By Jeff Mallinson –
Young scholars in the conservative Christian orbit tend to tire of hackneyed rhetoric about family values. Sure, they can pay lip-service to the concept; but they are often uncomfortable with the shrill rhetoric of a previous generation, the hostility generated by uncharitable harangues against those who are “doing it wrong,” and the ways in which the church sometimes confuses it’s calling to provide a prophetic voice with a desire to grab the reigns of state power. I get all this, and at times am just this sort of scholar. Nonetheless, after we step back from the fray of the culture wars, something catastrophic remains in our field of vision: fatherlessness is one of our world’s greatest epidemics. For us to ignore this crucial reality would be to shirk our duty to care for the wellbeing of the ones Jesus taught us virtuous folks to protect.
In Luke 17:1-2, Jesus declared: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” There are, unfortunately, many ways for an adult to cause a little one to sin. Nonetheless, if the statistics in the US are accurate, both with respect to the prevalence of fatherlessness and the correlation between fatherlessness and crime, we might rightly see that fatherlessness seems to be the most common way in which little ones are corrupted. Surely many of us see this in the lives of young people in our own extended families and neighborhoods.
More than once I’ve worked with orphans, young people in churches, and students around the world in impoverished areas. I’m no Pelagian; I had a couple children myself, after all, and agree with Augustine in his Confessions, where he states that infants would gladly do more harm to their elders if they could only get off their backs and stop flailing and wailing. But these young people have smiles on their faces. They are innocent, if by that word we understand an older meaning, in which a person demonstrates simplicity or naiveté, or in which a person has not yet been made cynical by our fallen world. And it often breaks my heart to see those beautiful faces become the angry, aggressive, and sullen faces of the late adolescents in their own communities.
On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, we chat with Jagged Word’s own Dr. Scott Keith, to discuss his new book, On Being Dad: Father as a Picture of God’s Grace. We learn that roughly four in ten U.S. young people don’t have a father in the home. Moreover, when we add to this the many fathers who are physically but not emotionally present in the home, we see how important it is for us to regain our prophetic voice about the family value of fathers.
I think that this hasn’t gone unnoticed in popular culture. If you want a good cry and a profound reflection on all this, check out the moving film Boyhood. Here and in other recent films folks seem to realize that human fathers matter. Political agendas can’t get in the way of the value of a real dad. Sometimes, films want to honor the heroism of those single moms who must play the role of mom and dad. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore a fundamental power of the father’s “obscure voice of empathy,” to use a phrase from psychologist Paul Fairweather, whom Edythe Krampe channels in this article. Nonetheless, our respect for those who pick up the slack for biological fathers can’t blind us to the fact they too are often victims. Some do choose to go it alone, which seems clearly wrongheaded, all things considered. But most are the tragic collateral damage of narcissistic and nihilistic men, who—perhaps because of their own absence of a paternal figure—treat women like instruments for their own gratification.
I sympathize with those friends who want to tone down the volume on the churches’ tendency to nag folks whose lives don’t conform to biblical standards. But in cases where we are talking about human lives and the fundamental wellbeing of the next generation, I think we need to turn the prophetic volume up. People screw up. Christ died for deadbeat dads too. But woe to those who think they can dispense with the core wellbeing of children to pursue their own selfish desires. Woe to those who trample the psychological wellbeing of children in order to protect some political agenda (something that tyrannical regimes have been good at since the ancient world). Woe to those who imagine they can neglect the fatherly intimacy and be emotional zombies at home. Woe to those who abuse and bring fear into the home when they show up after a demoralizing day at the office. Because we love all—parents and children—these woes are rooted in love not self-righteousness, we need to get better at shaming shameful fathers. It’s for their own good, and of course for the good of our next generation. Millstone necklaces make for a tough day at the beach.
We must honor honorable fathers, therefore. Family values, we must insist, cannot be conflated with the wedge issues of a political party. Discussions about family values aren’t just cheap side sideshows in our cultural wasteland. Rather, conversation about true family values undergirds a virtuous society. Since virtue involves habituation, modeling, and a healthy ethos, virtue is best cultivated within the context of a healthy family. Loving mothers, uncles, sisters, and grandparents are honorable when they pick up the slack of dishonorable fathers. Such loving, self-sacrificial individuals are most certainly valuable. Protecting, present, and gracious fathers, however: they’re priceless.
—The Wayfaring Stranger
Composed while sipping (shamefully) strawberry kiwi Mountain Dew Kickstart, between chapters of C. J. Jung, Collected Papers on Analytical Psychology.