Father Hunger: Why God Calls Men to Love and Lead Their Families
Thomas Nelson, 2012
272 pp., $15.99
Learning from My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith
David Lawther Johnson
159 pp., $15.00
The Playbook for Dads: Parenting Your Kids In the Game of Life
196 pp., $19.99
Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son
272 pp., $25.00
Fatherhood and Loss
There are not good stories among us on fatherhood. One effect of feminism (a good thing) and the normalization of divorce (not so much) is that we lack language with which to praise and guide fathers. Mine is the first generation in which it is normal to ask strangers when their parents divorced. Folks my age (nearing 40) and younger grew up in cobbled together families of half- and step-siblings and parents and surrogates and live-in significant others. It's a wonder anyone takes on fatherhood at all, let alone talks about it.
I have been blessed with a good father, a good grandfather, three boys of my own, and more than my share of male mentors. But for all that, I still lack language with which to describe fatherhood, whether spiritual or biological. What are we doing when we throw a ball, have a prayer, lament or celebrate? Readers of this journal will agree with me that books are where we go to amend such lacks.
One tempting response to the undoing of fatherhood is to try to turn back the clock. Douglas Wilson's Father Hunger is the culture warrior's reveille: Christians know how to do this fatherhood thing right, so we should take back the institution, as well as the rest of the known universe. David Johnson's Learning from My Father is Wilson's nearly perfect opposite. It leaves us with a description of both fatherhood and faith so anemic it is hard to figure why we should bother. Jim Kelly's The Playbook for Dads is not marketed for its depth. This is a Hall of Fame NFL quarterback rehashing war stories. Yet it is also a father mourning his lost son, Hunter, turning pain into grace through raising money to fight the obscure disease that killed him. That one has surprising depths.
If Wilson and Johnson careen to the right and left, Rick Lischer's Stations of the Heart speaks sensibly, gracefully, truly. His book is about the death of his adult son, Adam. Stations doesn't set out to be about anything other than Adam's loss. But its wisdom about death suggests one touchstone for regaining a language we have misplaced. Fatherhood talk has to include loss. Just ask Jesus' father.
I have been interested in Wilson's work from afar. His church in northern Idaho and the blissfully odd little college with which he is associated, New Saint Andrews, seem to be recapturing the virtues of the Christian intellectual life. They do so in the shadow of the aggressively lefty University of Idaho in Moscow and with thinkers as gifted as theologian Peter Leithart. That the secular media has spleened over NSA enhances my sympathies. I wanted to like this book.
And Father Hunger is not without its graces. I especially appreciated Wilson's attention to Malachi 4:6, picked up in Luke 1:17 about the ministry of John the Baptist: "He will go before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children." (Promise Keepers and other men's movements have championed these same verses.) These words seem central to John's ministry, and so to Jesus'. What do they mean? Wilson is aware that calling God "Father" does not make God male. Only humans have genitals and hormones. But if God is not male, Wilson argues, God must still be masculine, else Scripture would not use male pronouns for God. I agree with Wilson that we must give some account of that. In Wilson's unapologetically conservative universe, men must protect their families—especially, for him, from their own sins. He recommends that fathers read biographies of other fathers. And he helpfully points out that the charge to women to submit is about only their relationship to their own husbands, not to all men everywhere.
Wilson's problems are primarily theological. He insists that gender follows God's "creation design"—men lead, women follow, and any rejection of this must make for misery. So, his example, men do not carry things because we have broad shoulders. God gave us broad shoulders so we could follow his design and carry things (no account here of cultures in which women carry things on their heads, but never mind). God set boundaries at creation—our bodily gendered differences show this, and any questioning is simply rebellion. Women in the military come in for particular ire. Feminists receive Wilson's deepest pity. Despite what they say, they really want men to lead. They may profess that gender differences are manufactured, but they know that men are hard and women soft for a reason: "Male authority is an erotic necessity … . Feminists, having demanded soft men, have discovered that it is beyond exasperating to be locked in a rape fantasy with some Caspar Milquetoast." No opponent of Wilson's needs to make any reductio ad absurdum argument against him. He has just made it for himself.