he had little to say about population size, he discussed human fertility more extensively than any other early Protestant leader. Luther paved the way for modern natalism through his rhetorical exaltation of the biological family. Before him the primary models of ideal Christian leadership had been celibate Jesus with his twelve disciples, or celibate Paul with his missionary associates and the planted churches, or later a bishop with a cathedral fellowship of celibate canons. After Luther the model...

  8. 4. The Old Testament Context
    (pp. 109-144)

    I begin this exploration of the Old Testament context by looking at the ancient Near Eastern background in its agricultural, demographic, economic, political, and religious dimensions. I will then focus on the canonical and theological contexts of the verses most commonly used by natalists (Genesis 1:28 and Psalm 127) to identify a range of plausible original meanings. This analysis leads to a comparison of the arguments advanced by modern natalists with features of Old Testament exegesis and theology from which significant differences emerge. In the first place, Old Testament blessings contribute materially to prosperity, and were regarded as a reward...

  9. 5. Augustine on Fruitfulness
    (pp. 145-176)

    In the early centuries of Christianity, the significance of reproduction was intensely debated. The writings of Augustine (354-430) dominated subsequent western Christian reflection on the topic until the 16th century. In part, that simply reflected Augustine’s predominance in Christian thought generally,¹ but it was also because later Christian leaders valued his innovative resolution of tensions concerning the origin, past, present, and future of human reproduction.

    Today most heirs of Augustinian thought are selective. Catholicism has mostly abandoned his hope that lay Catholic women could aspire to a higher vocation than motherhood. Though it still esteems vowed celibacy above marriage, even...

  10. 6. An Ecological Critique of Natalism
    (pp. 177-208)

    I will here complete my evaluation of natalist interpretations of the fruitful verses, which I previously weighed against their original Near Eastern context and then compared with Augustine’s thinking about human fruitfulness. Now a constructive ecological response to natalism will be offered, bringing together Scripture, Christian tradition, and the 21st-century context of North American and global population growth and ecological footprints to produce an alternative interpretation of the fruitful verses, one shaped by concern for biodiversity and ecological sustainability. This chapter considers the purpose and context of human fecundity, as well as the concepts of abundance, limits to growth, and...

  11. 7. Conclusion
    (pp. 209-214)

    This book has explored the role of biblical interpretation in exhortations to higher fecundity by U.S. Protestants. Earlier critics of natalist exegetes have regarded contraception as the central issue of interest, and emphasized the difference between rejection of family planning (portrayed as problematic legalism) and planning a large family (portrayed as one reasonable application of a Christian model of parenthood). They have rarely critiqued natalismper se. From my perspective, the anti-contraceptive ideology is separate in theory and peripheral in practice since large families can be planned. All natalists use similar arguments for high fecundity, based on the same Bible...

  12. Appendix
    (pp. 215-222)
  13. Abbreviations
    (pp. 223-226)
  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 227-246)
  15. Index
    (pp. 247-248)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 249-251)