God’s Babies – Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America
Dr John McKeown
“McKeown does a fine job of showing how the modern natalist position misreads scripture. His study of the movement is all the more illuminating for its deep historical and theological perspectives.”
— John Bimson, Tutor in Old Testament, Trinity College Bristol
Natalism is an ideology aiming to persuade young people that the God of the Bible expects them to get married quickly and be open to bearing numerous babies. Religion is a wildcard in population and its ecological impact. The factors that normally influence “ideal family size”, such as women’s equality, and access to Family Planning, don’t much influence affluent American fundamentalists who interpret Bible verses like “be fruitful and multiply” as a divine norm for high human fecundity today. Happily, history shows that even fundamentalists can be persuaded to change their interpretations, as some have done in the past with regard to slavery and a geocentric universe.
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 uses Old Testament “fruitful” verses to explicitly promote higher fecundity. It also explores 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.
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Additional reviews for ‘God’s Babies’:
“In this fascinating study, McKeown offers the reader a lucid exploration of the ways in which ‘biblical’ notions of fruitfulness and procreative fecundity have been used and misused within the Christian theological tradition down through the ages. In doing so, McKeown makes a significant contribution to the field of theological ethics, but also adds a stimulating chapter to the ever expanding story of the Bible’s reception from antiquity down to the present day.”
— David Shepherd, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Trinity College Dublin (and formerly Principal of Belfast Bible College)
“In this original, scholarly book the author carefully analyses the theological foundations for natality and finds them wanting. He skilfully exposes not just faulty biblical exegesis supporting such a view, but also the way in which the Christian tradition has been misaligned to such a position. He argues convincingly that such issues are not of mere theoretical importance, but have significant ramifications for environmental ethics. There is much to commend this thought provoking book, not just for Protestant readers, but especially Roman Catholic readers who, though rarely supporting natality as such, habitually remain confused by the demand to both have children and promote celibacy.”
— Celia Deane-Drummond, Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame