12/05/2005

James Dobson Misses the Point (Again)

For the last decade, I’ve become a critic of evangelicalism’s most influential leader, Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. It started back when I was editing my seminary’s newspaper. John Woodbridge, a professor at Trinity that I had grown to respect, wrote a 1995 cover story for Christianity Today imploring Christians not to use war rhetoric while engaging American culture. Woodbridge made the excellent point that when Christian leaders like Dobson say that they are fighting “culture wars,” they are actually hurting Christian missional work in today’s American culture. Dobson responded to Woodbridge in the next issue, insisting that he was carrying on the mandate to be a “Christian soldier,” marching off to war against anti-Christian ideologies. In my editorial, I wrote, “James Dobson Misses the Point.”

In the decade since I wrote that, I’ve watched Dobson miss the point time and time again. He seems to fight culture battles that are misguided at best and harmful to the Christian mission at worse.

His latest crusade in his culture wars came this week: He is opposing retail merchants saying “Happy Holidays.” On this last week’s Focus on the Family radio program, the guest discussed with Dobson “how the insidious effort to remove Christ from Christmas is part of the grander scheme to remove God from the public square” and how this is part of “Corporate America's attack on the family.”

Come, on…Is saying “Happy Holidays” really an “insidious effort to remove Christ from Christmas”?

Again, Dobson misses the point.

Having cashiers say “Merry Christmas” at retail stores will not make Christmas any more Christian. In my opinion, perhaps cashiers should be saying “Happy Holidays,” because very little about consumerism has to do with the meaning of Christmas.

In fact, I contend that consumerism is one of the top cancers for evangelical Christianity in today’s America. American Christians have participated in and are equally to blame for how consumerism has taken over the celebration of the birth of Christ.

Instead of spending so much time, energy and money on fighting against retailers saying “Happy Holidays,” maybe we should spend it more on creating a body of believers who would be so Kingdom-minded and so counter-cultural that they would recognize how they’re voracious appetites for consumer goods is corroding their spiritual lives.

And, maybe, instead of being a bunch of angry Christians demanding that people say “Merry Christmas,” we should joyfully proclaim the Good News that God came in the flesh in order to free us from such truly insidious powers such as consumerism and materialism.

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39 comments:

Barry said...

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Thanks, Bob.

p.a.hiles said...

agreed! good point!

burttd said...

I wonder what Dobson's position is on all those megachurches who will be closed on Christmas Sunday so their people can "stay home with their families"...

rich said...

Great post Bob. Tried to send a trackback, but wanted you to know I linked it at my site...

Huss said...

Yeah and amen! I too think that it is about spreading the Good News while we have an upper hand during this season. I hope that more followers will take the time to speak and not shout. Let us provide information to the lost and not throw a Bible at them. Let this be a time for us to engage in conversation with those who profess "happy holidays." Communicate with them; What do you celebrate? Why do you celebrate that holiday?

Byron said...

Finally! A Bob Robinson post with which I can wholeheartedly agree! Right on, Bob (either that, or I'm getting soft in my old age).

Matt said...

But wouldn't what you are suggesting mean more effort on our parts?
We would have to look at ourselves and change.

Isn't it just easier to point the finger at a "culture" that doens't know any better anyways? Isn't it easier to tell others to get with the program that we aren't really getting with ourselves?

I mean, come on, I know Christ lives in me, but isn't my job to just complain about the culture? (whether I'm different from the culture or not is irrevlivant.)

Bob Robinson said...

Barry, Patrick (P.A.), and Rich,

Thanks for the affirmation. Sometimes when I stick my neck out like this, I wonder what people will think.

BurttD,
I don't know--I'm not even sure what my position is on that matter.

Bob Robinson said...

Huss, Byron, and Matt,

I see that you get what I'm driving at. Mission is less about "protecting my rights" and more about "relinquishing my rights for the sake of others." How is a witness of "I'm going to go to battle with you" supposed to foster trust and love and compassion? Isn't there a more CHRISTian way?

Huss said...

Bob,
That is what I am saying, do we have to throw Bibles at people, or can we engage in a conversation with them. I would rather display to them the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus. We can let Jesus do the rest of the work.

Marcguyver said...

Is there vehemence in James Dobson's comments about the whole "Happy Holiday" thing?? And he is wrong for 'blowing it out of proportion'??

What about the vehemence in your counter remarks that, "He seems to fight culture battles that are misguided at best and harmful to the Christian mission at worse."?? Pretty 'stiff' comments about a man who has a significantly larger impact on the world than I could ever dream to have.

Well, I'm sure I'm going to get 'blasted' for this but also just curious, is Christianity slowly being 'removed' from our culture by those opposed to all things Godly? I sure see it; or at least the concerted effort by some to make it so.

Maybe Dobson has gone 'too far' on this issue and made the proverbial mountain out of a mole-hill, but I for one can still easily support a Ministry like Focus on the Family based off of their well established track record to actually help the family and hold on to strong Christian ethics and morals.

Anonymous said...

I hate to say it but you've missed the point...when will the church say no more? in your opinion not soon enough

Mark said...

Bob, you are right on. I used to work in Christian radio and lost respect for Dobson years ago.

Given the diversity of our culture, I think it is the Christ-like thing to say "Happy Holidays"; it is allowing for diversity as well as being sensitive to those who don't celebrate Christmas.

BTW, I teach at a school with CCO staff. Great organization.

p.a.hiles said...

by the way,does anybody realize that retail merchants are being respectful of our beliefs by saying happy holidays. i mean, it's not like they're saying happy kwanza or merry winter solstice to us! plus, the only reason that the workers say happy holidays is so that they can be pleasant, respectful of someone else's culture, and remain employed!

Bob Robinson said...

Marcguyver,

[[Pretty 'stiff' comments about a man who has a significantly larger impact on the world than I could ever dream to have.]]

Yes, I agree that those are pretty 'stiff' comments. But I contend that when there exists a man who has such a "significantly larger impact on the world," the Christian community needs to hold that man to a very high degree of accountability. When he does things and says things that hurts Christian mission, we need to stand up and say, "Sorry, James, but that just isn't right."

According to Dobson, Christianity must align with conservative right-wing politics (which make homosexuality and abortion the only real big issues in our culture). He consistently marginalizes the Christian voices in the church that insist that issues of economics, hunger, disease, and peace should be discussed as well. According to Dobson, the TNIV is anathema because it attempts to have gender-inclusive language (and those very respected scholars on the translation team must therefore be held in suspicion).

These are culture battles that are indeed misguided at best (the TNIV debate) and harmful to the Christian mission at worse (his right-wing politics).

Michael said...

Wow..What great thoughts! Very insightful and inspiring to read. Thank you!

Mike

Scot McKnight said...

Bob,
Let's write a book: The World According to Dobson.

Bob Robinson said...

Scot,

It's funny you say that, for I've battled down the urge to begin a separate blog called "Dobson Watch" that would track "The World According to Dobson."

I just don't have the time, energy, or stomach for it!!

Marcguyver said...

Well Crud, looks like Dobson missed the point again: He's supporting the movie "Narnia".

Darn, what the heck are we going to do now?

p.a.hiles said...

colossians 4:5 says that we are to "live wisely among those who are not christians, and make the most of every opprotunity." in my opinion,expecting non-christians to live up to standards that,even we don't live up to, does not accomplish the goal of this verse.
'nuff said!

Bob Robinson said...

marcguyver,

I may have overspoke in my rhetoric against Dobson. Of course not all things he's for or against is wrong-headed. In fact, I like much of the "Focus On The Family" stuff that his ministry has produced over the years...

...I just wish he would FOCUS on the FAMILY and not get so involved in other issues, for when he does, he very often (again, not always, but often) misguides American Christians, and at times actually harms Christian mission.

Bob Robinson said...

p.a.hiles,

The next verse also gives us guidance in matters such as these:
"Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone."

The reason so many non-Christians have a low opinion of us is that leaders like Dobson do not "live wisely among them" nor do they "let their conversations be always full of grace."

Ted Gossard said...

I pick up the idea from listening to James Dobson on these programs (that I run into every once in a while) that THE SKY IS FALLING!!!

Not to take away from all the good he has done and he is a good man. I certainly agree though that he is misguided in some matters.

Bob Robinson said...

Ted,

Yes, that is a definite pattern with him (and many other media-based ministries).

It has been written about by others that many Christian media ministries hype up the sensationalism in order to drive up contributions to their ministries.

The undercurrent is, "The sky is falling, and we are your first line of defense! Without us, the sky would destroy us all! Send in your contribution NOW to keep this ministry on the air!!!"

William Reichart said...

Great post...well said and it has communicated my feelings on this issue as well. Often times these "culture war" issues cause our hearts to not examine our need for repentance, as well they cause us to burn more bridges than build them with our neighbors.

Susan said...

A hearty Amen!

Indebted to Scott McKnight for linking to this post,
Susan

Anonymous said...

According to Dobson, Christianity must align with conservative right-wing politics (which make homosexuality and abortion the only real big issues in our culture).

If you are going to level such a serious charge I would hope to see some sort of verification. I very strongly doubt you can substantiate that charge. It comes very close to slander in my opinion

Bob Robinson said...

I apologize for limiting Focus on the Family's issues to just those two.
According to Focus on the Family's "Citizen Link" website, the most important social issues are these (listed on the left side panel, "Focus on Social Issues):
-Abstinence from sex
-Bioethics/Sanctity of Life (Abortion, Cloning/Stem Cell
Research, Euthanasia)
-A politically conservative perspective on Constitutional Theory
-Gambling
-Homosexuality & Gender
-Marriage & Family (Cohabitation, Divorce, Fatherhood, Same-Sex Unions
-Origins / Darwinianism
-Religious Persecution
-Political Islam
-Pornography
-Worldview & Culture (including this "Happy Holidays" issue)

That seems a pretty complete list (and I applaud any Christian who seeks to engage culture concerning many of these issues).

However, there are some things that are missing that concern me. The Bible places these issues in the "focus" of Christian concern:
-Caring for the poor
-Peace (as opposed to promoting war)
-Justice in economic policy

Timber said...

Wow. It makes me very sad to see one brother in Christ criticizing another. I really don't understand. Dr. Dobson has done so MUCH GOOD for our country. As the body of Christ, we need to give him our support. This is unbelievable.
I do agree with you about the greatest sickness in evangelical cutlure is consumerism. It is all around us: commercials, signs, malls, and propaganda. Yet this not only lies in materialism, it lies in all areas of our life. We want to choose who our brothers and sisters in Christ should be, or how they should show Christ to the world. We want to live for ourselves, and we sadly dismiss the Lord and His Word.
I am a cashier at a retail shop and I will gladly wish anyone and everyone a Merry Christmas! To have the freedom to say this is quite amazing. May we not take it for granted. Merry Christmas!!!! Merry Christmass!!!!!!

Marcguyver said...

Thanks for posting the 'concerns' of Focus on the Family......I'm in hearty agreement with most of 'em!!

Let's remember, these appear to be what they deem as the most important SOCIAL issues, not what we necessarily need to be focusing on as SPIRITUAL issues.

Bob Robinson said...

Timber,

Thanks for your posting here. I appreciate your insights. And I'm very glad that, as a Christian, you have the ability to wish people a "Merry Christmas" at your retail store.

But I wonder why you think it's "unbelievable" and that you "really don't understand" how one brother in Christ can criticize another. If one is a Christian in the public sphere, does that lift him or her above public criticism? If Dobson was a member of my congregation, and he was advocating things that I felt were not in line with biblical revelation, I could pull him aside and tell him, and we could have a great conversation. But Dobson is a public figure, representing all of us evangelicals in ways that do not line up with what many of us evangelicals want to be our image in American society. Since he is a public figure, we are allowed to criticize him publically (this is what HE does all the time--check out the recent flap over the TNIV translation of the Bible).
It is sad, indeed, when we have to publically criticize Christians who are publically representing Christ. But if we don't, then our witness is even further diminished. The watching world will see that we are not honestly critical of our own.

Bob Robinson said...

marcguyver,

You say, [["Let's remember, these appear to be what they deem as the most important SOCIAL issues, not what we necessarily need to be focusing on as SPIRITUAL issues."]]

I wonder why so many Christians still create a false dualism like this, as if some things are "social issues" (or "worldly issues," or "temporaral issues"), and other things are "spiritual issues" (or "heavenly issues," or "eternal issues"). As I read my Bible, there is no dualism like that--all things were created by God, all things belong to God, all things are redeemable for His glory. When I read the prophets and the words of Jesus, the People of God are called to manifest God's presence in this world, not just be worried about some special "spiritual issues."

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Bob Robinson said...

I was very encouraged by this:

Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has questioned the current battle over saying "Happy Holidays" insted of "Merry Christmas".

See the post.

Marcguyver said...

I'm left wondering...What's wrong with Christians being concerned about, fighting for, and standing up with "Focus" on these issues:
-Abstinence from sex
-Bioethics/Sanctity of Life (Abortion, Cloning/Stem Cell
Research, Euthanasia)
-A politically conservative perspective on Constitutional Theory
-Gambling
-Homosexuality & Gender
-Marriage & Family (Cohabitation, Divorce, Fatherhood, Same-Sex Unions
-Origins / Darwinianism
-Religious Persecution
-Political Islam
-Pornography
????

Marcguyver said...

And I do believe that I can hit the "Social Marketplace" and try to change laws, statutes, etc on issues effecting America, thus I call it a Social Issue.
However, I don't believe it would be proper for me to inact my Spiritual beliefs into "law" thereby forcing all Americans to adopt my style of Spirituality, thus I call these a Spiritual Issue.

Bob Robinson said...

marcguyver,

First, thanks for the clarification on what you meant by "social" and "spiritual" issues.

I agree with you that it would be inappropriate for Christians to force our spiritual beliefs into law, "forcing all Americans to adopt my style of Spirituality."

As Christians, our spirituality must inform our social agenda, but in the pluralist nation that America is meant to be, our spiritually informed stands must be articulated in ways that show that they are for the good of all people, regardless of their faith or lack therof.

Bob Robinson said...

marcguyver,

On the Focus on the Family social concerns list, if you'd give me the benefit of re-reading the comment above, I said:

[["and I applaud any Christian who seeks to engage culture concerning many of these issues"]]

Tim Sweatman said...

Bob,

How can you say that "consumerism is one of the top cancers for evangelical Christianity in today's America" or that our "voracious appetites for consumer goods is corroding [our] spiritual lives?" Don't you watch TBN? If we have enough faith (and sow enough "seeds") we'll be raking in the dough! After all, isn't that what Christianity is all about?

Seriously, it's a telltale sign that we as the Church have miserably failed in our mission to make disciples of all nations when the kind of garbage above is so immensely popular (even among those in the Church). The older I get (and I'm only 33) and the longer I serve as a pastor (2.5 years so far), the more I become convinced that consumerism and its sibling, materialism, are the greatest dangers to the Church in our culture today, because they are so insidious.

I'm also beginning to believe that the second greatest threat to the Church in our culture is our tendency to focus on issues that are secondary to our primary mission of making disciples of all people. Don't misunderstand me, I do believe that many of the issues that Dobson and other social conservatives focus on are important, but we as the Church must not allow these issues to supersede our mission. Unfortunately, too often we do allow these important, but secondary, issues to become our main priority. Oh, BTW, I don't see the "Merry Christmas"/"Happy Holidays" argument as one of these important secondary issues.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks, Tim, for your insightful thoughts!