Why has fatherhood fallen into such low esteem? It’s almost fashionable to see fathers as buffoons. Take The Simpsons or Malcolm in the Middle or any other sitcom. Is this a passing fad, or something deeper?
Did our rejection of God the Father in the twentieth century change people’s impressions of fathers? And when we belittle our human fathers, do we end up belittling God?
One person who believes this is David Lyle Jeffrey of Baylor University. Dr. Jeffrey gave a thought-provoking lecture at a conference where I spoke, hosted in Oxford, England, by the C. S. Lewis Foundation. Jeffrey argues that the downgrading of fatherhood is not just a product of a handful of mediocre sitcoms; it is a significant cultural pattern that can be traced back many years to serious literature.
Samuel Butler’s famous novel The Way of All Flesh, published in 1903, is a good example. In the novel, Butler savagely satirized his own father, portraying him as a pompous fool—a portrayal that made a deep impression on Butler’s audience.
It was another well-known novelist, James Joyce, who later took the same kind of father hatred and extended it toward the Catholic faith in which he had been raised. These cultural signposts pointed to something deeper going on. It was made explicit in the writings of Freud, with his theories on the rejection of the father, and Nietzsche, who famously wrote about the death of God. It was no accident that a widespread rebellion against faith was going on at the same time as this rejection of fatherhood. Somewhere in all of this, the idea of the beauty of a father’s strong, self-sacrificial love—an idea expressed by religious poets and thinkers, like Gerard Manley Hopkins and St. Augustine—was lost.
As Jeffrey explained, we see fathers as symbols of responsibility and authority—much the same way that we see God. The rebellion against fatherhood is part of a general rebellion against authority and God, and a step toward narcissism: the desire to stay permanently young, self-absorbed, and carefree. Look at our contemporary society, and you’ll see the mess that kind of narcissism has made.
Well, the good news is that there’s a counterculture struggling to find a voice today—a longing for fathers. We saw it in the response of young people around the world toward the fatherly figure of Pope John Paul II, a man who effectively combined compassion with authority. We see it in the success of recent novels like Gilead and Peace Like a River, novels with loving fathers at their core. And through that longing, we’re rediscovering our desire for God, the great Father of all of us.
Jeffrey argues that to rebuild our culture in the twenty-first century, we must recognize and respect the role of fathers. He reminds us of the truth of Augustine’s words about fatherhood and the beauty of God: “All things are beautiful because you made them, but you who made all things are inexpressibly more beautiful.”
The more we respect our earthly father, the more we recognize the majesty of our heavenly Father. And as we submit to the authority of one, we learn to believe in the authority of the other. The decline of faith and fatherhood went hand-in-hand. To restore one will help restore the other.