Hi! Lately, we’ve been talking about the Christian Cult of Family. In extremist flavors of the religion, leaders create and foster a culture that pushes members hard to marry as soon as possible and have as many kids as possible. They promise their followers that, by following their advice to the letter, happy, harmonious marriages and families become all but inevitable. Those followers will likely never even realize that their orders contain nothing that actually produces happy, harmonious relationships of any kind. Today, I’ll show you what I mean.
Yes, Yes, But What Does This Advice Look Like?
I talked about this idea a long time ago, but allow me to offer a brief refresher.
Years ago, I used to work in a call center. My employers recorded customers’ calls to grade and improve workers’ performance. They considered one of the most important components to the call to be something amounting to how well we’d shown concern for the customer’s issue.
My little group’s immediate supervisor had to take an extended medical leave. During her absence, the company decided to hyper-focus its attention on concern. And apparently my team was tanking on that metric.
The company gave us an interim supervisor. She administered another team full-time, but she’d agreed to keep an eye on us until our own supervisor returned. I disliked her on sight. She reminded me uncomfortably of the “God Warrior” gal from Trading Spouses.
One day, she was yelling at us about not showing enough concern on our calls.
I raised my hand like I was in elementary school. (I was still a noob, so I was shy.) When she nodded to me, I asked very meekly, “How do you know when we’re showing concern on calls? Obviously I think I’m showing concern. But I need you to see that I’m showing it! So please, when you listen to my calls, what objective stuff can I do during them to demonstrate my concern for my customer’s needs?”
And she just stared at me.
JUST DO IT.
Finally, she burst out, “Well, you just.. you know, you just show concern!”
Everyone shifted awkwardly where they stood. They looked away from the conflict so unexpectedly sprouting to life.
I felt uncomfortable as well. However, I needed to know this information.
So I persisted: “Yes, I get that. You’ve said that already. I understand why concern is important. I definitely want to show concern. Can you please tell me what phrases and behaviors you look for, as the person grading my work, to know objectively that I have shown concern during that call?”
She got mad at me. She never answered that question. I don’t think she had even wondered about it before right then!
How This Situation Looks in Christian-Land.
As I related in that earlier post (and also here), I once ran across a group discussion between evangelical pastors on LinkedIn. The pastor who started it asked a very similar question about dying to oneself. This poor guy had realized something very worrisome:
He had no idea how to tell if he or anybody else was actually doing this all-important thing.
Indeed, he didn’t know what tangible signs to look for. He’d just noticed, after years of being a pastor, that this show of perfect submission was largely subjective in nature. If members of his flock thought they’d died to themselves but he disagreed, then who won? Did he win because he was the pastor? What if he committed an error in his discernment? What objective signs could he look for to judge the presence or absence of dying to self?
Worst of all, from his perspective, he knew he couldn’t teach his flocks how to do this all-important thing when he didn’t even know what it looked like in Reality-Land.
The other pastors descended rapidly into sheer chaos in response to these big scary questions. Many focused on accusing the questioner of various sins. For his own part, the first pastor refused to allow them to sidetrack the discussion. Man, I wish I’d thought to archive it or at least grab screenshots. It was a diamond of rare honesty in Christian-Land.
(The original link was here. It appears to be long gone. If you can somehow find it and archive/screenshot it for me, please please please share with the class! Also, what I describe here constitutes part of The Problem With Wingnuts.)
Too Heavenly-Minded To Be Any Earthly Good.
When my mom encountered Christians who were so focused on the afterlife that they’d forgotten to live this life in some way, she said they were too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good. And in similar fashion, a lot of Christian plans fall along those lines. They lack enough real-world instructions about how to accomplish goals–or even to tell if the goal has been achieved at all.
Worse, Christians often offer instructions in their plans that amount to busy-work. These instructions will absolutely not impact the goal of the plan. Marriage advice almost always falls along those lines. The idolized Love Dare books offer an entire course of meaningless tasks that their uneducated, unqualified authors insist will, if performed faithfully, reliably produce happier, stronger, more harmonious marriages.
The more important the goal is to such Christians, the worse their instructions get when it comes to achieving that goal.
Last time we met up, I listed a bunch of sources that talked about how to achieve a happy, harmonious family. Most if not all of their writers thought their god actively desires that his followers have such families. And they all explicitly or implicitly assume that the most essential first step to achieving that kind of family is to be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.
Let’s look at what these folks think Christians should do after that.
Looking At the Cult of Family.
Jim Burns, writing for Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), tells us right out of the gate that he really has no idea how to achieve a “perfect family.” His best advice consists of asking for advice from others. He doesn’t tell us how to evaluate that advice or put any of it into action. Worse, he advises married couples to talk about their problems with each other. That’s nice. He might as well have told them to fly to Mars.
Jerold Aust, for the United Church of God, gets slightly more specific. Parents shouldn’t display habits around their kids that fall outside of their group’s teachings–smoking, for example. Also, parents should “care enough” to share with their children the plans they’ve made for those children’s “success in life” and watch them closely enough to prevent abductions and illicit TV-watching. Obviously, they should force their kids to attend church, because that’ll ensure those kids stay Christian forever.
Adrian Rogers, writing for the ultra-fundagelical site OnePlace, offers what might well be quintessential Cult of Family advice.
Do you want happy marriage? Do you desire a successful family? Then, learn to love one another, learn to be a generous grace-giver. Take some of the stress off of yourself, your mate, and your children. Make your home a place of love and laughter.
Sure. We’ll get right on that.
Step 3: ??? Step 4: Profit!
The parade of bad advice simply doesn’t end.
The Church of Christ-affiliated site Bible.ca tells followers to pay family members “one sincere compliment” once per day. They should also spend more time with each other, talk about their problems, drill down on Christian devotional observances, and be “committed” to each other. The site explains exactly none of these steps.
Catholic Standard insists that no matter how unhappy a couple is, divorce never becomes an option. If people want happy families, they must Jesus super-hard. Only then will they be happy.
Quite a few Religious Right-leaning sites, like this one at Bible.org, drilled down on complementarianism. Unfortunately, none of them had any idea how to put it into practice in the real world.
A Bible blog offers no advice, just a bunch of prayers for those suffering “family drama.” Nothing like pure magical thinking to solve one’s problems!
One Russian Orthodox site simply resigns itself to unhappiness in family life. People don’t Jesus hard enough to develop the longsuffering required to deal with that unhappiness for a lifetime. An unhappy family creates the impetus for developing that longsuffering–but only if the Christian involved is hardcore enough.
I found nothing on any of these sites that amounted to real-world advice.
Where’s the Beef?
I noticed that many Christian sites offering family advice quoted Leo Tolstoy’s famous line:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The writers of all this terrible advice might adore this quote, but they don’t wonder why it is so true. They just liked using it as a pre-defense tactic. In essence, they’re wafting their palms skyward over any failures. Well gyarsh, Mickey, who could have guessed? Sometimes even TRUE CHRISTIANS™ have bad family lives!
The people who try to translate these writers’ bad advice into lived reality will soon discover the many and varied ways that each of their families can be “unhappy in its own way.” Because Christian advice simply doesn’t work in so many different directions, any one of a number of disasters can occur that the family’s members absolutely can’t cope with.
Meanwhile, a family practicing mutual respect can weather all kinds of storms. And generally speaking, the advice one finds on this topic outside of Christian-advice circles tends to be way more reality-based–as well as more respectful, loving, and consensual than anything one finds in the Cult of Family.
NEXT UP: We look at why Christian family advice is so bad. Because yes, there’s a very powerful reason for why Christian family advice rarely translates into success. See you soon!
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