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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Negative numbers. In the newly-released Fatherless, prolific Christian authors Dr. James Dobson and Kurt Bruner not only collaborate — while each taking their first stab at a novel.(Kurt Bruner, it should be noted has some background in fiction, particularly in radio drama as an executive producer of  the long-running Christian-themed series Adventures in Odyssey.)

Here’s the plot of Fatherless (part one of a planned trilogy) as described on the back cover their book:

The year is 2042, and a long-predicted tipping point has arrived. For the first time in human history, the economic pyramid has flipped: The feeble old now outnumber the vigorous young, and this untenable situation is intensifying a battle between competing cultural agendas. Reporter Julia Davidson-a formerly award-winning journalist seeking to revive a flagging career-is investigating the growing crisis, unaware that her activity makes her a pawn in an ominous conspiracy.

As Anthony Sacramone notes in his thoroughly-entertaining article for Intercollegiate Review, fictional depictions of dystopian futures are not exactly new. But one can hardly take a look at the data and not be concerned that the unpleasant future imagined in Fatherless isn’t farfetched at all. I recently spoke with the authors. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

JWK: The book’s concept is very interesting. How did it come about?

DR. JAMES DOBSON: Well Fatherless is the first of three works of fiction that presupposes what the world will be like — culturally and socially and every other way — in view of the demographic trends that are taking place at this time. It really comes out of the inversion of the pyramid. As many of your readers will know, the greatest number of people have typically been at the bottom of the pyramid and the fewest number are those who are elderly at the top and that has now reversed itself. So, you have fewer people supporting and caring for those with the greatest needs. And that refers to those who are elderly and getting older. That has major implications for the culture — socially and economically, spiritually and virtually every other dimension of life.

JWK: How do you feel his inversion has come about? What cultural forces are behind it?

DJD: Well there are number of factors that have been increasing in influence in the last forty or fifty years and we are now at a tipping point. Just in the last few months, the birth rate and the fertility rate has dropped below ZPG which is zero population growth. If it were not for immigration, our population would be decreasing in number and that has, as I said, many implications for the future. Now, what’s caused that? Well, one thing is that people are more interested in self fulfillment and in the personal desires that they have. They don’t want to be burdened by children, many of them. It’s time consuming. It’s demanding. Children are not easy to raise. More and more people are looking at that proposition and saying “I don’t think that I want to be burdened by children.” So, even in cases where they don’t feel that way, many of them will not have more than one or two children and that’s not enough to sustain the population.

KURT BRUNER: What we’re trying to do in the novels is move forward 30 years and depict where all these trends unquestionably have been going. And they’re accelerating. So, we’re trying to now depict the world in which those trends come to full fruition. Some of them are already happening around the world — like today Japan has the oldest average citizen in the world and they are already in the Z population tipping point and are already feeling the crisis it’s creating for their economy in terms of becoming a decaying population. And, just a couple of anecdotes from Japan. It interesting. In the last few weeks, in fact, they’re new elected leaders — one of them their minister over the economy (Finance Minister Taro Aso) — said let elderly people “hurry up and die.” Because why? They can’t afford it anymore. The safety net is tearing because there not enough young (people) fueling the economy.  Also, last year was the first year Japan sold more adult diapers than baby diapers. So, it gives you a little snapshot as to where the world is heading. The demographic trends are creating a crisis. More and more news (outlets) are reporting it. We hope that by setting it forward, in a dystopian way 30 years hence, it will be easier for people to see where it is we’re heading.

JWK: What do you hope people do with the information you’re conveying?

DJD: Well, there’s a lot of hope in the books. Most of it will be in the third book because we are at this time laying the foundation for where we are headed as a country. People in the United States tend not to be aware of this or they’re just becoming aware of it. In other countries — France, Russia, Germany, China and, of course, Japan — there are anxieties about it. Governments are actually offering incentives for people to have more children.

JWK: China’s one-child policy is actually becoming a growing for the Chinese government.

KB: That’s come under recent attack internally because they see where these demographic shifts are driving them. A couple decades hence it will be a distant memory when we thought China was taking over the whole world economically because they’re going to be into this crisis like no other nation in history.

JWK: Because of the one-child policy?

KB: Well, yeah, but this is another interesting note. The one-child policy which has (included) draconian measures to suppress birth, to punish those and fine those who have more than one child, all those things that have been coming to  bear have brought the fertility rate down to…roughly 1.6 in China but among college-educated affluent women in America it is also 1.6. We’ve done it to ourselves for completely different reasons. But it’s true across the globe and across the demographic categories economically. The driver of what’s happening in our future is fertility. It’s whether or not marriage and family are upheld as God designed it. I mean (the) fiscal cliff, all those things are symptoms (related) to the larger issue which is a demographic crisis. In these novels we attempt to depict where it’s going based on current projections. These aren’t outlandish speculations. This simply projecting 30 years (forward) where we’re heading and what is likely to occur — what conflicts will emerge.

JWK: While the books reflects your Bible-based beliefs, it’s actually based on hard demographic data.

KB: In fact many people will notice that these books could just as easily be read by a non-Christian as a Christians. Because while, of course, we understand God’s design for the family to be rooted in Christian understandings — they’re true for all humanity. Genesis 1 and 2 is the foundation of all humanity, God’s intention for the human race.

DJD: There was an article — a very revealing article — in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago and let me read just a paragraph of what the author wrote. He said “There’s been a great deal of political talk in recent years about whether America — once regarded as “a shining city on a hill’ — is in decline. But the decline isn’t about whether Democrats or Republicans hold power. It isn’t about political ideology at all. It is, at its most basic level, about the sustainability of human capital.” And that is the essence of our survivability.

KB: And, John, that’s rooted in, we believe, a spiritual battle that’s been going on since God created man and woman, brought them together and said “Be fruitful and multiply” and now form a family. If you read Genesis 1 and 2 carefully, that’s what’s described as God’s image on Earth. He created a family as the highest expression of his very image. And Satan hates that image of God. And so we believe that these attacks that (are) currently going on and that we depict in these novels is the attack of Satan against the very image of God on Earth.

JWK: In your view, what, at this point, can society do to change its current trajectory?

DJD: Well, for one thing, Washington does not seem to value the family. Every enterprise in this country has lobbyists who are there trying to get money and trying to talk our legislatures into favoring them. There are almost no lobbyists for the family. And, as a result, Congress for 40 years has passed legislation that makes it difficult for families to survive. Something called the “Marriage Penalty Tax” started in 1969 which actually raised the tax rates for those who are raising children and trying to put a roof over their heads, trying to feed them, trying to medicate them, trying to educate them. They paid higher taxes than those who were living together without (the) benefit of marriage. That’s been the way it is. (Though the tax was mitigated by the  Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 ) we’re just about to go back to that now. They’re toying with the same thing. We need to support policies that make it easier for families to thrive– certainly economically easier. But there are other aspects to it. I think, rather than just phrase your question in regard to what’s happening in the culture or we can do in the culture that will change things, it has to come down to the individual.

KB: The individual family in particular.

DJD: Exactly. How much sacrifice are we willing to invest in the next generation? I’m telling you that’s worth a man and woman’s time.

JWK: Do you think, however, that culture influences those individual decision through movies, TV shows and books that push the idea the true fulfillment is something that is found outside the family  — that portray the family as even a hindrance to fulfillment?

KB: Well, absolutely. That’s all over the media. I mean if you’re a typical young man or young woman today, what’s the message that the general culture gives? Well, you know, put off marriage as long as possible because that takes a lot. And then, of course, if you’re gonna have children,have just a few — one or two because they’re expensive. So, those messages permeate the culture. We believe the hope is what we call “bright spots” throughout these novels. And that is those willing to make the sacrifice, invest themselves and experience the joy of family life, of parenthood  but also, as a result, fuel the economy and begin to solve this problem that’s tipping us over the cliff.

JWK: You’ve both known each other for many years. What was it like for the two of you to collaborate on a novel? Did you find it easy to work together?

DJD: (laughs) He’s kinda cranky at times. Hey, this is a good man. I worked with him for many years at Focus on the Family. He was a vice president there and I really came to respect him and it was just a logical step now that I’m at Family Talk to work with him again.

KB: It’s been actually a really fun collaboration.

JWK: What differences have you found making a point head on in one of your non-fiction books versus making your point through a fictional narrative?

KB: Well, C.S. Lewis said it well. He said you tell stories because you go through the “backdoor” of the imagination and you surprise people with things that they may have resisted if you tried to go through the front door. Jesus did this with parables. He would plant these bombs called stories. People would walk away having laughed at the story and loved the story and later on they would say “Wait a minute! He was talking about something I don’t agree with.” The same thing can happen with great (modern) storytelling. That’s why Harriet Beecher Stowe, when the wrote what is considered the most influential book in American history, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, President Lincoln said that book started the Civil War.

JWK: Can you tell me about the other two books in your planned trilogy?

KB: The first book is Fatherless is set in the year 2042. The second book is called Childless. That comes out in the fall. It’s set in the year 2043. And then the third book will be next spring called Godless and that’s set a year later. The same characters overlap in these stories.

JWK: Any plans for a movie or movies based on these books?

KB:  That would be up for the Lord to create those opportunities...We’re getting good feedback, real positive feedback. People can’t put it down once they start reading.

Note: You can read the first chapter of Fatherless here. For more on the topic, read Kurt Bruner’s blog here.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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