Reflecting on fatherlessness
I have a confession to make: I’m not a fan of Donald Miller. Many people told me I had to read his book Blue Like Jazz. They told me it was a new and refreshing approach to the subject of Christian spirituality. I don’t know if it was because of all the hype surrounding Blue Like Jazz, but I was decidedly underwhelmed by it. It’s not that the book wasn’t good, it was. It just wasn’t as great as I had been told. While Miller put forth some interesting insights and appealing human stories, it didn’t seem that the book was really saying anything truly new, and so I didn’t find it particularly refreshing.
When several friends discovered that I wasn’t impressed with Blue Like Jazz they told me I needed to read Miller’s follow up book, Searching for God Knows What. They assured me it was much better than Blue Like Jazz. So I tried to read it. Maybe I had a bad attitude, or maybe I suffered from a focused flare up of ADD, but I could not get into Searching for God and put it down after the first few chapters. I haven’t picked it up since. When people ask me what I think of Donald Miller’s writing and I answer honestly, sometimes I receive subdued agreement, but more often people have been mildly outraged.
I don’t make this confession to bias you against the works of Donald Miller. I make it so that when I tell you his latest book, To Own a Dragon, is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, you’ll know I’m not just speaking as a member of the Donald Miller fan club. To Own a Dragon was written with John MacMurray, a friend and mentor of Miller’s who also served as an inspiration for the book. Dragon is a collection of Miller’s reflections on growing up without a father. While Miller touches on the subject of his absentee father in some of his earlier books, this work deals exclusively with the impact growing up without his dad has had on his life. He spends time exploring the relational, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual implications the lack of a father creates in the life of an adult male.
My prior disappointment with Miller’s work made me a bit reluctant to spend time and money on Dragon. The topic is what finally made me read it. My parents divorced before I was a year old and my father has been pretty much a ghost ever since. I was curious to find out whether Miller’s experience was anything like my own. What I found was that while situations surrounding the absence of our fathers were different, our experience was shockingly similar. I say shockingly because there were times while reading through Dragon that Miller’s words were almost the exact words I have used to described my experience of fatherlessness. Through his prose Miller taps into the heart of abandonment. The appeal of the book isn’t limited to guys whose dads left them. A friend whose father died when he was a boy told me that he also connected with much in the book despite the different circumstances. Whether Miller is discussing the inherent sense of inferiority many fatherless men feel when they see other sons with their fathers and exploring the feeling of being an outsider to the world of men with their father-son clubs. Or, whether he is exploring the sometimes unknowing search of the fatherless for a surrogate father and discussing their unsurprising frustration that those surrogates can only ever be surrogates who don’t completely make up for the real thing. Miller broaches the subject with a rare blend of painful honesty and gentle tactfulness.
Miller encourages young men who have lost a father not take it out on the men around them:
Here is the real truth I am stammering toward. John MacMurray isn’t my father. My boss isn’t my father. The cop on the street isn’t my father. My father split, and that stinks, and none of these guys are going to replace him. And what that means is that they aren’t responsible to love me unconditionally, and they aren’t responsible to tell me I am a man. Any love or affirmation they give is a gift, but holding them responsible for the insult my father cast down is inappropriate. The wound I have isn’t there because of them.
Miller calls those of us whose fathers have left us to move beyond cynicism and bitterness while at the same time revealing the truth that our society often hides: growing up without a father is an insult and a wound. These two words encapsulate the experience of the fatherless.
One of the sections where I heard my own voice in Miller’s words was in his explanation of the title of the book. Miller talks about how the librarian at his elementary school used to read stories to his class. These stories would include imaginary creatures such as trolls and fairies. Sometimes the librarian would show the children pictures in the books. One of the pictures that stood out to young Donald Miller was one of a little boy riding on the back of a dragon. This picture caused him to wonder what it would be like to have your very own dragon and fly through the clouds on the back of such a wonderful and powerful creature. Miller then tells us the point of this trip down memory lane:
I bring this up because in writing some thoughts about a father, or not having a father, I feel as though I am writing a book about a dragon or a troll under a bridge. For me a father is nothing more than a character in a fairy tale. And I know fathers are not like dragons in that fathers actually exist, but I don’t remember feeling that a father existed for me. I know they are real people. I have seen them on television, and sliding their arms around their women in grocery stores, and I have seen them in malls and in coffee shops, but these were characters in other people’s stories, and I never stopped to question why one of these characters wasn’t living in our house. I don’t say this out of self-pity, because in a way I don’t miss having a father any more than I miss having a dragon. But in another way, I find myself wondering if I missed out on something important.
These words are on the second page of the second chapter, but have been etched across the pages of my life for the past thirty years. From that point on Miller had me hooked.
A strength of Miller’s book is that he doesn’t waste the reader’s time by wallowing in self-pity, which is a flaw of many works dealing with this topic on a personal level. While much of Dragon is a lament, it isn’t a sentimentalized complaint. Miller is more focused on wrestling through the realities of life without a father and the effects it has even on his adult life. His views on work, education, women, sex, integrity, authority and even basic decision-making are realistically connected to his experience of not having a father. Instead of spending his time belaboring how much he’s missed out on in life he takes the time to critique himself. Miller analyzes his skewed perspective on life developed partly due to the absence of his father. He spends the bulk of the book identifying and correcting his own erroneous beliefs and practices.
Another strength of Miller’s work is that he moves past the superficial Christian responses that are often heaped upon those who experience loss of any kind. As one who has had clichés handed to him instead of real answers, Miller attempts to deal with these issues in a sensitive, winsome and straightforward manner. One of the superficial responses often heard by people in Miller’s and my situation is, “Even though your dad left you have a heavenly father who cares for you more than you can even imagine.” The problem isn’t with the truthfulness of such a statement, but rather what it conveys to the person on the receiving end. The person making the statement isn’t interested in entering into our life or walking with us through our pain. It is absolutely true that God is a father to the fatherless, but this in itself does not remove the insult and wound of abandonment.
Miller gives another reason why such a formulaic response, while technically true, is not ultimately helpful. Trying to grasp the concept of God as father is nearly impossible when you have no proper paradigm to put that term into. Obviously, everybody knows what a father is, but, as mentioned above, the lived reality of a father for many of us is about as real as the presence of a dragon. When this is the case it influences the way we view God in his fatherhood. Miller writes that people whose earthly fathers have been interested in anything but them find it hard to believe that God is truly interested in their life, even though they may cognitively know it is true. When you grow up experiencing everybody else’s father at a distance it is hard to imagine God as a father of your very own. “There are times when I don’t see God as much different from my friends’ fathers when I was a kid,” Miller says. “In the end, He has a family of His own to deal with. He’s like a good mentor, and I see Him at church.” These words are true to my own experience and, I think, to the experience of a large number of men living all around us.
There is a sore need for a better answer to this situation. Throughout Dragon Miller gives some statistics concerning fatherless men. These statistics are compiled in short form at the back of the book. The stats are as follows:
63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes—5 times the average.
85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes—20 times the average.
80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes—14 times the average.
71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes—9 times the average.
75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes—10 times the average.
70% of youth in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes—9 times the average.
85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes—20 times the average.
These statistics are sobering. I think they also painfully reveal a failure on the part of the church of Jesus Christ. Many conservative Christians decry the poor state of the family in our society. I wonder how many of these same Christians are actively stepping into the midst of this brokenness to be redemptive agents. The numbers seem to suggest that such action is not taking place.
Miller dedicates Dragon to men who are mentoring younger men. His book tells the story of several men like John MacMurray who have been faithful in discipling him. This is the answer that a fatherless generation needs. We don’t need more empty statements, no matter how true they are. We need men in the church to step up and embody the truth of those statements. Proactive discipleship, older men seeking out younger men, is a better answer to the situation. Deep relationship with fathers in the faith is the salve that God will use to heal the insult and wound of the fatherless.
QuestionsTo Learn More See the Following:
The Belmont Foundation is a not-for-profit organization founded by Donald Miller that “exists to provide role models for children growing up without fathers.” Visit them at www.belmontfoundation.org.