Saturday, 30 January 2016

James Dobson and the flight from autonomy

I found this graphic on my FB feed. It seems innocuous but it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Cooperative, friendly kids are a joy, but do you really want them to submit to you without question? The word submission implies coercion. Isn't it one of the great rewards of parenting (and later grand-parenting) to see them, as they get older, start to think things through for themselves and reach outward to their own authentic perspective on life?

The graphic clearly draws a heavy line between submission to parents and obedience to a coercive God. The idea being that for kids their parents stand in the place of God until such time as they graduate into adulthood and God takes over the role, a parent-figure writ large; the Sky Father. God is reduced to a projection, a heavenly father figure, complete with demands for unconditional obedience.

The message here then is one of dependence versus autonomy, and dependence is the favored option.

But even in the Bible there are exemplars that run counter to this cravenness. One time we find Abraham ready to cut his son's throat at "divine command", yet at another we find him arguing with God over the fate of Sodom. Which do you think was his finer moment?

People who find this graphic appealing will be, I expect, big fans of authority; God in his heaven and nasty human beings each in their designated place in the great unalterable scheme of things. Independent, creative people are a threat; and how terrible is it when their kids start asserting some independence and initiative that runs counter to their own precious take on life. In the same way higher education is often viewed with suspicion lest their offspring acquire ideas that clash with their parents' beliefs.

James Dobson sees God - if this graphic is anything to go by - in a way that can only be described as 'legalistic'. Is this anything close to good Christian theology? Does God just want dull-eyed obedience and conformity? Yes, the gospels say something about becoming as little children (Matthew 18:3), but that doesn't have to imply bowing submissively to the whims of a capricious deity (or, more likely, the capricious whims of someone who represents themselves as the authorized representative of Deity). But think about it, kids are curious - if they're not there's something wrong. They ask questions. And they have the potential to adapt and move beyond those of us set in our ways. Surely that's a better way of understanding this verse.

Are your views on things like ethnicity, race and sexuality exactly the same as your parents? Have you inherited all of their political views; their religious affiliation? Do you restrict your vision to their horizons? Do you expect your kids to do that? Part of growing up as a healthy individual is to learn to assert yourself and move out from under the parental shadow. Part of growing up spiritually is dealing with the tough questions about belief, not just shutting your eyes and deferring to the apologists.

Growing into maturity necessarily means growing into independence. Any meaningful relationship to the Otherness which we call God involves questioning and challenge, not passivity. If we get in the way when young people reach this stage, no big surprise if we reap the whirlwind. How many damaged kids come from authority-focused homes?

Naturally it'd be surprising if the next generation didn't adopt many of the values they grew up with, and if they do so with their eyes wide open, that's brilliant. And if not? If they've battled their way through to an authentic place where Mum and Dad never ventured? Then surely that's worth celebrating... their folks have obviously done a great job of real parenting!


  1. Well said, Gavin - this is a great piece! Is it possible that God is actually big enough to accommodate/handle a bunch of rowdy, inquisitive children? Could it be that God expects/wants us to explore and ask questions? After all, what value is there in turning ourselves into a bunch of mindless automatons? We're we given free will so that we could later make the decision to reject it?

  2. What?! Are we now a colony of the extraterrestrials?

    They expect submission and obedience, you know.

    I'm joining the resistance.

    Hopefully, the parents can instill the appropriate amount of rebellion to the occupation (and after all, our experience with Armstrongism has done a lot to prepare us for this).

  3. It makes us deeply uncomfortable because (1) the picture and the heading give conflicting messages and (2) the heading is a devious, in an attempt to make an abusive subject seem loving.

    The heading starts out "TEACH your children to submit". "Teach" is the most innocuous word they could come up with, but honestly, it might as well say "force" your children to submit because the only way to "teach" submission is by repeatedly showing that the alternatives to submission are something worse. The something worse could be physical or some other punishment for not submitting, or perhaps rewards for submitting, probably both. Repeated punishment.reward would show that submission is a better choice than not submitting. The next phrase "to your loving leadership" is just an attempt to sugar-coat the first part. If your leadership requires submission, can it really be "loving"?

    The next part is the scariest of all "as preparation to their later life of obedience to God". Stripping away the sugar coating, can you imagine the horror of being forced to submit to an all-powerful being? He could do whatever he wants to you, and you would have no defense. Thank God (metaphorically speaking) that it's all fiction!

    The picture is just another attempt to sugar-coat a bitter pill. It shows a happy family romping on the beach! What an opposite image to a message about making children submit!

    1. OK, then, Skeptic, how about a different heading?

      "Seduce your children to submit to your loving leadership as preparation to their later life to be seduced and fooled into obedience to a God, which we have created in our minds and may not exist."

      It works for government and corporations, so why not religion?


      Isn't religion a corporation?

      It gets so confusing!


  4. Is that photo an actual Dobson-following fundamentalist "Family"?
    Looks way too perfect, like MODELS used by an Advertising Agency!
    Could Dobson's tithers afford those colorful Designer Beach Boots?
    Wasn't a COGlet recently Busted for using professional modeling art?
    Christianity is SO BAD, they now need Madison Avenue marketing!

  5. The picture is innocuous enough, in and of itself. It's what we know about the caption that sets off our experience-based red flags. We know that "they" are going to define "loving leadership" and "obedience to God" for us and then attempt to compel us to accept that what they have presented is the only workable methodology, in fact, that God is speaking directly to us through them.
    Their job to teach, our job to learn and comply.

    Problem is, we already know what can go wrong. Information is needed from a variety of resources, no just a narrow-casted version.


  6. I don't suppose it's worth asking whether or not our illustrious Mr. Dobson could at all tell us the exact nature of God to let us know Who and What He is? What's His favorite color? Is there a culinary entre which seizes His fancy? What's His Day Job like? What is He like at parties?

    You know that there's scant information in the Old Testament. Something about a cranky Yahweh, but that might have been The Word instead. Then there's the New Testament where we are absolutely assured that God, The Father is exactly the very SAME as Jesus Christ, but Greater... or maybe equal. Those two seem to coexist at the same time.

    Well then, what was the REAL Jesus like? Was he kind, loving, caring -- so gentle he wouldn't extinguish a smoking flax? Or was he the cranky cult type leader running down his disciples and calling them evil, showing them that they were just plain stupid and childish? Did he have a nasty temper, as in when he drove out the animals in the Temple (and maybe some of the vendors) with whips? And is God like Jesus coming as a conquering warrior to engage in warfare resulting in blood up to the horse's bridles and the burying of dead bodies continues for months after the war is finished? Is God the Plague Master? Is He like the kindly Grandfather indulgent with His children or the tough no-nonsense military type father ruling with absolute discipline, giving no real freedom to His children?

    It doesn't seem that the Bible can really sort these things out for us.

    Is it likely that James Dobson really has anything worthwhile to say about God.

    And, by the way, does James Dobson have much to say about those prayers people ask in innocence and faith that are never answered?

    You know, before any parent grooms a child for unquestioning obedience to a potential despot, many questions need to be answered.

  7. This brings a few things to mind.
    First off, I recall hearing that R.E.M.'s bubblegum song "Happy Shining People (holding hands)" was written as a farce, and that during the video the main character needed another drink of Kool Aid to keep going.
    (Perhaps that's fictional while containing truth about how some need their fix every Sunday. Maybe megachurches with jumbotrons are needed for those who need to "mainline their Jesus" every week. )

    Secondly, it brings to mind what I read about Bill Gothard's ALERT Academy - (They bought the Ambassador College Big Sandy property and took over there).
    BTW, all those Duggars are big fans of Bill Gothard.
    I remember reading about a boot-camp type training at the ALERT Academy, with kids being taught boot-stomping with immediate yelling back of their obedience, and, with every order and belief given to them were expected to keep stomping while quickly and loudly verbally agreeing with- and accepting- those "orders"
    It was all about accepting beliefs and orders unquestionably, without any hesitation.

    Thirdly- As was mentioned by Gavin about Ron Dart's view, that "we grasp truth with a finger grip. Time will require that we take on board new information, new factors. In the meantime we proclaim the best as we understand it. Truth is not to be clung to with a death grip, for truth is always understood imperfectly."

    It makes sense (and gives hope for our future) that subsequent generations may glean more from life than we have, and "we take on board new information, new factors"- After all, their experience to draw from is one generation beyond ours. We can be privy of further insights by virtue of our openness to being taught by our children. :)

    My hope is that our kids see beyond what we've been able to see thus far- and help us to see a little further.

    It's more about us learning from others, and hopefully gain some flexibility along the way. It's not so much about teaching our kids carved-in-granite 'inflexible truths' as it is about our willingness to hold lightly our truths, and being willing to change our truths when needed.