The Problem of Not-So-Sinful Second-Generation Christians

Happy friends

Our church’s liturgy includes a confession of sin near the beginning of every Sunday morning worship service. This week, our pastor borrowed the words of John Calvin’s Strasbourg Liturgy. Calvin’s confession ends on a note of hope, asking God to “blot out our sins and stains… producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing to You,” but it takes a hard road to get there, mourning that “we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing.”

Such grim language feels out of touch with the cotton-candy religiosity of our culture, but we use it because it reflects how the Bible speaks of sin. It was not Calvin but God who warned through Jeremiah that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9). It was not Calvin but God who inspired Paul to declare that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The Bible is not shy about calling us sinners, nor about declaring sin damnable apart from the grace of God, so Bible-believing churches teach the same. But unless we’re careful, these scriptural truths can make the gospel feel less urgent, less relevant, for those who grew up with all the advantages of a Christian family and a Christian community and struggle to see themselves as desperately wicked sinners.

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Work Will Trump Family Time (Unless We Fight It)

Man with phone at work

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say, I’m gonna be like you, dad
You know I’m gonna be like you

I first heard Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” when I was a young boy, and even then I felt the poignancy of the lyrics, with the understated sadness of the closing verse as the now-grandfather is brushed off by his grown son. “And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me / He’d grown up just like me / My boy was just like me.” As I’ve become a man, then a husband, and now a father, the song has stuck with me as a reminder of the terrible danger of prioritizing success in every area of life except the one which is especially my own to steward, to cultivate, and to love: my family.

I still vividly remember having lunch with a prominent figure in Christian publishing and asking him for any insights into how to care for one’s family while working in a ministry field where there is always one more good thing to be done before you wrap up for the night. This elderly, godly man replied, with tears in his eyes, “Don’t be like me.” He had learned his lesson the hard way, amid the ruins of his first marriage.

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Thursday Roundup

I’m going to be adopting a new format for my regular Thursday posts. Monday posts will continue to feature an original article, but on Thursday I will be compiling the latest episode of my (newly resumed) Answers for Ambassadors podcast, any YouTube videos I’ve recorded that week, links to the best articles I’ve read recently, and other bits of miscellanea.

This week, I have a short video talking about the 30-year gap between the events of Jesus’s life and the first written gospel accounts, and what that means for our confidence in the Bible’s accuracy. My podcast starts a series on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and the links discuss the social implications of healthy families, how power undermines the church, and the need for virtuous elites.

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‘Book Deserts’ and the Consequences of Ideas

Father and son reading

I just finished reading an intriguing and depressing article on “book deserts” in impoverished urban neighborhoods. The problem is even worse than you might imagine. “In a community of concentrated poverty in the same city, on the other hand, there was only a single age-appropriate book per 300 kids—or about 33 titles total, all of which were coloring books.” All of which were coloring books. Considering the importance of reading for intellectual and spiritual development, it would be hard to exaggerate the degree to which these “book deserts” are stunting their inhabitants.

But where did the books go? The article describes a new study which tallied up the tiny collection of stores which sold children’s books in a few impoverished areas. “Overall, they found just 75 such stores—or about 2 percent of all the businesses in those neighborhoods—selling print resources for children ages 0 through 18; many of them were dollar stores. And especially after breaking down the data by neighborhood and age group, it became clear: Children’s books are a rarity in high-poverty urban communities. The likelihood that a parent could find a book for purchase in these areas, Neuman and Moland write, ‘is very slim.’… The new study adds to a growing body of research demonstrating how income-based housing segregation undermines the prospects of America’s youngest citizens, with the rich leaving ‘the poor and the near poor to scramble for resources that would have otherwise benefited a larger share of the population.'”

But are the poor actually scrambling for these particular resources? The article implies that all would be well if we could just get bookstores into poorer neighborhoods, but one might want to pause to consider why stores in poor neighborhoods do not bother stocking children’s books in the first place. As a rule, stores will sell anything their customers are interested in buying, and a cheap book costs about as much as a pack of cigarettes; it’s not as if we’re talking about luxury goods. And what about totally free books? The article notes in passing that poor families “are far less likely to utilize public libraries,” but does not seem to find that fact suggestive. Perhaps impoverished families do not have books, not because they have no way to get them, but because many poor parents have no interest in getting them.

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Hidden fathers and the need for competent maleness

Throughout the ancient hunter societies… and throughout the hunter-gatherer societies that followed them, and the subsequent agricultural and craft societies, fathers and sons worked and lived together. As late as 1900 in the United States about ninety percent of fathers were engaged in agriculture. In all these societies the son characteristically saw his father working at all times of the day and all seasons of the year.

When the son no longer sees that, what happens? After thirty years of working with young German men, as fatherless in their industrial society as young American men today, Alexander Mitscherlich… developed a metaphor: a hole appears in the son’s psyche…

We know of rare cases in which the father takes sons or daughters into his factory, judge’s chambers, used-car lot, or insurance building, and those efforts at teaching do reap some of the rewards of teaching in craft cultures. But in most families today, the sons and daughters receive, when the father returns home at six, only his disposition, or his temperament, which is usually irritable and remote… Fathers in earlier times could often break through their own humanly inadequate temperaments by teaching rope-making, fishing, posthole digging, grain cutting, drumming, harness making, animal care, even singing and storytelling. That teaching sweetened the effect of the temperament…

[T]he father as a living force in the home disappeared when those forces demanding industry sent him on various railroads out of his various villages… When a father now sits down at the table, he seems weak and insignificant and we all sense that fathers no longer fill as large a space in the room as nineteenth-century fathers did.

Robert Bly argues in Iron John that the diminishment of the father’s role in family life is destructive to both daughters and sons, but particularly to the son. With his principal image of manliness reduced to a half-stranger whose regular appearances every evening do little to impact the real life of the family, the son is left with terrible deficiency: “How does he imagine his own life as a man?”

Bly suggests this absence leads to two different types of men. The first “fall into a fearful hopelessness, having fully accepted the generic, diminished idea of father. ‘I am the son of defective male material, and I’ll probably be the same as he is.'” The second type become what Bly calls “ascenders,” striving with a hint of mania to redeem a maleness they do not really know. “The ascensionist son is flying away from the father, not towards him. The son, by ascending into the light, rising higher on the corporate ladder and achieving enlightenment, to some extent redeems the father’s name… Society without the father produces these birdlike men, so intense, so charming, so open to addiction, so sincere, as those great bays of the Hellespont produced the cranes Homer noticed that flew in millions toward the sun.”

What can be done to try to cure this father-deficiency? Well, first we must understand the problem, which goes well beyond mere lack of time spent with the father. After all, throughout history fathers have been busy, off hunting, or farming, or in the shop. So while the quantity of time spent with the father is certainly important, more important are the qualities of the father which are on display during that time.

In the modern family, the competencies of the father are almost entirely centered in a workplace that remains utterly opaque to his children. His experiences, his skills, his struggles, failures, and victories, and the respect of his associates are all hidden from his family.

A few weeks ago, while spending the night at my father’s house I could not help overhearing him leading a conference call in the next room. As I half-listened to him confidently directing colleagues on the other side of the globe, I was struck by the fact that my father is, in fact, quite good at what he does. It’s not that I hadn’t known that before, but the intensity with which I realized it while actually listening to him conduct business – something I’d never done before – was actually quite startling.

Instead of observing their father’s competencies, children are usually treated to a view of him at his most limited, treading more-or-less awkwardly in a realm in which the mother is the expert. (Generalizing to the family structure which remains most common in America, of course.) She knows where things are, what must be done, and how to do it, and, through no fault of her own, quite outshines the father in her command of most domestic situations. The man who might be capable of programming supercomputers, commanding battalions of soldiers, or performing lifesaving operations is reduced to hollering, “Honey, do I need to cover this dish when I put it in the microwave?”

A part of the solution to this deficiency can be found in introducing children to their father’s work, taking them, in Bly’s words, “into his factory, judge’s chambers, used-car lot, or insurance building.” The difficulty, of course, is that many jobs just don’t lend themselves to observation, particularly by children with limited attention spans. Today, I could appreciate my father’s teleconference, but try to sit me down to listen to a lengthy meeting or analyze a spreadsheet back when I was ten, and I probably would have called Social Services. With the exception of a fortunate few, the average worker today faces a similar dilemma. What child would be excited to learn about C++ functions or the intricacies of actuarial calculation?

That being said, the typical office worker should not assume his children would not benefit from some exposure to his work. Seeing where Daddy works and observing the respect of coworkers is not insignificant for a young boy or girl. However, today’s worker usually needs to do more than simply exposing his children to his working environment. This is one of the reasons why I believe it is so valuable for men to cultivate handyman or outdoor skills.

The man who can change his car’s oil, fix a leaky faucet, put up a shed, skin a deer, or gentle a horse has a precious opportunity to display the competence and confidence that his children, and particularly his sons, have such a deep need to experience. There are other venues for displaying ability, of course: through the arts, or community leadership, or technological prowess for example. However, few things can beat simple manual skill to interest and impress children of all ages. (I still chuckle at the memory of two small children standing wide-eyed and on tip-toes next to the bathtub in a friend’s house while I simply changed a showerhead.) Anyone who has observed a little boy trailing along after his father, plastic tools in hand and ready to “help,” knows that herein lies a powerful avenue to a child’s psyche.

Whatever avenue one chooses – and it should be unique to each man and his interests, family, and work – the structure of the modern world means that today’s “hidden” fathers must put extra thought and extra effort into allowing their children to experience a maleness they can respect, appreciate, and, in the case of sons, emulate.