How Wounded People Have Shaped Culture

fatherlessness and atheism

Have you ever wondered about the personal histories of people who have influenced the world in negative ways, philosophically or politically? I have. I’ve harbored a long-held suspicion that influential people who have shaped the world for the worse have generally done so from a position of personal woundedness.

The point of the question is not to establish a reason to judge people or to create division. But I think it’s an interesting and significant question. If anything, establishing such a connection may help foster understanding.

It may also shed light on issues that we may assume to be intellectual issues but which may in fact originate with psychological issues rooted in personal history.

In my opinion it also underscores the importance of marriage, loving family, and the meeting of the relational needs of our fellow human beings.

I’ve finally gotten around to doing a little research, and what I’ve learned is fascinating. We know the names and contributions of world-shapers, but what is less known is that, almost without exception, the stories of those who’ve made a negative impact are often deeply tragic.

Who is to Say What is “Negative”?
This is a fair question. Let me hasten to add a caveat here. I am unapologetically biased in my opinion about what constitutes a “negative influence” in the world. Justifying my opinion is probably a topic for a separate post. I recognize that some may consider what I see as a negative contribution to be a positive one. I also recognize that the contribution of many the folks mentioned below is mixed.

However, I don’t believe it matters. Regardless of what one think about a person’s contribution to the world, the facts of his or her personal history remain, and, I believe, shaped the course of that person’s life.

Following is a list of people who have shaped the world in the modern era; especially in the world of academia. There is overlap in these categories as most of these people are/were atheists.

Atheist thinkers
In a recent movie review I mentioned the connection between well known atheists and the “father wound.” Psychologist Paul Vitz has written a book on this connection entitled, “Faith of the Fatherless,” which I recommend. Here are arguably the most notable atheist names in history:

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Popularly known for his pronouncement, “God is dead.” Nietzsche’s father, to whom he was very attached, died just before his fifth birthday. After his father’s death he lived in a religious household consisting of his mother, sister, paternal grandmother, and two paternal aunts, until he went away to school at age 14.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Prominent British atheist philosopher and author, notably published a collection of essays entitled, Why I Am Not a Christian. From an aristocratic family, Russell’s mother died when he was two years old. His father died two years later. Russell was then raised by his paternal grandparents, Lord John Russell and Lady Russell. However, his grandfather died when he was six years old, leaving him to be raised by his puritanical grandmother and a succession of nannies.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Influential 20th century French atheist philosopher, playwright, and novelist. Sartre’s father died when he was 15 months old. He grew up very close and emotionally invested with his mother. When his mother remarried in Sartre’s 12th year, she moved into an apartment with her new husband, and Sartre stayed with his grandparents with whom he was not close.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)
French atheist philosopher, author, and journalist. His father died in battle during World War 1 when Camus was 1 year old. Camus was raised by his mother, who was illiterate and cleaned houses for a living, and subsequently grew up in an economically depressed environment. In 1937 Camus was denounced as a Trotskyite and expelled from the French Communist Party, at which time he joined the French anarchist movement.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995)
Perhaps America’s best-known atheist before her death, she led the lawsuit to successfully ban prayer in public schools during the 1960s. According to her son, Madalyn hated her father and unsuccessfully attempted to kill him on at least one occasion. The reason for this intense hatred is not known

Richard Dawkins (1941- )
British “New Atheist,” evolutionary biologist, and author. A critic of all religion and especially Christianity, Dawkins is on record stating that the teaching of Christian doctrine to children is child abuse. He attended a religious boarding school at age 9 and experienced sexual abuse at the hands of his Latin master while separated from his parents.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
British “New Atheist,” journalist, and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens grew up in an intact family and also went off the boarding school at age 8. His father was a naval officer and Hitchens claims to have “few clear memories of him,” referring to him as “the Commander.” He was close with his mother, who eventually had an affair with a former Anglican priest. The two lovers subsequently ended their lives together in a suicide pact.

Daniel Dennett (1942- )
American “New Atheist” philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist. Dennett’s father worked as a counter-intelligence agent for the US government. The family moved to Lebanon during World War 2. His father died in an unexplained plane crash while away on a Middle East mission when Dennett was 5 years old.

Political leaders
Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924)
Leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and architect of the Soviet state. Third of six children in a happy family, when Lenin was 16 his father died of a brain hemorrhage. He renounced his belief in God soon thereafter. 5 months later his elder brother was hanged for his part in conspiring against the Tsar.

Joseph Stalin (1879-1953)
Soviet dictator, orchestrator of the Great Purge against political rivals, and perpetrator of the worst man-made famine in human history. The precise number is unknown, but by some estimates Stalin presided over the deaths of 20 million people. Originally trained for the priesthood, in his 30s Stalin rejected his family name (Djugashvili) and changed it to the Russian word for “man of steel.” Stalin had a very harsh upbringing. His father was an alcoholic and often severely beat him and his mother.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976)
Communist leader and father of the People’s Republic of China. Mao presided over the Great Leap Forward of 1958 (the ensuing famine of which caused the deaths of some 30 million peasants,) and the Cultural Revolution of 1966 (which resulted in some million and a half deaths and destroyed much of China’s cultural heritage.) Mao reportedly hated his father, who was a tyrant and regularly and severely beat him and his three siblings.

Adolph Hitler (1889-1945)
Leader of the Nazi Party, Chancellor and fuehrer of Germany, and initiator of World War 2. Hitler presided over the Nazi Holocaust during which 6 million Jews were executed – nearly two thirds of Continental Europe’s Jewish citizenry. Additional victims included communists, the mentally and physically disabled, homosexuals, blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political opponents. As a boy, Hitler’s father severely and regularly beat him; “every day” according to his sister. He was one of 6 children, 3 of whom died in infancy. As an 11 year old boy Hitler was deeply affected by the death of his younger brother, Edmund. Hitler’s antagonistic relationship with his father ended 3 years later when his father died unexpectedly. There was no father figure in his life after this.

Opinion shapers
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. While his father was not abusive, apparently Freud considered him to be a weak man and a disappointment; lacking in courage and unable to provide for his family. Furthermore, according to Paul Vitz, in two letters as an adult Freud writes that his father, Jacob, was “a sexual pervert and that Jacob’s own children suffered as a result.”

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
British naturalist and author of the vastly influential On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The pure naturalism of microbes-to-man evolutionary theory made materialism (atheism) an intellectually respectable option. Darwin’s mother died when he was 8. He was raised by his sisters until he went off to school at age 9. His relationship with his imposing father was ambivalent. He once wrote, “To my deep mortification my father once said to me, ‘you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family’.”

Feminist leaders
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
American birth control activist, sex educator, author, nurse, and racist eugenics proponent. Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the US and founded the American Birth Control League, which became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger grew up in an impoverished home headed by an alcoholic father. She was the 6th of 11 children. Her mother went through 18 pregnancies in 22 years, (including 7 miscarriages,) before dying at the age of 40.

Gloria Steinem (1934- )
American feminist, political activist, and journalist. Steinem was a leading figurehead for the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s and co-founder of Ms. Magazine. Perhaps her best known quote is, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” When Steinem was 10 years old her parents divorced and her father left, leaving her to care for her mentally ill mother.

Bella Abzug (1920-1998)
American feminist, lawyer, congressional representative, and social activist. Abzug was also a leading activist during the 60s and 70s. In her later life she became an influential leader at the United nations working to support womens’ equality around the world. Abzug’s father died when she was 13. She went to the synagogue every morning for a year to recite the traditional mourner’s prayer. This was in defiance of the orthodox synagogue’s tradition that only sons recite the prayer.

Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012)
American feminist thinker and author. Firestone is less well known than the others listed here but she was a central figure in the early development of radical feminism. Her book, The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, has continued to be influential in feminist thought, and is also considered to be an early “post-genderist” work. In the book she argues that it is the biological role of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing that keeps women oppressed. She envisioned the abolition of the nuclear family with its oppressive parent-child relationship, and doing away with the maternal instinct. She envisioned artificial wombs, and collective child-rearing. Not surprisingly, Firestone’s relationship with her controlling, orthodox Jewish father was wildly antagonistic.

Summary
One would be justified in asking if fatherlessness was typical in past centuries, or if the family dynamic was dysfunctional for most people. Author Paul Vitz answers this question by providing a contrasting list of theistic thinkers and influencers. In virtually every case these theists were raised in nurturing, loving environments. When a parent was lost at an early age, relatives or friends stepped up as affirming father figures. Examples Vitz gives include Blaise Pascal, Edmund Burke, William Paley, William Wilberforce, Soren Kierkegaard, G. K. Chesterton, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It would be wrong to assume that all atheists today grew up with a dysfunctional parent relationship. Atheism has now become mainstream and academically respectable. However, I remain convinced that children have a God-ordained right to be nurtured by their married biological parents whenever possible. If you are a parent I hope these stories will strengthen your resolve to stay a loving course in your marriage and parenting.

Happy Father’s day to all the dads reading this! May you be a blessing to your children!

Dad Notes: You Are Having An Impact on Your Kids. Make It Count!

nuclear family 1967

Dad, me (center,) the sibs, and a stylish lamp – 1967

As a young man I never really dreamed of having kids, or even of getting married for that matter. I had been paying attention, and I rarely saw a marriage that looked like an enviable situation to me. I wasn’t necessarily opposed to the idea, it’s just that I had a lot of other things that I wanted to do. Things that probably wouldn’t provide a reliable means to support a family. Things like being an artist.

Wow, how things changed. Mollie and I will celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary this fall, and our youngest of 5 children graduated high school 2 years ago. I now consider my relationship with my wife and kids to be far and away the best investment of my time, energy, and life that I could have made. I’m so glad we had 5 kids. I really could not have guessed how deeply fulfilling being a dad would be.

When my first son was born, literally when I first laid eyes on him, it was as though a switch got flipped. I embraced fatherhood with a passion. Building a solid marriage and family is hard work, but looking back on my own upbringing I could see that it was as important as any work there is.

Did I do things perfectly? Of course we all know the answer to that…

A bad dad story
Not that I need to prove I’m not perfect, but there was this one day when I took our (then) four kids with me to the grocery store to give mom a break.

We got out of the mini-van, and there was a stray shopping cart right next to the van. I strapped the baby in to the built in car seat, and told my kids I would give them a ride to the store entrance! I told my daughter to stand on the end of the cart and told her to hold on tight. I positioned a boy on either side of the cart and told them to hold on tight.

I told them to hold on tight, not because anything bad was going to happen, but because I was such an awesome and responsible dad.

I started pushing the shopping cart, now loaded down with small children. I remember being a little surprised at how heavy the cart was, and thinking that we were possibly going slightly too fast. But all of my kids were laughing and holding on tightly, and I could tell they were all thinking, “YAY! We have a FUN dad!!!” Plus I couldn’t really slow the cart down anyway. I noticed several people in the parking lot looking at me like I was an idiot, but I didn’t care because I was being awesome and they weren’t.

To my relief, we actually approached the store entrance without hitting any old people or getting backed into by a car. Unfortunately, just as we were slowing down and nearly out of danger, one of the boys decided to hop off the cart. This upset the delicate balance I had created and the cart began to tip. I was not strong enough to hold back the weight of the remaining 3 kids, and the shopping cart tipped completely over, right in front of the supermarket entrance.

There I was, red-faced on the ground with 3 screaming kids, including a baby who was (fortunately) strapped in, upside down in the shopping cart.

I remember being really glad my wife wasn’t there.

Embracing the fatherhood role
My dad was apparently smarter than me. I had a great dad and a very secure, I would even say uneventful, upbringing. No abuse, no feelings of non-acceptance, not even any big hurtful words or moments that I can remember. I took this for granted at the time. It simply fit with the way I thought a dad who claimed to follow Jesus should raise his kids. The love of my parents made the world make sense to me. I have now come to see how unusual my upbringing was.

It almost seems unfair just how much fathers impact the lives of their children. My adult children now lament that, even among their Christian friends, great dads seem to be rare. Many kids grow up warped by dads who were physically and/or emotionally absent, or abusive, or habitually angry, or control freaks, or unaccepting, or too proud to admit when they were wrong.

But there is an upside to how much impact a dad will inevitably have on his kids. The upside is that we can consciously choose to influence our kids for good. We can ask God the Father to give us the heart of a father – the kind of heart that He had in mind when He created the fatherhood role.

As a young parent, my dad’s example was always in the back of my mind, like a north star that I could navigate by when I was unsure of what to do. I think it gave me an added measure of confidence and peace in my parenting as well. But even if your upbringing was troubled, you can still learn from your parents’ mistakes, as our own kids will certainly learn from ours.

May this day inspire you to renew your mind and renew your commitment to be a great father to your children. No one else can do this as well as you.

“…For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:8-10.)

Raising Kids Who Have Strong Values but Aren’t Bossy

parenting bossiness strong values

Does this ring a bell? This was a frequent issue for Mollie and me. We are both artists and, I would say, intentionally on the non-legalistic end of the spectrum of conservative evangelical culture. But somehow we produced a couple of children with an overdeveloped sense of how everyone else should behave.

One child in particular seemed to feel he should be the Jiminy Cricket of the whole family. (And, perhaps the neighborhood, church, and world.) The issue came up with the other four as well, just not on a daily basis.

Of course, I was pleased to see that this child had a strong sense of right and wrong. He was also very bright, articulate, and overconfident. To compound his situation further, he was the second oldest, and his older brother had a disability. You can imagine how sorely tempted he was to constantly “help” those around him. Especially given that he had a younger brother who was apparently born without a conscience, (but that’s probably a story for another time.)

I’m guessing you’ve seen this in your own kids, or in other “church kids” as well. They’re good kids, but they’re kids, so of course they’re still finding balance. This tension is understandable because we’ve been teaching them that there is such a thing as right and wrong. We don’t want them to believe that “everything is relative.” We don’t buy into the idea that “you have your truth and I have mine.” We want our kids to grasp the idea of an objective Creator who has created a world where objective right and wrong, and truth exist.

So how do we raise them to not come off as judgmental little twerps, yet without undermining their developing worldview?

Here are four ideas that we consciously employed. We don’t have all the answers, so please feel free to contribute your helpful thoughts in the combox below.

1) Unsolicited help and advice is usually unwelcome
If a person doesn’t want your help, your help will not be accepted as help.”
We had to emphasize this about a million times with our kids. A couple of them seemed genuinely amazed that their interventions were not always welcome. After all, if one person is right and another person is wrong, the wrong person will surely want to know about it. Right?! This turned out to be at the root of a large percentage of sibling squabbles in our home.

This also happens to be one of those principles that continues to serve us all well in adulthood.

2) Authority roles
I think it’s worth explaining things to kids that we as adults have come to take for granted. Authority roles is a big one. The Bible teaches that God has instituted 3 spheres of life with clear authority roles: the state, the church, and the family. Gently but clearly, I would often explicitly spell out to a child, usually in the presence of the others, something like this:
“(Child’s name,) did you notice that your mom and I are sitting right here, and we did not correct your sister/brother? I don’t want you to correct her/him either. You are not the dad/mom. You have no authority over your sister/brother.”

Sometimes we had to remind them that they were not police officers either.

3) Family identity
Your family has an identity and a collective “self-image” that each family member shares. When our children are small, they accept this identity to the extent that they understand it. We sometimes felt it necessary to differentiate our family from many of those around us. Not for the sake of creating division or ill will, but because there was a lot of bad stuff going on around us, and we parents weren’t necessarily doing anything about it.

I should explain that we lived in an inner city neighborhood where there was a lot to criticize, even from a child’s perspective: lots of family dysfunction, lying, stealing, swearing, smoking, meanness, fighting, substance abuse, cruelty, vandalism, litter, and so on.

Our stated explanation of our identity would go something like this:
“Our family loves and follows Jesus. Many other families don’t. This is sad for them, but we can’t make them follow Jesus. The best way for us to help them is to be kind to them, and let them see how great Jesus is, not to always be telling them what they are doing wrong.”

Within the church it can be a bit trickier, since we are all professing Jesus:
“Their family is also trying to follow Jesus, but they understand that a little differently than we do. We’re all trying to follow Jesus, so we trust each other. We trust that we’re all trying our best. As a kid, God wants you to obey your mom and dad. That’s your job right now. When you have your own family someday you can do things differently.”

4) Parental example
I believe this may be the most important for the long term. I think a contradictory parental example can undo a lot of good instruction. So Mollie and I tried not to “boss around” each other or our adult friends. Even with our kids, when it was appropriate we would ask them if they would like help when we could see that they needed help. If the answer was no, and the situation wasn’t life threatening to anyone, we would wait until they were ready to receive help. We didn’t want to leave them with the impression that being in authority means you get to boss people around. (Not that there isn’t a place for this in parenting, of course.)

As an older, wiser friend of mine used to say, “More is caught than is taught.”

Part of our privilege as parents is to help our kids navigate life more effectively than they would without our wisdom. May God give you grace as you help your kids reach a place of balance!

 

Dad notes: Family Devotions?

Homeschool Devotions
With the New Year, I’m guessing some of you may be resolving to do a better job at having family devotional times in 2015. I say this because when I was parenting small kids, this was an area that I often wondered about. The nature of my wondering had to do with how best to appeal to my children’s hearts.

I want to explain, but first, a disclaimer:
In this blog, I do not presume to be a parenting expert dispensing advice. However, Mollie and I found that one of the most helpful things for us when we were young parents raising small children was to hear the experiences of other parents. Hearing different perspectives helped us to think through things more carefully. Evangelical subculture can sometimes tend to feel a bit one-size-fits-all. Mollie and I found that some things that worked well with one child didn’t necessarily work with another. So we’ve tried to resist the urge to dogmatize our parenting practices.

Here’s the deal: I believe that following Jesus is the utmost adventure. Life in the kingdom, even in the mundane things in life, is deep, meaningful, and foremost. I’ve always hoped my kids would ultimately view the things of God in the same way, rather than viewing, let’s say Bible study, as an obligation.

So how do we impart passion for God to our kids?

Well, a lot of us view family devotions as one way to do this. But for my family, the times I tried this, I could see my kids’ eyes glazing over. And I don’t think the problem was my content or delivery. The problem, (if it’s even correct to call it that,) was my kids – they simply weren’t in the right frame of mind to want to hear it. It was too abstract for them. They weren’t emotionally engaged. I was trying to excite them from the outside.

We’re all aware that there is a school of thought that says this is only to be expected, and that we should push forward anyway. It’s a matter of discipline, and we push through because we know it’s good and right for them. They’re still receiving truth, and the Holy Spirit can use it in their lives even if it is at a later time. I think this is a legitimate way of thinking, and I’ll return to it in a moment.

However, as a dad, I opted for a different approach. It felt wrong to me to bore my kids with God’s revelation – the one thing in the world by which I wanted them to be inspired. So I opted for a 2 part plan: 1) Mollie and I would model a vibrant life of faith to them, and, 2) we would actively look for teachable moments with our kids, and take advantage of those moments.

By “teachable moments” I refer to times throughout the day when their hearts and minds were engaged with a question or problem. I felt that at these times their hearts were primed to receive spiritual instruction. Sometimes it was discussions around the dinner table about the day’s events. Sometimes it was conversations at bedtime. Sometimes it was in the heat of a moment of conflict or worry. Often these moments included praying with them, and praying for them or for a friend, on the spot. Always my aim was for them to feel the relevance of God in our lives in every situation. I was generally prepared to drop everything else when these moments came up.

A Parallel Example
I think the example of learning a musical instrument provides a parallel that clarifies the difference between these two approaches.

On the one hand, parents can take the approach of making a child take music lessons even when that child doesn’t want lessons, and it’s a fight to get them to practice. I have a friend whose mom made him practice violin for an hour everyday at 5:30 every morning, which he hated. Today he is grateful to her. He has played for the St. Louis Philharmonic, and plays violin everyday because he loves it. (But not, presumably, at 5:30 am.)

On the other hand, parents can take the approach of waiting until a child wants to learn an instrument, and the desire to do so is something the child owns. We’ve taken this approach with a couple of our teenagers. They’ve had a lot of catching up to do, but their hearts are in it, and it’s fun and exciting for them. It would be strange for us to remind them to practice because they’re self-motivated, and learning the instrument was their idea in the first place.

I honestly don’t know if one approach is better than another, though obviously I lean toward the latter. For years I’ve been asking accomplished musicians their opinions on the question and have gotten mixed answers.

Paying Attention to Your Child’s Heart
When it comes to raising up kids who are passionate for God, I have also seen mixed results. We all want the same things for our kids, but sometimes our efforts as parents do not produce the intended “results.” I have seen plenty of kids who were so burnt out on “spiritual disciplines” that they wanted to be done with God, the church, and the Bible as soon as they could leave home. For others, spiritual disciplines seem to have helped them hit the ground running when they left home as young adults.

I have heard some pastors urging parents to require their kids to regularly journal and memorize Bible verses. I approached these subjects with my kids as a suggestion, but I always felt that requiring these things of them would serve to make these things drudgery for them. I wanted them to do these things, but from the heart – not because I required it of them. It is interesting having adult children who are now passionate about Jesus, because I can ask them about my parenting. They have confirmed that they would probably have resented being required to engage in spiritual disciplines that would’ve seemed dry to them at the time. Most are grateful that I didn’t make them regularly sit through “boring” family devotions, (although my oldest son did like them.)

Your experience may be different from mine. If so, that’s great! I’m elated that what you are doing is working for your family. My intent is not to be critical of the idea of family devotions. My hope in writing this is to encourage parents who may be struggling with feeling as though they are failing because their (formal) family devotional times are sporadic, or non-existent, or not working. Within the parameters of a Spirit-led life there is more than one way to have a home that is centered around Jesus. I’m inclined to think that serving others as a family would be more helpful for everyone involved than sitting around on the sofa talking about serving others.

The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.

A Caveat
I can think of one context where the systemized impartation of biblical instruction makes sense to me, regardless of whether or not the child’s heart is in it: in a home school setting. In this case, most of what he or she is learning is viewed by both parent and student as a requirement that must be carried out. It is school, after all. With our three oldest children, Mollie started off the school day with a devotional time, and memorizing verses was a part of their curriculum. We think this benefited those three. When we moved to Colorado, Mollie had to start working, and our youngest two did not receive this benefit. But with all five, I still believe the real work of discipling was and is done in the course of “real life.”

The guy who discipled me during my college years used to say, “More is caught than is taught.”
I believe there is a lot of truth in that.

Finally, I’m firmly convinced that good, compelling stories are one of the best ways to impart a biblical worldview to young children – it’s the very reason I started Big Picture Publishing. The reason I think this is that stories engage the heart and emotions as well as the intellect, and that is when lasting impressions are made. Thank you for supporting me in this project as I support you.

Please feel free to share your experiences below, whether you agree or disagree with me. Your comments may be of help to other parents. I’d love to hear your thoughts.