The following essay reflects on and continues A New Conversation on Marriage. Ziettlow, Stokes and Marquardt are authors of "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? Challenging the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change." With one in four Americans touched by divorce, addressing the impact of family change must be a part of a new conversation on marriage.
A funny thing happened recently. Three scholars who write about faith and children of divorce also discovered we grew up watching The Dukes of Hazzard.
Yankees, bear with us while we plumb the revelations hidden in this CBS television program that ran from 1979-1985, when we three Gen X authors were just kids sitting up late on our grandparents' sofas (in Oklahoma, South Carolina, and North Carolina, respectively).
The General Lee as a Child of Divorce
Remember that awesome car that Bo and Luke Duke drove -- what they called the "General Lee"? We remember that car because it could jump canyons and play Dixie at the same time, an apt metaphor for the experience of children of divorce. Many of the scholars who contributed to our new project (reported in "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?" give voice to the child's experience of a parent's divorce: Bowling Green professor Annette Mahoney describes how divorce can be a "spiritual trauma;" Asbury Seminary professor Chris Kiesling lifts up the imagery of divorce as a "spiritual wound" that must be incorporated into the faith narrative; and Luther Seminary professor Andrew Root lays out how divorce can be experienced as an "ontological break" in a person's existence. Each description reveals how the rupture of divorce can result in a life lived suspended between two worlds. Our new report calls pastors and lay people to recognize that the children of divorce in our midst often feel like the General Lee before a commercial break, held aloft in a canyon-spanning jump, the Waylon Jennings voiceover expressing their anxiety: "As I leap from Dad's world to Mom's world, who am I? Am I the mom version or the dad version of myself? How will missing the parental world I left affect my landing in the other world? What if I fall? Am I alone in this leap?"
Cooter Davenport as the Church
One of our favorite characters is Cooter Davenport, the local mechanic, small business owner, friend to the Duke family and reliable source of support in good times and bad. Cooter reminds us of the best of the local faith congregation -- present, relational, devoted to strengthening the community, a steady force that helps ground our existence in times of joy, tragedy and everyday life. We found that children of divorce form a "broken leading edge" of the spiritual but not religious trend -- while children of divorce overall become less religious after their parents' divorce, some become more religious, but their paths to religiosity are more often defined by suffering and loss. However, with the patience and loyalty of a figure like Cooter -- a steady presence who sticks around and pays attention to young people -- the church can make a significant difference in these young peoples' lives. As theologian Andrew Root writes:
The community of the church cannot eliminate the deep ontological fractures that occur when divorce strikes, but it can, in its communal life, stand with and for these children, bearing their brokenness. In this way it can hold them together, by whispering in words and deeds, 'Your pain is beyond comprehension, and you suffer, but know that we share your suffering. You are not alone.
Uncle Jesse as Shepherd of the Lost Sheep
Uncle Jesse becomes a father figure to Bo, Luke, and Daisy by necessity, and we love him. We see Uncle Jesse as the faithful presence at the head of the Duke table, the ever present supporter with his CB handle "Shepherd." Uncle Jesse is the mentor and source of guidance we all need throughout our lives. Children of divorce may resonate with the orphaned Duke cousins (their CB handle was "Lost Sheep") and look to the church to draw them to the Good Shepherd in God. We discovered that adult mentors in faith can make a positive difference in the moral and spiritual lives of children of divorce, and that fathers especially matter.
Sure, it's just an old television show. But for our Gen X generation, defined by parental breakup and kids finding their way alone, The Dukes of Hazzard is our Ozzie and Harriet, the show that revealed our uncertainties, longings, and grasping for ultimate meaning.