FATHER FICTION: Chapters for a Fatherless Generation. Donald Miller. New York: Howard Books, 2010. 198 pages.
Does a child need a father to successfully grow up? Especially if that child is a boy? These are the kinds of questions that Donald Miller wrestles with in Father Fiction, which was earlier published under the title: To Own a Dragon (NavPress, 2006), with John MacMurray listed as co-author. In both editions of the book, Miller is the best-selling author of Blue Like Jazz and is known for having offered a prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, tells his own story of growing up without a father. His own father left while he was a toddler and he was raised by his mother. Although he praises the efforts of his mother to support and guide his life, he grew up feeling that something ways missing in his life. There were those who served as substitutes, most especially John MacMurray, a photographer and leader in his church, with whose family Miller lived for a time as a young adult.
Miller writes for men who like himself have not had a father’s presence and have struggled with issues of manhood, career, and spirituality. He has done well in life, but believes that the absence of a father in his life was a difficult obstacle to overcome – even with the help of substitutes. While he focuses on the primary value of a father’s presence in one’s life, his own leadership in developing mentoring programs comes from his recognition that if a father is not present then there need to be other ways for a boy to find guidance. He doesn’t discount the ability of women to raise young men, but he also believes that a male presence is essential.
Every reader takes up a book from a certain vantage point, especially a book like this, which is part memoir and part advocacy. I read the book from the perspective of one whose father was largely absent, but full absence didn’t occur until I was in high school. Although I was a sophomore in high school when my father left the family, his departure wasn’t especially traumatic because my father was not a good role model. He could be verbally abusive – mostly in the sense of belittling my abilities and aspirations, and beyond that wasn’t all that interested in my life. I was fortunate, however, to find mentors and role models in other places – neighbor dads, coaches, and teachers. Would I have preferred a stronger father-son relationship? By all means. Indeed, that sense of loss has led me to overcompensate with my own son, leading to a bit too much over parenting.
One of the questions that Miller raises concerns the necessity of a father’s presence. Because his own experience was absence, he doesn’t speak directly to those cases when a father’s presence is detrimental to the life and psyche of a young man. With his interest being in the benefits of a father’s presence, he notes the statistics that suggest the value of a male presence in the life of a young man. For instance, 70% of prison inmates are men, and 85% of these men grew up in fatherless homes. Of course, this absence can be overcome, but perhaps it’s not an easy life course.
Miller’s book is composed of seventeen brief chapters. The style is open, vulnerable, and quite readable. Miller seems to be a born writer, even though by his own confession he never read a book completely through until he had reached the age of twenty. Now in his late 30s, he has become a noted author, lecturer, and speaker, all without the benefit of a college education.
Miller approaches his topic with a strong sense of concern for men who have grown up without a male presence. He opens with a discussion of God as Father, a topic that is fraught with danger. He doesn’t develop this theologically, but seeks to find in this image an anchor for his life. He writes of a conversation with John MacMurray, the man who mentored him spiritually and emotionally. He looked to MacMurry, especially in MacMurray’s relationship with his wife and children, for guidance as to how to live as a man. In the course of a conversation about fathers, MacMurray speaks of God as father, and Miller writes in response:
And though some of us grow up without biological fathers, none of us grows up without our actual Father. That is, if we have skin, if we have a heart that is beating and can touch and feel, then all this is because God has decided it would be so, because he wanted to include us in the story. (P. 49).
In this reflection, Miller gets to the heart of the matter, the question of belonging. Not having a relationship with his biological father, he didn’t know who he was or where he belonged. He seemed to find this in the idea that God was his true father.
This discovery, that God was his actual father and thus he belonged to a family, was a starting point, but there needed to be more definition. He needed to have an understanding of this God who was his father, and thus he had to wrestle with his spirituality. He had to overcome his own embrace of a distant God, so as to be open to a divine father who was truly present in his life. Additionally, from the Lord’s Prayer he derived the sense that God will provide, and thus one can trust God. Trust, however, was an issue that he struggled with. He distrusted authority, especially male authority. He notes that he had not, until he met MacMurray, been able to connect authority and love.
One of the issues that fatherless men deal with is their sense of manhood, and Miller is no exception. He went looking for help, even going to Promise Keepers, but he found no help in their macho sports focused efforts. He liked the emphasis on overcoming racial divisions, but as he says, he was never much into obeying rules, and Promise Keepers was big on rules. He struggled with the definition of manhood, until he came to the conclusion that being a man involved one thing – a penis. Everything else was an adjective. But recognizing that fact is only the beginning of the journey. From there one must wrestle with the kind of man one seeks to become. Thus, one must wrestle with decision making, friendship (you become, he says, like the people you hang around with), dating, sex, integrity, education, and one’s work ethic. There is in this book a sense, which at times reflects his evangelical context, that men need to grow up and embrace their manhood. But, it doesn’t happen by going into a stadium and shouting or going out into the woods and shouting around a campfire. It happens as men wrestle with their own identity with God, and then finding in other men, especially fathers, mentors for the way forward. The way forward, however, doesn’t involve self-pity. Self pity leads only to annoyance and downward mobility.
Miller writes a book that will be encouraging and helpful to men, whether they are young men growing up without a father and seeking a sense of purpose for life or fathers seeking to understand their own role in the lives of their children (especially the lives of their sons). It is also a book to be read by men who sense the call to mentor fatherless young men and boys. Finally, it is a word to men who need to let go of resentments. In a final chapter entitled “pardon” he describes meeting his father for the first time in years and finding it possible to forgive. Finally, however, he found wholeness in his embrace of the idea that God was fathering him. The divine Father, he writes, does not abandon us. Ultimately, though, his hope for fatherless men is that rather than becoming “arrogant victims,” they can become “wounded healers.” Whether one agrees with all that he writes, this is a book that should prove helpful to fatherless men, and to fathers who seek to be true to their calling to share in the lives of their children.