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Members of the Family

Over at Rod’s joint there’s a conversation about family that I’d like to weigh in on. A family — and this is true of all the Burkean “little platoons” — is the kind of organization of which we can be members, in the proper sense of that word. In C. S. Lewis’s great address “Membership,” one of the three or four essential documents of that man’s writings, he explains that concept as well as anyone ever has:

The very word membership is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. In any book on logic you may see the expression ‘members of a class.’ It must be most emphatically stated that the items or particulars included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what St. Paul meant by members. By members he meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity… . A row of identically dressed soldiers set side by side, or a number of citizens listed as voters in a constituency are not members of anything in the Pauline sense. I am afraid that when we describe a man as ‘a member of the church’ we usually mean nothing Pauline; we mean only that he is a unit — that he is one more specimen of some kind of things as X and Y and Z. How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself… . If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure.

Lewis goes on to explore the concept of membership specifically in relation to the Church, and anyone who knows anything about how comtemporary American churches, especially evangelical megachurches, think about membership will see that Lewis’s definition of the term ought to give them a good deal to reconsider. But membership as Lewis, drawing on St. Paul, defines it is a very useful category for thinking about all our associations, especially the political and familial.

I may say more about the political at some other time, but for now let me just tell one story about family memberships and leave it at that. I know a woman named Harriet who is 80 years old, and who recently told me this story.

Her older brother Gordon has been seriously ill for a long time and Harriet has been caring for him. Gordon has a daughter, but she has been around only intermittently. She had booked an Alaskan cruise some time back and didn’t want to miss it; and right after her return she had planned to have plastic surgery and didn’t want to reschedule. So 80-year-old Harriet was spending most of her time at the hospital, sometimes sleeping in a chair next to Gordon’s bed so he wouldn’t be alone and afraid if he woke in the middle of the night.

One morning Gordon’s daughter dropped in to see how her dad was doing. As she and Harriet chatted, she asked Harriet whether she had been to a social event that for a long time had been a highlight of Harriet’s year. Harriet said No, she wasn’t going to make it this year because she needed to help care for Gordon. The daughter replied, “You don’t need to do that! That’s what they have nurses for. We don’t have to put our lives on hold for him.” Harriet didn’t say anything, but she thought to herself, Yes we do.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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