(This article was originally written for and appears on The Washington Institute of Faith, Vocation and Culture platform
Genealogy is having a pop culture moment. It seems that capturing family narrative helps us feed a longing for belonging.
Who knew spitting into a plastic tube would become such a popular pastime? Not to mention lucrative. The direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing market — think 23andMe or AncestryDNA — has skyrocketed since it was first launched in the early 2000s. Today, it generates $1.3 billion dollars and is projected to grow four-fold before 2030, to $5.8 billion.
By the start of 2019, more than 26 million Americans (8% of the U.S. population) had taken one of the many at-home DNA tests available, according to a report by MIT Technology Review. The public’s desire for accessible and affordable data to make personal health decisions has been a major factor leading to the industry’s accelerated growth. DTC genetic tests can be used to determine risks for developing certain diseases, for example, or results can predict how an individual might respond to certain medications.
But the application that has captured the public’s collective imagination most has less to do with medical calculations and everything to do with family history. DTC genetic testing is the shiny new tool in the genealogy tool kit.
Ancestry.com alone has more than 23 million members in its DNA network and 23andMe boasts more than 12 million customers worldwide. Of course, long before the current fascination with DNA testing, genealogists have plied their trade using more conventional methods — scouring census records, passenger lists, family photos and letters, birth and death certificates, maps, and newspaper archives, to name a few. The internet and genealogy software have been a boon to the genealogy movement as well. Online family tree database companies have millions of subscribers and have curated tens of billions of ancestral records. It’s never been easier to track down that great great-grandmother from Norway.
When we’re not collecting DNA samples or searching for clues to the family tree, we’re watching professional historians do it on television. We tune in to shows like Antiques Roadshow, Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots so we can find a link to the past and understand what has come before. We tune in for entertainment value, to be sure. Who among us hasn’t indulged in the occasional daydream that the cubist painting we inherited from great-aunt Maude and promptly tucked in the corner of the attic is actually the windfall we’ve been looking for to fund the luxury version of our retirement plan? But perhaps the real reason we’re drawn to stories and programs about distant relatives and the lives they lived is a hope that they will help us better understand our own selves and how we fit.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the host and executive producer of the popular PBS program Finding Your Roots, which first aired in the spring of 2012. Now in its ninth season, the show combines old fashioned genealogical sleuthing with state-of-the-art genetics to trace the family lineage and uncover the hidden stories of celebrity guests. “Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of making this series is the discovery that, in the end, we are all related, that Americans who didn’t look alike or who didn’t share the same religions have been inextricably connected since the beginning of our Republic and long before,” says Gates, who is also a research professor at Harvard University. “Our series delights in unveiling the roots and branches of our country’s, and our world’s, collective family tree.”
We also find genealogy creeping onto the big screen and streaming platforms. Modern audiences love epic stories about family, legacy and inheritance. Consider the enduring popularity of cinematic franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings or popular television series like The Crown, Game of Thrones, and Yellowstone. And of course, reading audiences have been enthralled for years by multi-generational tales from authors like Ken Follett and his bestselling Century Trilogy, or Edward Rutherfurd and his many sagas about history, people and culture through the centuries in iconic places like London, Paris and New York. Even the current edition of Writer’s Market lists dozens of publications and trade journals dedicated to the pursuit of genealogy, family history, and nostalgia. Ancestry sells.
As one family-history enthusiast noted, genealogy is having a pop culture moment. But why now? What is it that captivates us about the past? What are we searching for, and what can our ancestors help us find.
Longing for Belonging
For Bernice Bennett, the answers lie somewhere between curiosity and connection. Bennett is a professional genealogist and award-winning author. A New Orleans native, her research interests typically focus on tracking family lineage and history throughout Southeast Louisiana and parts of South Carolina. Recently, while researching other projects, she became curious about a new discovery: African Americans who had applied for and obtained land in rural southern communities of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi under the Homestead Act of 1862. Bennett’s research on the topic led to her most recent book, Black Homesteaders of the South.
The descendant of a Black homesteader herself, Bennett helped orchestrate a grassroots effort to connect others like herself with the past and with each other. In her book, she traces the lives of 49 Black homesteaders and tells the long forgotten or ignored stories of those who persevered to live the American dream as landowning farmers.
“I have a personal interest in community genealogy,” says Bennett, who believes the desire for connection is an important driver for professional and amateur genealogists alike. “I want to look at clusters. I want to look at special events that occurred within a group of people. That’s why the book is out, because we are dealing with a very specific historical event that made a difference in the lives of African Americans. Obviously, there’s the historical connection, but there’s also the family journey and then the ability to tell stories.”
In family stories, we find belonging. We recognize ourselves. Our own sense of being and purpose can be reaffirmed when we see ourselves in the generations that have come before us. It goes beyond a familiar smile or a shared physical trait. We understand better, for example, a stubborn streak or a resilient spirit when we see those same qualities in family members who started new lives in a new land, who overcame the hardship of economic catastrophe, or who survived the scourge of illness. Family lore can provide a sense of connection to something bigger than self.
We are hard-wired for such connection, but many of us feel adrift, which is one reason genealogy research and programs like Finding Your Roots are so popular — they tap into an unmet need.
“There may be some people who are looking to find that they’re connected to Pocahontas, trying to find somebody famous,” says Bennett. “But you also have others who are saying there’s something missing. Who am I? How can I find that information, and how can it make me feel whole?”
Longing for belonging is an age-old desire. It’s one reason the Old Testament is chock-full of genealogies that trace the connections between generations of the early Hebrew people. Those who-begat-whom passages that modern readers tend to want to gloss over, were pivotal to an understanding of identity and wholeness in the ancient world. In Genesis 5, for example, we find a record of generations descending from Adam to Noah. Genesis 10 and 11 gives us the account of the nations from Noah to Abraham. And in 1 Chronicles 1-9, the longest of the Old Testament genealogies, we come face-to-face with other familiar characters like Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon, as well as many other seemingly ordinary people. Not to mention, more than a few scoundrels.
In the New Testament, we find two more genealogy accounts. Matthew begins his gospel with a recounting of Jesus’ lineage, giving special attention to Jesus’ relationship to David and Abraham. He does this to establish that Jesus is “the continuation and fulfilment of the whole biblical story about God and Israel.” Matthew was writing for an audience that would value an understanding the Jewishness of Jesus.
Luke also records a version of Jesus’ genealogy in his gospel. But Luke was writing for a different audience. He wanted to deliver the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. So he traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam to demonstrate and affirm that the Jesus’ saving grace is meant for the whole world, both Jews and Gentiles.
Either way, Jesus invites us to share that family connection. In Romans 8:16-17, the apostle Paul reminds us that, through Christ, we can all lay claim to that lineage:
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Christ followers, from the first century to present day, have been assured a place in God’s family tree — a space for acceptance, connection, and purpose.
The example of the biblical genealogies offers an important message: Famous or commonplace, saint or scoundrel, heritage is a place of belonging, and provides us with a yearned-for sense of continuity.
Closeness and Continuity
In 2001, Emory University psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush conducted a study about how family narrative impacts the emotional health and happiness of children. As reported in The New York Times, the pair concluded that “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
In other words, family narrative does more than connect us to the past. It provides us with closeness and continuity, what Duke and Fivush called, a strong “intergenerational self.”
Harnessing that intergenerational awareness is paramount for Angela McGhie. McGhie is a genealogist and serves as the Education Director for the National Genealogical Society (NGS) headquartered in Falls Church, Virginia. She’s also a grandmother.
“I have a little grandson now,” says McGhie. “I want him to know where he came from, that there were people before him. I want him to know some of the accomplishments they made or the things they overcame. Just like I connect with my grandchild, I know my grandmother wanted to connect to me.”
Indeed, McGhie’s family tree is rich with colorful stories, including family members who traveled west on the Oregon Trail, some by wagon, others by foot. She tells the story of one ancestor whose family left too late in the season and snow started early that year. There wasn’t enough food. The husband and youngest child died on the trail in the middle of Wyoming. But that young mother had no choice but to keep charging forward with her remaining five sons. McGhie is here to tell the story because of her ancestor’s fortitude.
Though the story overwhelms McGhie in the retelling, she also draws strength from the courage and determination of her distant relative. “If she could do that, I can do hard things too. I’m not pulling a hand cart across the country, but I can do other hard things.”
When we know our family story — even fragments of that narrative — we have the comfort of knowing we are not alone, that others have come before us whom we can look to as an example. We can learn from their mistakes. We can find encouragement in their achievements through good times and bad. And we can take pleasure knowing that we share a common bond, despite the passage of time.
In conducting their research, the psychologists Duke and Fivush created a “Do You Know” scale of measurement. The specific answers are less important than the process of telling and sharing family stories. But the questions looked something like this: “Do you know how your parents met?” “Do you know where your mother grew up?” “Do you know the source of your name?” “Do you know which person in your family you look most like?”
These are the types of questions any good genealogist will ask because they fill in the gap that exists between the dates on the tombstone. Facts and records are critical to building an authentic genealogy, but questions like these are what undergird family stories and help ensure continuity through the generations.
When it comes to continuity, Christ followers know that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But imagine the family stories we could uncover and the promises of those stories we could internalize if we approached our study of Jesus and the Bible the way a genealogist approaches a family tree. “Which of the disciples do I most resemble?” “How did Jesus feel when he was rejected?” “Did Jesus ever feel lonely like me?” “What did Jesus teach about loving my neighbor?” Jesus’ stories are our family stories too and they are worthy of remembering.
I remember sitting on the kitchen counter as a little girl watching my mother make apple pie. There was never a recipe. She was particular about the variety of apples used. They had to be sliced just so. And she was fussy about how to work the dough, crimp it, and decorate the top before sliding the pie into the oven. “How do you know what to do?” I would ask in amazement. Every time her answer was, “I learned it from my mother when I was a little girl sitting on the kitchen counter just like you.”
In her book, The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit,” Lori Erickson writes, “Perhaps part of the pleasure we feel in genealogy is our ancestors’ pleasure in being remembered.” I can’t confirm that sentiment empirically, but I can say that I feel a strong connection to both my mother and my grandmother whenever I take out my rolling pin.
People do want to be remembered. We want to believe that our lives matter. That we have made an impact. That we have contributed something of value to human history. Which is why we honor loved ones with funeral and memorial services. It is why we treasure things like scrapbooks and photo albums, old love letters, quilts and embroidered tablecloths. And in the world of genealogy, it is why we spend hours searching archives for original records. It is why we carefully fill out pedigree charts and painstakingly sift through and cross-reference data.
Jesus wanted to be remembered. He created the sacrament of communion as a way for his disciples and future generations of followers to remain connected with him. The Apostle Paul writes, “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
And 2,000 years later, Jesus’ legacy continues. His is a living family tree that continues to grow as followers put their faith in him and are added to the body of Christ.
Sometimes, our material memories are lost to time. Buildings crumble. Lines on the map fade and are redrawn. Heirlooms are ruined in natural disasters or man-made catastrophes. Artifacts are misplaced or accidentally given away. Bad actors steal or destroy. Far too often families break apart. But family narratives have a way of enduring the ravages of time, especially as new caretakers emerge to dust off the old stories and carry on where previous generations left off.
Since Bible times, genealogy has been an important way to demonstrate kinship and stay connected with families through the ages. Genealogy has helped Bible scholars better understand the people of the Bible. We read about flawed characters like ourselves, men and women living their lives, doing great and sometimes bad things, yet who find grace from God and salvation in Jesus.
Genealogy provides an opportunity to seek connection with and wisdom from those who have gone before us. As the author Erickson writes, genealogy is more than a list of names and dates. It “can be an invitation to imagine, to ponder, and to learn not just who our ancestors were, but who we are and who we might become. We might live our lives differently if we realize that we are potential ancestors and that our descendants might look to us for inspiration.”
 Christian author Nancy Guthrie offers a humorous and candid look at a few of the characters living in Jesus’ family tree in her book Saints & Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus, (Crossway: Wheaton, IL), 2020.
 The Bible Project offers a clever look at the lineage of Jesus in its animated video “Gospel of Matthew Summary: A Complete Animated Overview (Part 1),” accessible on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Dv4-n6OYGI&t=107s.
 Bruce Feiler, “The Stories That Bind Us,” The New York Times, March 15, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html (accessed April 3, 2023).
 Romans 13:8.
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