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Father Hunger: Why God Calls Men to Love and Lead Their Families
Father Hunger: Why God Calls Men to Love and Lead Their Families
Douglas Wilson
Thomas Nelson, 2012
272 pp., $15.99

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Learning from My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith
Learning from My Father: Lessons on Life and Faith
David Lawther Johnson
Eerdmans, 2012
159 pp., $15.00

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Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son
Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son
Richard Lischer
Knopf, 2013
272 pp., $25.00

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Jason Byassee


Fatherhood and Loss

Where are the good stories?

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Wilson is more interesting, if no less provocative, when he turns to politics. Government's role, he argues, is to get out of the way. As things stand, when a man marries and seeks to open a business, he is taxed and regulated and Big-Brothered to such a degree he cannot fulfill his creation mandate to procreate and homeschool and market freely. I love his insistence that the secular is a fable and his muscular place for Christian discourse in public. But is it even remotely the case that our culture is carrying on a "concerted, statist war" on fathers?

In less overheated moments, Wilson admits that no one planned the loss of fatherhood. Until Christ's return, the world will always be out of sorts with God's intention. Moreover, the Bible itself tells of God's redemption plan more than it laments the loss of his "creation plan." Jesus' own family thought he was crazy, as Mark's Gospel makes clear (3:21-22, 31-35). Jesus presents the church as a rival to the family, as Christians today in places more statist than Idaho know all too well (Mt. 10:37; Luke 14:26). Galatians 3:28's pronouncement that baptism undoes division between male and female and Jesus' and Paul's self-references in feminine terms suggest the New Testament is less absolutist in its gender divisions (Luke 13:34; Gal. 4:19). Great Christian thinkers from Origen to Gregory of Nyssa to Bernard of Clairvaux have noticed the way the Bible switches male and female genders for both God and the one praying in places like Isaiah and the Song of Songs. Men in Christ have to see themselves as a "bride." Women in Christ have to become part of a male body. In Christ, men pant in labor pains. In Christ, women proclaim the gospel, as with Mary Magdalene at the tomb and Priscilla and Lydia in their house churches.

We should, like Wilson, present a strong enough view of the world to offer a container for our children to have cohesive selves (I take the description "container" from Richard Rohr). But "strong" and "inflexible" are not the same thing. We should aggressively point out where we Christians differ from the world around us. But if "difference" becomes breezy superiority, something is wrong. Whatever fatherhood means, it cannot mean that.

David Johnson's book is built around a collection of letters from Johnson's father, a Presbyterian minister trained at Princeton Seminary, written when Johnson was a college student. The portrait of his minister father is lovely, full of longing and admiration. His dad met all his ambitions simply by leaving home and becoming educated—so the rest of his life was filled with gratitude. His father's love for his mother is clear in such small things as notes left where she will find them (one in her shoe: "I love you from head to foot"). His father loved study but warned, with Milton, against the reader who is "deeply vers'd in books, and shallow in himself."

Johnson found that as a preacher's kid he had more in common with politician's kids than anyone else. It is not surprising he tried that way, getting drubbed badly in an election for the U.S. Senate from Indiana. But he's still in public service, seeking to lure tech companies to the Hoosier state. Like many of the children of liberal Protestant pastors, he has a strong commitment to the common good. But he's a little stuck on whether to offer faith to other people. He breezily dismisses Christian mission. Far better to live a good life, he thinks, wait for someone to ask why you do, and then maybe at the end of a long conversation you might eventually, at some point, broach your faith (though Johnson admits that in his case this never actually happens). This is the logical end of Protestant liberalism—dismiss an ancient teaching you never really understood and refuse to tell a neighbor about Jesus even when asked. If Wilson suggests that the gift of fatherhood is to offer a strong container in which a child can put her- or himself, Johnson's has so many cracks as to be crumbling.

Jim Kelly's Playbook for Dads, as its title suggests, is from another bookshelf altogether, yet it offers some resources for thinking Christianly about fatherhood. Kelly details what it felt like to avoid a pass rush and fire a strike downfield on a big play. He describes the way he struggled to learn the offense in college at the University of Miami. (He was too slow, he says, to hit the corner just right on the option.) And he describes the little things he'll always miss now that he doesn't play football—the locker rooms and uniforms and intensity. Sports fans delight in this sort of treasure—and we fathers often do love throwing balls with our kids. We're together, enjoying something bigger than ourselves that neighbors near and far also love. Wanna have a catch?

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