Father Never Knows Best: The Modern War On Fatherhood

Traditional theology about the importance and function of fathers can show up in all sorts of unexpected places. Take, for example, the John Denver song Thank God I’m a Country Boy, written by John Sommers. A few lines of this song read, “I fiddled with my daddy till the day he died;/ he took me by the hand, held me close to his side./ Said ‘Live a good life; play the fiddle with pride’…My daddy taught me young how to hunt and how to whittle;/ taught me how to work and play a tune on the fiddle/ taught me how to love and how to give just a little”.

The song focuses somewhat narrowly upon the delights of an agrarian lifestyle, but in its words about the songwriter’s father, it touches upon more a universal theme: the role of the father in transmitting timeless values to his family. Through his close interactions with his father, the songwriter learned how to live morally, how to make music, how to support himself, how to love and live generously. In other words, he learned all that he would need to know as a man, and the cultural conduit for these values was the father.

In all this the songwriter’s father was not simply expressing his personal idiosyncratic views about what constituted “a good life”, but rather passing along an entire tradition. C. S. Lewis mentioned this human transaction between fathers and their children in his prophetic little volume The Abolition of Man. Through such paternal teaching the father “was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him…[This gift] initiated [and] dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly…it was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men”. This is specific task of fathers to their children within the family.

One might have guessed that mothers would be the main cultural conduit, given the immense amount of Hallmark sentimentality involved in Mother’s Day. And certainly no one should devalue the role of a mother within the family—and certainly not Christians with a devotion to the Mother of God. But life in the last century in the fragmented and fragmenting West has revealed that the role of fathers to be pivotal, so that when fathers are absent, things rapidly go to pieces.

Or, in the words of Mary Eberstadt in her piece The Fury of the Fatherless, “Deprived of father, Father, and patria, a critical mass of humanity has become socially dysfunctional on a scale not seen before.” In particular, she observes that, “Teen and other mass murderers almost invariably have filial ruptures in their biographies. Absent fathers predict higher rates of truancy, psychiatric problems, criminality, promiscuity, drug use, rape, domestic violence, and other less-than-optimal outcomes.”

father-knows-bestShe goes on to suggest that the violence ripping America apart is rooted in its modern rejection of authority in general, for authority is embodied in the father. Any statue that represents history and authority must be toppled, regardless of whether or not the toppling makes historical sense (such as the anti-racist opposition to a statue of Abraham Lincoln). The war on fatherhood and authority is not driven by a focussed desire for a better society, but by blind rage against the past.

The media has played its part in this devaluation of fatherhood. A complete catalogue of the modern attack upon fatherhood cannot be provided here. Here I can only point to a few things in our culture which are symptomatic of a concerted and systematic attack upon the old ideal.

One is the role played by husbands in ads featuring exchanges between husbands and wives. Almost invariably the men are cast in the role of the witless while their wives are cast in the role of the wise. Where disagreements arise between husband and wife in these ads, the husband usually plays the fool. Switching the roles so that it is the wise husband who corrects his erring and foolish wife would be unthinkable in our modern culture. I suggest this consistent portrayal of men as unthinking, ineffectual, and bumbling is not the cause of the present devaluation of the masculine, but a symptom of it. An old television series was entitled, “Father Knows Best”. No one would dare to produce such a series or offer such a title now. In our present culture, Father never knows best.

We see this too in the reconfiguration of families where the single and authoritative father figure is absent. But this reconfiguration did not come from nowhere, but has deep cultural roots, and is only possible because the notion of paternal authority as the conduit of tradition has already been eradicated. Fathers have not been regarded as knowing best or of knowing anything for some time now. No wonder their role has been so easily replaced. And what is this role? I suggest two things: in a family, fathers play a role in legitimation and in protection.

In her brilliant essay entitled, “Towards a Recovery of the Theology of Patriarchy” (published in the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 40.4 (1996), Brook Herbert builds upon the work of psychiatrist Karl Stern in his book Flight from Woman. In her essay Herbert says, “Initially, fatherhood represents an objective encounter between two uniquely distinct individuals. Standing outside the child, the father’s reception of the infant into the world constitutes the formatively significant legitimization of the child’s being…authenticating through his own stance as protector and guardian the child’s very ‘right’ to exist…The father also stands between the family unit and the world as mediator and authority…But within the family it is the posture of the father, as affirming and loving presence overarching the family, that circumscribes the protection and nurture of each person”.

In other words, the father is a guardian and a doorkeeper, welcoming the newborn into the family, and standing guard to protect its place there and ensure that it receives the proper nurture. As Sommers and Lewis stated it, the father teaches the child how to live a good life and play the fiddle with pride; he teaches the young bird how to fly, even as he was taught by his father before him, giving his spirit to humanize him.

This being so, we can see how the absence of a father would be catastrophic, for the child then would have no one to legitimate him and nurture him, transmitting the tradition of cultural values. The search therefore must be made for substitute fathers, whether they are found in a gang leader or a ideological guru.

What does this mean for us? It means that we must oppose the lie that all masculinity is necessarily toxic, and that all paternal authority must be resisted and overthrown. Mothers must honour their husbands, supporting their role as fathers, even as husbands must show honour to their wives. Family solidarity must become paramount, for they serve as bastions of freedom and sanity within a mad world. The attack on fatherhood and authority is sweeping the land, like rising and raging tsunami. We must take our stand on the doorsteps of our homes and say with God, “Thus far you shall come, but no farther; and here shall your proud waves be stopped” (Job 38:11).

Source: No Other Foundation

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