Does God exist and, if so, has he provided humanity with a perfect design for family structure? James Mhoon thinks so. As vice president of Content Development and Integration for the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, he leads the organization's charge to spread the word about the importance of the "good, old-fashioned traditional family."
The organization's latest project, Irreplaceable, is a documentary that tells the story of Tim Sisarich, who leaves his wife and children in New Zealand to travel the world seeking out the best models of parenthood. He interviews a carefully curated slew of sociologists, self-proclaimed feminists and religious scholars. After encountering these rather homogenous scholars who believe in the essential differences between men and women, the superiority of heterosexual marriage and the necessity of fatherhood, Sisarich adopts the beliefs of the funding organization and reconciles with his own absentee dad.
In advance of May 6 screenings of Irreplaceable, Westword spoke with Mhoon about the documentary and his work at Focus on the Family.
Westword: What was your role in this production?
James Mhoon: As the vice president of Content Development and Integration for Focus on the Family, my job is to build media product like this to get our core message out to the audience. Our assignment on this particular one was to revisit what is, in our belief, God's design for family. We believe we can read scripture and from scripture discern how God designed us. We believe he created us and created us in his image as relational beings. He created man and woman and told them to be fruitful and multiply. There are cues in there about how to structure family, but also, if you ever read the book of Proverbs, the warnings about all the ways we can go astray are all in there. What's amazing about it is even if you didn't believe the scripture was inspired by God himself, what you can't deny is that it's profoundly wise. That's part of what we're doing is revisiting it.
My goal is to oversee the production. Part of that means that while I'm not the subject matter expert, I'm one of the people speaking into how we construct the message and what our goals are for the message. But also, we do more than just films. We do books and audio products, magazines, etc. The integration part is making sure we have a full product line.
It's fascinating to think about how you orchestrate a campaign like this with so many different prongs and so many different strategies. What does that look like for you?
First of all, you don't do it by yourself. You'd be out of your mind to do that. Orchestrating it is first of all knowing what it is that you want to accomplish. We're taking on a pretty big task here. We're calling people back to some fundamentals, without trying to idolize the past, which frankly wasn't so great anyway.
Families have always struggled. But at least there was a time where we had a core paradigm for family. In many cases now, we feel there are some unhealthy attitudes and beliefs about family, or that the healthy attitudes and beliefs about family are being lost in a new generation. How do you change that? Boy, that's a huge deal. All we can really hope to do is influence the people that we can influence. We know we can't do it just by showing the movie. How do we keep them ruminating and working through this together as a community? That's the idea.
In the film, Tim Sisarich goes on this journey to discover what family should look like. Is he modeling what you hope people do in their small groups?
Exactly. We're hoping that they're relating to what Tim just went through, hearing the message and learning what he discovered. In the post-event panel discussion that we'll have, our pastor is going to talk about how a lot of what he learned from a sociological perspective is actually discoverable in scripture as well. We want people to dig in and understand. What are the key verses? We have to get people into the grand narrative of the Bible. You can't look in one book of the Bible and figure out the full design of family. There are some wacky designs of family in there.
Exactly. You have to take it all the way to Joseph before you'd find a guy you'd even hire from the scripture. The point there is that it's the struggle of continuing to live out a life before God, even as an imperfect person.
Read on for more from James Mhoon.
There is something really haunting about Tim's distance from his wife and children and his reflection on that. It reminds me of An Inconvenient Truth, where Gore is in these limos and planes and talking about global warming.
When do you appreciate your family the most? When you're away from them, right? And it is a great irony. How many ministers do you know who have spent our lives ministering to other families and our own family goes packing? That happens all the time. It's a real shame, because we're reducing the family experience below the work experience as though our work is more important than our family is. The question is, what's more honorable than being there for the next generation? When you think about that, in the macro-narrative of life, you realize that irreducible position in society is, in fact, the family unit. Every one of those family units that remains intact and strong adds to the foundation of our culture.
Talk about this notion of family design and perfection and the reality that families look a million different ways. How does that work for you?
There are two things. One is that the Christian worldview is that we were designed one way, but when we rebelled against God's plan, we fell. An awful lot of what we're experiencing today is the natural result of that fall.
But let's just talk about my experience growing up in a single-parent home. We had to find ways around the weaknesses. I was at great risk of engaging in very risky behaviors, but somehow, my grandfather was able to fill the gap. The imperfection part is that we have to find a way to mitigate those weaknesses. Some of us do that well. My grandfather stepped in the gap. Some of the adult men in the church that we went to taught me how to repair cars and took time to take me fishing with them. They actually befriended me and thought of me as somebody worth investing in. And it wasn't even all that profound. It was really just the simplicity of them living out in front of me what it meant to be an honorable man. Having effectively had that infused into my life, that's the difference between me and the men who wound up in prison.
I didn't have a dad. Now, of course, my perspective on my dad was different. My dad was killed. He didn't leave me. All of my memories of my dad were that he was a perfect man. My stepdad was really a mess. One of those failed guys like Tim's dad. I had to learn to forgive him too, because he was a failed guy, right?
That's a process that you've gone through?
Frankly, he left, so there wasn't a lot to do, but I had to get over the fact that, boy, did he ever mess us up. My brothers, they are his sons. They've had a rougher time than I have. You know why? Because their dad abandoned them. They had a different dad. He left them. He put a burden on them and wasn't there.
My dad might have had all kinds of imperfections. I didn't know him long enough to see all of them, right? He has a twin brother. I can see my dad's twin. They were like two peas in a pod. He's a good, honorable man, too.
Let me say this to you. The reason that you saw this film go from this broader exploration and then zoom in on fatherhood is that I believe that all of our observation and all of the social science bears this out. If you want to name your social cause: Do you want to combat poverty? Do you want to combat crime? Do you want to combat injustice? Do you want to see academic scores rise? All of those hinge around the father.
You heard that sexuality is a powerful one. Sexuality is an amazingly powerful gift that God gave us. It's so powerful that if it gets out of the fireplace, it can destroy. In the marital context, it actually bonds these people together spiritually and physically in a way unlike anything else. Outside of the spiritual bonds, look at all of the damage that's occurring as a result of sexually promiscuous behavior. Just think about the unwanted pregnancies, poverty.
Read on for more from James Mhoon.
Do you see this as a film designed for the choir?
There is a significant portion of our culture that's growing up without ever having had what we consider a complete family. It's to their detriment. Most of the children who are caught in the cycle of poverty are caught because, for that single mom, it's really hard for her to break out of that cycle. So they wind up in the same cycle, and that's what's perpetuated. We see that if we introduced a dad into that equation, those children would be better off in almost every single case. Not if you get a real abusive case, but if you get a really decent dad who just loves his kids. Then you have another part of the culture who wants to define it anyway you want.
We have concerns about redefining family when we know institutionally and sociologically what works. There are some people who are willing to experiment with that and there are others who have concerns about those experiments, because they are so unproven.
Frankly, we're saying, look, the idea of marriage and family, those things actually precede the United States of America. These are institutions that you find in every culture around the world. They are designed, inherently designed. People are naturally inclined to that, because they acknowledge that is the best scenario for raising our future generations. It really comes down to having them raising children. There are some of those alternative designs. At the same time, you have to acknowledge that every single person on this planet, first of all, they were all made in the image of God. They all have the need for belonging and significance, and they all, if they don't have that core intact, have to find a way to manage without that. What they can't manage without is a relationship. They need relationships with other people, and so that's what they're seeking in their relationships. Those are good. Those are God-given. That's part of the design. We crave that. We need it. How does this project relate to the rest of what Focus on the Family is up to?
This is what we call a worldview project. This is about our attitudes and beliefs about family. We hope to bring good healthy attitudes and beliefs to the core. Back to that choir, we want to say to people who say, "I want to believe in that. Am I right to believe in that?" Our answer is to say, "Yes. Stand firm there, not to the detriment of others. But stand firm in your own family."
Irreplaceable plays in theaters on May 6. For more information, go to the Irreplaceable website.
Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.