Father Absence and A Sibling Society

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.

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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.

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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.

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4 thoughts on “Father Absence and A Sibling Society

  1. Excellent and thoughtful insights on fatherhood. The society in which we live so often denigrates fathers, and in TV shows Dads are stupid, disconnected from their children in everything from technology to moral values. The media happily supplies their father ideal, not very masculine, but hip enough to fit in, and lately they give the same sex partnership, which must be a whole lot confusing to young people. Role models are not what they once were, but Christian fathers must push back, and the biblical model is still worthy of our celebration.

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  2. Denigration of fathers begins with denigration of marriage and God’s intent for all but the smallest minority of mankind – be fruitful and multiply. We can handle buffoons like Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson. Exaggerated, comical archetypes are not an insult or even an influence, in my opinion. Where we have gone off the rails is accepting a family as only one possible goal, not THE goal. Because it is not THE goal, we do not demand that all aspects of society or economy bend to it. Such was not always the case.

    Happiness, found according to subjective ideals, not according to God’s plan, allows for immediacy, abandonment, over employment, lack of employment, adultery, separation. It makes divorce and remarriage perfectly acceptable alternatives to working with Christ to sustain a marriage for better or worse.It allows for prolonged adolescence and, often, juvenile behavior by parents because they can always start over somewhere else, no shame. Do this for a few generations and you have what we see. Sprinkle on a state of war that’s occupied many noble men at the age when they should be having families for 15 years and it’s pretty awful.

    Preach from the pulpit that all stresses on marriage – alcohol, drugs, violence, income, special needs – can be overcome by God, and those divorced and remarried, single mothers who want affirmation, those using the church’s daycare program will leave. I’ve seen it happen. Follow that up with every child not only ought to have a mother and father, but needs them in order for things to be right, just speak the truth, and see what happens. Even in the church, there is a great fear of inducing guilt. No TV buffoon dads can do the damage that even the church is doing in avoiding the truth. Follow that up with Genesis and why we were made male and female and what God intends and you’ll lose the youth that “doesn’t know” God’s plan.

    But it ignores that many would rise to support those who need it, that God will give us the means to implement His plan – there is a lack of faith. No secular, “dadly” solutions needed. We need God, We need His will for us realized in our lives. We need to confess that we were created, male and female, with a purpose and not try to “find” what it is, but simply accept it. Being a good husband and father is much easier when you know that it is what God has meant for you, has meant for all but the rarest exception among men.

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    1. I have a few questions.

      First, you said: “Preach from the pulpit that all stresses on marriage – alcohol, drugs, violence, income, special needs – can be overcome by God, and those divorced and remarried, single mothers who want affirmation, those using the church’s daycare program will leave. I’ve seen it happen.” Are saying you want these broken people to leave the only place where they hear of God’s mercy on them on account of Christ? I assume not, but it is unclear from the text. If you wouldn’t mind, please clarify.

      Second, you also said: “No secular, “dadly” solutions needed. We need God, We need His will for us realized in our lives. We need to confess that we were created, male and female, with a purpose and not try to “find” what it is, but simply accept it. Being a good husband and father is much easier when you know that it is what God has meant for you, has meant for all but the rarest exception among men.” So, I grant that secular solutions, daddly or otherwise, will not “fix” everything. But is it worth dengrating those who are trying to support many of the ideas you tout in this comment? Do we always have to be our own worste enemies? These questions are more rhetorical than my first (that one actually concerns me alot). But, as for me, I pray that God will give me the strength and courage to take every opportunity I am ever offered to bring the Gospel to those in need. Even if it means bringing the Good News of Christ to hurting dads at a Daddly conference.

      Interesting comment. Thanks for reading, and blessings on your ministry.

      Kindly,

      Scott

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      1. To answer your first question, yes. I have too often encountered people who don’t want to be confronted with their sin, in this regard, simply abandoning the mercy offered by the church either by leaving altogether or seeking a church that affirms or ignores. Why? because they are determined that this is not something to be forgiven as a sin on their part.

        Let me color this by saying that marriage and parental issues figure heavily in my own life. My father is an alcoholic, my sister always wanted my parents to divorce, and I determined this was only swapping one bad for another. It’s recently come to light that a bankruptcy many years back came from gambling. He has been a church elder for decades and it’s a wonder I didn’t leave the church because of him. My mom is an enabler and they have never separated – they have been married 53 years. My sister is not speaking with them and have been mostly distant. I am renewing ties, however, but that’s a long story. My parents taught me a lot about what not to do.

        My wife and sister in-law are adopted and I have always been a proponent of adoption, unlike many local evangelicals who look for alternative family structures as the only solution to abortion. Single, teen moms and grandparents turned parents are not a mother and father, not a model. In our area, we have a lot of teen pregnancy that emulates the preceding several generations of unmarried women having many children by multiple fathers. But, you know, this is the most Republican part of a blue state, they’re all against gay marriage and are pro-family. Seems like they need a sermon, don’t you think?

        Our challenges, aside from living in a very expensive state (our home, its where we are from) – single income household so my wife could be a mom, used cars that failed, 10 years into marriage before we bought a house, job losses, one child with neurological issues that started with Tourettes and ended up as Aspergers. Around us, couples were dissolving and reforming and becoming bitter enemies or, worse, remained friends but couldn’t “live together.” When we were young and having our children, our friends, our peers were delaying. Makes for a tough road when even the “conservatives” in church praise prudence and bowing to the economy over family and remarry people that actually have their exes joyfully celebrating with them.

        As for my son’s issues, we started going to support group and I look forward to meeting other dads with the same experiences. imagine my shock when I found myself in a room full of moms because nearly every dad bailed on their families because they couldn’t take it. There, I was fed strong moms and pride in not needing fathers. I stopped going. You see? in the world it is all about affirmation. The church needs to be about forgiveness of sins, not affirmation of sinful lives.

        Solid preaching about being concerned, first, for family, about preserving marriage, about failure not being a real option, about people needing to be together, for better or worse meaning simply that, is sorely needed. We should be thinking about the young people and not just the middle-aged ones that are in various stages of dividing and cohabiting. Families need a ton of help in a world that affirms abandonment and seeking happiness. Being a father is hard work, it isn’t always fun or fulfilling, happiness can be a long-term proposition, not always a short-term one. most of all, it involves screwing up and needing forgiveness so that forgiveness can be passed down.

        Personally, nothing short of God’s love for me gives me the love and strength to sustain my household on single income, so my wife could be a mother, not send the kids to school sick or buy childcare services, to endure bouts of unemployment and the financial penalties of not living to work, being home every night for dinner, eating and cooking fresh meals, playing games, reading to each other, Maybe I’m projecting but for the last 26 years, we’re the only couple we know trying to do things the old-fashioned, conservative way and have been pitied by most, are considered liberal and delusional by many, and encouraged by only a few. Maybe I’m the one looking for preaching that validates me. I just don’t see any way that the world can market a program that accepts the way of the world and turns people toward God’s plan.

        As always, I do enjoy what you guys write.

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