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Book Review

Dr. Dobson: Turning Hearts Toward Home: The Life and Principles of America’s Family Advocate, by Rolf Zettersten, Word Publ., 1989.

(Reviewer: Prof. Em. Paul R. Koch, Spokesman assistant editor; this review first appeared in the Newsletter of Messiah Lutheran Church, Eau Claire, Wis.)

From time to time I scan Messiah’s little library in the hallway, figuring I should pay attention to the slim paperbacks there. A couple of weeks ago I did so, and what to my wandering eye should appear but a dusty plastic binder containing three video tapes and an accompanying modest volume, both bearing the legendary name of Dr. Dobson. Those of you who know Dr. Dobson better than I will pardon this novice’s approach. Faintly aware of others’ evaluation of Dr. Dobson (“He’s a really great Christian psychologist” . . . “Watch out for the Reformed slant on things”), I wanted to do my own discovering. What I did discover is that if you like biographies of decent, upright, ethical, conservative folks, loaded with morality and integrity, yet humble in self-effacing, self-sacrificing motivation, and dedicated to God, family, and country as few “Christians” in public life can ever aspire to be, . . . well, this is one you will not be able to put down for anything less compelling than the newspaper. In a word, Dobson is a paragon, a role model, a true gentleman, husband, father, and evangelist; the only reason I can think of that will prevent his sainthood is that he’s not Catholic.

Dobson’s Character

There’s more: Dobson’s accomplishments are many and laudable, and our country would be a better place to raise families, train the next generation, and avoid many a public scandal, if more people of Dobson’s character were in the front lines against abortion, ERA, and the pervasive humanistic moral decline of our country’s policies and leadership. This can be said also with some appreciation for the man’s dedication to “Christian” values, standards, policies, and practices. “Focus on the Family” is an arm of Dobson’s “Christian” ministry to people who have similar goals.

Un-Biblical Slant On God’s Business

Note that I have placed “Christian” into quotes because of the evidence of his un-Biblical slant on God’s business. Based on this biography–and that is all I am covering in this book review–a much greater role is assigned to Dobson’s power of prayer than to the guidance of Scripture in his life-decisions. To illustrate, with some regularity this biographer reports that Jim received God’s prayer-response in the form of an inaudible voice (speaking in full sentences, but nonetheless God’s own voice) to give to Jim His direction and directive for the way out of Jim’s life crises.

What Do We Have To Lose?

Let me here insert a cross-reference from an article entitled “What do I have to lose?” by Dr. J. M. Drickamer in which he exhorts each true Lutheran to ask himself: “What do I have to lose if I leave Biblical orthodoxy, confessional Lutheranism?” (Here’s the part that pertains to the typical reformed absorption with prayer:) I would lose any and all proper understanding of prayer. The falsifiers would tell me that prayer is a means of grace, a means of seeking direct revelation, a means of doing miracles if only I do it the right way myself….”

Secondly, in this account of Dobson’s principles, Scripture and Jesus have become guides to morality rather than keys to salvation. Again, a quote from Drickamer is pertinent: “What do I have to lose? I would lose the distinction between Law and Gospel. The Law would be downgraded to a few outward rules that I could come pretty close to keeping. The Gospel would be transmogrified also into a set of rules as conditions which I would have to meet to be reasonably hopeful of salvation….”

Further, the love Dobson has for people is more directed to their psyches than to their souls (after all, he is a clinical psychologist, not an ordained clergyman).

Dobson’s Testimony

Nonetheless, I was thrilled to come across a comment directed by Jim to his biographer: “Most importantly, please make it clear that we have nothing and we are nothing without Jesus Christ. He is our hope. He is our salvation. He is the reason for the joy that lies within us. Point not to Jim and Shirley Dobson, but to the Lord they are humbly attempting to serve as fellow pilgrims in this journey through life” (p. 78).

We would rejoice if this testimony were Jim’s confession of Jesus as his God-given Redeemer from the sin that would otherwise damn his soul. Yet since the reader must depend on the integrity (the unified message) of the rest of this biography, the more likely meaning is something like this: “We revere Jesus as the Person who teaches us true morality; and we walk in His footsteps in service to Him in order to salvage humankind from its own destructiveness.” That’s what the rest of this volume tells me about the man, even as I grant that in this matter I am depending entirely on the perceptivity and accuracy of the biographer, a longtime colleague of Dr. Dobson.

Conclusion From Biography

Thus in due time I have arrived at the same conclusion our clergy have drawn about Dobson’s ministry. We share a deep concern that the reader unskilled in distinguishing the marks of Reformed theology will swallow (without chewing) too much, for in/with/and/under the biographical data come the half-truths that a) prayer has the power of a means of grace; b) morality is the heart and soul of Christianity; c) Jesus is Savior in the sense that His lifestyle of helping others was God’s hand upon humanity; and d) a Christian is a person whose life is dedicated to serving others.

I will readily admit that I have not read much from Dobson’s own pen, but I now know that if and when I DO, it will be with both eyes wide open, my Bible at hand, and a pastoral sounding-board available. I have gotten enough of a taste of Dobson from this biography, where Scripture as God’s Word of life is overshadowed by the Bible as God’s directives for living; where Jesus as Redeemer gets submerged under Jesus as teacher and helper; and where the vertical direction of Christian living is overbalanced by the horizontal. Dobson’s heritage as a preacher’s kid (Church of the Nazarene) was bound to flavor his Bible concepts, his ministry, his biographer, and most likely, his focus on the family.

Rating: not good enough to be recommended without strong reservations.