You may have noticed that I failed to do a monthly list on my watching/playing habits the past month. While I somewhat enjoyed doing it, there were a number of issues with it that I didn’t like and I am going to try to go to a more one at a time examination of books, movies, or video games that I am currently engaged with. My hope is to address them shortly after reading or watching them so that I can give my thoughts as clearly as possible.
So that leads us to the subject of this post Marva Dawn’s Is It a Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children. As I’ve admitted in my monthly reading posts this book has been a struggle to get through for me. It is not because of my inherent disagreement with Dawn on the principles that she espouses, but it is more that while her theory and concerns are things I can agree with, her practical solutions just fall flat for me on a regular basis. I feel though, that I am getting ahead of myself and I should get into what the book is about.
The title of the book may have you thinking that it is about how to do activities or programs in the church better, but it isn’t. The aim of Is it a Lost Cause? is much deeper and looks to strike at the heart of the matter rather than the outward trappings. Dawn’s center of focus rests on the idea of those who claim to be following and claiming Christ to be an alternative parallel society to the “principalities and power” of the world. While that focus is not necessarily one I would disagree with, they are rather vague ideas. What does an alternative parallel society look like? It is often in these details that I find myself disagreeing with Dawn.
Let’s start with what I do agree with. It is always so easy to point out the disagreements, but I’d rather start with the focus on what I do agree with her about. The main idea that I agree with is the church functioning as a community that is focused on Christ. What does that look like? One of the first principles that Dawn gives on this matter is that we must reject the improper focus on individualism. If you have a group of people all focused on themselves then a true community is never able to be established. Our faith is not meant to be a solo path, but I agree with Dawn that many people seem to try to do it alone or at least within their own family unit. Her call is that we be connected as community and for that community to be involved with the development of each other and of children, even if they are not your own.
Now this commitment brings out a number of challenges that Dawn highlights. Are we willing to wrestle as a community with texts of scripture that challenge us? Are we willing to give and receive admonishment from those around us in the community? Are we willing to have people in our community that we disagree with and can practice humility and reconciliation? Are we willing to have people in our community that reflects the diversity of our local makeup? Is the community involved in sharing their gifts and talents in the life of the congregation and the life of the local area for Christ’s sake? Are the leaders equipping and challenging people to be willing to go towards service instead of being served?
Currently, community has become somewhat of a buzzword, but I think that Dawn does a good job of presenting the real challenges and difficulties that real community entails. It is no completely idealistic view of community and how easy it is, rather it is a look that says real community takes work, but it is a work that is worth it. These aspects of Is it a Lost Cause? are challenging, but they are a challenge that I feel we need to face.
Now while developing such a community is indeed part of this parallel or alternative society, she believes that there are other challenges that we face from what is in our culture. These challenges are the ideas of avoiding suffering, materialism, focus on entertainment, information overload, violence and sexuality. These are all topics that I feel need to be addressed, but I often found myself at odds with her practical suggestions on how to face these challenges.
With that said, it is probably time to get into some of the problems of I have with Dawn’s book. I guess one thing that bothers me about this is that she puts a lot of focus on education and behavior. She tends to propose a view that says if we teach and model certain things to our children and do not expose them to negative influences in culture that we will have children that follow in the faith. While I don’t believe this is a bad thing, I don’t know if it is true. Perhaps it is just because I do not come from a Christian family that I view things this way. My commitment to following God and serving Him isn’t based off of my education growing up or my avoiding certain influences.
I guess I feel that a lot of the focus ended up on behavior, and to me the danger there is religiousness. An ability to look very good and moral, but not necessarily being connected to God or really seeking after Him. I got that vibe from the two or three times where Dawn mentions that she doesn’t own a television and that nothing would change her mind. I’m okay with that being the position she has, but she mentions it a good number of times and while she tries to say it is okay if one is different, the time she talks about the topic doesn’t really leave you the idea that she is okay with people watching TV, because she finds nothing worth watching on it. While I do believe behavior is an aspect of our walk with Christ, I don’t think it is the only one, after all we can’t behave our way into the Kingdom of God.
Beyond this I just found some of her practical solutions as not really addressing the issue at hand. Like in the chapter on consumerism she talks about how she doesn’t think that Christians should teach their children about Santa Claus and commercialize when we celebrate Christ’s birthday. I can understand these concerns, but her solutions just didn’t seem to make much sense to me. One suggestion was to replace Santa Claus with the Christ Child as the one who delivers gifts. I think I’d rather keep Santa than turn the Christ Child into some gift delivering persona. It just seems like a reduction and false use of Christ.
The other idea she presented regarding getting rid of the commercialism of Christmas was to give gifts on alternate holidays, like Epiphany or the Festival of St. Nicholas. To me changing the date really doesn’t matter, you’re doing it to replace giving gifts on Christmas and it is therefore still Christmas that results in the exchanging of gifts. This is not to say she doesn’t give some good options, but that they are just very hit or miss.
Another aspect of the book that doesn’t set well with me is that Dawn has a decided anti-technology streak. Again she tries to say that she doesn’t view technology as a negative, but often that is said after she has a number of paragraphs on the negatives of technology. She may be trying to be unbiased, but those attempts just don’t ring true to me. I don’t see how someone can call things a waste of time and full of filth and truly say that she doesn’t view it as inherently bad and something that should be completely avoided.
I guess what gets me is why she hits on technology so hard. I somewhat understand it, but at the same time the things she presents as alternatives are not necessarily inherently good either. I’m sure that there are many books that are full of things that are not family friendly. Reading is also a very anti-social activity often. I say that as one who grew up loving to read and still does. It may be an act that uses and develops intelligence more than TV, but even reading has its negatives. Sports and the even the arts can become selfish ventures where it is more about becoming the best at the expense of others rather than fostering true community. To simply label these things as good and technology like TVs and computers bad seems neither fair nor very accurate. I honestly wonder what she thinks about such things now, this book was written in 1997, and in the past 15 years things have only progressed with technology.
Lastly, I guess I just get a vibe of the old times were better from the book. Or maybe if it isn’t that, it is the idea that Dawn had the ideal upbringing as a child and that all parents should follow that example. I don’t think that she believes this possible, but I felt that it was there at times. There just seems to be the idea that if we didn’t have TV or computers, or things like that then there would be more children who grow up to become Christian. There are negatives to the introduction of new technologies, of that I have no doubt, but I do feel that there are positives as well. Is technology or television a replacement for parenting? No, but neither is it something to be avoided at all costs either. I imagine that there were those who didn’t follow the Christan faith even before television, and that there will continue to be those who do not as well.
So these are my final thoughts on Is It a Lost Cause? As I said at the beginning I thought the book had good principles and challenging thoughts, but it just rubbed me the wrong way in places. I won’t say that I enjoyed reading the book. However, I will say that it is the kind of book that needs to be read even if it isn’t enjoyable. It will probably challenge you at least on one level if not more. I don’t always think that Dawn represents the subject she tackles completely unbiased or always at the right angle, but I would say that it seems her heart is definitely in the right place.