Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Teacher: Recollections

Adventures in Odyssey is a popular radio drama produced by Focus on the Family, a far right fundamentalist Christian activist group. They are terrible. Here’s an article from the Human Rights Campaign on their anti-lgbtq work, one from the ACLU that lists them as a major organization pushing abstinence only sex education, and a Huffington Post article about how James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, normalizes violent child abuse as “discipline”.

They are not VeggieTales. They are not C. S. Lewis. They are a deeply toxic force in the fabric of American society, and they focus on spreading that toxicity through families and children. And, unfortunately they are tremendously influential.

Adventures in Odyssey is not what you would call an excellent series, but as far as story quality, it is usually ok and occasionally very good. Many episodes cover basic, common sense morals, and are, on their own fine. Some episodes are, of course, also deeply problematic, but then, even shows produced by companies that I like can have the odd terrible episodes. What actually bothers me about AIO is the world it has built. It structures a cozy, Mayberry-like town around a man who has unhealthy boundaries and a deeply toxic view of human nature, and sets him up as the hero, mentor and heart-and-soul of this town.

I’m talking, of course, about Mr. Whitaker, often known as Whit, who owns a business called Whit’s End. It’s hard to describe what Whit’s End is. It’s part community center, part year-round Bible camp, and also they sell ice cream. One friend, when I tried to describe it to them, said, “so it’s like a Chuck-e-Cheese for Jesus?” and I think that’s about the best description you can get. In Odyssey, the town where the show is set, parents rely on Whit to provide a safe space for their kids between school and work, and most of them are also part of the Christian community, so it doesn’t bother them that there is literally an entire room called “The Bible Room.” As far as that goes, there’s nothing wrong with it. I don’t like that, for families who are Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, any other religion or simply unreligious, they don’t have an accessible community space. But it’s Whit’s right to set up his establishment the way he wants it, and it’s not like the city… wait, hang on. Why is Whit’s End the only children’s center we hear about for the majority of the show? Why doesn’t the city of Odyssey have public, nondenominational community center?

In an episode called “Recollections,” we learn that Whit was initially disinterested in the building that would become Whit’s End. It was his wife, Jenny, who was advocating that the city renovate the Fillmore Recreation Center. It’s a beloved part of the community, but it has been neglected over the years. The city’s budget is tight, and the fight for funds to repair it is fierce.

Her main opponent is Glossman, a city council member who wants to sell the land to a corporation that will build a shopping mall. Jenny cares, but every argument she makes is knocked down. She argues for its history and nostalgic value to the community. Glossman points out that it’s hardly old enough to be historically significant; at best it has sentimental value, and that doesn’t pay the bills. Clear point to Glossman.

Jenny brings in a policeman to testify about juvenile delinquency. But his testimony boils down to “did you know in some parts of the country, juvenile delinquency happens? Isn’t that terrible?” Odyssey has never had a real problem with it, and the Fillmore doesn’t have any programs that specifically deal with it, either from a prevention or rehabilitation standpoint. Jenny tries to argue that maybe the reason they don’t have juvenile delinquency is because they have the Fillmore. Glossman points out that this tie is a serious stretch.

…let me put a pin in that.

Finally, she goes on a tirade about kids. First she says that the mall will have “video games,” in a voice that most of us reserve for “North Korean concentration camps.” Then she says that kids these days grow up so fast, and they need a place to be children. She goes on and on about how they just can’t do this, because it will, generally speaking, be bad for the kids.

To be honest, she’s so vague, it’s hard to say what I think. But here’s what I know. First, video games are not evil. Screens are not evil. Modern technology isn’t evil. In fact, as technology becomes an increasingly large part of our live, cutting kids off from exploring technology early on probably does more harm than good. That said, there are obviously ways that technology can be misused. Studies show, over and over, that social media is good for people when it’s used as a tool to set up and strengthen real world connections, but when people use social media as their primary way to communicate, they end up depressed, lonely and isolated. Many video games are violent junk food, but others also require strategy, problem solving, following storylines and other things that are good for developing minds. So personally, I’m in favor of kids occasionally playing age-appropriate video games, in balance with lots of time spent in outdoor and social play. I don’t like Glossman’s money-focused disinterest, but I also don’t like Jenny Whitaker’s blanket dismissal.

As for the claim that children are “growing up too fast,” I don’t know what that means. I could take a few guesses, though. It could mean we force kids in early elementary school and even preschool to sit still and show levels of attention that even adults struggle with. I agree with that. It could mean we are giving kids the burden of responsibility too early. I disagree. I see far too many kids developing learned helplessness because adults are afraid that if they give a kid something to hold, it might spill and make a mess. Or if they are allowed to run around and let some energy off, they might trip and scrape their knees. Or that when spoken to as a person rather than a blob of generic cuteness, they might demonstrate an individual personality. Kids are little people. They need practice doing people stuff in order to grow up into adults that aren’t utterly incompetent. We can’t let our perfectionism get in the way for their need to develop as human beings.

I got on a bit of a rant there. Where was I? Oh yes, kids growing up too fast.

Given Focus on the Family’s track record, I think they mean kids are learning about sex too soon. And if they’re talking about some of the clothing lines that sexualize little girls as soon as they can walk, yeah, that’s gross. But if they’re talking about accurate sex information given to pre-teens… right, god forbid someone go through puberty and actually understand what’s happening to them. Can’t have that.

That’s never made explicit in the episode though. For all I know, Jenny means kids are literally aging at a rate faster than 365 days a year and this distortion in the space-time continuum can be repaired by liberal application of board games. If anybody else has any other theories, feel free to leave a comment, and we’ll dissect them together.

Throughout this part, Whit expresses some concerns to Jenny about how worked up she is. He admires her dedication, but doesn’t think it’s the most important issue in the world, and besides she’s been fighting one of those lingering colds that just hasn’t gone away. In the middle of her rant about video games and “oh won’t somebody please think of the children,” she faints, and is taken to the hospital. And at this point, I’ll pause the plot recap to go into what I think about her argument.

Here’s an argument she never makes; when you make the only safe spaces a place you have to pay to get into, only the richer families have access. The poorer families, who need it more, are cut out. They are the ones who can’t afford babysitters and nannies for the hours between when school lets out and when the parents get off work. They are the ones who get screwed by insurance companies and medical bills and banks offering housing loans. They are the ones whose kids wonder if anyone will have their back, if things go south.

If the only places your kids can go are places where they are expected to constantly buy coffees and smoothies and hats and T-shirts, just to prove they belong, they learn that their only value is as consumers. That’s not a healthy lesson, and it doesn’t build a community. This is why we need parks and libraries and community centers. A public space where people can gather, and simply be people together, is key for building a sense of community.

Also, it’s not unreasonable to tie this back to juvenile delinquency. Juvenile delinquency is a complicated social problem, but major causes include lack of safe, supervised spaces, lack of healthy community ties that could lead to mentoring, and a sense that they are mainly valued for their ability to make and spend money. So while she argues it badly, Jenny’s point is valid. It’s not a direct line, but yes, by providing relief to financially stressed families and giving kids healthier activities during their free time, community centers have a ripple effect that reduces crime.

Anyway, big bad modernizing arcade loving Glossman points out that renovating the center will cost money, selling the land will raise money, and she has provided no real reason to keep the building except for some sentimental value and moral panic. Which, unfortunately, is an accurate summary of the arguments so far. Jenny gets so upset that she faints in the middle of the council, and is taken to the hospital.

Of course this is where she dies. Of course, Whit’s initial reaction is to blame the building and the activists, because conflict. Of course, then he takes a trip to the building, and meets a little girl who is just so sad that its going to be torn down. Of course the little girl says she loves the Filmore Center so much and she doesn’t want a boring mall with a lot of aliens, and her name turns out to be Jenny. Because how else would this plot thread resolve itself?

So, turns out, Whit is rich. This comes up every now and then; he owns a very successful successful publishing company and he’s loaded. He drops 3.5. million dollars on the city council, outbidding Glossman’s shopping mall by a half million dollars. Glossman could up his bid, but the council wants some sort of community center; Jenny’s offer just didn’t solve the practical problem of how to pay for repairs. The moment they had a win-win, well, Whit had won. Whit could have done that all along, and saved his wife a lot of trouble and possibly saved her life. He just didn’t because… this episode needed a plot?

So that’s how Whit’s End happened.

When Whit initially makes his pitch to the city council, it goes like this, “Whit’s End is designed to be a place of discovery and adventure, filled with books and activities, arts and crafts, and uplifting conversation. But most of all, it is a place where kids of all ages can just be kids.” Nothing in there about it being a religious institution. In another episode, however, the deed is read out, this is added: “It will be a place of faith, imagination, adventure, and discovery, where the joy of learning will be found in everything we do. It will be a place where the Bible will come alive for all who enter. It will be a place where kids will learn respect for one another, and for their parents, and for all in authority over them.”

It is clear from the arguments made that the Fillmore Recreation Center was Odyssey’s only community center. Whit’s End rescued the general concept of a community center. Kids can hang out after school and everything but the ice cream is free. But he made it privately-owned and explicitly Christian. Before, Jewish kids, Buddhist kids, Muslim kids, and kids of no particular faith could all hang out there without feeling excluded. What happens to those kids now that their safe space is pushing a religious message?

Obviously, they feel like outsiders. It also makes life difficult for those kids who might go through a legitimate crisis of faith. When I was a teenager, questioning my belief in God, one of the worst parts was knowing that if I stopped being a Christian, I would lose all my friends. Literally all of them; I didn’t go to school, so my only social outlets were at church. That’s a miserable feeling. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

It especially angers me now that I have a personal spirituality. I felt a tension because I had an unhealthy relationship with God, and I had to detach and go through a period of atheism in order to start fresh. While I don’t think every religion or denomination was as deeply toxic as Evangelical Christianity, I do think anybody might go through a period of realizing their religion has gotten in the way of their faith, and they need to step away to get some perspective and grow spiritually. Rigid religion can interfere with natural spiritual growth by replacing faith with peer pressure.

It’s especially infuriating, given how hard this episode pushed the message that video games and shopping malls are evil. Now, until another massive plot of land becomes available and somebody has 3.5 million dollars to drop on it, that’s all the non-Christian kids have.

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