Sunday, October 09, 2005

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)

The Kingdom of God is like this

A trader sold all his merchandise to buy a single pearl

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)
John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (New York: HarperSanFranciscso, 1994, 1st ed.), p. 93

Jesus sometimes spoke negatively; and he did so for a reason. He did so, in part, because speaking positively leaves us thinking our own understanding is sufficient, leaves us thinking that we have wisdom and "know" the "mind of God." It leads us to think that all we need is a little more "hair of the dog" in order to set things right. It leads, inexorably, to this (reg. required)

They call because they feel afraid and alone, and because the voice on the radio is kind.

My husband is addicted to gambling. My sixth-grader refuses to study. My aunt is an alcoholic. My daughter hears voices. A cousin molested me when I was a boy.

"My son talks so ugly. Today he said, 'stupid mommy.' It breaks my heart, and I don't know what to do." A sob escapes the young mother on the line.

"I know he's a busy man, but I was wondering, would it be possible for me to ask Dr. Dobson a few questions?" she asks. "I want to apply the Bible in how I raise my boys. But I'm really struggling."

It is calls like these — by the thousands each week — that have transformed plain-talking child psychologist James C. Dobson into a formidable political force.
Not the calls, of course; such problems are as old as humanity. It is the answers that are the problem here, that "hair of the dog." If a little consumerism is good, and a little bit more has caused your difficulty, then just a little more will cure you:

In daily radio broadcasts, monthly newsletters, 18 websites, nine magazines and 36 top-selling books, Dobson offers advice on toilet training, temper tantrums, infidelity and other stresses of family life. At the heart of his ministry is the toll-free resource line he has run for more than a quarter-century.

Focus on the Family gets close to 10,000 calls, e-mails and letters daily. Most are book orders or other purchases from the vast ministry warehouse. But up to 1,000 a day are more complex: requests for help researching topics such as depression and divorce, or pleas from despairing men and women seeking Dobson's advice.

Those calls are routed to a warren of gray cubicles where dozens of assistants call up Dobson's writings to guide their responses. They are authorized to send out free self-help books and tapes; each year, the ministry gives away material worth more than $1 million. Trained to mimic Dobson's reassuring, low-key manner, they also offer much-welcomed empathy.
Part of the horror here, is that people have to call a stranger on an 800 number, simply to get empathy. There is an ecclesiastical problem here: where are the churches? Why aren't they helping? The short answer is: in large part, having bought lock, stock, and barrel into the "consumer culture" that has led to this situation, they can no more critique it than a fish can complain about living in water. Sometimes it seems the institutional church can't even see the problem, much less offer a solution to it.

The other part of the problem is that untrained "counselors" are offering diagnosis by database:

"I don't know where else to go," one young mother told social worker Sarah Helus, breaking down as she described her headstrong 3-year-old.

"I've tried spanking him with a switch like Dr. Dobson says, but it hasn't been effective," the mother said. "I've tried explaining to him that Mommy and Daddy make mistakes too and we all have to ask Christ's forgiveness. Nothing works. And I just lose it."

As her son howled in the background, the woman said she had read three of Dobson's parenting books, including "The Strong-Willed Child," several times. They hadn't much helped, but she hadn't lost faith. She begged for a few minutes to ask Dobson how, precisely, she should respond if her son throws a fit in Wal-Mart.

Helus told her gently that Dobson doesn't take calls. But his wisdom on scores of topics is loaded into two computers on every assistant's desk.

I' m not a fan of psychology in general, or most theories of therapy or counseling, because I think they lead to generalizations about people, about individuals, which can as easily blind us to who they are, as be a source of revelation. Most practitioners of the art, of course, do not treat their patients as merely functions within categories. But psychologists like "Dr. Phil" and Dr. Dobson do it freely, unthinkly, brazenly. That is another kind of particular horror, but it is all rooted in the same consumerist mentality: Dr. Phil and Dr. Dobson are both very wealthy men, and they know who it is buttering their bread.

But what does this have to do with the pearl of great price? Surely the poor souls who call Dr. Dobson's hot-line, desperate for help and a little empathy (something sadly in short supply in this "compassionate" country), are not to be critiqued by this odd and harsh parable. Well, that would seem unfair, until you consider this:

In his books and broadcasts, Dobson speaks directly to his core constituents: well-educated, middle-class white women in their late 20s to early 40s who work outside the home at least part time.
These are precisely the people who have bought the pearl of great price, who have done all that was asked of them to secure their existence, their being, their lives. And now, having done that, they find that they cannot simultaneously keep the pearl and keep their existence. How is the Kingdom of God like that?


And what Dr. Dobson offers them, is a setting for their pearl; a bit of jewelry to set it off better, a cushioned box to store it in, a set of nostrums designed to assure them that they have, indeed, obtained the pearl of great price, and that they do indeed have all they need now. What Dr. Dobson sells them, in his books, his broadcasts, his audio tapes, is the hair of the dog that bit them, a bit more of the same, assuring them that if they just consume the "right" ideas, and stop consuming the "wrong" ones (pornography, abortion, homosexuality, "socialized medicine," welfare), then all will be well, and they can enjoy their pearl again.

After all, Dr. Dobson is certainly enjoying his.

It's a vicious circle that keeps Dr. Dobson fully employed, and fully empowered, and assured of an eternal home when the master finally realizes what an unjust steward he is. And don't ever forget, irony is not dead:

"In those thousands of calls, we believe we're seeing the unraveling of the social fabric of this country," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Dobson's organization.

He's right; but not for the reasons he thinks. And he is not knitting that fabric back together; he's pulling the threads loose.

Because this goes on so long, I'm going to do it in pieces. So here ends, arbitrarily, "Part I." Part II will begin a bit later.

To be continued, then....

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