The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.
Well, readers, the moment we’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived. (At least I’ve been waiting for it. Eagerly.) As soon as this post goes to print, this “series within a series” on parenting will be over, and I will not have to listen to S. M. Davis again for at least six weeks or so. Honestly, I never thought I would prefer Doug Phillips to anybody. But I suppose stranger things have happened – and as those of you who’ve stuck with me for the past three Big Box posts will remember, Davis took exquisite pains to outdo himself (and caused me exquisite pain in the process).
In fact, let’s revisit some of that exquisite pain for a moment, as it’s directly related to this week’s lecture. Remember back a few posts ago, when we learned that Davis believes
in birth order astrology that a person’s birth order determines certain aspects of their personality and gives them certain responsibilities? Here’s some pertinent quotes from Why Satan Wants Your Firstborn for review (emphasis mine):
Reuben was the first, the beginning of Isaac’s [sic] strength. His was the excellency of dignity, and excellency meant superiority and preeminence. His was the excellency of power, and that wasn’t just a description of Reuben, it is also a Bible description of the position of the firstborn. Of the original twenty-three astronauts in the United States space program, twenty-one of the twenty-three were firstborns. All of the original Mercury astronauts were firstborn. More than fifty percent of United States presidents have been firstborns. More than sixty percent of the people listed in Who’s Who in America are firstborn. You got to remember, when you look back at figures like that, you say, well, that’s a significant part of the population, but if you go back to when many of the presidents of the United States lived, there were much larger families than now, families average seven or eight children in the family.
Some firstborns have trouble dedicating their lives to God and dedicating their lives to serving others because they reject their firstbornness. Most people who reject themselves reject God as well. Your birth order was not something you could choose or reject. Your birth order was chosen for you by God Himself, you have no choice about it at all. He let you be whatever you are today because He knew you could handle it. Everything about your entire life is designed by God Himself so that your life is able to be all God meant for it to be. You had no more choice about being firstborn than the Levites did to be the Levites. But there were and are distinct privileges that come with the acceptance of the responsibility of your birth order.
In this week’s lecture, Davis expands upon the paragraphs above, mostly the idea of the firstborn having special responsibilities toward their younger siblings because of their birth order. He begins by saying everyone has a circle of influence, which seems harmless enough until he elaborates on what he means. The word for “influence” in the Bible, he claims, is “rule,” and thus everyone has a tiny “kingdom” of influence over which they “rule” from a “throne” – with firstborns’ “rule” being, of course, especially important:
And the first point, very critical, is this: the older should accept the responsibility of the power of his or her influence. I’m talking about the kingdom over which you rule. You must accept the throne of that kingdom.
Honestly, I have no idea where Davis got the notion that the word “rule” in the Bible represents some esoteric idea like the above. It doesn’t even consistently refer to the same word, in either Greek or Hebrew, and often crops up in connection with obvious authority figures (priests, kings, God, etc.). So since Davis never explained his reasoning here, I have to write this (apparently foundational) concept off as complete nonsense right out of the gate.
More importantly, however, it’s only a small step from the firstborn’s influence on their siblings’ behavior being a type of “rule,” to the firstborn actually having some kind of divinely ordained authority over their siblings. We’ve heard echoes of this idea before in the Big Box, such as Bill Einwechter’s implication that a Christian family’s firstborn son should somehow “lead” his extended family. Davis, however, comes dangerously close to actually stating it outright:
The father should be like an umbrella of protection over the family, and then the mother is also a part of that umbrella, and then the oldest in the family has his own umbrella of protection as well, then the second-born puts up his umbrella, the third his, the fourth and so on. The further down the line you go, the more protection, physically and spiritually, there is, for all of those going down the line.
Anyone who’s done even a tiny amount of research about Bill Gothard’s theology will recognize the “umbrella” terminology in this paragraph immediately. The idea is pure Gothard to the core, and in fact can be gotten straight from the horse’s mouth at the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) website. And lest we think the term “protection” is meant to soften the authoritarian implications here (emphasis mine):
An umbrella is designed to provide protection from various elements of nature: rain, hail, snow, wind, or sunshine. As long as a person is under an umbrella, he finds shelter from harsh weather conditions. If he steps out from under the umbrella, he exposes himself to the environment.
God-given authorities can be considered “umbrellas of protection.” By honoring and submitting to authorities, you will receive the privileges of their protection, direction, and accountability. If you resist their instructions and move out from their jurisdictional care, you forfeit your place under their protection and face life’s challenges and temptations on your own.
Thus, if firstborns hold an “umbrella of protection” over their younger siblings, they are in fact a “God-given authority” over them. Davis also puts a lot of emphasis on the responsibility that comes with a firstborn’s (alleged) position, once again echoing the IBLP site:
Individuals in authority need to embrace their God-given responsibilities by protecting, leading, and providing for those in their jurisdiction. If an umbrella is torn or broken, it can’t provide the protection it was designed to give. In the same way, when leaders fail, the people “under” their jurisdiction often suffer the consequences along with the leader.
Davis actually went even further than this, and claimed that an irresponsible firstborn will probably lead his or her younger siblings to hell. In fact, he even preceded this claim with a loud, colorful and passionate shouting session, obviously intended to play on the emotions and fears of his audience (emphasis mine):
And remember the rich man in hell, asking for Lazarus to be sent back to preach to his brothers. He was probably the oldest, with five younger brothers about to follow him to hell. My guess is that they all did. And one of the rich man’s torments for all eternity would be that he would be constantly remembering that he influenced his brothers to go to hell. Can you imagine them in hell, and throughout eternity, if and when they pass by one another, one of those younger brothers screams at the older broher, the rich man, “I followed you here! I followed you here! I’m here because of you!” And I wonder if there’s somebody in this room today, and your influence is so powerful, and you are thinking, “Oh, what I say and do doesn’t matter,” I say to you it matters more than you ever dreamed, and it is entirely possible for some older young person here today to stand at the judgment one of these days, and you’re saved, but you influenced your younger brothers and sisters to go to hell, and their blood could be on your hands as you stand there and watch them cast into the lake of fire for all eternity. Many times I’ve counseled with the parents of a rebellious firstborn, and told the parents, first of all, you gotta do everything you can to reach him, and if you can’t, you’ll have to separate the other children completely from his influence, or you’ll lose them all.
No pressure, firstborns. It’s just that it’s apparently your fault if your siblings end up in hell, even though it was their sin and unbelief that got them there. Isn’t it fun being a God-ordained umbrella-carrier?
Being serious again, what Davis is proposing here really is a kind of “baptized” primogeniture. Just like husbands (supposedly) have divinely appointed authority over their wives, so too firstborns have divinely appointed authority over their siblings. How far this goes in practicality is anyone’s guess. Davis never took it in any explicitly authoritarian directions (at least not in this lecture), but there’s no safeguards in the idea to prevent it from going there. After all, can’t parents, another divinely appointed authority, tell their children what to do? Why not firstborns too?
There’s also an interesting conundrum at the heart of Davis’ system, which he doesn’t seem to be aware of at all. The picture he paints in the paragraph above about umbrellas looks tidy enough, until we remember that he’s repeatedly said there can be two firstborns in a family – the firstborn son and the firstborn daughter. So in this (extremely common) situation, which firstborn, the son or the daughter, is the final “God-given authority”? Are they equal? Is the firstborn son the final authority for the boys, the firstborn daughter for the girls? Or is the firstborn son the final authority for all the siblings, even other (female) firstborns?
Anyone who’s read this blog for longer than about a second, can probably figure out that I’m a huge fan of The Scarlet Letter. And by The Scarlet Letter I mean the actual novel, NOT the 1995 movie of the same name, which was similar to the book only in that its protagonist’s name was Hester Prynne. (Though unfortunately she’s not the same person as the original Hester at all. Don’t get me started.) But at least the filmmakers were honest, and included a notation during the opening credits, reading “freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
So how does this relate to S. M. Davis? Well, as it turns out, Davis’ methods are similar to those of The Scarlet Letter’s scriptwriters, because he spends most of The Influence of Older Children on Younger Children “freely adapting” 3 John, until he’s transformed it from a personal letter into a book about how older people should relate to those younger than them. Usually this was in reference to firstborns, but could also include a second-born’s relationships to those younger than him, and so on. Davis’ only justification for this feat, is the fact that the word “elder” is used in the first verse of the book.
Some of the recommendations Davis derives from his free adaptation turn out to be quite specific. John refers to Gaius, to whom 3 John is addressed, as “beloved,” and therefore firstborns should clearly communicate love to their younger siblings, not just verbally but also in writing. John wants Gaius to prosper in body and spirit (3 John 2), and therefore firstborns should be concerned for their siblings’ physical and spiritual health, in addition to not playing practical jokes on them. 3 John 9-12 are especially instructive:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church.
Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God.
Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself. And we also bear witness, and you know that our testimony is true.
In their original context, these verses are about an out-of-control church member indulging in power plays. To Davis, however, they are directions to firstborns to give their younger siblings advice about good or bad friendships – Diotrephes representing a bad friend, Demetrius a good one. John’s closing statement to Gaius also has a hidden meaning:
I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. Peace to you. Our friends greet you. Greet the friends by name. (3 John 13-14)
This apparently means that firstborns should initiate communication with their younger siblings, want to converse with them, and touch them in appropriately affectionate ways.
Now none of the things Davis described are, of course, necessarily bad on their own. It’s wonderful when firstborns have good relationships with their younger siblings, give them advice, and take care of them. What’s not good, however, is framing these things as duties inherent to some divinely appointed spiritual position (which Davis hasn’t even proven exists), and twisting 3 John out of its proper context based solely on the presence of a single word, which doesn’t even refer to sibling relationships in the passage in question. In other words, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
What’s also unclear here is why Davis limits these positive things to older siblings. Is he really claiming it’s inappropriate for a thirdborn to give their older sister advice on friendships, or that little sisters shouldn’t express love to their older brothers? I hope not. But that is, strictly speaking, what he actually said, or at least implied, whether he intended to or not. He’s thus made a similar error to the one Doug Phillips made in his lecture on manliness, in which all his “masculine” virtues turned out to actually be universal and non-gendered.
You will be assimilated
After listing ten things he’s derived from 3 John, Davis says this:
The result [of these ten things] is incredibly powerful positive peer pressure on younger children that makes it almost impossible for them to go the wrong direction. This is how two parents are able to raise a large family like you see on the screen there and all of them go well. Perhaps even easier than a small family.
This is, let’s just say, highly amusing, given that in this lecture and others, Davis has talked up the idea of children being around and listening to their elders more than their peers. When peer pressure works in Davis’ favor, however, he is apparently all for it. In fact, he ramps it up to include extended family as well:
Guess what else is gonna happen now. Marriage will eventually come for those older. Then the new children from the marriage provide opportunities for the younger brothers and sisters to assume the positions of big brother and sister. That also keeps the youngest children from becoming spoiled brats. I can speak with some experience, I was a youngest. Another thing that happens, as these older children get married, is that these new brothers-in-laws and sisters-in-law, if they’ll do these ten things, will generate even more positive pressure on younger children. Older brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law can be powerful motivators and encouragers.
Davis is, incidentally, completely correct about the workings of social pressure in families as ideologically driven as the hypothetical one he’s describing. It can indeed be quite difficult for a child who does not want to go with the program, to break away. I doubt, however, that most people outside of Davis’ circles would describe such a situation as positive. In fact, their first thought may well be a not-so-flattering one about a group that travels the universe in large cubes.
I also worry that Davis’ statement in the first excerpt, about peer pressure making it possible to raise a large family, could be twisted beyond its immediate context and used as an excuse for parents to pawn jobs off on their older children. The seeds of this mistake have already been planted even within the lecture, as Davis said firstborns should teach and instruct their younger siblings. It’s not a stretch at all that a homeschool parent listening to Davis’ lecture, might get the idea that it’s okay for them to delegate huge chunks of their teaching responsibilities to their firstborn.
And now, before we finally put S. M. Davis behind us (for a while), I’d like to end this post with the funniest, but also saddest, moment in The Influence of Older Children on Younger Children. Davis said the following while talking about David and his brothers:
You wanna see something really interesting? Notice the reward that God gave to David for his faithfulness, Psalm 89:27. God did an unusual thing, God made David His firstborn. I wonder if God in His omnipotent power somehow or other did not turn the birth order upside down and David miraculously becomes God’s firstborn.
So close. So close to understanding that God doesn’t care about birth order and primogeniture, but only about faith. A brief glimmer of hope…and then a loud whoosh as the point flies clean over Davis’ head, and straight out the window.