By Matthew Loftus, Christian Young, and Jake Meador
In the aftermath of Tyler Huckabee’s investigation into the current status of one John Avery Whittaker, former resident of Odyssey and purveyor of Whit’s End, we the writers of Mere Orthodoxy have discovered a startling fact about the once beloved radio personality.
Though Focus on the Family was quick to dispute Huckabee’s claim that Whittaker is a supporter of President Donald J. Trump, they have been far less forthcoming with information as to Mr. Whittaker’s current whereabouts. In fact, we have discovered that Whittaker is no longer living in Odyssey at all.
He left several years ago and Focus on the Family has been dressing an imposter as Whit ever since to maintain the idea that Whittaker is still with them, despite their founder’s loud support for Donald Trump, something which even they acknowledge would not align with Whittaker’s own views.
We can now reveal Whittaker’s current whereabouts. After leaving Odyssey, Whit went on an odyssey of his own in search of a Christian community that embraced simple Christian piety in the way he himself aspired to do.
He finally found it in rural Australia.
How Whittaker ended up in Australia is somewhat of a mystery, but it starts with his resignation from Focus on the Family sometime in the fall of 2016 after James Dobson declared his support for Donald Trump. Though Dobson was no longer involved with Focus on the Family, Whit felt blindsided by Dobson’s endorsement and took the drastic step of resigning the position he had held at Focus on the Family for almost 30 years. “Dr. Dobson hired me to teach kids about living the Christian life, even when it’s hard. My very first day on the job I had to console a kid whose parents were getting divorced. How the heck does Dr. Dobson square that mission with President Trump’s string of divorces? I knew I couldn’t stay there. Sorry I said heck.”
Since Whit’s End was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Focus on the Family, Whittaker left the iconic soda shop after his resignation. He lived with his son, Jason, for a few months and helped run J & J Antiques.
However, the Whittakers left Odyssey for good sometime in early 2017, after discovering that J & J Antiques was also a wholly-owned subsidiary of Focus on the Family, like everything else in Odyssey. Indeed, even Focus on the Family has tacitly acknowledged Whittaker’s defection in a tweet responding to Huckabee:
John Avery Whittaker is a complex man. But if there’s one thing that’s always been self-evident about him it’s his commitment to the upside-down ways of the kingdom of Heaven that defy the world’s ways—to the kingdom work of sacrificial service not political power.#JesusJuke pic.twitter.com/EMDiz00sn2
— Focus on the Family (@FocusFamily) May 8, 2019
After leaving Odyssey, the Whittakers reconnected with Tasha Forbes, Jason’s erstwhile fiancee and partner at the NSA. It’s at this point that the details become murky. The trio’s location could not be independently verified, but there were rumors of goings-on in Israel and Alaska. Could Whit have been back in the employ of the NSA during this time? It’s hard to say for sure, and Whit won’t confirm, but we do know that by the middle of 2018 Jason and John Avery had arrived in Australia.
During his time with Jason and Tasha, Whittaker was faced with additional ramifications of Dobson’s support for Trump. As Mere Orthodoxy readers know, Jason and Tasha’s engagement was broken off at the last minute due to the conflict between Jason’s Christian faith and Tasha’s unbelief. While abroad (undercover?) with the Whittakers in 2017/8, Tasha confided in John Avery that she had thought about becoming a Christian, but had been turned off by what she saw as the lackluster, unconvincing nature of American Protestantism, culminating in the overwhelming Evangelical support for Trump made explicit by Dobson. Forbes confirmed this over the phone: “Jason told me that his faith was supposed to get in the way of everything he did, but all I saw from Christians like him was a tepid faith that didn’t actually challenge their most deeply held beliefs about the world. Eventually I just said, ‘why bother?’”
By the time Whittaker arrived in Australia, he was completely disillusioned with contemporary Evangelicalism. Like so many of the Gen-X and Millennial Christians he influenced, it was time for John Avery Whittaker’s questioning period.
Shortly after his arrival in Brisbane and at a particular low point in his own spiritual life, Whittaker was reading his Bible and came across Exodus 4:27 in which God instructs Aaron to go into the wilderness to meet his brother Moses, God’s prophet. Whittaker took this to mean that he ought to wander into the Australian wilderness in search of God’s people. And so he did. He packed his Bible, several changes of clothes, toiletries, a few small projects he had as part of his constant work as an inventor, and set out into the Australian wilderness. After a half day of driving, he passed a small sign welcoming visitors to the Danthonia Bruderhof. Intrigued, he turned down the road until he came to a small hub of various houses, communities, and a small factory. Exiting his car, Whittaker entered what appeared to be the largest building in the area and asked where he was.
Several hours later, Whittaker had completed a guided tour of the community. He walked through the factory where some members of the community make signs of various sorts that are then sold all over the country (and the world) and finance the life of the community. Then he toured the farmland, now thriving after 20 years of careful attentiveness from several farmers who are also members of the Bruderhof. Finally, he joined them for dinner and an a capella hymn sing that followed and was concluded with a time of prayer.
Whittaker resolved to stay in order to find out if perhaps these were the people he was searching for. It was not long before the aging radio personality decided that they were and that he wished to join them. We can now confirm that earlier this spring, Whittaker took his vows and was baptized as a member of the Bruderhof. He is now hard at work in the factory, devising new technologies to incorporate into the various LED signs that the community makes. There are also rumors that he may soon be starting a podcast, Adventures in Danthonia, about his life in the Australia Bruderhof.
Amongst other things, Whittaker’s defection has sent shockwaves through his former employers at Focus on the Family. As part of his vows when he joined the community, Whittaker renounced private property because Bruderhof members hold all their property in common. This came as a shock to many former listeners. But it has also made a number of his younger listeners wonder if they too should visit a Bruderhof community.
The one person whose life has been largely unaffected by the change is, ironically, Whittaker himself. Whittaker always lived simply and sought to reinvest his money into his local community whenever possible, so his decision to join a Bruderhof community and renounce his private property did not come with any dramatic changes.
When asked about how he could square his posture of “retreat” with his previous strong statements about the need to stand up for religious liberty and defend natural marriage, Whittaker said that he still strongly believed in both but said that giving up our moral integrity for power “crossed a line” and that “it would have been better to suffer under a bad President than to suck up to a bully.”
He also said that the events of the last few years, particularly several incidents of police abusing or mistreating African Americans, had shaken his previous confidence in the world of conservative Christian political advocacy. He was very discouraged when Focus on the Family did not allow him to record an Adventures in Odyssey broadcast about the problem of police brutality.
They said it would be too divisive. I said, ‘Well, all moral issues can be divisive. It’s hard to stand up for the truth and also admit that you’re still learning.’ I tried to point out that this was what I was trying to teach all those kids all these years, and how we did episodes on things that were important. But I… I just couldn’t get them to listen. Same thing when the Odyssey community organized against building Section 8 apartments. I was trying to sell land to a developer who was going to build multifamily housing. But all I heard from the community was about their property values and having ‘those kids from the city’ come to our schools. We recorded the episode, but then upper management reviewed it and killed it. The whole thing made me sick to my stomach.”
Whit, now well over 80, looks around the little apartment that he was assigned and pauses at a stack of Plough manuscripts he has to proofread as part of his work within the community. We asked if he missed it. A single tear rolled down into his big white mustache.
“Miss it? Of course I miss it. The town, the show, my friends, Whit’s End, the Imagination Station? I miss it all so much. But I realize now that many of my friends made an idol out of political power—and it caused them to betray the good things we all worked for over so many years. Seeing that makes me sad. But if I have to leave all that behind to be faithful, well, I have to do that.”
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- Personal interview, 12 May 2019. ↑