Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
I finished reading Growing Up Duggar: It’s All About Relationships on the same night as last week’s So You Think You Can Dance finale. Though the book lacks a distinct authorial voice (possibly ghost-written, possibly a poor strategy to conflate four different people, possibly a larger ideological issue with individuality), much of the text kept me thinking about parenthood and grace. All of their relationships are mediated through their parents, and while I respectfully disagree with their theology, I found myself admiring their relationships with their parents.
The oldest Duggar “girls” (really, now women) continually strive to strike a balance in the book between recognizing that their audience—largely young women—might not have the safe, stable family structure that the Duggars embody and really wanting them to have that kind of parents. They advocate praying together, trusting parental wisdom, and honest communication between parents and children even while acknowledging that many children and young adults never get parents capable of those values. What happens to children, then, when the advice passed from one generation to the next bears the curse of sin instead of the gift of salvation? It’s a variant of a larger question I ask myself all the time: what happens when parents fall short?
The falling short is inevitable, and the hope that I took from this book is to count on grace more than myself, more than my family of origin, and to look to God as our one true (and only perfect) parent. Throughout my own childhood and young adulthood, I can see the marks of grace that ultimately brought me home to God; I know the individuals placed in my life who instructed me and prayed for me until I was ready to stop ignoring, stop making excuses, and attend to the Holy Spirit. At its best, even a book (which can also, of course, fall short) might play a role in pointing its readers toward grace. I think grace is the ultimate message of this text, supported by the background stories of their parents and grandparents.
That is not to say that I didn’t find this book problematic, particularly in the sections on politics and popular culture. In the politics section, the Duggars take it as obvious that Christians ought to campaign, though I see voting and running for office as parts of a particular view of the relationship between religion and politics. I think there’s room for other views too, where Christians are more wary of the political sphere or eschew it altogether. I am always suspicious of single-issue candidates because no matter how important the issue, no candidate in reality can focus on only one problem while in office. Context and the big picture both matter.
I found myself especially conflicted by the chapter on popular culture, perhaps because I do enjoy pop culture so much. As my husband pointed out, the standards the Duggars say they apply to popular culture would make reading the Bible impossible, but I hope that they’re looking at the larger story. I eagerly anticipated the SYTYCD finale, and I watched—in awe—as the dancers defied most of the Duggars’ standards for morality and modesty. Yet I didn’t find the pieces immoral or immodest, but rather a celebration of creativity and bodily movement, truly poetry in motion. While I know that the Duggars participate in creative pursuits, it’s hard for me to imagine where art fits into their lives as more than imitation. The contrast of reading the book and then watching the show made me realize how much my experience of God is aesthetic—truth through beauty.
I see the greater grace of God through the worldly grace of the dancers; this is not to say that culture cannot corrupt us, but that culture and politics alike are filled with humans, and thus are able to speak to our basest humanity and our highest spirituality. Politics and politicians fall short. Culture and cultural producers and consumers fall short. Parents and children fall short. And as my children grow and engage with the world more and more, I pray that I can maintain with them the strong relationships that I admire from the Duggar family. And I pray that whatever spheres they enter—political or cultural—that they fall back on grace when all of us, ultimately, miss the mark.