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Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction

By Amy Laura Hall
Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics
Eerdmans, 2008
Hardcover, 452 pages, $32.00

Reviewed by Brian R. Brock

This is one of those books (like Barth’s Church Dogmatics) best read back to front. That the acknowledgments constitute their own chapter, placed at the end of the book, tips us off that an exercise in thorough theological genre-bending is in store. The conclusion concisely states the theological presupposition that holds the book together: grace remains at work in every age to subvert our most sophisticated inhumanities.

To begin from this ending fortifies the reader to weather the outpouring of darkness clothed in the garments of light to which the bulk of the book is devoted. This will at least be true for those with any attachments to specific “abnormal” human beings, who will cringe to see in such great detail how inhospitable modern American Christianity has been to them.

The most influential works in the history of Christian theology have always been those that have taken up the best thought of the day and wholly reoriented it by turning it toward the light of Christ. This book is groundbreaking in fully inhabiting the scholarly mantle of cultural history, but using it to direct readers’ attention to theologically chosen targets. Hall does not give us the bare theological arguments best suited for debates between experts. Instead, she displays the implications of a few theological insights in rich cultural detail. In so doing she reveals to us our own society, our own choices. This is not theology as ideas, but theology that reminds us that faith takes form in, for instance, our aspirations for a new kitchenette.

To sum up that theology in one of Hall’s many pithy phrases, her target is “justification by responsible procreation.”

The main project is to expose how, from the highest to the lowest reaches of contemporary American society, children are inextricably caught in a mass of adult conceptions of their value that have deep connections to assessments of their future productivity. Hall sees this instrumentalizing of children as linking the transformations of the American family in the 19th into the 21st centuries through its hopes to be more hygienic, educated, secure, genetically pedigreed, consumption oriented and energy consuming. The book is dynamite because it shows in fine-grained cultural detail how even our highest, best and most “Christian” aspirations for our families have been—and more worryingly, are being—turned to evil ends.

According to Seven-Up, the 11-month-old in this advertisement from the September 1955 Ladies Home Journal is not “our youngest customer by any means.” Hall notes that “In the early twentieth century . the shift to one part soda/one part milk [in infant bottles] reflected . a fast-food culture . ”(191).

Hall puts the aspiration of the project in these terms: “The eugenicists of yesterday played on the fears of relatively privileged middle-class parents, encouraging them to identify upward and to eschew solidarity with those who were falling behind. The challenge before mainline Protestants today is to see the children in their homes, neighborhoods and churches as unqualified gifts rather than projects, to identify ‘downward’ rather than to climb, and to allow their strategically protected and planned lives to become entangled in the needs of families and children judged to be at risk and behind the curve. To face this challenge, Protestants will need to confront their role in the past.”

Hall has a personal stake in catalyzing this “confrontation with the past.” She understands her own church, United Methodism, to have hallowed and thus perpetuated the division between “good” and “bad” births with chillingly eugenic, racist and economically discriminatory results. It is almost certainly this personal stake in the matter that makes this such a devastating critique of self-satisfied American Christianity. On this count alone it is the bravest book to appear in Christian ethics for some decades.

This is not bleakness for the sake of it. It is not pessimism. It is a sustained attempt to reveal that just calling oneself a Christian does not make it so. It is appropriate that Hall has not devoted more energy to describing how the life of faith might be “otherwise” because, as she amply demonstrates, an overrealized eschatology that seeks to iron out all the wrinkles in the future has been one of the most potent sources of self-delusion in American Protestantism. We cannot purify the race to reach the kingdom of God. That kingdom is formed from lives being changed by extending hospitality and openness to the “nonstandard” human beings who are written out of theologically justified dreams of perfect futures.

To read an interview with Professor Hall about this book, go to Eerdmans.

Brian R. Brock teaches at the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at King's College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is the author of Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture (Eerdmans, 2007) and co-editor with John Swinton of Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church (T&T Clark, 2007).