By Scott Keith –
I have recently been in discussions with a new acquaintance and founder of the Dadly Rally, regarding what some have labeled the myth of “Father Absence” in the home. These discussions have been over email, so they have not been as in-depth as I would like. From what I can glean from our brief conversation, his concern is that all of the negative press surrounding the absence of fathers in the home is discouraging to the overall movement, of which I think I am a part, to increase father presence in the home.
The data is difficult to escape. One of the world’s most prominent fatherhood advocacy organizations is the National Fatherhood Initiative established in 1994, the year I first found out I was going to be a father. On their website they mention: “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in America, one out of three children in America, now live in biological father-absent homes. Furthermore, according to the national surveys conducted by National Fatherhood Initiative, 9 in 10 parents believe there is a father absence crisis in America.”
I think that my new friend does not dispute this data as much as he disputes the touting of the data. That is, he wishes for all of us who are concerned about the state of fathering in America and worldwide to resoundingly communicate the important work that dads are doing everywhere rather than the negative impact produced by those who decide not to live their gift of vocation as fathers. I think I agree.
As a matter of sheer coincidence, at the same time I have been in conversations with my new friend, I have been finishing Robert Bly’s follow up to Iron John, entitled The Sibling Society. I’m not sure that I would even recommend the book though I have thoroughly enjoyed it. It is full of some of the same rich wisdom that I found so appealing in Iron John but lacks the positive character of that work. In other words, I think Bly became depressed while finishing The Sibling Society. In fact, Bly as much as admits this toward the end of the work.
“I began this book in a rather lighthearted tone. I enjoyed the delicious contradictions we see all around us… But as I began to realize the extent and implications of the sibling society, my lightheartedness went away, and some weight, as of economics, settled in. The fading of the father as provider in American culture seemed significant to me, and I always assumed that anger against the patriarchal family, some of it justified, was the primary cause. But work on this book has convinced me that other forces have taken part. Those devoted to the bottom line have effectively interposed themselves between father and the family. Part of the effort has been to get at children more easily. The more the parent’s dignity and strength are damaged, the more children are open to persuasion.” (Bly, 229-230)
For purposes of clarification, what Bly calls “The Sibling Society” is our current cultural milieu in which we tolerate no one above us and have little or no regard for those below us. We live as perpetual adolescents, taking selfies and looking around to see if anyone has noticed us. Rather than looking anywhere for direction––to father, mother, or God––we tend to ask one simple question: “Am I yet famous?” Our culture, says Bly (in the 1990s), has brought down all forms of hierarchy because at times hierarchy which was based solely on power led to abuse. In the process, we have lost the desire and ability to look either up or down. Bly is correct, these cold realities are very depressing.
It was for these very reasons that I was weary of placing any the negative statistics regarding fatherhood in my book, Being Dad – Father as a Picture of God’s Grace. I was concerned that I might use only those statistics which benefited my argument and neglected those that suggested conclusions which did not line up with my way of thinking. This confusion is what happens when we focus on statistics. The data the “stats” give us are tools to end, and not the end unto themselves. Thus I attempted to paint a positive picture of what God accomplishes through the gift of fathers, rather than simply communicating sometimes depressing statistics. Accordingly, statistics were reduced to three paragraphs on page 3 and 4.
The point is, I think that my new friend is right. Those of us who are concerned about the state of our culture need to look beyond the sociological data and tired pop psychology and see our situation afresh. The truth is that fathers have a great calling and opportunity. God has given us the most wonderful gift we will ever receive this side of glory, which is the gift of our children. Accordingly, he has called us to be fathers, and this is their primary vocation.
We may do many other things. We may hold many other vocations. But if we have children we are first and foremost parents, and in my case, a father. The impact that one good father, given as a gift from God to his children, has on the life his children is immeasurable. He can lead them to the one true faith as the words of forgiveness, and the Gospel itself, flows from his mouth. He can teach his children to look up to a God who is good and gracious, and to look down to those people that God has placed in their lives for them to serve freely.
If we are living in a “Sibling Society,” as Bly suggests––and I think we are, the only cure is to live our vocations as parents, fathers, to the best of our ability asking for God’s grace and forgiveness when we fail. The data, even excellent data, only has the potential to show us half of the picture. The other half of the picture is more than half, after all; it is all in all. God, who is gracious to us on account of Christ, is our Father. He has set us in this world to do His will and to fulfill our vocations as children, siblings, mothers, fathers; and He will, on account of that same Christ, forgive us when we fail.
Those of us who are in Christ have always known that we live in a Sibling Society. We have brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world who look up to a God, who is good to us for the sake of Christ, and down to others, our neighbors, who we are now free to serve, for the sake of Christ.