25 December 2008

The Appearance of Godliness, But . . .

While channel-surfing recently in search of minimally interesting audio wallpaper to accompany housecleaning, I stumbled on a Discovery Science Channel series about a family with 17 children and one on the way (10 boys and 8 girls). Amazed but without time to stop and watch right then, I set the box to record this thing and went back later to skim through the various episodes and find out what kind of people would have 18 kids today and how they did it. Results follow.

This is an extremely conservative fundamentalist Christian family in Arkansas. Kids are homeschooled and allowed only very restricted access to the Internet. Parents send two chaperones with each child who goes on a date because “when you're alone bad things can happen” and the kids “want to stay pure.” They are under strict instructions never to kiss until after marriage; handholding and the occasional hug is it. The families' conversation and their Web site are saturated with references to God, to “the Lord,” the Bible, and so forth. One Web site slide show photo shows wife Michelle gazing at husband Jim Bob (yes, his real name) with an adoring look in her eye as he sits at the head of a 20 seat dining table lecturing to the kids with an open Bible before him; it's captioned “Michelle admiring Jim Bob for being the spiritual leader of their home.”

One episode featured 20 year old eldest son proposing marriage to a girl younger than him whom he'd met a few months prior at a homeschooling conference, the first girl he'd ever fallen for. Footage shot during their engagement showed them holding hands and saying “I love you” to each other over and over and over again. They were obviously seething with hormones and gritting their teeth to be satisfied with arms-length hand-holds and finger caresses until after they said “I do” and could really let loose. But no kissing! He explained that when you kiss someone, you give part of your heart away to them, but he wanted to keep his heart “pure” for the one he married. They're now hitched and he's running his own used car dealership in their Arkansas town. Neither has been been to college, no indication that either one plans on it.

Now, I come from a very traditional LDS family and was raised to respect faith and good moral values. I should applaud any family that teaches the same to their kids, right? So I was surprised by my reaction to this family and to their rules, particularly for dating and courtship. What reaction? Visceral, gut-level revulsion. I was baffled. Why should I feel that way about this apparently happy family that seemed to be teaching their kids many of the values I also thought I supported? Certainly these parents have the right to organize their home and teach their kids the way they want. So why such disgust? After days of pondering, I think I've got it. My reasons have nothing to do with their efforts to raise a stable family and everything to do with their view of the world and of the right way to navigate it.

These people look at the world in black & white terms, God and godly things on one side, evil everywhere else. While this may be a psychologically comforting and easy approach, it's just not how real life works. These parents are stuck in a less-than-fully mature stage of faith which, if imposed on their kids, will probably fracture the faith and world view of some of those kids when they bump up against some life experience their parents' overly simplistic approach can't explain. There are 10 boys in this family so statistically there's a good chance one of them will discover that he's gay; what will happen to him, coming from this environment? Life is far more complex and the world far more vast than these people seem to want to believe, and God is the creator of all. Yet their approach seems intended to prevent intellectual curiosity and exploration of that world. Example: full parental support for eldest son's marriage at age 20 to the only girl he'd ever fallen for, with neither kid having even started college or dated anyone else seriously before. Personally I couldn't imagine doing that without taking time to leave home, learn about the world and life and relationships on my own, and figure out based on my own experience what I wanted for my life. But this kid didn't seem remotely interested in such stuff. Now that's certainly his choice, and he's not me. But the fact that the idea of something like that didn't even seem to occur to him? That is not the stuff of which Galileos or Columbuses or Einsteins are made.

These folks seem blithely convinced that their way is God's way and everything they do is divinely directed. They teach their kids this, and someday at least one of those kids will discover otherwise. When that happens, watch out kid for some serious blowback. The parents' support of the Quiverfull movement confirms that they take an extreme fundamentalist and literalist view of the Bible. This is the same mindset that produced the Scopes Monkey Trial and 150 years of unrelenting anti-Mormon bigotry which continues today and makes a profitable business out of teaching lies and prejudice to ostensible “Christians.” In short, it fosters hypocrisy, which I hate more than just about anything else. I am no shining example of peerless personal consistency, but I don't go around claiming I have God's truth while charging people to hear me spread falsehoods and bigotry about others. This family believes in a strain of “Christianity” which actively promotes just that.

Which brings me to one of my biggest beefs with their approach. It's overly extreme and unnecessary! It's Puritanical in every bad sense. They deny their children innocent and pleasurable learning and experience not for any real moral purpose but just because they seem more scared of the evil they think lurks in everyone than willing to trust their kids to make the right choices for the right reasons, or to teach them how to do so. They seem to think people can't control their own physical passions unless someone else is there to make them do it. They are teaching their kids that even the most innocent displays of affection are dangerous and disloyal, that God wants them to remain unequipped to bridle their own passions or learn how to deal with a variety of challenges on their own. Puritanism = anger over the relentless, nagging suspicion that somebody somewhere may be happy.

My conclusion? These parents don't seem to want their kids to learn how to find their own ways in life or decide what they individually want to be. And to me, that doesn't seem like love. It seems like control masquerading as love. The purpose of our coming to earth was to gain experience in freely choosing amongst all the alternatives we'd confront. Sometimes our choices are black & white, but often they just aren't that clear, and we struggle to decide what's right and best. That struggle is a crucial part of acquiring greater wisdom, knowledge, and judgment. I think a mature parent who truly loves their child for the right reasons and wants that child's greatest happiness will do what God our Father did: equip the children as best He can, then gradually set them free to make their own choices, find their own paths and destinies. He will stay close to give instruction and support when called on, but He will never limit or restrict their own ability to choose for themselves. That would destroy the purpose, which is admittedly high risk for Him: He risks losing the eternal companionship of many of His children as a result of their own choices. But He knows that only through free exercise of the right choices can any of us become as He is—which is, after all, the whole point.

So while I support many of the values these parents are trying to teach their kids, I can't support how they do it. Why did I feel repelled by this family? Because they seem unwilling to take the risks necessary to allow their children to be everything they could be. They are limiting their own childrens' ability to grow and gain wisdom, knowledge & experience in the name of “love” that is actually fear and control. And that is the opposite of the way God runs his family; it has an outward form that pretends to be godliness, but denies its power.


Anonymous said...

I love this post! I actually saw that show as well, and, to be honest, felt sick with that family. I too embrace wholesome living and self control, but really? Do you have to take it to that extreme? Extremes of any sort are not healthy.

Something I have always loved about my parents is that they are so accepting of people. I was their wild child, and they still loved me very much. When I was less active and preaching anti-mormon stuff to people, they still loved me. They let me know that they were dissapointed, but if I really felt that way, they wouldn't stop me. It is that attitude that helped me so much growing up. I can be me with them.

Real life isn't so black and white. We have to compromise sometimes. We have to do what is best for us to grow closer to God.

You said: "In short, it fosters hypocrisy, which I hate more than just about anything else." I totally agree with that. I met a lot of people on my mission who were from other religions, including agnostics and atheists. They devoutly lived what they believed and did what they felt was right. I also met a lot of Jack Mormons on my mission. Between the two, I have more respect for the people who were doing their best that were not LDS.

When I started this, I had what I considered to be a good comment. Now that I have written this, it has turned out to be a lot of rambling. Sorry for taking up so much space with not a lot to say. I'll stop now....

Sean said...

While I do agree with you on how I think children should be raised, you have to realize that this family has been taught differently. Their situation is completely different than yours. They were taught to be the way they are, just like we are taught to be the way we are. I think that if they grew up and were taught in a different situation, things would be definitely different in all of their lives.

Alan said...

Of course, Sean, I agree with everything you've said. As I noted above, certainly these parents have the right to organize their home and teach their kids the way they want. And certainly their choices reflect what they were taught and believe; had things been different for them, they might have done things differently with their kids. You're correct.

My focus, however, was to figure out why I reacted the way I did to this family. And of course my reaction reflects what I've been taught and believe too. Obviously my conclusions are very different from theirs. This will always be so for any two people at some point. Hence the constant need for charity and tolerance. That doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our own beliefs, opinions or conclusions, but it does mean we allow others their free agency just as we value our own. We can do that and still respectfully differ.

Z i n j said...

Now I'm prejudice....but I agree with Alan that here in Utah (for Example) we tie so many pieces together>>culture>>religion>>politics etc. that we seem to misconnect by not doing our own searching quest for the truth. Although my relatives believe that the Republican party and the church are one and the same, much of what they espouse is not the gospel according to Christ or Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. I find it hard in elders quorem to deconstruct these ideas. History tells a much different story. Early Mormonism was very much about cooperative living. Even in our study of the gospel we are not to be mutant robots. I know its all about correlation and the milk stuff and I need all that sometimes it gets me crazy. Sorry for spouting.

Bravone said...

Alan, I really appreciate your post. As a parent, I have struggled with how much and at what time to extend freedom of choice to my kids. Certainly we would stop our kids from placing their hand on a hot stove. The difficult thing is to know when to loosen up a bit and let them feel the full weight of their choices. I think only a parent attuned to child is capable of making that decision.

In our family, the timing has been different with each child. I feel it is important to let them use their agency to make mistakes and learn from them within the safety of the home and during their developmental years.

An example, I have a teenage son who has a girlfriend (sigh of relief.) We have taught him all his life about the importance of morality, the blessings of intimacy, and the dangers of the same wonderful gift used inappropriately. Over the past few months, it has become apparent to me that they were getting way to close. We talked about it and the possible ramifications.

While laying on his bed one night it told him that I wanted him to make a plan for how he was going to manage his relationship with her and let me know what he came up with. I told him that if he got into trouble because I was too lax with him, I would never forgive myself for allowing him to hurt himself by continuing in the relationship. On the other hand, I told him that I did not want to set arbitrary rules, place restrictions, or force my will on him.

A few weeks later, he came to me and confided that they had gone a bit too far(nothing too serious.) I was not disappointed in him. I felt such compassion for him and could see the hurt in his eyes. He told me that he was going to talk to the bishop and had decided to cool things down and placed restrictions on himself.

I asked him if I had been wrong in how I handled the situation as a parent, if I should have been more strict. He told me that he appreciated that I would let him make his own decisions. I have seen tremendous growth in him and our relationship as a result.

I can catch a small glimpse of how difficult it must have been for Father to give us our agency and then see us use it unwisely. I can also appreciate the joy he must feel when we exercise it righteously or when we make mistakes and then set about to correct them.

I think the key is to teach early, love unconditionally, be aware and involved, and let them learn to use their gift of agency.

Public Loneliness said...

This is an interesting post and I agree with your comments overall. I'm reminded of the whole black and white mentality that many of us grew up as members of the LDS Church. I don't remember any gray areas being taught in Seminary, Sunday School, Priesthood, Sacrament Meeting and certainly not General Conference. A lot of my own personal conflicts were caused by the teachings I received. As I have grown older--well, not that much older!---but have talked to many different kinds of church members I see the shades of gray blur, especially in the younger generations who seem to be OK with "believing in what's convenient", but there are still those that are zealous enough to believe in no birth control, having large families and would probably not be too far behind this family, although even in modern-day LDS members having more than 5-6 kids is probably seen as extreme.

Now having said that I am not one to cast judgment on this family, if they wish to have a large family and all its implications while being financial and emotionally responsible, then so be it--raising kids is hard enough with one or two--but still I wonder what happens when if for any reason one of the parents dies, or as all the kids grow older and start finding their own ways and all of life's complications, the parents can't be there to safeguard and protect them always--even with the best of intentions how equipped are they to live/face the real world...

wow, this got way too long for a comment...