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The Flawed Family of God

Carolyn B. Helsel and Song-Mi Suzie Park
Westminster John Knox Press, 156 pages

I’ve been attending Sunday School classes all my life, and the stories in Genesis have always been favorites: the garden of Eden, the fall, the flood … I can almost taste the shortbread cookies and smell the paste from those formative education sessions! With as many times as I’ve heard the Genesis stories, presented for children and adults alike, I don’t expect to be surprised by a book focused on the first book of Scripture. The Flawed Family of God by Carolyn B. Helsel and Song-Mi Suzie Park surprised me in the most wonderful way, approaching the stories from a completely different angle.

Helsel and Park acknowledge upfront that reading the stories of Scripture is useless if we cannot identity with what we are reading. But what can we learn from a couple who lives naked in isolation in a perfect world with only one rule? Turns out, plenty. Almost immediately the authors make the claim that “family” is not limited to the traditional “mother, father, 2.5 children and a dog” image that we have come to associate. Instead, being created in God’s androgynous image alongside all the animals of creation allows us to imagine families of all shapes, sizes, and memberships. They dive into these well-read stories, calling the reader’s attention to details often overlooked and relating the narratives to familiar family dynamics, thousands of years later. The book addresses sibling relationships (in children and adults), trauma, spousal difficulties, infertility, blended families, LGBTQ+ inclusion, competitive parenting and deaths in the family. No matter what your family situation, you will most definitely recognize yourself in the stories as Helsel and Park share them.

Practically speaking, the book is an excellent tool both for individual and group study. The language is accessible to a general audience and does not assume that the reader already knows the stories. Background and setting are provided so that the reader does not feel lost in the discussion, and passage references are included so that readers can look up the verses discussed. The authors have transliterated important words from the Biblical Hebrew into English, making them accessible to anyone unfamiliar with Biblical languages (including pastors like me, whose Hebrew is quite rusty!) This allows for discussion about what the original text was trying to express, without being clouded by the muddled translations of multiple scholars over centuries.

This inclusive book speaks to many types of families without passing judgment. The passage relating the sacrifice of Isaac to the ostracization of LGBTQ+ individuals was particularly helpful to me (I had never made the connection between the two), and I have this chapter bookmarked and well-highlighted for easy reference in the future. In a group setting, this book would be an ideal tool for adult Sunday School or weeknight study. Each chapter includes five to seven multi-part discussion questions which require thoughtful deliberation about the participants’ own experiences in relationship to the biblical text.

This refreshing look at some very familiar tales will be a frequent go-to on my shelves. I would encourage anyone hungry for a relationship with these ancient texts to read this book and prepare to be transported into the narrative.

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Rev. Katina Sharp is the pastor of Powell Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, four sons, and two rescue dogs (who are the real bosses of the house).